Three Female Conflict Zone Photographers Discuss the Challenges of Front Line Work

Three Female Conflict Zone Photographers Discuss the Challenges of Front Line Work

It’s tough to imagine a job that’s more harrowing, or more important, than being a photographer covering conflicts, violence, and natural disasters on the ground. Doing it as woman brings a whole other layer of challenges to the job—but not quite in the ways one might think. Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, a Romanian-Iraqi American citizen whose home base is Brooklyn, came to her profession after an itinerant life that has included living in a refugee camp, earning two bachelor’s degrees (in economics and neuroscience), and contracting as a crisis-zone aid worker. Alison Baskerville, from the U.K., started out in the Royal Air Force and first picked up a camera on a tour in Iraq as a way of dealing with life in a strange new land. And Annabell Van den Berghe, a Belgian national, was intrigued enough by her grandfather’s experiences fleeing Hungary in 1956 that she immersed herself in Middle Eastern studies, photographed the turmoil of Egypt and other Arab Spring movements, and was taking a break in her hometown of Brussels in 2016 when that city’s terror attacks hit. Here are their stories. 

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Photographed Conflict Zones: Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Romania

Clients: The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, and Wall Street Journal

I’ve had a windy path to photography. I was in Congo working for Oxfam, a humanitarian aid organization, when the war broke out in the fall of 2012. It made international headlines because the M23 rebels, who were the main rebel group plaguing eastern Congo at the time, took Goma, the key town in the east of the country. So all this media came pouring in, because the Congo is one of those places where the conflict has gone on for so long that no one pays attention to it unless something big happens. All the humanitarians, including myself, were evacuated to Rwanda as they were pouring in. So during that time I met a lot of these photographers and I started asking them how someone does this kind of career. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to do humanitarian aid work anymore.


A woman suffering from malaria is carried to a ward at a rural clinic in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, the poorest state in South Sudan. Image taken by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi.

I later came back to the Congo as a self-proclaimed photographer, taking pictures of anything I could and sending them out, and I eventually broke into the field. I’ve only been doing photography for about three and a half years now, focusing on cultural, conflict, and geopolitical stories. My entire life, I wanted to be a painter. I painted before I could even write or speak; my grandmother taught me in Romania. Painting is a very slow art form. But the type of lifestyle that I led and the manner in which I was thinking over the years started moving a lot faster, and photography began to look like something I could do better than painting.

There are a lot of risks and dangers in this profession, and it’s important to identify and minimize them, whether that means meeting with authorities that can give you security briefings, getting the appropriate fixer that knows how to work with the specific topic you’re covering, and making sure that you’re traveling at the right times, wearing the right things. But I think it’s also really important to recognize when you can’t minimize risks. There have been times when I’ve said, “I can’t take these pictures. I just can’t. It’s going to put me in a lot of danger.” And editors are, I’ve found, understanding. They don’t want harm to come to me, and they don’t want it on their outlet’s reputation either, for their reporter to become the story.

“There are a lot of risks and dangers in this profession, and it’s important to identify and minimize them.”

There are many advantages to being a woman doing this. Mostly it’s that we’re inconspicuous, underestimated, and therefore easier to trust – we’re not intimidating, and so again, easier to trust. The inconspicuous and underestimated part is really important, because, if you want to be a good documentary photographer, you want to be able to disappear. People need to trust you and then forget about you, and it’s much easier for them to trust and forget a small woman than it is a big, imposing man. And then you become a fly on the wall, and you get into that moment and into the pictures.

People think that conflict zones hinder women more than men. I’ve mostly worked in the Congo, where the big danger is being raped, which is a very real danger that women face and men usually don’t. Something happened in the Congo that I thought was quite sexist. I was on an assignment at one point for a nonprofit, working near a certain area where there was rumored to be a rebel group that would rape women if they came across them. But the thing is, the rebel group would kill men if they came across them. And the nonprofit group allowed male photographers to go into that particular area but not female ones, because females would have been raped. It’s not as if the males faced a lesser danger. It’s that somehow, my being raped was deemed by the nonprofit to be worse than a man being killed. So the men could go, but I could not. I was very upset by that. This is just one example of why male photographers end up having more material from insecure areas than women do.

There are other factors that contribute to this scenario in which there are much fewer female photographers working in conflict zones than men. Sometimes it has to do with editors who will primarily assign men, however, a lot of editors do encourage women, and not just female editors. There are male editors who are very supportive as well. For me, it’s the expectations back home [in the U.S.] that will possibly, eventually, hinder my career. Like, am I going to have a family, am I going to settle down, and how am I going to raise a child? Things like that. But then there are conflict zone photographers who have been able to figure it out, like Lynsey Addario, who has a family and child and is still working. So there is a way to do it; I just don’t think it’s as easy as it is for a man. I think you have to find the right partner [Laughs].


One of Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi’s images from the Minova Rape Trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a victim — veiled to protect her identity — testifies before the closed military tribunal.

One of the things I love most about my work is this feeling of getting lost—like when you end up in a new place and don’t know anyone and you’re trying to figure everything out. Recently I was working for a coffee company in Congo, and there was a point where I was out on this tiny wooden boat with these fishermen on Lake Kivu. When it got dark, you could see all the stars out and I fell asleep. There’s a certain feeling of freedom you get that you can’t really replace. Recently someone asked me if I did this work because I thought I was making a difference. I don’t, actually. The gratification that I have gotten is when locals have contacted me to thank me for the work that I’ve done, like when I did the series of the Minova Rape Trials, a court case where 37 members of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo faced charges of raping civilian men, women, and children in the town of Minova during a ten-day run of violence. Congolese citizens found me on Facebook or wrote me emails to thank me. They would say, the world forgot us for so long, and thank you so much for caring about us.

