Lesbos, November 2015
It was the sounds that first got her attention, the cries and screams loud enough to break through the howling wind and pummelling rain. Everyone had heard them, and now it was a race down to the sea. Who would get there first this time, she wondered as her boots flew over the wet, pebbly ground, her heart pounding from the effort. She willed her legs to run faster as the black dot in the distance became clearly recognizable as a boat. At the water’s edge she tossed aside her plastic poncho and pulled the Leica’s strap from her neck, securing it around her wrist just as the others arrived behind her. They stood like an army, cameras at the ready as the sagging rubber raft came within wading distance to shore. A young man—the first off—stumbling through the choppy waters. Click. A teenager paddling furiously through the surf. Click click. A woman climbing over the raft’s half-deflated edge, clinging desperately to a tiny sack of belongings. Click click click. Soon elbows were flying as the competition heated for the shot, that one gut-wrenching image, the gold prize that would land the front page. She dug in her heels and held her ground, the adrenalin gushing through her veins.
The refugees began to reach the shore. Some stood stunned, some fell to their knees in prayer. Others collapsed with exhaustion. The clicking around her approached a frenzy, a rush to capture the families embracing, the children crying, the faces stamped with mixed fear and relief. The sound of the shutters seemed to reach a deafening roar, drowning out the noise of the chaos and confusion echoing across the beach.
Thirty feet away from land a man teetered among the rocks, the churning water as high as his waist. As he struggled to keep hold with one arm of an old woman staggering behind him, he reached out with his other hand, which held that of the small boy beside him, toward those on shore, his eyes screaming a silent plea for help. She pushed past those standing on either side of her and lumbered into the surf, her camera held high above the waves. As she came nearer, the man released the old woman to devote both arms to the effort of delivering the boy to safety.
The boy reached out his own tiny arms.
Suddenly, just as she was getting close enough to focus on the stubble on the man’s chin, she felt a shove from behind her as two hands shot out and grabbed the crying boy.
“What the fuck, Rachel! What the hell is wrong with you?”
Paris, November 2015
“Je prends un verre de vin rouge, s’il vous plaît.”
The waiter took Rachel’s order and pirouetted to retrieve the wine from the bar inside. She was the first to arrive at the café—on purpose—allowing herself time for a glass or two before the others showed up. Her flight from Athens had landed late at Charles de Gaulle, and she’d only had enough time for a quick shower before hopping on the metro to République. Now, as she took her first sip of wine, she struggled to shake the images from the morning in Lesbos from her brain.
Had it only been two days ago? It was hard to imagine, as couples strolled arm in arm through the warm autumn evening, the light from shop windows offering a promising glow to the start of the weekend. It was never easy, trying to reconcile the differences between a world in strife and a world at peace. But Rachel was used to the challenge of working her way back and forth from one to the other. How many times had she tried to grab a quick escape to some tranquil spot between assignments, only to find herself unable to truly enjoy it? And yes, it was often hard for her to relate to people who hadn’t been where she’d been, seen what she’d seen. Her impatience with First World problems had lost her more than one old friend.
But what had occurred in Lesbos… that was different. When she’d heard her friend Antonio screaming at her, and watched silently as he let his own camera drop onto his chest to pull the boy to safety, something had snapped. What the fuck was wrong with her?
Rachel took pride in her reputation for being tough. It’s what made her stand out in a world of men. But it was one thing to be fearless, for being willing to venture where few female photographers dared to go; it was another to be heartless. Sure, she’d been in countless situations before like the one on the beach, an uninvited guest in the midst of other people’s most desperate moments. She was used to the necessity of distancing herself, of psyching herself into the zone you needed to be in to get that perfect shot. They all were. But how, and when, did it happen that she became one of the ones who crossed that line between being hardened and being totally callous—no, worse, unfeeling? Because that was what it had been. She had not been able to feel anything beyond her craving for the shot.
Rachel couldn’t stop picturing that man as he appeared before them, so desperate for his family’s survival, and each time she saw it the image hit her like a rogue wave from the sea, carrying with it a sense of disgust for the vanity of her profession, for who she had become. What good was she, hiding behind her lens as if the cold cylinder of metal and glass were a shield from the real-life suffering she was called upon to document? It was true that there was always the possibility of her photos getting published, and with that the hope of gaining the sympathy of people who had the power and inclination to help. That’s how a lot of her colleagues justified their behaviour and eased their consciences. Some photographers seemed to cling to the notion of having a calling, serving a noble cause, as if it were their divine destiny. Those were the ones who wore their sense of purpose like a badge. Even Rachel had done that, when it suited her. But deep down she knew she didn’t really feel that way.
Of course, who wouldn’t hope for their photos to cast some light on the plight of those who had no voice? But if Rachel were honest with herself, her rewards had always felt more personal, especially during those times when the thrill of getting that perfect shot coursed through her blood like a drug. She had questioned her motives more than once. There had been times before when, seeing the compassion coming through in some of her colleagues, she would find herself envious. Her emotions just never seemed to live so close to the skin. Until now.
She gulped the wine as if it were water, hoping that enough of it might help her get some sleep. The last two nights had been rendered sleepless by an endless loop of the horrors she’d witnessed over the past dozen years—every wounded soldier, every burned-out village, every starving child, every lifeless body, every bloody protester, every victim of a deadly earthquake, every desperate refugee, every wailing woman, every stunned survivor of a ruthless tsunami, every trigger-happy, fiery-eyed rebel. Clearly something had happened to her that morning on the beach. She’d felt a breach inside, as if a door were being forced open and she was jammed up against it on the other side, struggling to keep it shut.
