Deborah Copaken Kogan knows that looks matter. Early in Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, the photojournalist-turned-memoirist recalls her high school years in Potomac: “[I]t might as well have been 1955 instead of the early ’80s. To fit in…a girl needed to be a pretty, thin, curvaceous, blond cheerleader….It became clear that I’d have to lead a double life, to hide my inner Pippi Longstocking under a lacquered Barbie mask.” Since then, she’s survived land mines, rape, and dysentery. Now she’s got to get through the press coverage of her first book.
Controversy about Shutterbabe began with its title. Kogan writes in the press kit: “I hope it will be taken in the spirit in which it was intended, which is (please!) tongue-in-cheek.” But some of her critics have suggested that her vertical career path involved a lot of horizontal negotiation.
“There was a review that said I used my sexuality to gain access to stories,” Kogan recounts in a phone interview from her New York home. Naming the book’s chapters after men who were significant to each stage of the story, she says, “was very much an ironic conceit. In every story, I was going by my own wits.”
Granted, in the opening chapter, “Pascal,” then 22-year-old Kogan follows a rakish French photographer out of Paris and into the heart of Afghanistan’s civil war. “It was less about the war than about him at that point,” she says. “I wasn’t using feminine wiles to get to a story; I was in love withor thought I was in love withthis man, and the byproduct was we got to shoot a war together.” Although Pascal offers Kogan a meeting with the Khalis rebels, he soon abandons her, forcing her to take the reins. Thereafter, the men of the chapters’ titles are her friends, her guides, and, in the last two chapters, her husband and son. Irked by the critic who described her modus operandi throughout Shutterbabe as “screwing strategically,” Kogan responds tartly: “By the end of the book, the only strategic screwing I did yielded me two infants.”
Shutterbabe reads like a rollicking, ironic adventure, but its author calls it “a journey to motherhood”: “I begin the book with the loss of an egg in a minefield, and I end it with the birth of a child at home.”
Kogan left journalism to write and to care for her kids, and now the veteran of print and televisionincluding a stint as a producer on NBC’s Datelineis on the other side of the camera. Being trailed by a writer and photographer for a recent day-in-the-life story left her “self-conscious all day long….I went to pick up my son from school and went to get a cupcakeit’s something we always dobut I kept thinking, ‘Oh, God, it just looks like I’m setting this up: the happy time I’m spending with my son with this cupcake.’…I know [the photographer’s] gonna take a picture of him eating this cupcake.”
Kogan says her career taught her that “perhaps more often than we think, we are being manipulated through images,” and adds that we often manipulate our images as well: “I think that people around the globe are very savvy to cameras and photos now, and so they will react in ways that maybe they wouldn’t have 10, 15 years ago. A camera crew will arrive and say, ‘Put up your signs! Act sad!’” Pamela Murray Winters