“If you want to be a good documentary photographer, you want to be able to disappear.”

For the past year I’ve been doing only assignment work, for media outlets, NGOs, and corporate companies. I’ve only said no to one assignment, and it was because I had just left the Congo and couldn’t make it back there that quickly. I’ve said yes to pretty much everything because I really felt like I needed to establish working relationships with editors and clients, and I couldn’t be very picky about what I said yes and no to. I think of myself as a documentary photographer rather than a photojournalist, but this last year I’ve definitely been only a photojournalist. This year I want to balance it out and work on some personal projects. I have been thinking about going to Iraq, actually. I know loads of photographers are in Iraq right now, but I’m half Iraqi and I’ve never been.

Annabell Van den Berghe

Photographed Conflict Zones: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Jordan

Clients: BBC, The Washington Post

My grandfather used to tell me stories about war and conflict where’s he’s from, Hungary, and the fact that he was a refugee triggered my interest in discovering more about my family’s past. I was drawn to the conflict in Israel/Palestine, so I chose Middle Eastern studies in college and learned Hebrew and Arabic. While studying Egypt, the Egyptian revolution started, and the Arab Spring in general, so that’s how I ended up covering these conflicts. I feel that doing this job is the only way to understand what’s going on. I want to get a better understanding of what drives people to do what they do or how war affects people. I’ve said no to assignments when it was about me writing something or doing something that a news outlet already thought was happening, and I had to confirm it. But I’m not there to confirm their truth; I’m there to investigate the truth. That’s why I’m a photo reporter. I write every story I shoot.

“I feel that doing this job is the only way to understand what’s going on. I want to get a better understanding of what drives people to do what they do or how war affects people.”

There is way too much sexism in the world still, in every kind of job, and this is one of them. People at home tend to think that, as a woman going to conflict zones, I would be the one talking to the victims, poor people and refugees far away from the front line, away from the military hats or operations, because that is more “male.” That is a misconception. But it’s about the editors as well. They can be hesitant to send you; because they believe that being a woman makes you more vulnerable. So often they prefer a man over a woman, which is sad because if you’re fatally hit by a bullet, whether you’re a man or a woman, you’ll die. It’s not like if somebody has more muscle they can resist a bullet. It doesn’t work like that.

But there are advantages to being a woman in the field, especially in very split community, as in the Middle East, where men and women tend to live separately for their daily routines. There are separate rooms for women in the house, and rooms to have guests over where women do not enter. When there are funerals, there’s a split room, one room for men, one room for women, and the same goes for weddings. In these situations, as a female journalist, you can enter both. You’re allowed at the party or the room at a funeral where the women attend or where the men attend. It is more difficult to do that as a male journalist. Women from these societies are rather closed toward men, because that’s how they are raised, so it’s easier to get access to their information, feelings, and their story as a female journalist. The disadvantages are that you have to fight twice as hard as your male colleagues to get something published, because it’s still a male-dominated field.

“I’m not there to confirm their truth; I’m there to investigate the truth. That’s why I’m a photo reporter. I write every story I shoot.”

There is also competition among conflict photographers, and I try to stay as far away from it as possible. If somebody wants to compete with me for a certain assignment, they can have it. There’s plenty of work, plenty of stories that have to be told. Plus, when you’re in a war zone and you’re working with someone who’s competing with you, it just doesn’t feel safe – and it is already not safe. You have to be with somebody who has your back, literally, and who will help you when something goes wrong. z a group of us were in an ambush together, and another time we were all together under fire, with guns on us, for hours. So I try to work with people who are safety first and will stick with me and not leave a man behind.


A portrait of Annabell Van Den Berghe taken by Jeffry Ruigendijk.

Most of the time, fear is something you just deal with afterward. When you’re on an assignment, of course you have to have some kind of fear, because you have to consider danger. But if you’re really afraid, then you should not go. When I’m in the field, I’m not afraid, which does not mean that I’m reckless. But you try to put it in perspective. You know that something can happen to you, but there is no use in getting paralyzed over that feeling because then you can’t do your job.  The point is, when you’re there, you focus on the job, and when you come back from the front line, then that’s when you talk about it with your colleagues.

When I first started my career it was more difficult to have a personal life because you feel that you still have to prove so much and you have to put yourself on the map. I sometimes thought that I would always have to be in conflict zones, for the rest of my life, when there was an attack, but now it’s not like that. I limit myself to certain areas at certain times. I take my holidays if I plan my holidays. It’s not always easy but it works. It’s difficult to say what experience has had the most impact on me. I can tell you the most shocking thing, but you can be shocked in so many ways. For example, a couple of months ago I spent a month in Iran, and I was shocked by how open-minded the Iranian people are – much more so than what I am used to in the West. I didn’t expect that.

But then on the other hand, when you are covering a massacre in Egypt, when SiSi and his troops committed this massacre on the Muslim Brothers, where hundreds of people died, that is also shocking. When you put all of these things together, you can’t really see them as separate from each other. Although Iran might not, in fact, have something to do with Egypt, you still feel that, despite repression, people are always trying to find ways to survive, and always growing. And of course, there were the Brussels attacks. I’m used to covering the Middle East, and I came home for a while, and the attacks happened. All of a sudden your work comes home—it comes with you.

“The point is, when you’re there, you focus on the job, and when you come back from the front line, then that’s when you talk about it with your colleagues.”

Alison Baskerville

Photographed Conflict Zones: Afghanistan, Gaza, Mali and Somaliland

Clients: BBC, The Royal British Legion, and Women for Women International

I always say I’m an accidental war photographer. I think I was very naive when I joined the Royal Air Force. I’d never really been outside Europe, or even the U.K., and suddenly in 2005 I was in this Middle Eastern environment where nothing was familiar to me, and I found the whole experience quite overwhelming. We had cameras with us, and I used that as a way of processing what was going on. I mean, I didn’t have the language to explain that then. I got to the 12-year point in the Royal Air Force and was offered a promotion to further my military career. I thought if I don’t leave now, I will be in this position for probably the rest of my life. I didn’t want that. So I left and started taking lots of pictures. A good friend of mine said, “Whatever you do, don’t go anywhere near war again.” I thought, Okay, I won’t. But I soon felt there was something missing. I actually missed the military a great deal. When I was asked to go back to the army as a photographer, I thought, Great, I’ll get more camera training and equipment. Eventually I got sent to Afghanistan as a combat camera team photographer.

That’s when I met other photojournalists and gained an understanding of the access I had, which was really unique and different. I decided to really explore this and I got sent back to Afghanistan as an embedded photographer to document women in war. As was the case then, sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle ground, which is quite challenging. I know that there are things that other photographers choose to photograph in conflict zones that I sometimes won’t, because it looks normal to me – familiar. That’s something I have to check in about with myself all the time when I’m doing a job. I have to think about that.


A portrait of Alison Baskerville.

The way I deal with fear is to fall back on that military training. It gives me an enormous amount of reassurance. A lot of times when people go to war zones or places of danger, they rarely get enough training or think about their mental health. I have had a 12-year military career, which has given me an enormous amount of training that a lot of photographers and journalists don’t have. They get, like, a weeklong hostile environment course. My military training does make a difference in the way that I perform. It takes away that element of fear. I mean, I still get afraid. I’m very aware of the danger I’m facing, but I’m better prepared than a lot of my colleagues. 

“The biggest advantage of being a woman on a conflict zone photo assignment is that generally men have a lower expectation of women.”

Though people say they’re quite progressive and open-minded about gender, I still think there are a lot of stereotypes that fly around, especially if you’re documenting an area where there’s a strong patriarchyThe biggest advantage of being a woman on a conflict zone photo assignment is that generally men have a lower expectation of women. People say, no they don’t. But I say, yes you do. Those of us who do this know that a lot of times your male colleagues will have a lower expectation of you, and so will the people you’re photographing. That can be used to your advantage because then you can pass by and do your job with minimal fuss. You can slip in a lot quicker and easier. Sometimes embedding with a militia of men, if you’re a woman, is better. They don’t see you as a man, so they’re not expecting anything from you. It’s not that it’s right. It’s just that it is often easier.  

As for bias among editors, yeah, that happened last year. It was the first time I’ve ever been knowingly discriminated against. I’m sure it’s happened without me realizing it, but, because I have the military background, it normally eliminates that thing. I was asked to go to Syria to embed with the regime by a major British publication. They asked me to meet the photo editor, and all through the conversation, the editor just kept saying, “Are you sure you’re going to be all right with it? Are you going to be scared?” [Laughs] I thought, This is a bit too frequent, right? Afterward my colleague who is a television journalist confirmed it and said, “He’s concerned about sending a woman.”


Alison Baskerville out in the field reporting.

Once you’re on the front line, though, it pretty much evens out between male and female, because you have to be close to each other. Where the discrimination appears, or what I think shocked me about becoming a member of society away from the military, were the things I learned. I thought that women and men were equal in the workplace. I didn’t even understand that women got paid less than men. When that first hit me I was quite shocked. Sexism exists more in day-to-day society, I think when you’re on the ground, doing the job, it’s irrelevant.

It’s hard to say what keeps me going back. Mostly it’s been moments where I’ve met people dealing with huge obstacles, whether it’s dealing with longtime war, having to find somewhere to give birth, or how to raise children in an environment that’s heavily traumatized. The reason I keep doing it is to find bits of hope and inspiration in what we would see as being utter devastation: the human spirit in the face of such horror. I rarely make it look as grim as it is, because I think about the person in that picture, and why should I show them in a negative way when they’re dealing with very uncomfortable situations? 

As for a personal life, I don’t manage to have one [Laughs]. It’s a weird one, actually. I have amazing friends back here where I live in Birmingham, U.K., and they’re all artists, but very few photographers actually. I don’t really meet people. I mean, I meet people, and I can get to know people, and then I go away. So it’s not the best. But I live near my brother, who I’m really close to, and I think that’s important: not to isolate yourself too much.

“The reason I keep doing it is to find bits of hope and inspiration in what we would see as being utter devastation: the human spirit in the face of such horror.”

It’s a weird job. Some days I hate it. Some days I think, What on earth am I doing, like I have to be skint [broke] all the time. You know, photography is not very lucrative. Everyone in the industry knows that. I come from working-class parents. The military gave me my stepping stone in life. Above all of that is the bigger-picture that matters to me. Even if my work is not hugely well known in the duration I live, I know that after that there will still be this documentation that might help someone in the future, either to do research or to understand what it was like in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Central Africa. During my time in Iraq, we lost three people in my section in the course of a week, so some of the photography I did was of people who died. That’s when I realized that I was memorializing and perhaps capturing something that becomes more historical rather than current. Everyone wants to shoot for now, in the moment, to capture something, to hold onto it. But I think we often forgot that sometimes in documentary, you’re creating a kind of archive as well. Look at those photographs now.

from 99U99U

A Driver’s License Can be Revoked for the Elderly, but Artistic License? Never.

A Driver’s License Can be Revoked for the Elderly, but Artistic License? Never.

She was due for retirement. Try telling her that.

Louise Fili, the designer behind logos for Tiffany & Co., Good Housekeeping, Paperless Post, and Sarabeth’s was, as always, a font of great ideas. “I think you should be focusing on the great octogenarians out there — Seymour Chwast, George Lois, Ed Sorel, R.O. Blechman, Bob Gill, Henrietta Condak, Sara Giovanitti…there are so many,” she said in her graceful decline to be a part of this story. “I will be happy to participate when you update the article in, say, 20 years.” Fili is 65, the touchstone — albeit arbitrary — retirement age. Time will tell. But that’s an offer she can make confidently.

Artists exist in careers without reply-all emails about the break room fridge, or dress codes, or — and most importantly — without punch clocks. They are timeless talents.

In 1972, at 90 years old, Pablo Picasso painted “Facing Death,” a self-portrait; he died the next year, having painted since 1891, when he was 9. I.M. Pei, the architect, is set to turn 100 this year as he works on 28 projects in six countries; he’s been working since his designs first caught fire in 1949. “I know how lucky I am,” Roger Angell, then 93, wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, “and secretly tap wood, greet the day, and grab a sneaky pleasure from my survival at long odds.” He has been contributing to the august magazine since 1944, most recently about the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory, their 108-year championship drought being one of the few things in this world that predate him.

Now 94, Norman Lear is rebooting his 1975 sitcom classic One Day at a Time for Netflix, a Latina spin anchored by Rita Moreno, the 85-year-old EGOT superstar, who plays a 73-year-old sexualized grandmother. Hayao Miyazaki, the anime demigod, has came out of retirement to turn a 12-minute short film titled into a feature-length project, as you do at 76 years old.

There is an element to vocation beyond Western raison d’être, the French “reason for being” mired in Enlightenment sensibilities, that approaches the looser Japanese concept of ikigai, which can be translated as “a reason to get up in the morning” but was best described in a 1990 article in the Japanese business publication The Nikkei (formerly The Nihon Kaizai Shinbun) as “the process of allowing the self’s possibilities to bloom.” That process is itself a craft. Sorry, Tim Ferriss, there is no Four-Hour Ikigai.

These are all-work-and-all-play lives lived in the livelihood of humanity’s lifeblood: art, creativity, design. “To create is to live twice,” Albert Camus famously mused. While that wisdom may have been a gesture at the metaphysical immortality of fame and legacy and the stuff of lifetime achievement awards, it can also be taken literally as the doubling — or more — of creative professional lives as compared to the workaday world’s corporate drones, to say nothing of the relatively fleeting glories afforded professional athletes, dancers, and porn stars. A driver’s license can be revoked for the elderly, but artistic license? Never.

“To create is to live twice.”

“It’s not about doing something well over and over. It’s about doing something new over and over,” said Ivan Chermayeff, the 84-year-old graphic designer behind iconic logos for Barneys, Mobil, National Geographic, NBC, and the Smithsonian. “People who want to retire want to do other things. Travel. Plant a garden. I don’t. I’ve been doing those things every day my whole life. It’s a good racket,” he added from his office, with Wally, his Australian labradoodle barking in agreement at his feet.


Ivan Chermayeff, image courtesy of Chermayeff.

Chermayeff noted the physical costs of activity outweigh the mental and emotional costs of lethargy. “I have a bad knee but thankfully it has very little bearing on graphic design abilities,” he said. 

“I was a professor, a teacher. I just stayed in offices. It was awful,” said the prolific architect Daniel Libeskind, 70. “I have lived in reverse, my active period coming after the introspective, reflective period. With architecture, I fell into a new dimension. I made my first building when I was 52! Instead of withering me, time gave me a sense of flowering, of growing. To be honest, I don’t think of aging. There is an immortality to being creative. You are like God, who is the poetic symbol of creation, the poetry of creativity. As your work continues, you become younger. You discover youthfulness — braver, bolder, more confident, more adventurous. You discover possibilities.”


Daniel Libeskind at the Roca London Gallery. Photo courtesy of Libeskind.

Not that it’s easy. “You have to make a conscious decision early on that the suburbs and its finished basements aren’t for you. I had an illegal apartment for ten years, 1971 to 1981, $50 a month in a garret at 55th and 7th. I paid another $50 a month for a work space. So I was free,” said Larry Hama, 67, the comics superhero who single-handedly revived the series G.I. Joe and Wolverine, among other feats. “I’ve had years without any work. But I still did what I wanted. The only difference is I got paid during the working years, which was nice, but it wasn’t the reason I worked.”

There are, of course, life hacks to this Fountain of Youth.

For Libeskind, it is thermodynamics: A body in motion stays in motion. “I’ve lived in 18 cities,” he said. “Sometimes without knowing the language. Sometimes without having a job. Warsaw, Berlin, New York, São Paolo, Milan. They contribute so much energy to your mind. I’ve never been one for the beach or solitary walks in the woods.”

“As your work continues, you become younger. You discover youthfulness — braver, bolder, more confident, more adventurous.”

For Jonas Mekas, 94, the filmmaker who founded Film Culture magazine in 1954 and what would become the Anthology Film Archives in the 1960s, it is cultivating prickliness — not antisocial, just countersocial. “I was an urchin, a sea urchin, covered in spikes. Society could not swallow me. I did not fall into its holes. And those of us who escape enjoy a camaraderie. We don’t have to talk or get together. But we show other people what life is. We lure them into life with the things we make,” he said.

“You want what? That I go to the beach? I hate the beach. For one thing, it’s hard to get an espresso at the beach. And what is there? Ugly, grotesque people indulging their laziness while they cook and bake in the sun like slugs. That is joy? That is freedom? I don’t blame them for retiring at 65 because they have lived as robots in mechanical, menial, tedious tasks. They deserve a few years trying to feel human after all of that. They took my humanity and my youth in the camps. I was 17 in Lithuania and the next day, on the other end of the war, I was 27 in Brooklyn. I will never lose my youth again. I’ve worked too hard all my life to be this young,” Mekas says.

For abstract artist Carmen Herrera, as she puts it, “my bus was slow in coming.” She first sold her paintings in 2004, when she was 89. But what a ride it has been since then. Last year, at 101 years old, she had her first museum retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her secret is her stealthiness. “I was liberated by being ignored,” she said. “I was free to do as I wish.” Not to suggest too much whimsy; asked her morning routine, she laid out her breakfast: “Cafe con leche, toast, butter and jam, orange juice, and work.” And work. As if it were a chewy bagel or bowl of porridge. She devours it. And it nourishes her. But at her own pace. She takes all week to read the Sunday New York Times, favoring the alchemy of its stories over the checklist of the task. Asked what advice she would give youngsters — y’know, people with mere double-digit ages — she spoke in her native Cuban Spanish: “Patience, darling, patience.”


Carmen Herrera in her New York studio. Image courtesy of Herrera.

For Hama, it was saying yes. “Whenever the train got into the station, I got on board. And wherever it took me, when I got there I didn’t want the guided tour,” he said. “I was in an elevator in 1974 and a woman asked me if I was an actor. I said no and she asked ‘Do you want to be?’ And later that day I was in an off-Broadway production of Moby Dick put together by the starlet Jean Sullivan. I was on M*A*S*H and Saturday Night Live. They needed guys and I raised my hand.”

How do you retire from saying yes? “I can’t imagine retiring, and I have a great imagination,” he said. “If I go to the beach and try that, after an hour or so I just feel inert. Life is for action. Wander. Wonder. Surprise yourself. That’s the only adventure. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. I’ve done, I think, 239 issues of G.I. Joe and never ended with a coming attractions of the next issue because I never knew. I don’t know what’s on page three until I’m halfway through writing page two. And I guess I’ve lived my life like that, too,” Hama says. 

“Life is for action. Wander. Wonder. Surprise yourself. That’s the only adventure.”

When he was a child, Mekas’ home would be visited by an old man who climbed his roof and stood on his head on the chimney. He was 100 years old and his upside-downness had a profound impact on Mekas. 

“You’re asking all the wrong questions. You’re asking why I’m active at 94. But why are people living like they are already dead at 60? Or 40? Even 30?” he said. “I am not the abnormal one. I am normal. I am alive. This is life. They are the abnormal ones. They just don’t see it because they happen to be the majority, sadly. They believe in patterns that suck out their energy — ads and transactions and labels and paperwork and technology that all tell them they are not enough, that they are behind, that they are lacking. What is retirement or even vacation except a stupid trap built to justify the first trap of this draining existence? I reject it! Instead I choose art! Art and the avant garde is the difference between making a life and mirroring one.”

from 99U99U

Rob Vargas: How to Design a Magazine Cover without Subject Cooperation

Rob Vargas: How to Design a Magazine Cover without Subject Cooperation

These days the national magazine cover can feel a little tired in the creativity department. So many glossies look like they’re picking their cover subjects from the same celebrity merry-go-round, leading to predictable images of beautiful people smiling at the camera or displaying a knowing smirk that seems to say, “Yes, I’m hot and I know it.”

Cover shoots are well-orchestrated events, involving armies of editors, photographers, publicists, incredible lighting, probably some airbrushing, and lots of money to pull the whole thing off. The image itself is always the capstone of a celebratory feature story. Words like “style icon” or “most powerful” or “Nick Nolte, the sexiest man alive” could well appear.

But Bloomberg Businessweek has been playing a different game, one where the cover subject is as likely to be criticized as they are to be lauded. And a critical article means that the cover subject is unlikely to want to cooperate with the editors on a cover photo shoot, leaving creative director Rob Vargas and his team with a blank page and the need to do something completely radical – come up with an original design idea. Unorthodox ideas aren’t just accepted, says Vargas, they’re necessary.

That ethos lends itself to some pretty gnarly images like, say, a shirtless Warren Buffett wrestling a bare-chested Elon Musk for a story on their battle over the future of solar energy. Or a mock Abercrombie & Fitch ad where the male model in tight, unbuttoned jeans is an old dude with sagging pecs and a portly physique, upon which is stamped the words “The Aging of Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Here Vargas discusses what goes into making the magazine’s provocative covers, how he determines when to treat a design with sensitivity or be sensational, and why he left the New York Times to join Bloomberg Businessweek.

How does a Bloomberg Businessweek cover come together?

The cover idea comes first. A lot of times it’s the photo editor and myself bouncing around ideas. Usually we don’t start with the headline. We start with something visual and build a headline on top of that. One of the things I really liked about this magazine – and this is not a shot at other magazines, but a lot of magazines take subject matter and depict people they want to celebrate, very laudatory stories. There isn’t a lot of room for humor in those cases.

With us, our stories can be critical of businesses and explore flaws within larger companies. We expose lesser-known bad behavior by financial firms. Many times we’re not getting cooperation from our cover subject. Like we did a story on a financial firm that was financing a dictator in Africa. There’s no cooperative photography for that. As a designer, I love when you have a 3,000-word story and literally nothing else. That forces us to think creatively because you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper.


Bloomberg Businesseek covers from June 2015 and January 2016.

Your magazine is published weekly, so you’ve got to be creative on a pretty tight schedule. What advice do you have for becoming a strong idea generator?

Like most things, you get better with practice. That not only has to do with gaining a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, it also has a lot to do with confidence. When I first started in magazines and was tasked with coming up with a concept, it was pretty excruciating. I would think about a concept for hours and hours, and, as I was doing so, I would think about how I would never come up with a solution good enough to please my bosses. It was a very negative way of thinking, and the only thing it did was get in the way of a flow of ideas.

