Women at War – Three Pioneering Female Combat Photographers – Part 2

Women at War – Three Pioneering Female Combat Photographers – Part 2

1432 1127 Josh Solomon

In our first Women at War piece we touched briefly upon the lives and exploits of three female pioneers of war photography. While the article was brief (too brief, considering how rich those stories were), the reader response to it was incredible. These two factors have encouraged us to write a sequel. This time we’ll focus on three female war photojournalists whose visual signature and shooting style featured unconventional subjects, radically different points of view, and poignant analyses on the 20th century’s most controversial conflicts.


Françoise Demulder (Vietnam War, Lebanese Civil War, Bosnian War)

In our first article on female combat photographers, we told the story of Catherine LeRoy, a French photojournalist who worked during the Vietnam War. A little more research into LeRoy’s life revealed that she was actually a part of a small movement of incredibly talented French female photojournalists who, through their work in Vietnam, helped establish France as an epicenter of world photojournalism. And one member of that group of pioneering women is our next subject; Françoise Demulder.

Françoise (or Fifi, to her friends) Demulder’s photographic journey began not out of a deep sense of justice and moral duty, but out of an incurable wanderlust. Her love for traveling brought her to Saigon in the early 1970s, where she and her then-boyfriend noticed a market for photos of the conflict that was taking place within the country. Although her only experience with photography was as a model on the other side of the camera, she learned photography on the fly, taking photos of the conflict and selling them to a press bureau for a few bucks a pop.

Her skills improved rapidly during the war, and Demulder began to make a name for herself even as she honed her own unique of war photography. She eschewed partisanship and overt emotional signaling towards either side of a conflict, and instead elected to simply show things as they were and as they happened, to the extent that any war photographer could do so. While she received much support from the press-friendly American side of the war, her breakthrough came at the Americans’ expense. On April 30th, 1975, Demulder defied evacuation orders and stayed in Saigon to witness the eventual victory of the North Vietnamese. She snuck into Saigon’s vacated Independence Palace and took a photo of a Vietcong tank smashing in the gate, marking the end of the Vietnam War.

While Demulder strived not to display overt sympathy toward any side of any conflict, she sympathized instead with civilians who found themselves caught up in the middle. In her words, she “…felt compelled to document how it is always the innocent who suffer, while the powerful get richer and richer.” Her most famous photograph, “Distress in Lebanon”, embodies this very philosophy. The image shows a Palestinian woman pleading with a Phalangist soldier while her hometown of Beirut burns in the background. The photograph showcased not only the devastation of war itself, but the terrible human cost inflicted upon the innocent. “Distress in Lebanon” was so powerful in its execution that it won the 1977 World Press Photo of the Year and cemented Demulder’s position as one of the world’s very best photojournalists.

Ethiopian Civil War, 1991

Françoise Demulder’s career as a photojournalist took her through many more global conflicts, including the Lebanese Civil War, the Ethiopian Revolution, and the Bosnian War. She worked until she was diagnosed with leukemia in 2000, which left her bedridden. During this time, she was given two cats for companionship which, according to Jonathan Randal, a fellow war correspondent for The Washington Post, helped her cope with her constant need for travel. It’s interesting to know that the wanderlust that started Demulder’s journey stayed with her all those years later, even up to her passing in 2008. When it’s resulted in some of the most affecting and influential photos in history, I’d say that was a good instinct to follow.

Additional Reading –

The Guardian, Obituary; Bio in World Press Photo; Washington Post, Obituary


Christine Spengler (Northern Ireland, Vietnam War)

Continuing with the theme of pioneering French photojournalists we come to Christine Spengler. More than most other combat photographers, Christine Spengler’s work showcases the point of view of women and children as they try to carve out a life for themselves in the midst of conflict and turmoil.

