War Photographer:
Between Shadow and Light

For more than 30 years, Christine Spengler has traveled to the world’s hot spots and documented the consequences of war, as seen primarily from the points of view of women and children. Her images are raw, poignant, traumatic, tender, unforgettable, and many times, surreal. They have been reproduced prominently in the world’s leading news magazines and newspapers, and she has been the recipient of many awards and accolades.

Her images stand apart from what we typically think of as war photography, partly because she is a woman and has access to situations that men do not, or that may not have necessarily interested male photographers.

Her sense of visual drama was influenced by many childhood visits to art museums in Madrid, where she got to know the paintings of Velázquez, Goya and Bosch.

Her photos rarely show bloody wounds, violent skirmishes or dead bodies. Instead we discover people attempting to have some sort of ordinary life in the vast, empty smoking ravages of bombed-out landscapes. She shows us children clowning and playing with glee in the midst of the horrors of war. A bride in her white wedding gown, laughing giddily in front of a demolished building. A young Vietnamese girl quietly polishing the boots of American soldiers. A young mother holding her baby in one arm and a machine gun in the other, her eyes wary.

Spengler discovered her vocation “by accident” at the age of 23 while traveling through Chad with her young brother, who was a fashion photographer. They happened upon some barefoot rebels firing guns up at French helicopters, and she felt the impulse to photograph the bizarre scene instantly. Her brother handed her a Nikon with a wide-angle lens, and that became her sole camera for many years. She still uses it today. That incident, however, got them arrested as spies. But after their release from the French-run prison in Africa, she pursued her newfound career with fearless and fierce energy.

She traveled alone to Northern Ireland, where Don McCullin befriended her and gave her professional guidance and encouragement. From there, she went to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq…on and on.

A wonderful retrospective book of her work to date is available in French. She has just written her autobiography, which has been published in Spain and will be published in a French language version in the Spring of 2006.

Of course there are many intriguing and fascinating stories about each photo, and about her life, her career and some personal tragedies. She’s an engaging story teller, and she was kind enough to sit down with me in her Paris apartment to recount some of her tales — in English — as audio recordings. I’ve taken the liberty to edit them somewhat and break them into logical chapters.

Chapter One (audio 13 minutes). Christine Spengler talks about discovering her vocation, her work in Chad, and her arrest as a suspected spy; Northern Ireland and Don McCullin; and her first assignment, to go to Bangladesh, which inadvertently got her a contract with Life magazine.



Chapter Two (audio 19 minutes) finds her surprised to be famous already at a young age, with photos in Life, Paris Match and other popular magazines and newspapers. She buys a solo one-way ticket to Saigon, and on arrival, asks AP for a chance to photograph at the front. She seems to have charmed everyone who encountered her, and brought back images reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.


Check back here later for additional audio chapters with Christine Spengler.

— Jim Casper

News and events about Christine Spengler can be found on her personal blog: christinespengler.blogspot.com/ 

 

Années de Guerre
by Christine Spengler

Hardcover, French, 224 pages,
96 full page duotone photographs
Publisher: Marval (March 7, 2003)

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