After a couple of hundred times of doing that, I acknowledged the fact that I was always going to come up with terrible ideas, and that’s completely fine. Sometimes you need to get those out of the way before you find the right one. Other times, you embrace the terrible one, and try to execute it in a way that elevates it. Other times, you just have to let go of your pride and ask others for help. What I love about publications is that I’ve found them to be very collaborative. People support each other as opposed to competing. This is especially true with Businessweek. It’s a multi-talented group, and so many of the best cover ideas had absolutely nothing to do with me.  Sometimes I just say “help” and then someone shows me something fantastic. From that point on it becomes my job to work with the art director or photo editor to see it through.

Bloomberg Businessweek is in a unique place, in that it covers people in the business realm who might also use the Bloomberg terminals, the company’s primary revenue generator. How do you balance potentially offending a terminal user in a cover story, with the need to be true to the piece? 

Luckily, we don’t get interference from Bloomberg corporate management when we’re writing critical stories. My feeling is that the cover stories are supporting financial firms in a roundabout way because they’re giving them useful information. From my experience, the company has never tried to protect a subject.

Do you ever feel like a cover went too far?

One of the things that people weren’t so happy within the company was this one cover that we did where a dog was urinating on the actual Bloomberg logo, on our actual logo. The story was about how, at the time, a big talking point for the presidential candidates was about Wall Street fat cats, so it was pretty much how everyone is beating up on business. That was our idea. It didn’t necessarily go over well here for obvious reasons. To me, that was a good example of how we exist in a space that we can also really criticize, even if it’s ourselves.

Tell us about a time you had a sensitive cover subject and how you handled it?

The one that comes to mind is one about Takata airbags that were exploding and killing people. The cover had a red background with the quote “If we go forward with this, somebody will be killed,” in small black type. It was a quote from one of the people that was trying to bring this situation to light to the managers well before the first accident. That, to me, is an example of the cover not shouting at you or not showing an upsetting car crash. We’re not doing anything sensational because it’s something very serious, but it’s also clear what we’re trying to do.


There really is no way to properly caption an image like this. The 2015 magazine cover says it all.

Before you came to Bloomberg, you worked for the New York Times Magazine. What led you leave the New York Times?

I got cold-called by the former Bloomberg Businessweek creative director, asking me if I wanted to join this team to redesign the magazine, because that’s when Bloomberg had just bought Businessweek. The Times is obviously one of the best publications in existence, and it will be one of the best in existence whether or not I’m there. That is very clear. But Businessweek was this big lump of clay, no offense to the previous design team, but it was basically a full opportunity to make it whatever we wanted to make it. It’s not like where I was told, “We have this new thing that we can play with, but let’s make it look like Forbes.” It was, “Let’s make it look like nothing else.”

What advice would you have for somebody who is at a similar crossroads, choosing between a well-established brand that might have less creative freedom but more prominence and a less prominent brand that they can build or reimagine? 

You have to assess every risk for what it is. Moving to Bloomberg Businessweek felt like a pretty good risk because I already knew that I had shared a vision with the people that were hiring me. We were like-minded thinkers and that made the risk a lot easier to swallow. It’s not just jumping into a black hole and not knowing where you’re going to end up. You need to assess if what you’re making has the potential to grow, and whether you’ll be working with people that you share values with. If those things are in place, then it’s absolutely worth the risk [to choose the less-prominent brand you can build or rebrand.]

Do you ever fear that you’ll run out of cover ideas?

I used to be more afraid of that. After the redesign, we got tons of praise for the redesign and then it died out. Then we had this slight existential crisis. It was like, All right, now we’re known for this thing. Can we keep doing it? It was all psychological in terms of questioning ourselves and our own ability to take the tools we had and create these infinite reconfigurations.

How did you regain your confidence?

We just kept pushing forward. One of the positive aspects of being at a weekly magazine is that you don’t have the luxury of being inside your head for too long. The clock is always ticking, and there’s an endless stream of problems to solve. People are depending on you. At certain points you can’t help but take a step back and start obsessing about the meaning of it all. But eventually you have to snap back. You have to remind yourself that your here because you want to be here, because you love it for all it’s ups and downs, and then you just get back to work.

from 99U99U

Instrument — Portland

Instrument — Portland



Like any good UX designer, Hooge started mapping out the new space by asking himself what would make for an ideal work environment. Lots of pressing needs were considered: Where do they put the mini teepee? Should they have a keg? A stove? An oven? The ability to blend smoothies wasn’t even a question – it was a must. “We took the best things from our warehouse space, such as the character and spirit, and the idea of a giant, open space,” says Hooge.




The result is a timber-framed office, complete with its own photo and production studio. It stands apart from the surrounding buildings, thanks to its curved apertures, which jut out from the exterior walls. The focal point of the entire space is the three-story atrium that is purposely wide open. “That forces people to have unplanned collisions throughout the day and interact with people they wouldn’t normally interact with,” says Hooge.    





As the Instrument team has grown from 15 people in 2010 to its current 120-person size, the company has decided to parse out its workforce into departments of 30 to 40 people that operate as mini-agencies. This number, Hooge and Lewis believe, is the tipping point between a tight, efficient operation that feels like a family, and a sprawling network of individuals who happen to be working under the same umbrella. “Each team has their own events, off-site trips, and rituals,” says Hooge. But one thing each team is willing to share is each other. “We have a bartering system where, if one team is light on a certain element, they have access to the other teams,” says Hooge. “You have your team family, your discipline family, then the whole Instrument family.”


*Additional reporting by Dave Bentoninstrument-text-6

from 99U99U

DHNN — Buenos Aires

DHNN — Buenos Aires



Upon arriving at DHNN’s work address, a two-level house in the Vicente López neighborhood, the first thing you’ll see inside is the pool surrounded by a garden and barbecue. “We are here one third of the day working, so we wanted to create an atmosphere that we’d want to be in,” says Lucas Davison, DHNN’s director.




