What it’s really like be a photographer in a war zone

Alex Kay Potter splits her time between the Minnesota, U.S. and Sanaa, Yemen, a country where being a photographer is no easy task. Yemen is currently embroiled in a war, and Potter has been there to document the real effects on the Yemeni people. Her photos are beautiful, aching, and hard to ignore. So we called Potter to talk to her about what it’s like to work in a warzone, as well as touch on her long history working in the country We’re talking about her years-long work in Yemen, what is has been like to be there this past year in the midst of a war, and what comes next for her.

I mostly want to talk to you about your Yemen work. Can you give me a little background on the time you spent there and how you ended up there in the first place?

I went to school for nursing at Bethel University in Minnesota and I knew I wanted to do journalism most of my time there, but I came from a pretty practical farming family who was like, “You should get a real degree.”  And of all the journalists I was looking at, most of them didn’t have a degree in journalism so I thought OK, I don’t have to go back and get a second degree, at least I’ll have a back-up if I’m a complete failure as a journalist. I studied abroad in Jordan and a few other places, and that got me interested in the Middle East. After graduation, I was just like, “Wellp this is the time to go for it if I’m gonna go for it.” I had some friend in Jordan so I picked up and went there, I guess like six months after graduation. Jordan is very quiet. Jordan is not really in the news cycle. So I was just reading their local paper one day and it said Yemen was having an election post-revolution, and I didn’t see any of the Arab Spring because I was still in school and Yemen was intriguing, it was different, I figured there wouldn’t be tons of journalists there like there were in Egypt, but I figured it would be a good time to go and start trying to work as a journalist. So this was Feb 2012. And there were a couple photographers there whose work I had seen in the past, and they were so helpful and so nice. So from 2012 I went back as many times as I could and then on and off since then.

Were you living in Jordan and going back and forth to Yemen or did you at some point make a move permanently, or semi-permanently, to Yemen?

Permanently is kind of a strange word because since I’ve graduated I’ve not had something in one place for one full year. Actually that first time I was there I ran out of money because I published maybe one or two things because I was just starting out then. So I went back to the States, did some nursing for that summer, then I went back to Yemen, then I had a Rotary Scholarship to Lebanon so I was studying there but every time we had a break I went back to Yemen. So I was still probably there about half the time. Then, after all that, I’d come back to the States for maybe two months at a time once or twice a year, to work on something and to make some money because I’m still paying off my student loans and all that jazz. And then I’d leave Yemen if I had an assignment or a project somewhere else. But Yemen has been my main place since three or four years ago. Especially this past year—from August 2014 to August 2015 I spent probably about 80% of the year in the country.

I was gonna ask, especially this past year, what its been like for you as the conflict has gained steam.

It was not that bad until this spring when the war actually started. And the conflict was going on before, there would be clashes, but there were never in Sanaa, they were never near where I was living so I guess it never really affected me. I was kind of…I was covering more the rise of the Houthis to power, and they were actually quite liked by a lot of people as they were gaining influence.

A Yemeni girl who was injured in a Saudi coalition airstrike stand in her home on July 16, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. The strike killed nearly thirty people, most from the same family.
A Yemeni girl who was injured in a Saudi coalition airstrike stand in her home on July 16, 2015 in Sana’a, Yemen. The strike killed nearly thirty people, most from the same family.

Can you give a little background on the conflict itself for people who aren’t familiar?

Oh god it is so complicated. Generally there are two main players in the conflict: there are the Houthis who call themselves Ansar Allah, and they started as a small revival group in Yemen’s north called Shabab al-Moumineen which means “The Believing Youth.” Then there is Yemen’s former government, who waged I think six wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2009 and basically flattened their stronghold in the North. Then the Houthis kind of shrunk back in to the mountains, but then they came and participated in the revolution, and then in the power vacuum that came post-revolution they offered up some new ideas and got more support. There are a lot more dynamics that go in to the conflict but that was basically it…once the Houthis started pushing South, President Hadi fled the country and asked Saudi Arabia to intervene. They gathered a group of Arab and other states that make up the coalition. Because they and much of the international community still believe that Hadi is Yemen’s legitimate president even though he over-stayed his term by a couple of years and he resigned but now he’s taking refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Wow. Ok, got it.

And the biggest issue right now is there is a huge, huge bombing campaign that gets some attention but there are dozens of strikes every day. There is an air, sea and land blockade so nothing is coming in or out so the price of everything has tripled, quadrupled or even more. So families are really starving. Even my middle class friends in Sanaa are having trouble buying food. One of my best friends, someone in his family didn’t even have tomatoes in the house to cook lunch with for his two daughters. People can’t afford gas cylinders to cook with because now they’re something like $50 instead of $5 so people are digging things out of the trash, trying to find wood. So the blockade is pretty devastating.

What is it like being Stateside and watching this happen?

