Interview: British Female War Photographer and Writer Lalage Snow

I met Lally (as she is known to her friends) last year and wanted to understand what drives someone to become a war photographer. I know why most of us choose the genre we place our focus on, it’s generally about our love for photography matched with our favourite subject.

To put your life on the line to document war, war zones and the people who suffer through war, however, takes a different kind of person.

Read this interview to find more about war photography and its challenges, as experienced by a British female war photographer.

Lally, you are an accomplished British female war photographer / photojournalist who's work has been published in most popular news outlets and with a recently released book titled War Gardens, please could you introduce yourself?

Certainly. In addition to working as a photojournalist, I am also a filmmaker and print journalist. I have made documentaries for BBC (The Gardeners of Kabul) and Channel 4 (Afghan Army Girls), made shorts for The Smithsonian Museum in D.C and written for a variety of publications including the Times, Sunday Times, Granta and The Telegraph Magazine.


What drove you to become a war photojournalist?

I wanted to be a photographer first and foremost. I was born in Belfast during the troubles so you could say I was born to it but although I was brought up in a military family and the idea of ‘War’ per se was not an abstract one, the war-photography bit came later.

I was given a camera at a young age and had access to a dark room at school. There was something alchemical in processing a film in a tank and then printing the images on old fashioned enlargers and watching the images emerge as the developer liquid washed over the paper. I was quite shy so all my images were usually abstract macro shots of logs of wood, leaves on the ground, bark… you name it.

I didn’t realise one could actually ‘DO’ photography as a job until much later when I was writing for an art magazine and living in Jordan in 2006. At the time, Amman was a bit of a safe haven for journalists and photographers cutting in and out of Iraq, Israel and Palestine covering the conflicts there. Their experiences piqued my interest and I became fascinated with the ease with which they approached the work and travel, not to mention the importance of the work they were doing. The issue was that although I loved photography, I wasn’t very good and shooting scenes or people which is fairly important in photojournalism! So I returned to the UK and undertook an MA in photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication and at the same time, started working part time for Tom Stoddart. 

During the summer holidays from LCC I went to Bangladesh to work on a photographic project about climate change but caught up in some riots and, long story short, was asked to work for AFP for a few months in Dhaka. I loved the dynamism of fast days versus slow days, travelling round the country to work on all sorts of stories from tea, floods and cricket to religious festivals, shopping and more riots. I lost all my inhibitions and shyness and according to my LCC tutors, I returned home a different kind of photographer. I took that as a compliment! It was 2007 and Afghanistan was barely in the news. I had a cousin being deployed there as a solider and I wondered if I could go too. I was curious, simple as that. I wrote to his commanding officer, wrote to the MOD and pitched myself out to a number of publications and hey presto. Perhaps the first student photographer to go to the frontlines of Helmand Province.

Tom (Stoddart) was the biggest influence. He told me ‘photographers should always have dirty knees’ – i.e. - get down on your knees and search for the right frame, don’t expect it to come to you. I think of those words whenever I shoot.

Do you look-up to other war photographers? Which famous war photographers have inspired you if any? And how about particularly female war photographers?

Of course. At LCC we were lucky to have Homer Skykes and Juddah Passow as tutors and occasionally Philip Jones Griffiths. Our course director was Paul Lowe and he had worked a lot in Bosnia during the war. We had visiting lecturers too - the founding photographers of Seven, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin and the like. We studied the works of everyone from Lee Friedlander, Weegee, Eggleston and Larry Burrows. Not all of them are war photographers and I think that is key; not being hooked on one style/genre because in the end, it’s about telling stories and each of those photographers are very, very different and wonderful in every way. I think a lot about Eggleston’s use of colour and light - those oranges.  

But to be honest, Tom (Stoddart) was the biggest influence. He told me ‘photographers should always have dirty knees’ – i.e. - get down on your knees and search for the right frame, don’t expect it to come to you. I think of those words whenever I shoot. He also told me, in a time when digital cameras and all the clobber that comes with them (memory cards, hard drives, lenses) were pretty new and VERY expensive ‘you can only work with what you have.’ It was reassuring as I only had a Nikon D60 and one 20mm 1.4 lens and one cheap telephoto lens whereas my peers always seemed to have all the latest kit. It taught me that you really can make images simply and that yes, you have to hunt for your pictures. Tom also reminded me that the best paid jobs are usually the commercial ones - or lecturing about photography - which kept it real as from the outside, being a war photographer sounds frightfully glamorous and full of perks. It isn’t. It’s the hardest work you will ever do. Lastly, he said, ‘War is photogenic so make sure you are good at taking photographs before you go anywhere.’ That made me focus on domestic stories in South London for a bit where I did a series of photo essays about a council estate where a teenager had been shot. Tom aside, I’ve always admired Don McCullin. Bit of a cliche perhaps, given his status as THE war photographer but he is an extraordinary photographer with a soul. Just look at his landscapes of Somerset. 

