I went to this beach in an Israeli-settlement on Gaza's northern edge a few times because I could wear a bikini instead of the Islamic dress required then on Palestinian beaches. When I swam in full dress, waves would often wrap the cloak around me until I lost balance and fell in the surf. I was welcome on the settlement beach and would drive there in my car with its yellow Israeli license plates. Dogeet, Gaza. 1994.
Now it's time for another installment of our continuing series of talks with photographers, Picture This. Alexandra Avakian has followed conflicts around the globe, from the Gaza Strip to Somalia, the Sudan and Haiti.
Her photos from several decades covering civil wars, uprisings and revolutions are currently featured in the Annenberg Space for Photography, War/Photography Exhibition, on display now in Los Angeles.
Though her work has led her to some of the rougher corners of the world, her journey started right here, where she grew up in Malibu.
On her background as a photographer of war and refugees:
"Well my father taught me photography very young, Aaron Avakian, he was a film editor and film director. He taught me how to make images and tell stories from when I was eight or nine years old, and trained me as a photographer. By the time I was nine he was dissecting Life magazine with me and these were stories on the Vietnam war and very very tough places. At the same time I also learned about what happened to my family: half of them are Armenian and how they fled the genocide, and another portion disappeared entirely under Stalin, and all this pain that they had lived through. So I really reacted very strongly to that, and wanted to engage and to find out what it was like to be a refugee, what is it like to be a person trying to save your family in war."
On being a woman in a male dominated field:
"Well, I think more and more women are doing this kind of work now. When I started out there were not a whole lot of us, you know I was just one of the boys and I never really thought about my vulnerability as woman or anything like that, if anything I worked against that. I think that sometimes being a woman helps when you're working with women for example, you will be able to see all they want to share and in conservative societies such as conservative Middle Eastern societies you're going to be really taken much more easily. I also think that because some of these societies are patriarchal that women are not considered able to be that critical, they're not as afraid of you. But other times people will stop you from doing your work because you're a woman and they think physically it will be easier for them to do that."
The story behind the photo taken on the beach:
"When you're in some of these countries, people carry weapons in prosaic situations, and it's surprising to the American eye. This was an Israeli settlement beach, where I used to go because I could wear a bathing suit. On the Palestinian beaches because Hamas was ruling the social life at that time, as a woman you had to swim in full Islamic dress, which was very difficult and unpleasant for me, so i used to go to the Israeli settlement beach to swim. That's how I got to know these guys who are off-duty navy personel who are just wired to pick up those guns and fight if they have to."
On covering muslim communities in America after 9/11:
"It was a great way to come back to America because I traveled the entire country with various populations from New York to LA to Michigan and Texas. It's also like every immigrant community in this country, you take some of the old country and the new country and it becomes uniquely american. That's what the story of this country is all about."