Heidi Diedrich: ‘Nothing can replace going there’

Heidi Diedrich (middle) poses with members of the Norwegian Refugee Council team in Iraq. Diedrich was country director for the relief organization. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Diedrich)

Heidi Diedrich is thousands of miles from home but not from her first calling, photography.

The former Daily Egyptian staff photographer made a career in corporate communications after graduating from Southern Illinois University of Carbondale in 1991. About eight years ago, she took that expertise to Iraq for a consulting job at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani and ended up on a different path once again.

Her visit to Iraq turned into a career in humanitarian aid and international development. Diedrich has spent much of her time since 2011 working on human rights abuses and other issues in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. This month she started a new job in Africa as country director of Minnesota-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) in Sudan.

Gateway Journalism Review spoke with Diedrich recently while she was at home in Chicago about her initial passion for photojournalism and how it drives her fight for displaced and refugee populations around the globe.

What attracted you to photography?

Growing up, art was a constant in my life. My mother was an artist with a master degree in painting and printmaking—at a time when women did not often pursue an university degree, let alone a master degree.

My mom inspired me to be creative and to explore the arts. As a child, I was fortunate to try so many different art forms—painting, sculpture, pottery, papermaking and photography.

After exploring many artistic mediums, I was drawn to photography because of its complexity—loading my own film, developing my film and printing my images—and its ability to capture a moment in time. That, when used responsibly and ethically, photography and the still photograph in particular is one of the most powerful mediums to document the human element and leave a visual history of the world and its events.

Between my junior and senior year of high school, my mom and I drove into Chicago and she bought me my first camera, a Fuji 35mm SLR. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories.

My mom and dad encouraged and supported my attending photojournalism camp at the University of Iowa in the summer of 1985. She allowed me to spend a whole week in Iowa City, Iowa with other high school students from around the country. It is here that I first learned the art and craft of photography. Walking the campus and city to find stories. How to use lighting and how to shoot full-frame to train my eye. I learned to develop my own film and printing my own photographs. I was hooked.

Even today, if I breathe in deeply, I can almost smell the fixer and almost hear the soothing, constant sound of water running in the dark room. When I close my eyes and think of developing my prints, of the soft red light of the dark room and the ghostly image finally appearing on the paper, my hands dipped in the fixer, I am really peaceful. Digital photography has produced a generation of young photographers who may not know this important part of the art of photography. That’s unfortunate, because to me, that is part of the beauty and experience of being a photographer.

Also, the camera was a way for me to be both present and invisible.

As a child and young adult, I was shy. But with my camera, I had a way to observe and interact with the world around me that otherwise would not be possible. To bear witness, as cliché as it sounds, as observer, with a division between the subject and me. It allowed me a confidence to be bold enough to capture the story I was telling because, I felt a responsibility to document it. The camera was my gateway to capturing those stories from a distance, without being part of the event itself. It is exhilarating.

What kinds of stories do you want your photographs to tell?

Kurds dance and wave the Kurdish Flag during Narwoz    celebration in Sulaimani, Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Diedrich).

I’m drawn to stories about people. I hope that my photographs capture the truth of the moment and reveal a different perspective about people and places than what one might expect. To capture everyday life that shows humanity and the human element that allows people to connect with the subject, even if that subject is from the other side of the world.

I want to tell stories that reflect people, culture and news events that might not traditionally be covered and, thus, neither known nor understood. I believe, as photographers, we have deep responsibility to tell the full story of a place and its people. I dreamed of being a war photographer when I was in university because, at the time, I thought there was no greater use of the image or greater purpose than to document war and the consequences of that conflict.

I chose a different path professionally, but photojournalism and photography are core to who I am.

And I grew to understand that, it’s equally, perhaps even more important, to document the other side of conflict and war. We must show the impact of war and conflict, but beyond that tragedy are individual stories about lives led before violence and war, before communities and countries were ripped apart.

People who dream and hope and wish more for their children and future generations. To be able to bring these stories to people through photography, capturing the humanity that connects us regardless of our race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality, is what I hope my photographs tell. I share images from my time in Iraq and people are struck by the contrast between what they see and read and hear in the news and what I show.

I hope that, through this, people are able to reflect on a world beyond war and conflict. Not to forget that this is the reality for many people and those responsible for war and violence and persecution must be held accountable, but rather to understand that there is much more to any one country or people than what we might initially see through stories about war, conflict and pain.