It is terrible. I feel terrible because…I mean I’m doing what I can. I’m taking part in a few print sales and anybody who wants to buy a print can contact me, and all of the proceeds I’m sending to help families who are in Yemen. It is especially frustrating because of the lack of justice. If countries want to fight each other in war, OK. If soldiers want to fight each other in war, so be it. But…it’s a very unbalanced war. The Saudi coalition is not even fighting on their own, they’ve hired all these different mercenaries, they’ve hired Sudanese soldiers and soldiers from Eritrea…all these people to fight the battle for them. On both sides there is no accountability.

Are you trying to figure out if you’re going to go back?

I have some other projects to do this winter, so I can escape the cold Minnesota winter. I would really like to go back, but I’m trying to really evaluate what and when is safe. I will, when it is possible, definitely go back. I love the country and I see myself there for a very long time.

When people look at your work from Yemen—be it work you just produced this year or work you produced three years ago, what do you hope people take away? Maybe especially right now?

I hope that people, especially with work from this summer, that people can really see Yemenis as human beings and as individuals and they can put themselves in their place. Like, imagine if that was your family and you had to dig through the trash to find paper to burn to cook for your kids. Or imagine if that was you watching your son getting recruited to fight and he is only 10 years old. I think with war, especially in places like Yemen because it is so foreign and seen in stereotypes—it is seen as the Al-Qaeda country, it is seen as the gun country…but I know it very differently. I know it as a country full of very kind people who just want to live their lives and take care of their families. It is beautiful, historic and very, very complex. So I’m hoping people can empathize and put themselves in the Yemenis’ place rather than just see numbers, like oh 5,000 were killed and 20,000 were injured. I really want to people to identify with the Yemenis.

Looking forward, you said you have a few projects coming up. Can you talk about what is ahead of you? Are you working on anything right now?

Let’s see. I have a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation that I’ll be working on this winter…the project is still a little bit under the table but in general it is about former prisoners who have been released. I can’t say too much about it but yeah, I’m excited. Other than that, here in Minnesota I’ve been continuing this project I did on the Somali community—I started it back in 2012 and shot it maybe for about a year and then I kind of abandoned it for three years. So coming back, some of the girls I photographed back then are now married and have kids so I’m trying to continue that. And then once I finish the aforementioned grant I’ll figure out where I can live next…I’m still very interested in the Middle East so it’ll probably be somewhere around there.

“Fifi” smokes an argileh water pipe at a cafe in St. Paul, MN, May 6, 2012. “I talk a lot when I smoke, but it’s fun to do when we girls get together.” Many parents don’t approve of their daughters going out, but they find ways around the rules.

In this past year, you co-founded a photo collective, right? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yes, Koan Collective! We founded Koan Collective—me, Amanda Mustard, Cooper Neil and Allison Joyce. Photojournalism can be really solitary, especially if you’re not based in a major media hub like London or New York…a place where you would have the creative support from editors or art directors or other photojournalists who can help give you direction or inspiration. All of us were living in places that were…kind of “out there”—Cooper in Texas, Amanda in Cairo, I was in Yemen and Allison in Bangladesh. So for all of us we were kind of…the only ones around. We thought it would be really nice to have this thing that we could go to for artistic support, business ideas, accountability to keep working on projects, push forward when we might get a little bit lax or frustrated…and then also it is another good way to promote your work and collaborate. We haven’t done a group project yet, but we’re thinking to do one this year! It is good when you’re out there all on your own for a long time…at least you don’t have to be emailing friends that you only talk to every once in a while asking “Hey! Can you look at these 500 photos?” [laughs]. With this group we know that that is what we want to do for each other.

I love following you guys on Instagram. Now that we’re talking a little more about the broader industry, do you have a favorite or a least favorite part of this job?

I love getting to know different people from different communities. I grew up in a very small town of 4,000-5,000 people, a lot of whom have never left the States, a lot of whom, like my grandpa, don’t even want to leave the town—they’re very happy where they are. And there is nothing wrong with that all. Even when I go back to my hometown now being away for so long, I gain totally different perspectives on the people I grew up with, or my parent’s friends or the guys that help on my dad’s farm. But with photojournalism I think it just opens up doors and windows in to other peoples lives…and I get to show those lives to people who would never see them and I get to learn a lot about myself and the rest of the world. I really like helping to break down preconceived notions if you’re looking at the negative side of life, but then also open people up to the beautiful world that we have. The negative side…is the hustle. The hustle is a pain. I’m from the Midwest and it is not really in our nature to pitch ourselves or talk about ourselves I guess. I’ve gotten a bit better about that but its still hard to be like “HEY look at me!”

I think that’s it! Is there anything else you want to say?

Everyone, when the war is over and things have calmed down, you should all come to Yemen. We’ll go hiking in the mountains. I’m serious. I just think it the most amazing country I’ve ever been to, and people see it from the outside and think it is so conservative—all the women are covered, all the men have guns…but its totally not what you would expect. I’ve been taken in as family by so many people there. So come.

To see more of Alex’s work, click here or follow her on Instagram at @alexkpotter

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity