People Power (part 3)

Depth of Field
Featured: Samantha Appleton, documentary photographer

"If I could have any superpower," says Samantha Appleton, "I would be invisible." For Appleton, a 32-year-old photojournalist who has covered the war in Iraq off & on, this is not just an idle wish - it's a professional necessity. And in this, she has a distinct advantage over her male colleagues. When Appleton wants to disappear into the crowd, she dons an abaya, the long, black garment worn by women in Muslim countries. Most men ignore her; in conservative areas, they won't even make eye contact with her - a dream come true for a documentary photographer.

Though she's been at it for only seven years, Appleton's lush, visceral style has won her commissions from Time, The New Yorker, & The New York Times. She got her start in 2000 as an assistant to the acclaimed war photographer James Nachtwey, who cites her bravery in making "powerful, resonant photographs of issues that need to be in the public eye." But she soon began to generate her own stories, traveling alone to global hot spots, usually without a set assignment. Her big break came in April 2003, when she drove from Amman, Jordan, into Iraq just after the fall of Baghdad. At that point, most foreign journalists were exhausted & heading home, which left Appleton with a windfall of plum assignments that might otherwise have gone to more experienced photographers.

The pictures she shot that spring - & on five subsequent trips to Iraq - capture the brutality & chaos of war in swarming, off-kilter compositions packed with humanizing details. Although she's interested above all in documenting the effect of war on civilians, Appleton has also been embedded with U.S. military units. On these missions, there's tons of downtime. "Then all of a sudden," she says, "you're out on patrol & you spend 20 minutes terrified out of your mind."

At least since the 1930s, women have covered wars alongside men - Margaret Bourke-White & Lee Miller are renowned for their work in Europe during World War II - but war photography remains a chiefly male domain. "People always ask if there's a boys' club," says Appleton, "but I've never experienced it on the ground, not once." Men may still outnumber women on the front lines, but the common conception of war photography as a testosterone-fueled floating frat party is more fantasy than reality. "The thing you need in this job is a certain capacity for stress," she explains. "You either have it or you don't. And once you prove you're capable of doing the job, people want to work with you." Of course, it probably doesn't hurt that Appleton, a petite, striking brunette, grew up playing sports in rural Maine with her three brothers. "I'm used to being with groups of men," she confesses. "Nothing fazes me. Growing up with brothers, I've already seen the worst."

Depth of Field
Featured: Samantha Appleton
by Mia Fineman
Men's Vogue
May 07