How did you become involved with Heartland Alliance International?

I had left Iraq after helping operationalize Metrography—the first Iraqi Photo Agency and returned to Chicago for rest. Yet, Iraq was still in my heart and mind. I knew I was not yet done with my time there, with my commitment to supporting its people and learning more about the country, its conflicts and history, its people, its culture and its food and music and literature and art.

I visited the Heartland Alliance International website and saw that the organization was looking for a deputy country director in Iraq. In Sulaimani, Iraq, the city that stole my heart in 2010 when I visited on a one-month consultancy.

I applied and within a couple of weeks I was offered the position after may interviews. Soon, I was packed and heading back east to Iraq once again.

Since that time, I also served as Iraq country director for Norwegian Refugee Council and director of monitoring, evaluation and learning for Mercy Corps, also in Iraq.

Describe what a day at your job looks like.

As a country director, the days vary significantly—I usually arrive early to the office with a big cup of coffee in my hand, and by 9 a.m. there is typically a crisis that derails much of the day. I work closely with a team of senior staff as part of the senior management team, who are key partners in directing various operations and program areas day-to-day.

My days are also filled with meetings, both with my senior staff members and externally, with government ministers and senior officials. In Iraq, I would also meet more often than planned with security officials, police and security forces for many reasons, from addressing concerns they might have related to our operations to building relationships to gain access to areas near the front line in critical need of humanitarian aid.

My days are also spent signing a lot of documents—a lot—and reviewing reports, grant proposals, budgets, and other documents critical to ensuring the organization is fulfilling its obligations to the people we serve and to the donors who fund programs critical to delivering aid.

I typically leave the office by 6 p.m. but work until late in the evening if there is a crisis. I go to bed early if not. I wake around 4:30 a.m. and read the day’s news from the west, catch up on email, review any breaking news from the region where I am working, and plan my day. I like to wake early to watch the sun rise, listen to classical music on a pretty low volume, and to ease into the day because, given the career path I’ve chosen, most days are unpredictable and a good night’s rest and a peaceful early morning centers me for the day. I don’t always succeed with that plan, but I do my best.

I tried meditation and yoga once, but it didn’t stick. I was miserable at both. So now, I simply play some classical music, drink my coffee, read the news and reflect on the day ahead.

How has your background in reporting helped you with where you are today?

At my core, I am a journalist. Some of it was learned, but I believe much of it is who I am as a person. Pursuit of the truth, of holding those in power accountable, to basing decisions and even opinions on fact and evidence. Reporting taught me so much about observing, questioning and verifying information, and to turn my intellectual curiosity into better understanding events, people, cultures and the historical significance of the happenings around me.

It also helped me hone my writing ability, which I believe is the single most important skill for success in the professional workplace. To be able to communicate clearly, factually, with emotion when needed and without emotion when vital to document and get a point across is perhaps the greatest thing reporting has given me.

How do you think journalists should cover serious and sensitive topics?

Fairly, ethically, honestly, justly and factually. I also believe that one can be a credible and ethical journalist and still have empathy for the subjects.

I also believe journalists should be aware of, and take time to understand, international laws and UN conventions related to stories about human rights atrocities and survivors. I understand and respect that there is limited space in copy. I also believe that if the public better understood that there are international laws and UN conventions, they might better understand the direct impact on the subjects and the potential effect beyond the story.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in Iraq training journalists and government officials on the concept of “victims’ rights.”  That when a woman is a sex trafficking survivor and a girl is murdered for allegedly violating her family’s “honor,” the woman and the girl are the victims and they should be treated with respect, confidentiality and care.

What do you hope journalists learn about international reporting?

There are always multiple sides to every story. Being based in the United States as a journalist will likely require much more effort to understand the international perspective and ensure it is reflected in reporting. Provide balanced, global, accurate accounting for the reporting.

I also think it requires tremendous self-awareness and discipline to stop and ask oneself if assumptions about a country are influencing the reporting.

Finally, nothing can replace going there—to the place where the story is happening. I know that budgets are tight and it’s not always possible, but the best reporting cannot be done from a desk and on a mobile phone. And expert comment is important, but equally, if not more important, are comments from everyday people affected by the events of the day. Breaking news will not always allow it, but taking the time to go deep and understand the story and events from a truly international viewpoint, not just from being based here in the United States, will result in powerful reporting.

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