Before her photography career had even begun, Christine Spengler was on a trip to Chad with her fashion photographer brother, Eric Spengler. While out and about they heard gunshots, and saw two rebels firing their Kalashnikovs helplessly at French helicopters flying overhead. Spengler felt an uncontrollable need to help these rebels in some way, and asked her brother if there was anything she could do in the moment. Her brother then handed her a Nikon camera equipped with a 28mm lens, with which she shot the first frames that would lead to a lifelong career as a photojournalist.

This decision, however, came with a cost. Spengler and her brother were arrested by the French government in Chad on suspicion of espionage. After the government determined that a couple of French kids in their early twenties were not rebel spies, she and her brother were released. During that time she decided to take up, in her words, her “vocation to give testimony for just causes.”

After working domestically in France, Spengler set out for Northern Ireland in hopes of documenting the struggle. While in Northern Ireland, she showed her photos to anybody who would see them, and most of them said the same thing – “You should go see Don McCullin.” At the time, Spengler did not know who McCullin was, but sought him out anyway and ended up becoming a colleague of his.

Her time in Northern Ireland produced an image that would set the tone for her entire career – ”Carnival in Belfast.” The image wasn’t one that repeated the theme of brutality commonly shown in war photography. It instead featured a group of kids wearing carnival hats being frisked by an IRA member. The other photographers present didn’t think this was a worthy photo, but Spengler did. She held that the real protagonists of the war weren’t the soldiers, but the children whose worldviews were being shaped by this conflict. The photo ended up being published in LIFE magazine and led to international recognition for Spengler.

While covering conflict in Northern Ireland, Spengler received an interesting package left behind for her by fellow photographer Don McCullin. It was a box filled to the brim with film, and a note that said, “Even when you become famous and known by all the big publications, always photograph what your heart tells you to photograph.” Spengler took this to heart and forged on to cover conflict in Bangladesh, where she befriended the Shah’s wife in order to gain closer contact with the Shah himself. Afterwards she most famously photographed the Vietnam War.

Spengler made a great many images in Vietnam, but one that stands out to me is the image entitled “Year of the Buffalo,” if not because of its own excellence, but for its incredible backstory. When Spengler arrived in Vietnam, one of her first assignments was quite bizarre – take a picture of a buffalo. As this was Spengler’s first assignment and the one that her livelihood depended upon, she set out to the frontlines to find a buffalo amidst the chaos. After an odyssey of a day, witnessing horrific scene after horrific scene, curfew came and no buffalo in sight. She hopped on a Red Cross truck and headed back to Saigon, thinking that the assignment was a failure. Luckily for her, a helmet-clad Vietnamese boy riding with her stopped the truck, wanting to swim in the river. Lo and behold, a water buffalo joined the boy in the river, and Spengler snapped the photo. The resulting photo ran in the New York Times the next day, and cemented Spengler’s name as a truly great photojournalist.

Spengler’s career after Vietnam took her to places like Lebanon, Iran, and Afghanistan, where she expressed her same basic theme of focusing on the innocent. Her entire oeuvre tells the story of those who did not want war, but found themselves in it, having to live their lives regardless. As of the publication of this article, Spengler lives now in France at the age of seventy-four, with a legacy of championing her signature humanistic warmth in a field that can be hostile to it.

Additional reading –

LensCulture interview and article; Annees De Guerre by Christine Spengler


Dickey Chapelle (Cuban conflict, Vietnam War, World War II)

For our last subject, we will pivot to an American war correspondent whose story would’ve been the stuff of legend, had no one ever written it down. Fortunately, lots of people (including herself) wrote volumes about her, illustrating an almost larger-than-life woman who lived and died on her terms exclusively. It’s none other than Dickey Chapelle, one of America’s finest and most fiery photojournalists.

Dickey Chapelle was born Georgette Louise Meyer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1918. Her upbringing in the morally strident midwestern United States set the tone for the life she’d lead. She would later say of her childhood, “I grew up in the heartland of the United States. I believed that I could do anything I really wanted to do and I still believe it. Nowhere else in the world can a woman of seventeen or an old lady in her forties, as I am, say ‘I can do anything I want to do.’” But she qualified that ideal with what would later separate her from anybody else, saying, “But I am going to condition it. You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it so badly you’ll give up everything else to do it.”

