Capturing the truth in photojournalism one woman stands out

Lys Anzia – WNN Features Interview

Woman photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova
Award winning women photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova who came to the United States from Bulgaria in 2001.

(WNN) Denver, Colorado, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: The first time I met award winning Bulgarian woman photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova was over 8 years ago in 2005. I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time curating a photography show called “Ghosts of Humanity.” The photo-show was about life, death and what lies in-between. Before I found her and started working with her through news for WNN – Women News Network, Bachevanova had placed some of her amazing photographs with images of the old tombstones of Eastern Europe online. Along with this her portfolio revealed the freshly covered graves of Kosovo during her time documenting the 1998 Serbian conflict, as well as the images she took only one day after 9/11 in New York.

One picture of ashen-covered shoes, most likely also covered with human ashes, in a New York City storefront near Ground Zero taken less than 24 hours after the catastrophe on 9/11 hit me with a deep understanding of the photographer’s keen use of image to tell the plight of humanity. Using her photojournalistic eye to enter a subject, especially the subject of death and suffering that has surrounded her for an entire lifetime, Bachevanova becomes ‘what she sees’. She does this without ego, judgement or censure.

“I want to tell stories with my pictures. I want to take the viewer beyond ground zero to the rest of the world”,” said Bachevanova in 2005.

Later Bachevanova, who is now the co-founder and publisher of the acclaimed documentary project FotoEvidence, which has given voice to photographers worldwide who are documenting injustice, started the process of bringing her special eye to look at the inequality and marginalization of the Native American Oglala Lakota Sioux people.

The Oglala Lakota continue to survive today against the odds under some the highest incidence of extreme poverty that can be found inside the U.S. Exploring these lives up close on the reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota brought Bachevanova sadness, anger and admiration, but not pity. There is no room for pity when witnessing the courage and fortitude of those who have been virtually left to ‘fend’ for themselves. It is something that cannot be forgotten, especially for a photographer who has reached into the ‘Soul’ of a people.

It isn’t always easy to be a witness to human rights abuse. But it is something that must be done. Witnessing ongoing conditions of extreme poverty on ‘the Rez’ also brings the responsibility of the U.S. government under an important lens. Most recently Bachevanova has brought together a dedicated team of photographers and film experts who are now producing a documentary film to chronicle a story that needs to be told. This upcoming film, called “Warriors of the Reservation,” is now also raising money on Kickstarter.

“It’s not to care about yourself, it’s to care about others,” says an Oglala Lakota Army veteran in the film who’s name, Boy Coming from Sky “Tyrone” Apple, brings with it another story. Returning long ago from the Vietnam war with his own shattering experience of war and a special humanitarian message Tyrone has more than a few words to say to a camera-toting woman like Bachevanova.

“This is an old love story between me and the Lakota,” outlined Svetlana during this interview for WNN.

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Lys Anzia for WNN – Women News Network: You’ve extended your work to explore injustice worldwide. What made you want to become a photographer in the first place?

Svetlana Bachevanova: First, I wanted to be a sculptor. Before long, I realized that I didn’t have the temperament of a sculptor.  It was too slow a process.  But photography gave me almost instant results in the darkroom. Unfortunately, photojournalism at this time in Bulgaria was purely communist propaganda and staged events. So instead I worked in art photography – nudes, conceptual photography etc. Eight years passed before I got my first real job as photojournalist in the first ever anti-communist newspaper “Democracy”.

In this role, I had the opportunity to document the entire anti-communist movement and the historical changes it produced in Bulgaria.  Since then, and after discovering the power of photography to witness and expose social injustice, I feel completely connected with my work as a photojournalist and my camera.

WNN: During the war in Kosovo in 1999 you saw many things. Could you share some of your experience with us?

SB: The war in Kosovo was my first war. I was young and passionate about the injustice toward the Muslim population in there. On the other side of the conflict were the communists, Milosevic and the Tigers of Arkan. There was no way for me to have a balanced view in this situation. I was on the side of the powerless.