In terms of female photographers, Lee Miller is the one who stands out the most. I love the fact that she was Man Ray’s muse and that she shunned the fashion world as a model and that she found her own way to the front lines by convincing Vogue to let her report for them. It sounds like something I would do (the reporting bit, not the modelling bit. It’s a big middle finger to what was expected of women then). But I can’t imagine Vogue doing that now or caring much about war. She was a desperately unhappy soul and I think her abusive childhood fed into a sort of self-loathing death wish which drove her to the most desperate corners of the second world war hooked on barbiturates. 

It’s interesting how success for a woman can easily be turned into a negative; that your determination to work hard can be twisted as being ’too alpha’ and therefore, wrong in someway. That your success is ‘only because you flirted with the right people.’ That being in a bad mood one day because, I don’t know, you’re just in a bad mood is construed as being a total bitch. It’s pretty sad, actually.

Could you talk our readers through the challenges facing a female war photographer/photojournalist?

War is usually the domain of men; it’s men who do the deciding, the fighting, the heavy load bearing on the frontlines. It attracts male photographers – most of whom seem to have something to prove –  but there is space for female story telling.

I think women tend to focus a little bit more on the human side of conflict rather than the adrenaline, noisy side, for example.  The biggest challenge, therefore, is people saying that you can’t do it and that it’s a boy’s job. There’s no such thing as a boy’s job. It would be stupid of me not to address personal safety though. Women are more vulnerable to molestations and, sadly, rape, when out on assignment, depending on where you are. But that said, women are seen as being less aggressive and access to culturally difficult stories in conservative countries is often easier. Male photographers can’t photograph women in Afghanistan, for example - at least, not easily. And whenever I was with soldiers, we often talked about their lives, families, girlfriends at home which I don’t think my male counterparts would have been able to do so easily. 

You have to be physically fit too. Camera kit is heavy - even if you are travelling light, and if you’re in the thick of it, sometimes you have to run very, very fast. But women, dare I say it, are pretty resilient and good at ‘just getting on with things.’

Women tend to be terrible at asking for more money from editors. I’m always laughing about this with other female shooters. It’s absurd that we feel a miserly day rate is fine where as our male friends will have bargained for twice as much. But that’s the gender pay gap enigma for you.

One of the biggest and perhaps surprising challenges is breaking the stereo type of being a 'female photojournalist' and people assuming that you must be a bit messed up, that you are too independent, that you are a wild card. It’s interesting how success for a woman can easily be turned into a negative; that your determination to work hard can be twisted as being ’too alpha’ and therefore, wrong in someway. That your success is ‘only because you flirted with the right people.’ That being in a bad mood one day because, I don’t know, you’re just in a bad mood is construed as being a total bitch. It’s pretty sad, actually. For a man, being a moody, daring photojournalist has more of a glamorous ring to it and you’re allowed to do and be all of those things because you’re a ‘cool photojournalist’. 


Your book sheds light on urban gardens / urban gardening in war zones. Is it a gardening book? How would you describe it?

It is a book of many stories and although in a way it is about gardening, I really was using gardens as a lens through which to view war. A different, greener, counter-intuitive lens because it started as a portrait project. 