Dickey Chapelle sacrifices lot to pursue a life as a war correspondent. The first thing that went was her name. Her early interest in flying gave way to an admiration for explorer and aviator Richard Byrd, nicknamed “Dickey,” which she took as her first name. While working at a publicity bureau at eighteen, she met her husband Tony Chapelle, who taught her photography and eventually became her husband. Now christened Dickey Chapelle, she compiled a portfolio, published a photo essay for Look magazine, and fulfilled her dream by receiving her first official assignment as a war correspondent covering World War II.

Chapelle’s cavalier approach and attitude to war correspondency in World War II came to define her and her work for the years to come. For example, she agreed to cover the Pacific theater to the chagrin of her husband, as three of the photographers he’s personally trained had already been killed in pursuit of their work, and an additional seven were wounded. During the assignment, Chapelle was dispatched to cover the invasion of Okinawa, but was ordered not to set foot on the island. True to rebellious form, Chapelle sneaked off of the battleship and took photos of badly wounded marines anyway, in an effort to encourage Americans to donate more blood to the war effort. Though the cause was admirable she had undeniably disobeyed direct orders, which resulted in her press credentials being revoked.

Chapelle’s disregard for authority and convention manifested in what is perhaps the most interesting phase of her work, her “Bayonet Border” era. After regaining her press credentials a decade later, Chapelle traveled all over the world and covered revolutions and struggles for freedom all over the globe during the 1950s, taking particular interest in the Cuban revolution. She embedded herself firmly among the ranks of the “26 de julio” to document and understand their cause, flirting with death itself on several occasions while doing so. In the process she gained insight into the lives of the Cuban revolutionaries as well as figures like Che Guevara and the brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, and created some of the most candid images of that movement in existence.

Unfortunately, Fidel Castro’s animosity towards the United States, along with the added tension of his alignment and eventual alliance with the Soviet Union represented a betrayal of the revolution’s ideals to Chapelle. This feeling of betrayal soon turned into a fierce anti-communism and American patriotism that Chapelle would find consummated in the Vietnam War. Clad in her signature Australian bush hat, black-rimmed harlequin glasses, and pearl earrings, she covered Vietnam with a fervor and vigor rare for any photojournalist.

Chapelle’s philosophy of giving up absolutely everything for her own freedom found its final expression on November 4th, 1965. On that day, Chapelle was accompanying a Marine patrol when a lieutenant accidentally kicked a tripwire, setting off a booby trap which sent a piece of shrapnel through Chapelle’s carotid artery. Her last words were alleged to have been, “I guess this was bound to happen,” which suggests that even as sudden as her death was, she was always prepared for it. Chapelle became the first female war correspondent to die in Vietnam, as well as the first American correspondent to be killed in action. 

The moment of her death was immortalized in a gruesome image of her receiving her last rites, taken by fellow Vietnam war photographer Henri Huet, who himself was killed in action in 1971, a fitting memorial for one who lived and died for her profession, and for her ideals.

Additional reading –

What’s a Woman Doing Here? Autobiography; National Geographic article on Dickey; 1964 Overseas Press Club interview with Dickey Chapelle on Cuba; Fire In The Wind – The Life of Dickey Chapelle

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
4 comments
  • Always good to see the work of fine practitioners like these. One thing, though: pretty sure the man doing the frisking in Spengler’s Belfast picture is a British squaddie, not an IRA member. The IRA tended to cover their faces with balaclavas when there was a camera about.

  • Simply fantastic like T1. I love it.
    Photographies are magic and the women so great.
    Thanks so much Josh.
    Thanks CasuaPhotophile

  • outstanding insights concisely delivered. Thank you. Des

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon