As seen through a camera lens

Rina Castelnuovo is the eye in Israel for ‘The New York Times’.

Israeli-born photographer Rina Castelnuovo has been covering the war in her own backyard for more than three decades, and has spent the last 20 of those years with The New York Times.
But while she is among the most talented and accomplished photojournalists today, she struggled in her early years to be taken seriously as a woman in what many considered a man’s field.
Castelnuovo’s first love was for painting, and it was while studying art in Rome in the 1970s that she was first introduced to what would become the love of her life, photography. Her neighbor at the time just happened to be the bureau chief for the Associated Press in Rome. He saw some of the photos she had taken as a hobby and asked her to photograph violent demonstrations by the Italian Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist organization.
She worked for the AP in Rome for about a year, despite vocal opposition from the other photographers, all of whom were male. The men went so far as staging a strike against her, but eventually grew used to her presence.
She moved back to Israel in 1978 still working for the AP, but there too she faced resistance.
“I was told there was a position for me at the AP office here, but there was opposition to it. The men here weren’t sure they wanted a woman in the office, not as a photographer.”
The transition to being accepted took around half a year. “At first I wasn’t really allowed to photograph. I was just working in the darkroom, developing photographs all day. It took a while for them to give me the credit to take photographs.”
Once they did grant her the privilege of getting out in the field, she says, they were patronizing, telling her, “Oh, you can’t go there. It’s way too dangerous.”
She ended up working with the AP in Israel for four years. Eventually, those same men became her extended family, but it wasn’t until the First Lebanon war in 1982 that she finally felt accepted as part of the group.
“One thing that really brought everyone together was an explosion outside the Hotel Alexandre in Beirut,” where all of the photographers were staying. “We were all injured, we were all equal, we were all hit with shrapnel.”
In her opinion, the discrimination she faced is no longer an issue for women in her field, and hasn’t been in a long time. “I don’t see myself as a woman photographer,” says Castelnuovo. “I see myself as a photographer who is a woman.”
Today, nearly the entire New York Times team in Israel is female – including Castelnuovo, correspondent Isabel Kershner, and Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren.
Asked if that sends a powerful message, Castelnuovo shrugs her shoulders.
“It’s not a big deal at all,” she says with a smile. “Not in the 21st century.”
After all, Rudoren isn’t the first woman to hold the powerful post of Jerusalem bureau chief at what is arguably the most influential newspaper in the world. “Deborah Sontag was the first, and that was before the second intifada,” notes Castelnuovo. “It was a big deal at the time for many people, but not for me.”
Castelnuovo also looks back on the lives of her three daughters through the lens of whatever tragic event she was covering at the time. “I spread my kids according to the intensity of the stories,” she says. “I had my second daughter during the first intifada, and then waited a few years for a calmer period to have my third.”
Her memory mirrors what she sees when she flips through old family photos. “When I look through negatives, I’ll see awful things, like wars and suicide bombings. And then there’s my little girl with chocolate smudged all over her face.”
Although she has covered what many journalists would consider the holy grail of conflicts, photographing every major event here from Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s monumental visit to Israel in 1977, both Lebanon wars and every major peace talk, Castelnuovo seems to take much more pleasure and pride in her role as a wife and mother.
Reflecting on her life as a war photographer and mother, Castelnuovo rejects the notion that the two roles can’t go hand in hand. “I’m not a war photographer who says, ‘Where is a war today, I want to go cover it.’ I cover the war because it’s in my backyard. And I made the decision early in my life that I’m not going to dedicate my whole life to my profession. I knew that I wanted to have a husband and children, and that’s what I’ve done.”
That doesn’t mean that it’s been a walk in the park, or that it hasn’t come with sacrifices. “Of course it’s not easy. You cover a war, a tragedy, and you come home and have to cook dinner, turn on the washing machine, put your kids to bed. It was very hard,” she says, adding that she couldn’t have juggled it all without her husband, American photographer Jim Hollander.
“We have always been very supportive of each other, because we met as photographers in Beirut. It really wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t had his support.”
Still, Castelnuovo has had to miss many family events, and some major breaking news. “The day [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was killed, I stayed home because my baby had a fever,” she recalls, noting that her husband was there to capture the tragedy. “Obviously for a story like this, the Times would have loved for me to be there, but thankfully they had the wire pictures.”
While motherhood has kept Castelnuovo from covering some big stories, none of her professional regrets owe themselves to being a mother, or a woman. In some cases, she simply feels that the story she is covering is too big for her lens to portray.
“Conflict is the easiest thing to capture. It just happens. If you know how to take a picture, you have it. What’s hard is when you have a story so powerful, and you have the words to capture how powerful it is, but not the images.”
An example she gives is a story she spent years following, about an Israeli soldier who was born to a Palestinian father and a Jewish-Israeli mother. The soldier’s mother had converted from Judaism to Islam, then back to Judaism. The soldier himself had gone from the name Muhammad Hussein to Yossi Peretz, and was stationed in Gaza.
Castelnuovo’s passion is clear as she explains the story of this young soldier whose mere existence embodied the whole complicated narrative of this conflict.
“There was Israel and Palestine, Muslim and Jewish, all in this one boy,” she says. “The magnitude of the story was immense. But I was so emotionally involved that it was hard for me to take photographs. And there was this whole period of his life that I had missed, and couldn’t capture through photography. I always thought that I didn’t do that story justice.”
One thing she doesn’t regret is the photo she took of an Israeli woman’s breast, which generated massive controversy after it appeared on the front page of The New York Times this past November in a story about breast cancer screening.
“I was shocked by the controversy. It was such an innocent moment. I couldn’t understand the criticism. The scar [from the woman’s mastectomy] was on her breast, so how could I not show it?”
After more than 30 years covering what is perhaps the most sensitive conflict of our time, Castelnuovo has grown somewhat immune to controversy. She’s fallen into the crosshairs of countless altercations, but somehow always finds the comical, human element of the situation – a characteristic seen in many of her photos as well.
One time in Hebron, she recounts, there was a scuffle between a group of journalists and settlers. “My head was smashed with my camera. I was unconscious, my head bleeding all over the ground, and my husband was there. He took a picture of me lying on the ground, and there was this whole uproar over how he could do that. But I know my husband, so I understood why he did it. It was the only way he knew how to react. But after that, we decided that we shouldn’t go together to cover things anymore.”
As much as she loves her work, the sight of death and sorrow still has a profound impact on her, contrary to the idea that years of war reporting can leave a person desensitized to suffering.
“I can’t stand death and funerals,” she says, noting that these are things she covers nearly every day. “It’s always difficult, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. If anything, it only gets worse.”
Yet, Castelnuovo finds ways to persevere. One example is her “Bereaved” project, which documents Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost their children to the other side, and have found comfort in grieving together.
“I’d love to do more coexistence projects,” says Castelnuovo. “I’ve covered so much tragedy, so much disaster, so many bombings, killings, and smelled so much death. To be able to see these two sides coming together to help each other deal with their loss is an amazing thing. If they can, everyone can.”