The best job

November 6, 2009

Editor’s Note: Eliana Aponte is a highlighted photographer this month on the Reuters website. See an extensive portfolio of her recent work here.

Being a photographer is one of the best jobs in the world because when you enjoy what you do it is more a hobby than a job. In our case, it is a hobby with considerable responsibility.

As a journalist traveling through different countries, meeting interesting people, or working in inhospitable places, storytelling is a privilege. I have always thought that my eyes are the eyes of many people, and that through them others can see what is happening.
When I started as a photographer I always wanted to contribute my bit to make the world a better place. Many of us think that when we are young and full of dreams. As time passes, I realize that the real changes in history are made by the people who are living their own lives. Photographers just document what happens, nothing more.

Reuters  photographer Eliana Aponte (2L) is seen while working next to colleagues in the West Bank village of Qabatiya near Jenin, May 15, 2006. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

When I was in Colombia, I spent almost a month in the wildest part of the country where the sun never shines, the sounds of animals never cease and the darkness is neither gray nor black. Reuters was witness to the freeing of 300 policemen and soldiers who had been kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and held in the jungle.

It was the hardest experience in my life, both as a photographer and as a human being. I learned there is nothing more degrading than being deprived of freedom in the jungle. I slept, ate and lived like any of the real hostages in those camps. It shocked me to see their blank stares, the paleness on their faces and their hope to walk out of there one day alive; this is what I remember the most.
Life in the jungle is an arduous test of mental and physical strength, both of which are necessary to survive. When we arrived at the first camp, everyone wanted to know who we were, and why we were there. To a certain extent our presence there was a confirmation of their freedom but the skepticism in their eyes remained. We told them many times that their captivity was almost over, but they didn’t believe it. We were led to three different camps after long hikes and many hours by boat and vehicle through inhospitable terrain, without the faintest idea of what part of the jungle we were in. As the days passed we reached the conclusion that we were being led in circles around the same area just to throw off our sense of direction. For those who don’t know the jungle, everything is the same, green everywhere.

Forty-six Colombian policemen held prisoner by Marxist FARC rebels huddle in a boat June 20, 2001, as they are escorted by guerrillas from behind, near the end of a two-day river journey on their way to being freed in a unilateral release set for June 28. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

The big day arrived and 300 policemen and soldiers recovered their freedom. All local and international media received them as they exited the jungle. The guerrilla leaders called it a humanitarian gesture.

A Marxist FARC rebel crosses over to land as 46 Colombian policemen held prisoner by the group huddle in a boat near the end of a two-day river journey on their way to being freed in a unilateral release set for June 28. The FARC have already freed more than 40 sick policemen and soldiers in return for the government returning 15 sick guerrillas held in state jails. Picture taken on June 20, 2001. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

The saddest part of this story is that 6 years have passed and some of the group we saw are still kidnapped in the jungle; not all of them made it to freedom. Soldiers and policemen are still rotting in the jungle more than 11 years later.

But my work has had also beautiful and happy moments. I covered the carnival of Rio de Janeiro, which filled my soul with images of happy people to which dance is sacred in their lives. While walking back and forth taking pictures through the early hours of dawn, I did not feel tired because their happiness was enough to overcome my fatigue.

Members of Brazilian samba school Salgueiro dance in Rio de Janeiro’s Sambadrome during the first of two nights of competition, February 22, 2004. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

Being a woman photographer among so many men has some advantages, depending on which part of the world you are in. Women have the ability to show another angle that men often do not see. I call it female sensitivity. We tend to do stories that are more human, emphasizing sensuality and childhood. I assume that it has to do with the maternal instinct we carry within.

The beauty of this job is that we get to cover all types of events, from politics, religion, and war, to sports and fashion. We often witness history being made.

Jewish Ethiopian men attend a morning prayer service at compound awaiting immigration to Israel in Gondor March 8, 2007. More than 5000 Ethiopian Jews are waiting to immigrate to Israel to reunite with their families. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

A few days after being posted to Jerusalem I received a call from my editor who asked me to go to Hadassah hospital where Ariel Sharon had been taken. I froze for a few seconds. I ran to my hotel room, grabbed my equipment and I headed to the parking garage. I could not find my car, and when I finally managed to locate it I started to drive without first realizing that I didn’t have a clue where the hospital was.

I am a disaster with directions; I literally can get lost in an elevator. But that night my internal compass worked beautifully and I made it there. When I got to the place, there were at least 150 journalists. It was the news of the moment worldwide.  For me, it was also kind of ironic. The day Sharon fell sick I had photographed the pool pictures of his usual meeting with the ministers and to my surprise soon after, those were the last photos of Sharon as Prime Minister that the news agencies distributed of him.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attends a ceremony completing the sale of Bank Leumi to a private U.S. investment group in his office in Jerusalem January 4, 2006.  REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

This is the way this job is. I never know what will happen tomorrow or, in this case, from one minute to the next. This is what I like most about my job; routine doesn’t exist.

In 2004 I went on an embed with U.S. troops in Iraq. I had to wait days for them to let us do something. It was one of the worst stories I have covered. Usually the fate of embeds are run by luck, and unfortunately I didn’t have much. As I waited I had no choice but to play cards with the soldiers on the outskirts of Falluja. They were young soldiers with little or no experience in war. Many were there simply because they couldn’t find any jobs back home.

One day we were sitting playing cards when suddenly a mortar landed near us; we heard the explosion and we all ran to take cover beneath armored vehicles. Five seconds later another mortar landed and killed eight soldiers. We all watched as their bodies flew through the air in a surreal scene that still haunts me. We were paralyzed. There was silence until the captain shouted, “This is Iraq. Move!” I took some pictures from the distance, they didn’t let me get closer as the injured where rushed onto a helicopter.

U.S. Marines carry an injured colleague after exploded a mortar at their position in Sunni Muslim city of Falluja, November 10, 2004.   REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

Traveling the world taking pictures and doing stories is interesting, but ultimately what counts for me are the memories, good or bad, that stay with me. The rest will only be a document, a file for history being done by an honest photographer.

Thanks to the camera, I have learned about various cultures in the world, their sorrows and joys, their hatred and alliances. It has taught me that tolerance and respect are key for human survival. No matter what our beliefs are, it is important to be impartial and tell the facts as they are.

A Mexican group performs the Aztec dance in honor of the dead in San Gregorio Atlapulco cemetery during the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, late November 1, 2009. On the Day of the Dead, Mexicans pay homage to their dead relatives by preparing meals and decorating their graves. The Day of the Dead festival has its origins in a pre-Hispanic Aztec belief that the dead return to Earth one day each year to visit their loved ones. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte


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Stunning work and experience Eliana ! Congrats !

Posted by Rodrigo | Report as abusive

Truly a splendid work of photos! Your bravery is to be commended

Posted by dreaming Artemis | Report as abusive

The coolest part of being a female photographer is you exploring in a man-lead world and free to express your own feeling and viewpoint. I feel both strengh and sensitivity in your portfolio, well done Eliana.

Posted by Grace | Report as abusive