Some photographers consciously choose what they want to shoot — landscapes, rodeos, city skylines, the faces of aging — but for a few, the creative process is reversed. The project chooses them. Their subject becomes an irresistible, driving force, propelling them forward for unfathomable reasons, even against logic, to shoot all dimensions and angles, no matter what sacrifices it takes.
Marissa Roth is one such photographer. In 1999, she was invited to document a medical mission to Albania after the NATO bombing of Kosovo. The ethnic war between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians had lasted a year and a half, destroying Kosovo, killing thousands of civilians, and sending hundreds of thousands of frightened refugees into Albania.
It was not Roth’s first time visiting a former war zone or disaster area. Working as a freelance photojournalist since 1981, she had already used her camera to document numerous tragedies. She had covered the aftermath of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India that killed thousands of people; civilian casualties during the 1989 coup d’état in the Philippines; the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines that wiped out over 300 people; gang shootings and the Los Angeles riots in 1992; and numerous other sites of death and destruction. Roth was certainly not afraid to look horror straight in the eye. “I tempted fate many times in my life,” she says. “I wasn’t reckless, but I challenged my fears.”
On that medical expedition to Albania, Roth found herself taking environmental portraits of women refugees. Their many losses — homes, children, husbands, security — were evident on their faces. Using her favorite equipment — manual Nikon FE-2 cameras and Kodak’s richly saturated black-and-white Tri-X film — she captured the stark reality of the toll war takes on innocent mothers, sisters, grandmothers, little girls.
Talking with Kosovar Albanian women, she heard first-hand accounts of terror, rape, suffering and death — all caused by angry and brutal men who could not find a way to make peace with their neighbors.
In Albania, Roth realized she was being called to document what would become the global photo essay One Person Crying: Women and War. Photographing the angst of these refugees, she was reminded of shots she had taken extending back to 1985 — photos of women who had been through international conflicts and civil wars in every part of the world. She already had a body of work that laid the foundation for a collection. Now she committed herself to documenting as many women as she could.
Roth’s understanding of women’s suffering was deeply embedded in her personal past. Her Hungarian grandparents, on both sides, had been victims of Nazi Germany. Fortunately, her mother and father fled Hungary and Yugoslavia, respectively, in 1938 on one of the Queen Mary’s last crossings, before the ship was requisitioned to carry troops. Her mother’s parents were among the lucky ones hidden by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish special envoy in Budapest who protected nearly 100,000 Jews by issuing them protective passports or hiding them in buildings designated as Swedish territory.
Growing up in Beverly Hills, Roth recalls how the Holocaust pervaded and poisoned her family’s psyche. They never spoke about the war, their lost relatives or their own experiences. Her mother did not allow sadness in the house; even crying was forbidden. When Roth’s first serious boyfriend was killed in a commercial airline crash in San Diego, her mother told her it was time to move on after just three weeks of mourning.
A desire to document suffering seemed to reside in Roth’s unconscious. She was attracted to photography in high school, and images of the Vietnam War and young American protestors activated her passion for politics and journalism. She attended the University of Colorado in Boulder as an art major for two years then transferred to UCLA, where she worked as a staff photographer on the campus newspaper while attending classes. She graduated with a BFA in graphic design in 1979.
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2014 issue.