WASHINGTON (AP) — This year’s recipient of an award named for an Associated Press photographer who was killed in Afghanistan is a photojournalist who’s accustomed to working in isolated and dangerous conditions.
Kenya-based freelance photographer Adriane Ohanesian will accept the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award on Thursday, June 9,
in Washington. The annual award, first given in 2015, goes to a female photographer whose life and work honor Niedringhaus’ legacy. It was established by the International Women’s Media Foundation and includes a $20,000 prize, funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Niedringhaus was part of an AP team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for coverage of Iraq. A native of Germany, she was killed on assignment when an Afghan police commander walked up to the car she was in and opened fire.
Ohanesian’s trip to Washington followed what she called a frustrating three-week journey to a rebel-controlled region of Sudan, the country where she’s been documenting conflict for the past five years. She spoke to the AP about her life and work in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The package Ohanesian submitted for the prize included five photographs taken during a trip to Sudan’s western region of Darfur in early 2015. The conflict between the Sudanese government and rebel forces in Darfur has been ongoing since 2003, leading to the deaths of 300,000 people and allegations of crimes against humanity.
While violence and deaths have decreased in the past few years as 2.5 million Darfuris have been relocated to camps for internally displaced people, clashes still take place, and Ohanesian felt it was important to show the toll of that conflict.
Working with a Dutch journalist, Ohanesian visited the last rebel-held territory in central Darfur. Her images include a photograph of a 7-year-old boy who was badly burned when a government plane dropped a bomb next to his family home.
The government has since reclaimed the territory Ohanesian visited, which means she can’t return.
“I would love to go back. At this point, it’s not possible to reach the areas where I was a year ago,” she said. “There’s no way to access those areas of Darfur. The government will not allow access to these areas for journalists, for the U.N., international organizations. It seems we were the first journalists in this area for, I don’t know, five or 10 years. Because the government makes it nearly impossible to access.”
Ohanesian spends a large portion of her time arranging the logistics of her arduous trips into conflict zones. She does her best to minimize risk, but she can’t escape it entirely.
“Part of working in these places is just trying to ensure that you are safe. I try not to do anything that actually feels incredibly risky at the time. I try to plan things out so that I can do my work and not feel like I’m taking too much risk,” Ohanesian said. “But also, there are people who are living in these places, and they’re enduring these things every day. I think sometimes we forget that people are living their everyday lives in war zones. I have the privilege of just flying in, documenting, and I get to leave at the end of the day. The people are incredibly strong, stronger than we give them credit for.”
She’s also grown accustomed to the grind of the freelancing life. While she’s received several awards over the past few years, she says yes to almost every assignment that comes her way, and she had to self-fund her trips to Darfur and other dangerous regions.
“I’m not sure, in this industry, if there’s such a thing as success. You’ll never be able to sit back and see your work from a fancy couch. You have to wake up each day and do the work,” Ohanesian said. “I’ve been very lucky in what I’ve been able to accomplish, but I think … it’ll all suddenly come to a screeching halt unless you continue to do the work.”
COMFORTS OF HOME
Ohanesian, a 29-year-old native of Saratoga Springs, New York, has been living and working in Africa for the past five years. She tries to get back to the United States at least once a year, and she can only do so much to reassure her worried parents.
“They always ask me when I’m coming back from my extended African vacation,” she said. “My mother often doesn’t find out exactly what I’m doing until the photos come out, and then I think that’s when she really gets worried, when she sees the images. There’s not a way to hide what you’ve been doing when there’s photographic evidence.”
Ohanesian said she would likely use the $20,000 prize to fund new projects in Sudan. While she’s in the U.S., she’ll place few demands on her friends and family.
“Hot showers, good food,” she said. “I’m easy to please.”
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