'Look, teeth': Ricki Rosen

sharon with sheep 298  (photo credit: Ricki Rosen)
sharon with sheep 298
(photo credit: Ricki Rosen)
Tricks of the trade come from all over. Ricki Rosen learned them in Brooklyn, Port-au-Prince, Moscow and Beirut. Rosen, who grew up in New York City, got her first big break because she was the first person keen enough to notice the group of blacks in Crown Heights who had crossed the line dividing the neighborhood and become hassidic Jews. The photo essay that she did on them was the kind of work that eventually won her greater access to the Lubavitcher rebbe than just about any other female journalist had ever had, with the media-savvy sect providing bodyguards for her while she photographed the charismatic leader for a New York magazine cover story. Rosen, who went on to become a contract features photographer for Time and make aliya, documenting the massive Russian influx and the smaller but more dangerous immigration of Ethiopian Jews, recalls the shortcuts that young photographers would take in an attempt to impress. "In New York, we used to say that if something provided you with the opportunity to make exciting pictures it was like shooting homeless people. Every photographer starting out in New York would photograph homeless people," she says, "because it always produces something powerful that tugs at your heartstrings. And, it's impossible to miss." Nothing Rosen had done in New York, however, was as powerful or as impossible to miss as what she saw when she flew to Haiti in 1986 to cover the chaotic days after dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fled the country. "When I got there, there were people running amok in the streets and going after the collaborators of the government. People were being killed by stoning, or hanged. It was very violent," Rosen recalls from her living room in Jerusalem. While picking up tips from the veteran photographers who had already filmed their share of bloodthirsty mobs, Rosen underwent a sort of initiation to which no homeless shoot could compare. "As we were roaming the streets we came upon a scene where a mob was stoning a man to death. I had this strange experience that, unfortunately, I've experienced many times afterward, here: I was doing horizontals and verticals, with flash and without - trying to make it artistic, because it was so gory - and I was doing it without thinking that this was real blood and a real body. "Later, when I started to develop the pictures," she continues, "I started to feel nauseous - because I couldn't believe that I had been in the middle of this scene and had just shot away. When you see it through the camera, it's almost as if you're watching a movie, that you're not actually experiencing it." A decade later, Rosen was shooting the macabre scene of a bombed-out bus in Jerusalem when that feeling slammed into her again. "I was on the roof of a building, shooting down, sort of removed from the scene below. But as I came down from the roof," she says, "a volunteer from ZAKA came up to me with something in his hand. Suddenly he opened his fist and said, 'Look, teeth.' …I just broke down in tears, because that was real. I wasn't photographing, it wasn't through a frame. It was close to me. It became so apparent that I had been photographing the destruction of human life." Carrying a camera has brought the conflict close to Rosen in other ways as well. "There are definitely some very violent and dangerous people who don't like being photographed," she says coolly. "For instance, there was a Hizbullah terrorist who was planning to detonate a bomb in Jerusalem, but he had an accident and the bomb blew off his hands and legs. We had an interview with him in the hospital where he was being held. "Then, there was a prisoner exchange with Lebanon, and he was one of the ones who was being traded. So a writer from Time and I went up to Beirut to interview his family and interview him when he arrived. It was a very tricky thing because they couldn't know that we were based in Israel; they were hard-core Hizbullah. It was also a part of Beirut that was not very friendly to Americans, and we were both American. "At one point, there were these gunmen playing with their weapons and, as I started to photograph them" - and here Rosen pauses as the memory plays itself out in her mind - "they… well, they made it very clear to me that I had better leave, or I'd find myself beheaded." "People are out of control here," she says. "There have been so many times when I have seen photographers completely missing the shot because they're hitting each other. When Mikhail Gorbachev came here in 1992, he brought Russian photographers who could shoot whenever they wanted, while we Israelis had to wait for a few minimal organized photo opportunities. "At one point we had all been waiting an hour or two, everyone guarding their places," she continues. "Then one photographer popped out into the middle of the scene and blocked all the rest of us. So one of the photographers took a boom microphone from a TV soundman and started banging the first photographer over the head with the boom! The poor soundman, meanwhile, who had his headphones on, was screaming in pain from the sounds of the photographer getting hit over the head with his microphone." A much more pleasant experience was making a fan of Ariel Sharon, who was known for his dislike of photo sessions. For an exclusive interview with a French magazine, the former prime minister's media liaison was demanding that Rosen finish shooting within five minutes. Fortunately, though, she had remembered to bring along photos she had taken of Sharon at his Sycamore Ranch not long before. Smitten by the flattering pictures of himself proudly holding a sheep around his shoulders, Sharon gave her all the time she needed. "He even invited me back to the ranch and promised to hoist a calf onto his shoulders the next time," Rosen recalls with a laugh. "Man, I wish I had taken him up on that offer!"