Book Review: 'Shutterbabe'
It’s 1989. A 22-year-old photojournalist covering the war in Afghanistan is bleeding profusely in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
She forgot to change her tampon.
That siren’s call of biological despair begins Shutterbabe, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s brisk memoir of three years shooting on the earth’s most troubled terrains. Amid the current litter of true-life adventure books featuring dead men clambering up Everest, mushing across the Arctic, trekking through Africa, and so on, Shutterbabe presents a lively counterpoint. Brassy and defiant, this is an adventure story from a broad’s perspective.
Because as much as Kogan’s tale is about recording the jungle skirmishes of Africa or the fall of Soviet communism onto quivery slices of film, it’s about the trickiness of being a woman while doing so. Call it the Everything Fred did, Ginger did backward in high heels take on photojournalism.
That she bears breasts gets Kogan into some of her most unnerving situations, including her occupation. As a Harvard student left shaky from several assaults, Kogan began cruising red-light districts, aiming a camera at the men who inevitably harassed her. Postgraduation, living in Paris and scraping for work, Kogan found that junkies warmed to a slight, five-foot-two-inch woman with braided hair, and she gained minor celebrity for her series on heroin addicts (but not before two of them cornered her in a Swiss hotel room, slicing her with a knife).
What kind of woman chooses a job because it endangers her? A complicated and not always likable one. She swerves from smug and self-serious to sly and self-aware. That’s just fine, because Kogan has a voice. It’s yelping, opinionated, and endearingly peculiar (what are we to make of the fact that her early idols — Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf — all killed themselves?)
Unfortunately, that voice is weakened by the ”babe” portions of Shutterbabe, which unravel into weary girl talk about Kogan’s hyper-driven sex life. Each chapter is, to start, named after a guy. A table-turning nod at the ”male” habit of racking up bedpost notches? A post-ironic wink at women defining themselves through men? Most likely just a keen marketing hook: She battles men on the field … and in the bedroom!
Of course, sex and war have long been uneasy partners, yielding some splendidly lurid, lyrical prose. Just not here. The discourse is flat and obvious: ”When a man pursues a number of different women, he’s called normal — even a stud. When a woman pursues a number of different men, she’s called a whore.” Or else it’s bloated with the false bravado of Taxicab Confessions: ”Men are like books, to be read or skimmed, studied or forgotten … they can’t all be Anna Karenina, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them just the same.” Girl power never sounded so spiritless.
The tone grows more engaging, and resonant, when Kogan (now 34, then 24) falls wildly in love with her future husband. She hangs up her camera for a safer Dateline job and starts a family. Flicking away snickers from her macho former colleagues, she’s characteristically frank about her choice: ”I know men return to work within days of their children’s births, but men don’t have lactating breasts … or uteruses hanging out of their vaginas.”
But it’s Kogan’s war stories (with accompanying stark photos) that echo. When focused on the exigencies of her job, she’s a force, brazen and bright as Kodachrome. She’s also at her most human. Kogan helped break the story on Romania’s horrific post-Ceausescu orphanages, and her descriptions of a hellhole are aching: ”There’s a dead body in a shower room. And there are children tied to beds. And flapping hands. And expressionless stares … You can’t fool me. I have seen footage like this before. It was black and white and grainy … women and children standing gaunt behind barbed wire, branded with numbers and yellow stars.”
These are the passages that stay embedded like shrapnel, that exhaust, frighten, and occasionally revive. Save the speech on male-female disparity. Hold the sex talk. We’ve heard it all. But few of us — men or women — have had adventures like these. B
BY DEBORAH COPAKEN KOGAN $24.95 VILLARD