With the help of a dear and brave friend of mine, who drove me, I was able to go places that the Serbian press center in Pristina would never allow me to go. I had the misfortune of witnessing and photographing what the Serbian militia did to the Muslim men from a small village near Pristina. They were captured, tortured, castrated and left to die. We found them in a warehouse where the bodies were kept for five or six days before the mass burial.

The people from the village were eager to show us the evidence. I decided to hide my films under the spare tire of the car, in case somebody stopped us. I loaded my cameras with new film.  A few minutes after we left the village our car was pulled off the road by Arkan’s soldiers. My cameras and the car were checked for film. They took the empty film I had just loaded. Back in Pristina I developed the photographs and later in the day those images where broadcasted by my agency to AP, France Press, EPA and around the world. Somebody told me that these images were the first clear evidence of Serbian atrocities to Muslims in Kosovo. I was glad that I was able to help expose these atrocities and show the world the true face of the communist regime in former Yugoslavia. I like to think that those images had something to do with how the world reacted to the conflict in Kosovo.

WNN: Did you ever feel that your gender as a woman photojournalist got in the way to reaching the levels you are reaching now?

SB: I never experienced discrimination as a woman or a problem with organizing and leading teams of male photographers. I have great compassion about women whose rights are violated and this is one of the major issues to which FotoEvidence, my publishing house gives exposure and support.

Shoes in New York City covered in ash after 9/11
A photo image by woman photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova shows shoes covered in ash less than 24 hours after the devastation happened in New York on 9/11. Image: Svetlana Bachevanova

WNN: Tell us how you came to the idea in forming FotoEvidence, which each year highlights the outstanding work of a selected photographer. For me it was great to be part of this as one of the early jurors for the FotoEvidence Book Award. FotoEvidence is working today to bring together photojournalists who have as you say, the “courage to deliver painful truths, creating an awareness and intolerance toward violations of human dignity.”

SB: I was born in Bulgaria, in the dark age of Communism. There, I witnessed and experienced the worst of living under oppression: the disappearance of people with dissenting political views; people sent to prison for asking political questions; parents who escaped the country leaving their children behind; the oppression of ethnic Turks and Roma, the silencing of intellectuals; and the forced conversion of religious minorities.

In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I become a lead photographer for the first anticommunist newspaper in Bulgaria, “Democracy”. There I photographed and wrote about the struggle to wrest my country from the Communists; a struggle that took many years in Bulgaria.

I founded FotoEvidence to continue my life work of using photography to fight oppression and expose human rights violations. I seek to help photographers who work to document human rights violations and fight for justice, so the story of repression that happened in my country and to my friends will never happen again.

FotoEvidence is media without censorship: a place where documentary projects unlikely to be published in the mass media, because they don’t cover a hot topic or a hot spot, can find a home. The images we publish are not always pretty or reassuring but we publish them because they reflect life the way it is. I believe that the harm we do to each other in wars and conflicts should not be veiled but shown with its real face, so the consequences of our actions are clear and visible.

The annual FotoEvidence Book Award recognizes a documentary photographer whose project demonstrates courage and commitment in addressing a violation of human rights, a significant injustice or an assault on human dignity.The selected project is published in a book, as part of a series of FotoEvidence books.  The winner and four finalists are exhibited in New York each autumn.

Founding FotoEvidence was my idea but the realization of the project would not be possible without the support of several dedicated like-minded people who contributed their skills, including David Stuart, Regina Monfort, Jim Wintner and Jack Lovell.

WNN: Your outstanding work inside the United States has documented some of the deepest poverty levels that rival what can be seen today in developing countries. This work has brought you to the Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Tell us how you began to take a look at Pine Ridge?

SB: This is an old love story between me and the Lakota.

