Lady of the Barricade

As exciting and glamorous a companion as you could hope for while travelling down a deserted road toward a smoking horizon, in many respects Alexandra Boulat epitomised the image of the woman photojournalist.

French, tall, straight-backed, graceful, striking; she never conducted herself with anything less than poise and style. Brave and funny, her legendary moods could be capricious and mercurial, but her sense of purpose was unwavering: “take picture” was her heavily-accented war cry, and take pictures she did: brilliantly. She was only one person. But with her death in October, aged only 45, the gang suddenly seems very small indeed, reduced far more than ever imaginable by a single loss.

Despite the fame that followed the recognition of her work she was curiously unaffected by the hubris of vanity suffered by so many of her peers. “Hoohoohoo,” she laughed to me, at herself, one afternoon in Kosovo on hearing the news of an award she had been given for one particular frame. “I don’t do much, me, but what I do, I do well.”

Photography was part of her genetic make-up. Her father Pierre Boulat was a star Life photographer in the fifties and sixties. Her mother Annie set up the French photo agency Cosmos. Alex lived and breathed photography. It was part of her essence, an ingrained part of her soul. She was totally unremmitting in her drive to capture images, and tough on herself in dedication of that pursuit. However she regarded herself fundamentally as an artisan practising a skill, and remained uncorrupted by her many accolades and awards.

Born in 1962, as a young woman Alex was initially persuaded against a career in photography by her father and instead studied fine art at the Beaux-Arts in Paris before working as an artist. Always attracted by extremes, part of her heart forever the rebel, she was drawn into the sub-culture art scene before one day, with typical unpredictability and vehemence, ridding her studio of her canvasses and starting work as a photographer.

She won her spurs as a war photographer covering the Balkan conflicts of 1991-1999. Through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo she became one of the tight-knit gang of journalists who were so severely defined and bonded by the experience in a way not seen since their Vietnam-era predecessors.

Though her work became ever more refined as her talent developed, she never became cynical or hardened by her exposure to so much violence. She could shed tears, even sob, in the aftermath of witnessing the suffering of others, and her essential empathy with her subjects was one of the hallmarks of her work. Indeed, after the Balkan wars had finished she began to move away from high-impact, quick selling war images, and explore in detail the lives of war’s victims, especially women. Nor was Alex foolish enough to be limited by the restrictive label of ‘war-photographer’. Her curiousity was far too hungry, and was responsible for the number of features she later shot for National Geographic. In 2001, two days before the attacks on the World Trade Centre, Alex founded VII, a co-operative photo agency, with six colleagues. VII emerged quickly as the Magnum of the digital age, specialising in covering cultural and political conflict as well as war. Her dexterity was proven again, as if it needed to be, a year later when she won the World Press Photo award for her photographs of Yves St Laurent’s last show. Forty years earlier her father had shot the fashion designer’s first show.

Utterly  and  delightfully  eccentric, whether in war or peace, the jungle or an office, her travails were accompanied by the clink of the I-Ching coins she used as an aid to her decision process; clouds of cigarette smoke, and the frequent expostulation of “putain” – ‘whore’. Her laughter rolled up from her belly to her teeth; her tears were many and uncontrived. She was a great woman, and enriched the world of her friends with her presence.

We all  heaved a quiet sigh of relief, however, when she met Issa Freij.
Her turbulence and drama had often been reflected in her choice of relationships with men. Now though, with Issa, she seemed suddenly calmer, contented by deep happiness. This spring, photographing my daughter and sharing in the delight of my own fortunes of family, she told me that she had found in Issa the love of her life. It was deserved.

In Ramallah in June this year, where she was working while living with Issa, Alexandra suffered an aneurism. Moved to a hospital in Paris, she never regained consciousness and died on the 5th October.

Goodbye Alexandra. You leave much behind. To the world you bequeathe an iconic body of images: unfinished symphony and befitting will of a pre-eminent woman photojournalist at the top of your profession. To your friends and family, your mother, your sisters and Issa, you leave admiration and a terrible missing. Mostly though, you leave love. I hope you find some barricades in heaven.