I was, after two years of living in Kabul full time and a further five or six working in hostile places, becoming war weary. There’s only so much darkness you can take without the cracks starting to fissure. I was also becoming weary of the media and life as a freelancer. I had been working on a story about child abuse. Mothers – most of whom where still children themselves – were burning their own children as a way of getting back at their abusive husbands or mothers in law (which speaks volumes about the state of conservative Afghan culture). It was the most shocking and unnatural thing I had ever come across and one of the most devastating thing to photograph in a hospital. The sad thing was, the broadsheet I was writing for was going to publish it on the front page but then something happened in Syria and the story got spiked. I tried other newspapers, news journals, women’s magazines you name it. No one cared. And that was almost as devastating as the story itself.  I was editing the photographs in my garden in the middle of Kabul one evening and the memory of the smell of burning was so visceral, I had to step away from my laptop and pace around on the grass. I’m no gardener but there was a familiarity in some of the plants we had that gave me some comfort - like a night’s sky, in a way. I had already been toying with the idea of photographing Afghan gardens - Afghans LOVE their gardens - and the small kernel of comfort I found in that moment made me think that perhaps this is why people like to garden. 

The idea was to take portraits of people in their gardens and caption the images with what they say. I think captions are so important and it’s a method I have used previously in ’The Not Dead’ and ‘Unveiled’ both of which projects attempt to give voice to people who were otherwise mute. I was living in Kabul full time as a photographer, writer and filmmaker and it struck me that while the news ebbs and flows with disaster following chaos following catastrophe, there are a bunch of people living through war who, unlike me - an expat - have no choice but to stay. For Afghans, war was, and sadly still is, part of the fabric of daily life. To live through it and survive is part and parcel of a day. Meanwhile, people like me were throwing ourselves into the fire of suicide bomb blasts, front line activity, hanging out with the baddies, trying to go the extra mile for ’the story.’ For me, the so-called story really became the normal people just trying to get on with life. I self-funded the project in Gaza, The West Bank, Israel, Ukraine and Southern Afghanistan interviewing civilians, children, rebels, soldiers, Talibs, mullahs… and retelling the war through their eyes and photographing them in the small worlds they had created which were extraneous to the war. From here, the project gradually grew and grew and this led to a book based on the extensive interviews conducted over the years.


Are there other genres of photography you would say could help develop transferable skills needed in war photography? e.g. Street Photography (for capturing stranger fast), Portrait Photography, Sports Photography (capturing fast action)…

All photography is important as there is no one style of war photography. You only have to look at the reams and reams of photographs coming out of any war. There are those who specialise in portraits, those who go for images without people, those who favour raw combat… it all adds to the narrative whole. Every discipline is worth learning - even if you can’t master it. The key is making sure you have something to say that the snapper next to you isn’t already saying.


Going back to your book. Is urban gardening as politics a thing? Is it a form of rebellion depending on the context?

In some cases yes. In the West Bank and Gaza, land is the essence of the war. Owning it, building on it, growing on it. For both Jews and Arabs, the message was always ’this is our ancestral land’. Gaza is essentially cut off from the outside world and by 2020 is estimated to be unliveable. So trying to grow is not only a practical thing - growing food for one’s family, for example. It’s also a psychological thing in many ways. To make something bloom is to survive. In the West Bank it was more visceral as the issue there is more visible. Illegal settlements are springing up and demolishing Palestinian villages. For almost all of the Palestinian gardeners I met, to garden was a stand against the occupation. For most of the settlers I spoke to, however, to garden was also a return to the old way of life which belonged to their parents and grandparents during the foundation of the state of Israel. A return to the authentic Kibbutz life. 

In Helmand I met insurgents who fought against the British and American soldiers because they had trampled over their land without asking. One guy said to me, ‘what would you do if foreigners invaded your garden? Would you fight or let them carry on?’ When you put it like that, suddenly the war in Afghanistan takes on a whole new meaning and is less about fighting the Taliban and so called Al Qaeda and more about much of the military mission in Afghanistan coming down to misunderstanding the cultural context. 


What would be your single piece of advice aimed towards budding British female photographers?  

Be authentic and be different, always respect your subjects, be gracious. But i’d say that to everyone. 


Looking back at your photographs, which is your most precious and why? 

This one. It is the garden of a Forward Operating Base in Lashkar Gah, Helmand 2013.


It is a very peaceful photograph but has a few trappings of war in the detail if you look closely. For various reasons I was feeling pretty lost and low but the garden lifted my spirits. It had just been watered and it smelled like a summer’s evening. But what you can’t see is the sound of gunfire in the distance and the twittering foreign office representatives also based there who were convinced the war was over. Six years later, that war still rumbles on and this garden is no more.

Thank you Lally for sharing with us your experience as a war photographer, writer and as a human being.

War Gardens is available in all major book stores and online. All photographs in this article © Lalage Snow

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All photographs in this article © Lalage Snow