DHNN’s 20-person team is a mix of graphic designers and client account managers. The former have their offices downstairs, while the latter are based upstairs in rooms that have been turned into workspaces. Together, they have taken on interactive experience projects, like creating a surrealistic polygon video world for MTV and developing bright orange and blue digital branding for Visa’s payment systems. Meanwhile, the common spaces, like the kitchen, dining room, and garden, are used for meetings.




“We work in here because we wanted a different way of working,” says Davison. “The backyard and pool are the best examples of that. During the summer we encourage people to go outside, and not work in front of their computers.”




DHNN has a history of remaking unconventional spaces into offices to give employees more room to breathe. Previously, the team transformed an old bakery plant into a loft workspace. “When we started expanding the team, we were trying to find a place that avoids the common ‘corporate’ feeling,” says Davison. “No offices with multiple desks and technical facilities.” But a pool? Most definitely on the list.


dhnn-main5 dhnn-main

from 99U99U

Why Unrest is Gold for Creatives

Why Unrest is Gold for Creatives

I became an artist at the age of 13, when a tear gas canister careened off the cracked asphalt of Reade Street in downtown Baltimore and skidded toward my feet, billowing gray smoke.

The year was 1969. Billboard’s top song of the year might have been Sugar Sugar by the Archies — a group inspired by a comic book  but even a kid my age could see that clean-cut, Dick Clark frivolity had just about run its course. Aquarius, from the new-age musical, was number two. Following close behind were songs by the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan. In an era of upheaval and crisis, creative expression takes on new urgency.  What we remember now as Classic Rock was created as the soundtrack of a revolution  a call to action, a cathartic expression of anger and grief, a tool for enlistment and change. Within that caldron I was forged.

With a friend I’d cut my 8th grade classes. We’d taken a bus to the Flower Festival in downtown Baltimore. Advertised on the radio as a peaceful gathering of artists and hippies, we were hoping to check out the music, soak in the vibe, maybe cop some of the free “grass” that was rumored to be available.

I had this long hank of hair I combed low across my forehead—my father, the ex-marine, hated it. And I was sporting a pair of bellbottom dungarees. I’d had to smuggle the pants out of the house without my mother knowing, as jeans were against the dress code policy enforced at my school, a source of great unrest among the students. There’d already been several sit ins by a bunch of us more activist middle-schoolers, demanding a loosening of the rule—did wearing corduroys instead of dungarees make us better citizens? It was ridiculous and arbitrary. We weren’t gonna take it anymore.

Of course, our militancy had trickled down from our older brothers and sisters. Outside the walls of Pikesville Junior High School, on larger and more important fronts, bitter social wars were raging—racial, sexual, generational. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had only just been signed. Cities and women’s undergarments were burning. A culture of protest prevailed. Even dinner was unsafe; less than a decade earlier, children had been expected to grow up to be miniature carbon copies of their parents. Now there was this new thing they called Youth Culture. Family disagreements were increasingly bellicose as these baby boomers called a halt to convention. Never again would children be seen and not heard. Music, art, film—a golden age of creative output was blooming. Self expression was the hallmark of the age.

Underlying everything, of course, was Vietnam. Lyndon B. Johnson’s dirty little war—and the Selective Services’ little paper draft card was a death warrant issued to every eligible 18-year-old. Every night we saw the carnage, brought to the TV screen by an enterprising and independent press. And every day, more of our older brothers were being killed and maimed. You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that if something wasn’t done soon, we junior high students would be next.  Hey Hey LBJ. How many kids did you kill today? That question, the widespread protest, was damning enough to run one of America’s most powerful politicians out of office. I still remember President Johnson on the screen of our black and white television, his long horse-face somber and defeated.  “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” 

I remember the sound the canister made, the resounding tinny thunk, and the scraping sound as it skidded toward me. I froze. Stared for a long moment at the smoke billowing, unsure what to do. Ever since elementary school, living under the specter of the Cold War’s threat of nuclear annihilation, we’d faithfully practiced our duck and cover drills. Now here I was, being fired upon by forces from my own team. I had no training for that.

Some older kid kicked the canister away, but not before I got a snoot full of gas. I can’t remember what he looked like but I remember him leading me into a store full of posters and pulsing lights, music blaring.

Together with a woman in the store, they helped me wash out my eyes. In the wretchedness of my symptoms—the rubbed pepper pain, the weeping eyes, and running nose—I can remember only one emotion: I was angry as hell. And I wanted to do something about it.

In the months to come I was grounded, which gave me a lot of time to go to the library.  I started reading carefully all the news about the protests and about the war. I read up on the leaders of these movements: about the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), about Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Mohammad.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered the writings of the psychologist and social disrupter Timothy Leary. While I never got into using hallucinogenic drugs, as Leary advocated, I did take great heed of the slogan he made popular: Question Authority.

I grew up to be a journalist. And for the past 40 years I’ve been doing just that. Asking why, seeking truth, finding evocative ways to bring to light my findings.

 In these troubled times, there is only more to do.

from 99U99U

How to Beat the Imposter Syndrome Feeling

How to Beat the Imposter Syndrome Feeling

Every other creative professional you know has succeeded largely because of their talents and dedication. You, on the other hand, have got where you are thanks to a mix of luck and the extra effort that was needed to compensate for your lack of true giftedness.

Does this harsh assessment match your own worldview? If so, it sounds as if you are suffering from a crisis of self-doubt that psychologists call the Imposter Phenomenon. Quite likely you live in professional fear. Fear that one of these days, you are going to be exposed. That the mirage of serendipitous and barely-made-it achievements that is your career will one day be lifted, revealing to your peers and mentors the shameful truth – you flunked it.

The imposter phenomenon was first described in the 1970s by clinical psychologists working at a women’s college, after they noticed that a large proportion of the students felt nervous of their academic success and were worried of having their true capabilities exposed. Since then it’s become apparent that men and women in all walks of life experience imposter feelings: in fact, one recent estimate (pdf) suggests that around 70 percent of us will go through a period of these self-doubts at least once in our lives.

It seems plausible that the syndrome might particularly affect those of us working in creative industries. In our world there is a pervasive myth that there is a minority of super achievers who are born with a magical gift, while the rest of us mortals struggle by with our ordinary talents. For a creative who’s enjoyed a degree of success, it’s understandable that he or she might especially worry that this was founded on luck or effort rather than true creative talent. 

Unfortunately, new research has begun to show just how harmful the Imposter Phenomenon can be to careers. Researchers at the University of Salzburg recently surveyed over 200 professionals and found that those experiencing the syndrome tended to get paid less, were less likely to have won promotions, and were usually less satisfied in their work and less committed.

Thankfully, psychology research has also revealed a lot about the mindset and behaviors of the typical Imposter Syndrome sufferer and based on these insights we suggest the following simple strategies to help reduce your Imposter feelings and protect your career.

1. Learn to be a healthy perfectionist

A recent study by Belgian psychologists of over 200 staff in three different industries, including finance and human resources, found that feelings of Imposter Syndrome went hand in hand with high scores on a measure of “maladaptive perfectionism” (These individuals agreed with questionnaire items like “I should be upset when I make a mistake.”) and with low scores on adaptive perfectionism. (They disagreed with items like “I set higher goals for myself than most people.”)

People who exhibit unhealthy perfectionism are fearful of failure, fearful of criticism, hate making mistakes, stew over past errors, and worry excessively about disappointing others. You can counter this by trying to develop a healthy perfectionist approach, which is about striving to do as well as possible, for yourself, not for outside approval; and not worrying excessively about mistakes or set-backs.

2. Avoid defensive pessimism and self-handicapping

Sufferers of Imposterism are also especially prone to shame and anxiety – when things go wrong. They think it reveals something essential about their lack of ability and talent. Motivated to avoid these uncomfortable feelings, the person who sees themselves as a fake will frequently adopt either or both of two psychological habits when confronted by a new challenge: defensive pessimism, which is about fearing the worst and trying to avoid it happening, for example through working excessively hard.

The other is self-handicapping, which is when you deliberately imperil your own chances, for example by procrastinating and only working on a project last-minute, thus giving yourself a ready-made excuse for when things go wrong.

These two approaches sound like a contradiction, but actually each feeds into a similar spiral of harmful thinking that can turn fleeting feelings of Imposterism into a chronic, debilitating state of mind. If and when, despite all this negative thinking, success comes, the defensively pessimistic Imposter, rather than celebrating, interprets his/her achievement as due to unsustainable levels of effort – and assumes that this grind was much more than anyone else needed to invest. The procrastinating Imposter, meanwhile, sees his success as surely due to luck. (Because after all, he just winged it.)

If this way of working sounds familiar, perhaps you are trapping yourself in an Imposter mindset. Part of the solution is to revisit your motives. Try to rediscover, if you can, the joy of creation for its own sake. Don’t see the outcome of your next project as some kind of barometer of your worth. Believe in yourself and break the Imposter spiral by putting in the work and effort that you feel this particular project deserves and requires based on its merit and difficulty level.

3. Listen to other people’s honest stories

According to the early research on Imposterism by the psychologist Pauline Clance, people prone to the syndrome hang a lot of their feelings of self-worth on being exceptional. Yet, in creative careers, if we enjoy some success, our peer group changes. We find ourselves surrounded by more high-achieving people. This makes it increasingly difficult to feel special, and moreover, it’s easy to assume that everyone else got here through effortless talent, as compared with our own mix of luck and exhausting effort. And yet this is an illusion. In reality, behind the most impressive professional resumes there will be a litany of set-backs, direction changes, and moments of doubt.  As Oliver Burkeman wrote here at 99U: “the truth, deep down, is that we all feel as though we’re just winging it.” One powerful antidote to Imposter feelings is to take the time to talk to trusted peers and mentors about their careers. Listen to their stories and experiences and you’ll likely discover that nothing came easy.

4. We can help each other

Seeing that feelings of Imposterism are fueled by anxiety, low self-esteem and self-doubt, we can all help each other counter these feelings by fostering a supportive environment. It’s worth doing this from an organizational perspective because workers who feel like frauds are less likely to go the extra mile for the company  any such ventures represent another chance of being found out.

How to implement such a culture? For a start, star performers can be encouraged to contribute by being open and honest about the trials and tribulations behind their own successes. And we can all strive to be collegial and to give each other constructive feedback that is aimed at processes and techniques rather than on personal criticisms. The recent Belgian research shows that a supportive working environment (as measured by agreement with items like “Someone of a higher rank frequently devotes extra time and consideration to me”) helped to reduce the link between workers’ Imposter feelings and their lack of job satisfaction and commitment to the organization.

5. Adopt counter measures

Feelings of Imposter Syndrome have long-lasting, harmful effects for our careers. Other related new research, involving hundreds of undergrads from several European countries, suggests this is because the Imposter feelings undermine our professional adaptability, including our concern for the future of our career. For instance, people with Imposter feelings are less likely to keep track of job openings and promotion opportunities, presumably because they are more concerned about keeping hold of their current position, and fearful of new challenges that will expose them as frauds.

While it’s important to try to tackle your Imposter feelings head-on following the steps above, a parallel, practical approach is to recognize the ways these feelings are likely to hinder your career progression, and then to take deliberate counter measures, such as going for promotions and looking out for exciting job opportunities. The truth is, the more successful you are, the more likely it is that you will end up feeling like a fraud – it’s just such a common experience. Soak up the self-doubt and then take the leap anyway. That’s what everyone else is doing.

from 99U99U