CHRISTINE SPLENGER, PHOTOGRAPHER
The Lens of Testimony: An interview with the female war correspondent (photographer), Christine Spengler.
With one suitcase filled up with boots, jeans, and some outfits suited to Western Sahara; another suitcase with the black gowns and chadors for a trip to Iran or Iraq, Christine Spengler is always ready! As a female war photographer, she discovered her vocation in 1970 being prisoner in Chad with her younger brother Éric. During 3 decades, with her fetish Nikon, she testified of the tragedy and drama of women and children during the war. Her emblematic pictures, devoid of sensationalism, were published by world leading magazines such as Life, Time, El País, Paris-Match …
With her female gaze, how does Christine Spengler continue to spread her convictions ? How does she reinterpret her position as an artist and a writer? We were delighted to invite Christine Spengler to conduct a special interview with us.
When was the first time you faced war? Do you still remember that moment and how was it?
Of course, I remember! I always say that my life began the day of my first picture. Two tubus “rebels” holding hands, carrying huge kalashnikovs, going to the battle. When I saw that scene I was astonished by this mark of humanity amongst the war. Before this moment, I had never had the opportunity to take a picture in my life. I wanted to become a writer. At the time, my younger brother, Eric, was the assistant of a famous photographer in Paris. He had several cameras in the Land Rover. I said to him: “Please Eric, lend me one of your Nikon, me too, I want to testify about the drama of the world.” After being taken as prisoners, we had been in jail, but my decision was made. I told Eric: “I didn’t expect it. But when I take pictures, I have noticed that I don’t feel afraid and frightened. I will learn my job on the field by myself because I want to become a war photographer and create a testimony of the just causes.”
Who are the oppressed people during the war?
When people ask me about my credo, I answer that I am on the side of the oppressed people of the war, especially women and children. I prefer to show the survivors rather than the dead. The fact that I am a women, moreover with dark hair, has always helped me. I decided to dress up like a local, so I could easily hide my camera under my chador. In Lebanon my nickname was The Sawda, "the lady in black". With the trust I gained, I was invited to Iran in 1979, by the wife of Imam Khomeini in order to photograph his personals objects after his death.
Tchad 1970, the first picture ©Christine Spengler/Getty Images
Madones Afghanes, Kaboul, 1997. ©Christine Spengler/Getty Images
"I want to become someone who never hurts them, I am very discreet when I take a picture. I am known to take one to two pictures in general, then no more. I never rob a picture or kidnap the soul of the person who is in front of my camera. They always look right into my eye." - Christine Spengler
Londonderry, 1972 ©Christine Spengler/Getty Images
Being a Witness
When Christine began her career in Chad and continued to work in Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Irak, Kosovo or Afghanistan, she always rejected sensationalism. For her, it is more dramatic to work with black and white photography, like Robert Capa, who took iconic images during the Spanish Civil War without showing any blood.
The most horrible memory of her career was a Christmas in 1981 in Salvador.
I arrived from Nicaragua the day of Christmas. On the stairs of the legendary hôtel Camino Real for the journalists, there were dead bodies cut into pieces, full of blood, like an horror movie. I remember after that I had to take the most horrible picture of my career. I was obliged to take pictures of an improvised funeral of five American nuns who had been raped and murdered.
Le bombardement de Phnom-Penh, Cambodge, 1975 ©Christine Spengler/Getty Images
Where are the female war photographers? Where do they go?
When I think of my fascinating career, I didn't stop it because I was tired or frightened. I just stopped going to wars because no big magazine would send me as they did before. Now, with digital photography, a magazine which has sent me to the war zone since the age of 24 tells me: “Christine, why should we pay to send you to the bottom of the world? Your pictures will still be in your pocket, the film undevelopped, while we will receive hundreds of pictures for free during the night.”
Now, everyone can takes pictures even with their phone !
Reinterpretation: From A Witness to A Presenter
“When a famous male photographer dies, the medias write pages about him; when Catherine Leroy or Françoise Demulder died, my sisters in the front , no one publish anything .”
When Christine Spengler is interviewed, she would always mention the works and experience of her female colleagues who passed away.
In the recent exhibition about Women War Photographers in the prestigious Kunst Palace of Dusseldorf and in the Foto Museum of Winterthur, she and Carolyn Cole were the remaining survivors out of eight participating female war photographers. Christine Spengler became an interpreter to carry their stories and spirits on. Beeing the daughter of Huguette Spengler "the last of the surrealists" Christine Spengler, brought up in Madrid where she visited the Prado Museum since the age of 7 years. She decided to create colorful and baroque photomontages in color to bring back the dead to life : Maria Callas, Frida Kahlo and french writer Marguerite Duras... She published six photographic books ; an autobiographic novel "The Blue Man From the Desert" is in preparation. One of her strongest desires would be to translate her autobiography, Une Femme Dans La Guerre (2006) into English and share her experience with the upcoming generation. She encourages all the young women who wish to become war photographer one day, like her. She would love to exhibit her work in China. Professional war photographers never profit off of the victims or see wealth as a goal of their line of work. Christine often donates her photos to Amnesty and Handicap International for charity auctions.
Christine reinterpreted what a role of a female war photographer could be within our society.
Western Sahara, 1976 ©Christine Spengler/Getty Images
Hope Lights Up Amongst the Ruins
After so many years facing war, do I still have hope? I must say that I lost my hope in the last year of my career.
But these experiences do not extinguish my faith and hope. I see this hope in the innocent children playing with empty bombshells in the Mekong river before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, in the whites doves painted by an Afghan migrant on his black tent in the Jungle of Calais. Even in the 8 o’clock ritual of clapping our hands during the confinement to pay tribute to the medical staff in Paris. All these moments encourage me to believe again in humanity and solidarity.
Hope can always be lit up again.
Portrait of Christine Spengler © Philippe Warner
Enfants nageant dans le Mékong, Cambodia,1975 ©Christine Spengler/Getty Images
Jungle of Calais, 2016 ©Christine Spengler/Getty Images