In 1966, to counter Western culture and create a role model for the young generation, the East German Communist Party started producing their version of the American western movie. In the German western, the cowboys, were the imperialist American bad guys, depicted as rude, arrogant, sly and violent. On the other hand, the Indians were the good people, the brave, the honorable, victims of imperialism. Most of the movie characters were from the Lakota, probably because the classic feather headdress widely identified with Indians is Lakota.

Growing in up in a communist country I watched all these movies. The Indians became my heroes.  I wanted to be Crazy Horse and I was. Every year, my parents sent me to my grandmother’s ranch where I spent the summers living in a self-made tepee and a headdress made from turkey feathers.

In 2001, I moved to US to cover post 911 events and I knew, as soon as I got here that I would travel to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to visit places where the spirit of Crazy Horse still lives.

What I found there was beyond my imagination. Poverty that I can only compare with living under a communist regime. I decided to start projects that eventually would help the Lakota, in the spirit of my childhood heroes. First I produced “The Rez: Home of the Lakota Nation,” work that depicts the everyday life and struggle surviving in the Reservation. Later I started “Warriors from the Rez,” a sad story about the warrior tradition that sends young Lakota into the U. S. military to prove their manhood and the consequences of this when they return from war. I also plan to work on a project about foster homes, where many Indian children were sent to immerse them in white men’s values.

WNN: When you witnessed conditions on ‘the Rez’ were you welcomed or not welcomed as a woman, especially a woman with a camera?

SB: I don’t think gender played a role in my acceptance among the people in the Pine Ridge Reservation. My friend Garvard Good Plume, who was a representative of the Lakota Nation to the UN, was the one who took me around.  His introduction started like this, “This is Svetlana, her name means Sunshine and she comes from Bulgaria, where she lived under communism.” A large number of the people I met there were defining their lives in the Rez as similar to what I experienced in communist Bulgaria.  Believe it or not, the fact that I lived under an oppressive regime opened many doors for me.

Garvard’s good reputation and the standing of his family helped a lot also.  I was welcomed and given excellent access by most of the people I met in Pine Ridge.

523-us_oglalalakotavettonybushwarriorsfromthereservation_4imgsvetlanabachevanova.jpg
The chest of Oglala Lakota Sioux war veteran Tony Bush shows the scars left from his participation in a Native American ceremony that honors courage and determination called the Sundance. Tony has said that the Sundance and the Sweat Lodge ceremony (Inipi), a purification that also means ‘New Life’, saved his soul and life from deep PTSD – Post-traumatic Stress Disorder after his return from Vietnam. It is believed that this ceremony cleanses the wounded spirit. During the war Tony was in charge of collecting the dead bodies of American soldiers from the battle fields. Memories from this time are still keeping him awake. For the last 17 years, every year Tony Bush danced for four days without water or food, saying thank you to the Great Spirit. Image: Svetlana Bachevanova

WNN: Tell us how you started your work to show the impacts of war on native Lakota veterans, including women vets, returning from war? “Today there are over 137,000 American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans living in the United States. Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other groups. Ten percent of these veterans are women. To this day, 24 Native Americans have received the Medal of Honor for their conspicuous gallantry and bravery,” said the White House in 2011. Native American veterans returning from U.S. conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq make up an astonishing 22 percent of all veterans today.

SB: One of the first war veterans I met was Jon Old Horse. He was just back from Iraq and came to the Pine Ridge Veteran’s Pow Wow carrying an Iraqi flag he captures in Faluga. Talking with him about why Lakota participate in such a large number in the US Army he told me, “When I signed to go to war in Iraq, I did it as a Lakota, to be like our ancestors. It was also as an American because I wanted to be like Rambo.”

Jon, is a third generation Old Horse, who went to war to prove his manhood and to become a modern day warrior. He came back from Iraq a different man. His wife divorced him. His daughter still doesn’t talk to him. After months of severe PTSD – Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Jon discovered that his participation in the white man’s army made him lose everything. When active, he was not well accepted as a Native American by his fellow soldiers and, when he returned, he was criticized by Lakotas for going to fight on the side of the Lakota’s biggest enemy: The U.S. government.

Recently, with changes in policy about women in combat Lakota women have started to share the same experience as the men. This change is been accepted by the tribe and last year, for the first time, they awarded an eagle feather to a young Lakota woman in a traditional ceremony honoring her military service.

The story of Lakota participation in the US Army is filled with irony and contradictions. This is one of the reasons I found it fascinating, wanted to learn more and possibly contribute to a greater awareness of the struggles Native warriors face.

WNN: Homeless veterans are a common sight today inside the U.S.. How much of this did you see in Pine Ridge? Do you think that PTSD has contributed to homelessness among Native American vets?

SB: There is a shelter for homeless veterans in the reservation run by the Oglala tribe but the biggest issue veterans with PTSD face is the lack of mental health care. The closest facilities that can provide this type of support are miles from there.  The result is alcoholism, drug addiction, violence and jail.

For many years, traditional ceremonies, like sweats and sun dances, which heal wounded souls, were banned and people who organized them arrested. Maybe this is the reason why so many of the Vietnam-era vets are still suffering from their war experience. Today, the traditional ceremonies are legal and are used to help many returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan overcome the trauma of war and start a new life.

I did not see many homeless veterans on the streets of Pine Ridge but I did see a Vietnam vet who leaves his room only to look for alcohol, another who commit suicide after years of battling with PTSD, and others drunk on the streets of nearby White Clay, proudly showing  their warriors tattoos. Most of them also from the Vietnam era.

WNN: Share with us how you brought co-producer Kris Wetherholt, filmmaker Pamela Theodotou and photographer Anthony Karen into the mix with your docu-efforts on the reservation.

SB: First I invited Kris Wetherholt to join me as a writer for the “Warriors from the Reservation” project. I knew about her interest in veterans and social justice. I knew that Anthony, who is also a former marine was very interested to work in Pine Ridge, so I decided to ask him to join me on the project. He agreed. When we did our first trip to Pine Ridge, I thought that it might be difficult with two photographers working in the same place at the same time but working with Anthony was pleasant and easy. Pamela was brought to the group by Kris, who presented her as a skilled young woman who is also interested in the story we want to tell.

For this project we also received the endorsement of the Oglala tribe and the Shelter for homeless veterans in Pine Ridge.

With Kris, Anthony and Pam we just released a trailer for a short movie “We Bleed Too: The Story of Tony Bush,” based on the life and war experience of another Lakota warrior. It is our hope that by showing the real face and struggles of their post war experience we’ll be able to help bring attention from the government, which neglected some of them for decades.

WNN: How did all this lead you to your Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the “Warriors from the Reservation” documentary?

SB: We started the project with enthusiasm, financing it from our own pockets. After several trips to Pine Ridge, identifying our subjects and the themes of the project, we need financial support to move to the next level. This project is a documentary work but also social activism, so if you who read this interview find yourself on this side of the barricade and you share our sense of injustice at the plight of Native American warriors, please take a look at our work and make a donation.

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“We Bleed Too” gives the personal and excruciating story of Oglala Lakota Sioux war veteran Tony Bush. His story is only one of many stories documented through the work of photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova with co-producer Kris Wetherholt, filmmaker Pamela Theodotou and photographer Anthony Karenin for the new documentary film “Warriors from the Reservation.”

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As a human rights journalist with a career that began in public radio broadcasting through an internship at Pacifica radio station WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C., WNN founder Lys Anzia has a strong dedication in bringing the highest quality journalism available to the public. In addition to Anzia’s featured stories on WNN, her written and editorial work can also be seen on WUNRN – Women’s UN Report Network, Vital Voices, Women’s Media Center, World Bank and UNESCO publications, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reliefweb, The Guardian News Development Network and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, among others.

Currently WNN’s in-depth stories on women from 6 separate global regions can be found online in over 5 million separate Google search pages monthly.

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