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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 4, 2011

Diaz Meyer takes pictures that tell stories, illuminate truth

By Saranac Hale Spencer

RENSSELAERVILLE — A silent story can be the most stirring — pictures unfolded from newspaper pages have framed our idea of what war looks like over the last century.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer has taken pictures of today’s battles that cast an unflinching eye on soldiers and citizens.

Photography is an extension of the stories that she grew up on in the Philippines, said Diaz Meyer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2004 for her coverage of the war in Iraq.  Her photos, along with those of two other photographers, are on display at The Way Out Gallery in Rensselaerville as part of the town library’s Festival of Writers.

Diaz Meyer’s family raised her with stories of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, which tempered her for the gravity of war reporting.

“I just loved the art of storytelling,” Diaz Meyer said this week.  Photos were a way, she discovered, that she could tell stories, “the real ones,” she said.

As a student of photography, Diaz Meyer wanted to tell the stories of people who didn’t have a voice.  She did not expect to become a war photographer.

When the occasion came, though, she rose to it.

A war zone concentrates the human condition and forces you to consider your strengths and weaknesses, to be honest about life and death, she said.  Putting your life in serious danger forces the questions — “What is the meaning of life?  How fickle is it?  How transient?”

“It’s not that I don’t fear death,” she said of facing it so readily.  “I have made choices about living life fully and, in covering wars, one really, truly experiences the entire gamut.”  The emotions on the battlefield are so extreme, there’s no parallel in everyday life.  There’s a certain amount of fulfillment in living life so fully, she concluded.  “The terrible experiences are usually the ones where we grow the most,” she said.

There was a time when she might have had an answer for why the story was important enough to risk her life, Diaz Meyer said after reflecting; with irony, she cited democratic principles.  She’s had a daughter since that time, she said, and that has changed her perspective.

In 2003, the first year of the war in Iraq, Diaz Meyer covered the invasion for the Dallas Morning News as a journalist embedded with a Marine Corps unit for a month, and then as an independent journalist for a month.

Working independently, she said, you’re not beholden to anybody, “but you can’t see that story from the inside.”  She was an outsider to the Iraqis and to the American soldiers, which made it hard to find depth.

She recognized the common criticism that journalists embedded with the military lack objectivity, allowing, “It’s not to say that you don’t have some sense of gratitude, and therefor, goodwill, to whoever is hosting you.”  But, Diaz Meyer emphasized that the Marines who hosted her knew that she had a job to do and that there may be stories they wouldn’t like.

She recalled vividly one of those stories:  After a tense day at a checkpoint, a minibus came through and did not respond to warning shots.  The previous vehicle had been trying to get ammunition through.  The Marines shot at the bus, ultimately killing innocent women and children.

The coverage wasn’t favorable to the Marines, but it showed that human folly exists in war as elsewhere in life.  The people fighting are human, she said, they are tired and they have to make split-second decisions that carry enormous weight.

Her pictures illustrate soldiers as soldiers, dragging an Iraqi civilian from his burning vehicle in the heat of the desert, and soldiers as human, with one young man in solitary joy as he closes his eyes to smell a rose.

“I look for situations that illuminate what I believe is the truth,” Diaz Meyer said of how she tells a story.  Sometimes what she learns as she goes can change the story.  Often, she said, it is the littlest moments that give depth and nuance to a story.

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