A break. Maybe that was all she needed, she thought as she drained the glass and slid the backpack that sat on her lap to the space between her feet. A chance to change the channel and clear her head, to get back to the Rachel she knew she was. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on the smells and sounds of a soft Paris night. Musky leaves newly fallen from the trees. The cartoon beep of a little car. Diesel and espresso. The tinkling of a spoon against a cup. The silky melody of the language of love. Be here now, as her mother used to say. And why not enjoy all the beautiful, ignorant bliss around her? After all, the calm and civility of this place was just as real as the turmoil and craziness of another, wasn’t it?
“Hey, Lil’ Cherry Bomb, how’s it hanging?”
Rachel winced. She hated her nickname and all it implied about her gender, her size, her reputation. No man would put up with the amount of teasing and ragging she’d faced as one of the few women in her field. Nevertheless, she greeted Sean with a kiss on each of his smooth, pink cheeks. She hadn’t seen him since Darfur—or was it Tahrir Square?
“Lovely evening, isn’t it?” he asked, his posh Knightsbridge accent adding a sense of sophistication to the occasion, as if they always came together over cocktails instead of over revolutions or coups.
“Quite,” she said with a forced laugh as he pulled up a chair beside her.
“What, you’ve given up the Jack?” he said, eyeing the last drop of wine in her glass.
“Hardly. But when in France, as they say.”
“Vive la France, as I say.” Sean signaled to the waiter for two more. “There they are.” Phil and Tim waved from half a block away, deep in conversation. Sean dragged two more chairs across the sidewalk and held out his arms for a hug from each of the gangly men.
“Long time no see.” Phil bent to kiss Rachel on the head.
“Ditto,” Tim added as he gave her shoulder a squeeze.
Rachel was happy to reconnect with her old pals, and felt comforted by their familiar presence. It was one of the things she liked most about her world, the way you could pick up with someone at any moment in any city and it was as though you had seen them yesterday. She could feel her limbs soften, her jaw loosen, as she finally started to relax.
After they had each filled in the others on their latest jobs, their recent successes, their next assignments, the inevitable storytelling began. More wine had been ordered. Now Phil was talking. Rachel sat back and half-listened.
“Did I ever tell you guys about that time in Somalia?” His beady eyes narrowed as he recounted the time he was taken captive at gunpoint and had, against all odds, managed to convince the teenage insurgents that all he wanted to do was tell the world of their plight, and how these kids ended up treating him like a god, and how he got the most amazing shots that he, no anyone, could have ever gotten down there.
Rachel rolled her eyes. Phil was sort of sweet, but what a bullshit artist. How could she have ever slept with that guy, even if it was just once. Or was it twice? It had been about a year ago by now—she couldn’t remember. A rebound fling. Not serious.
Then it was Tim’s turn to boast. His story? The one about how he once managed to get inside a Taliban stronghold for an exclusive with a commander who, during the course of the interview, became suspicious and threatened Tim with execution by beheading if he turned out not to be who or what he said he was. Tim claimed his narrow escape was due only to his astoundingly comprehensive knowledge of the Koran, and his awesome ability to charm his way out of any situation. She knew damn well that wasn’t quite the way things went down, as she had been paired with him for that assignment. In those days the two of them had been quite a topic of gossip on the conflict trail. Rachel didn’t mind, but nothing serious had really ever happened between the two of them.
Back then she was still with Jonathan. That was before he’d walked away from their relationship, after having enough of waiting for her too infrequent returns home, and enough of her restlessness and impatience when she was there with him, as he had put it so succinctly in a letter that she still kept tucked away in a box somewhere. She had bristled at his words, responding with a fury that no doubt served to prove his point more than it helped to make hers. She had insisted that he was threatened by her work. He in turn blamed everything on her addiction to an adrenalin-fueled lifestyle.
She should have seen what was coming. The truth was, for most of her colleagues, their passions were in their profession. Everyone out in the field got divorced, became separated, cheated. Wheels up, rings off, the saying went. But the part that really stung—the words that had truly pissed her off that day Jonathan dumped her for good, the words that now came crashing back to her with the force of a hurricane—was his final blow before he walked out the door. There is something seriously lacking in you, Rach. It’s like you have no soul. Until two days ago she would have defended herself fiercely against his accusation, had he given her the chance. Now, as she sat watching the passing parade on the street before her, she feared he’d been right.
Beside her the game of one-upmanship continued, growing louder with each tip of a glass. Well, at least they’re not swapping lies about me, Rachel thought. Then again, perhaps they’d already done that on the way over. Out of the three, Sean was the only one she hadn’t ever considered sleeping with—yet. Maybe it was Paris, maybe it was the wine, maybe it was her desire to escape the discomfort of her own thoughts, but he was looking pretty good right now in his crisp khakis and crumpled white shirt, his blond curls turning golden under the light of the streetlamps. She moved in closer to the table and waited for an opening to rejoin the conversation.
The shots rang out before she had a chance to offer a single word. Everything seemed to go silent for a moment, and then more shots. Yelling. Screaming. People scrambling in all directions. Ç’est une attaque! Fuyez! Run!
Her three friends grabbed their camera bags and leaped from the table in unison.
“Aren’t you coming, Rach?” Sean yelled back as they went rushing into the fray as one, like a pack of dogs who had caught a scent.
But Rachel couldn’t move. Instead she inched her backpack under the table with the toe of one boot and closed her eyes against the sweet Parisian breeze, squeezing them tight until everything became as black as the hole she felt opening up inside.