Women and war becomes life for LA photojournalist

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Black and white photos by Marissa Roth; portrait by Iris Schneider.

Common wisdom advises that life is a journey. For photojournalist Marissa Roth, life and art conspired, taking her on a worldwide odyssey that rambled over 28 years. The work she produced will be on exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance beginning August 16. "One Person Crying: Women and War" began for Roth when she was working on a book project in the Philippines. A colleague advised her that there would be a coup the next morning, just the day she was supposed to leave the country. At 3 a.m. she jumped on the back of his motorscooter and headed out, on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, to cover it. But she realized as the mayhem unfolded, "it wasn't my thing. I was more interested in the other side, what was happening in the homes while this was going on."

This became a recurring theme of interest in her work, eventually taking her to Cambodia and Vietnam, Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, Pakistan, Hiroshima, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Novi Sad in Eastern Europe where her grandparents lost their lives in World War II, and the United States.

Women are the real collateral damage when wars are waged. Though they are not the fighters, their struggles are far more personal, as they are left behind to keep the home functioning, the children fed and clothed, the cities and villages alive. These women are the survivors who soldier on in war's aftermath. Roth traveled around the world, bearing witness as she let them tell their stories. "I can't explain it. I couldn't get away from it. It's like I was following my path and my passion. I just had to surrender to it." Her photographs, while steeped in the physical and emotional wreckage of war, show no guns, no blood, no combat.

magbula-and-son.jpgI've known Marissa for decades. We met while I was working as a photographer at the Los Angeles Times and she was freelancing for the paper. She was always flying off somewhere to shoot something on her project and I always wondered how she was able to fund all that travel. Through a combination of some savings, some inheritance and a lot of hustling she was able to make intermittent trips. "I've probably spent close to $200,000 on the project. I could have given myself a masters and a doctorate! But I thought 'I just have to do this, no matter what it costs.' It's been a great lesson in trust, I suppose, trusting the unknown. Not letting fear be my copilot. I had to learn to just trust the process." And she never let go of her vision.

Now that the exhibit is close enough to be real, she has turned to Kickstarter to help raise $15,000 to pay for some of the costs of exhibiting the work here and elsewhere and give voice to women all over the world who have been affected by war.

Although she has published several books, Roth was unsuccessful in finding a publisher for this project. She changed her game plan and looked instead for an exhibition space. With the help of Howard Spector, a curator and mentor, she created a Powerpoint presentation for a lecture, and last October she showed it to Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance. Geft committed to doing a show at the museum. But that commitment was for the exhibit space only.

"She basically said that a show like this would cost $50,000-60,000 to produce and an additional $40,000 for travel costs," Roth said, and those were costs which Roth would have to pay. "I wanted it to be beautiful. I knew it would be expensive but after all the work I'd done, I wasn't going to scrimp on prints, mats, frames." She forged ahead finishing the work. Her brother passed away and left her some money and that gave her the impetus and the means to make the final push.

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With a recent trip to Vietnam, her travels came to a close. "I thought that once I found my grandparent's home and memorial in Novi Sad in 2009 that I was done." But she realized that she needed to go to Vietnam after talking with Spector, who was working to create a cohesive exhibit from all her years of work and images. "I was tired, but knew I needed to go."

"Vietnam was my coming of age war and I realized it was a huge influence on me. I didn't fully appreciate how it shaped me in terms of my desires as a peace activist, and to become a photojournalist. I still have vivid memories of sitting on my bed as a kid and looking at Life, Look and National Geographic. I was conscious of those pictures early on."

Often the trips would take a year of planning, so she could hit the ground running and maximize her time in the country. Once she returned from Vietnam, and with Geft's commitment to a show, she hired a designer and set about creating the exhibition. "Because I deal with so much history and address so many wars and conflicts, I felt I had to also give history lessons in the exhibit. We determined we would create freestanding text panels that give background to the wars I've covered."

Some private donors and foundations have come forward with grants. She is represented by Creative Visions Foundation, a non-profit foundation started by Kathy Eldon to fund visual projects and honor her son, photographer Dan Eldon, a Reuters photographer who was killed at 22 while on assignment in Somalia. To help pay for the remaining exhibition costs, Roth turned to Kickstarter.

MarissaRothsmall-iris.jpgNow that the traveling and photography are done, and the show is coming together, "I find myself weeping a lot," she said. "In a funny way, now I find myself feeling all the pain of these women. I don't have to keep myself cinched up in order to keep going." She has already moved on to another project, a book of images she made in Tibet. "I don't want to do too much more war stuff. I've hit my pain threshold," she says. "I'm not sure where the road will take me. I had to do this documentary project, but my roots are in art. The Tibet project is very different, almost like a photographic meditation," she said. She paused and took a breath. "I want the lights turned on in my life."

The exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance will run from August 16 to October 25. Visit Kickstarter to support this project.

Corrected post


More by Iris Schneider:
Station to Station at Union Station
Vaux's Swifts over downtown*
A look around inside the Broad
Some ideas to help Grand Park become the urban oasis we need
'Blackfish' another nail in the coffin of animal entertainment
Previous Native Intelligence story: Neil Diamond gets his Hollywood star

Next Native Intelligence story: The night I lost the Olympics

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