Egyptian Pulitzer prize-winning photographer speaks of war's scars - and blessings

Photography makes a person tough and soft at once, says Nariman El-Mofty

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Yemen was Nariman El-Mofty’s first war.

Everything was a shock, the Egyptian photojournalist says of her first trip to the war-scarred nation in 2018, from civilian casualties and starving children to child soldiers and widows left to fend for themselves.

“Hunger was very new to me. In Yemen, children who starved silently were the biggest shock,” El-Mofty, 35, recalled about her Yemen assignments between 2018 and 2020 that won her the first of two Pulitzer Prizes.

“No one cried or screamed. Children normally react and make sure that everyone knows if something is bothering them. A child that is not reacting to anything was very shocking to me.”

El-Mofty encountered silence again in the middle of another war, this time among the elderly in Ukraine.

Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Nariman El-Mofty on assignment for the Associated Press in Yemen. Photo: Nariman El-Mofty

“In Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, elderly people also suffer in silence, but alone. People in their 80s sit still and silent while the bombing goes on around them. They just sit still waiting for death to come and take them,” El-Mofty told The National.

She won her second Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, in the category of breaking news photography, and was a finalist in the feature photography category, sharing the honours in both cases with a team of Associated Press photographers.

She travels to New York next month for the award ceremony.

Covering wars is the dream of many journalists, who are driven to take risks in exchange for making a name for themselves. In most cases, as El-Mofty discovered, the challenges they face in the war zone – personal safety, logistics and keeping combatants at an arm’s length – are replaced by others when they leave.

Nariman El-Mofty on assignment in Ukraine. Photo: Nariman El-Mofty

“You leave with a bit of guilt. But you need to be mature about it. It takes time to separate one’s life from what you do. I am still working on this, but it’s eating me up,” said El-Mofty, who resigned from AP this year and is now freelance.

“It’s in the back of my mind every time I eat,” she said about photographing starving children in Yemen.

“It touches you and becomes part of you. In some ways, it also defines who you are.

“As hard as it [war photography] makes you, it also makes your heart bigger. It has changed the way I see children, the elderly and mothers. I have become softer in many ways.”

A graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University, El-Mofty began working for the AP in Cairo in 2011 as a photo desk editor, spending up to 10 hours a day, five days a week, editing about 100 images from across the Middle East daily.

In a busy and noisy newsroom dealing at the time with an avalanche of stories on the Arab uprisings, she was almost invisible – glued to her screen and her voice rarely heard.

She may have been biding her time.

“In those days, I spent my weekends photographing daily life in Cairo. I did the camel market, the Khan El Khalili bazaar, the circus and the city’s medieval quarter,” she said. She showed her photos to her boss and mentor at the time, veteran French-Iranian photographer Manoocher Deghati.

“He would look at them and explain where I went wrong or where I could have done better. After a few months he began to use some of them,” she said.

Zlata-Maria Shlapak, 8, sits in a bathtub with her 9-month-old puppy Letti as an air siren goes off in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, where her family rented a flat after fleeing from Kharkiv, on April 2, 2022, just days after Russian forces invaded Ulraine. Nariman El-Mofty / AP

Slowly, she began to be given photo assignments – nothing very exciting or potentially prize-winning at first, but El-Mofty was happy to spend time away from her desk.

For Yemen, the first big story of her career, she was joined by reporter Maggie Michael, also an Egyptian, and Yemeni video-journalist Maad El Zikrey.

The three of them travelled widely in southern Yemen, experiencing the ravages of the war between the internationally-recognised government supported by a Saudi-led alliance and the Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

The first of her three trips to Yemen came in 2018, the year after El-Mofty lost her father, with whom she was very close.

He died at the age of 62 from cancer.

The loss was hard to take for El-Mofty, the youngest of three siblings.

“Everything I wanted to do I did to impress him. That remains unchanged today,” she said.

“He helped me thicken my skin in this industry. He never got me a camera until he was sure beyond a shred of doubt that I was serious about photography,” she said. “He was very tough.”

To be a capable field photographer, El-Mofty found, more than thick skin was needed.

“I was slow even though I was not carrying any gear,” she said about a drill she was put through in a hostile environment training course that simulated a hand-grenade explosion. “I was supposed to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction then lay down with my mouth open. But I was very slow.”

In this August 1, 2019 photo, 19-year-old Ethiopian migrant Mohammed Hussein, severely malnourished after imprisonment and abuse by smugglers, stands on a scale at the Ras al-Ara Hospital in Lahj, Yemen. Nariman El-Mofty / AP Photo

Her response was to take up rigorous workouts, including weightlifting, so she was able to move easily and quickly while taking photos and carrying 12 or 15 kilos of cameras and equipment on her back.

But that was not all.

Photography is dominated by men; war news photography much more so.

El-Mofty did everything she could to avoid appearing frail, emotional or weak-willed to her male peers. At times she covered up illness, even great pain, for fear of being sidelined or sent home.

“I put a lot of effort into that. I may have taken it to extremes. At the end, I hurt myself and it didn’t matter much,” she said.

“I became good at faking toughness, and I kind of sacrificed my physical wellness in the process.”

Updated: September 15, 2023, 6:00 PM