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Danger Pay

Danger Pay
Memoir of a Photojournalist in the Middle East, 1984-1994
Edited by Ellen Spencer Susman

An engrossing memoir in which a photojournalist records both the precursors to today’s conflicts in the Middle East and her own deeply felt conviction that news coverage of the region actually increases the conflicts there.

Series: Focus on American History, Don Carleton, series editor

November 2008
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215 pages | 6 x 9 | 40 color illus. in section |

"You're going where?" Carol Spencer Mitchell's father demanded as she set off in 1984 to cover the Middle East as a photojournalist for Newsweek and other publications. In this intensely thoughtful memoir, Spencer Mitchell probes the motivations that impelled her, a single, Jewish woman, to document the turmoil roiling the Arab world in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as how her experiences as a photojournalist "compelled [me] to set aside [my] cameras and reexamine the way images are created, scenes are framed, and how 'real life' is packaged for specific news stories."

In Danger Pay, Spencer Mitchell takes us on a harrowing journey to PLO military training camps for Palestinian children and to refugee camps in the Gaza Strip before, during, and after the first intifada. Through her eyes, we experience the media frenzy surrounding the 1985 hijackings of TWA Flight #847 and the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro. We meet Middle Eastern leaders, in particular Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, with whom Spencer Mitchell developed close working relationships. And we witness Spencer Mitchell's growing conviction that the Western media's portrayal of conflicts in the Middle East actually helps to fuel those conflicts—a conviction that eventually, as she says, "shattered my career."

Although the events that Spencer Mitchell records took place a generation ago, their repercussions reverberate in the conflicts going on in the Middle East today. Likewise, her concern about "the triumph of image over reality" takes on greater urgency as our knowledge of the world becomes ever more filtered by virtual media.


The Best of the Best from the University PressesAmerican Library Association

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue
  • Part I: There's a New Kid in Town
    • 1. The Burning Bush
    • 2. Reorienting
    • 3. Crossing the Bridge
    • 4. Ode to Abu Ammar
    • 5. Gaza Slick
    • 6. Photo Op
    • 7. A Room with a View
  • Part II: The Moment and the Mask
    • 1. His Majesty
    • 2. Let's Get Some Color
    • 3. House of Hashem
    • 4. Up, Up, and Away
    • 5. Private Conversations (I)
  • Part III: Passing Through
    • 1. TWA Flight #847
    • 2. Exile
    • 3. Cruising
    • 4. Caviar, Khat, and Cover Pix
  • Part IV: Inside Terror, Inc.
    • 1. Dance into Darkness
    • 2. Journalists Are Used to Danger
    • 3. He Who Builds
    • 4. Private Conversations (II)
    • 5. Promise Me I Won't Be Touched
    • 6. Lebanon
  • Part V: Travels in Sudan
    • 1. Sorry, All Lines Are Jammed
    • 2. Wau (Wow!)
    • 3. I Don't Know What I'm Feeling
    • 4. You Need Something to Peg the Story On
  • Part VI: The Striptease
    • 1. Everybody Must Get Stoned
    • 2. Photo-Realism, the "Real" Picture, and the Ingathering
    • 3. The Striptease
  • Part VII: The Mother of All Battles
    • 1. What the Hell Am I Doing?
    • 2. The Sealed Room
    • 3. The Striptease, Take 2
  • Epilogue
  • 1. The Old Man
  • 2. War on Another Front

Carol Spencer Mitchell (1954-2004) covered the Middle East and North Africa for many leading U.S. and European publications, including Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Look, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Ellen Spencer Susman, Carol's sister, is currently the host and producer of Balancing Your Life with Ellen Susman, an award-winning television series that airs nationally on PBS. She lives in Houston, Texas.


Everything has changed, they say, since that day. September 11, 2001.


She is a photographer. For seventeen years she lived in the Middle East, where terror was commonplace and everyday. Now, back in the USA, her nightmare is that the violence she witnessed through the camera's lens is still with her, tethered in the shadows of her darkroom.


"Remember that cover you took for Newsweek back in 1986?" her dad asks over the telephone. "The one that says, 'America Is Our Target.'"


"You mean for the story on terrorism in the Middle East?"


"I'm looking at it now." He reads aloud, "'Inside the Terror Network . . .' You know that same cover could be used today," he muses. She hasn't looked at it in years. "You should use it on the cover of the book you're writing."


She suddenly realizes he's on to something.


"And finish telling your story," he says quietly.


She snaps the door shut so no one will intrude. Acids cut through weariness, flood the brain, linger on her hands, her hair, her clothes. She lays some film down on the counter, allows herself time to recall everything. In the amber glow of this inner space no one barges in.


Make me a print.




In the darkness she stands at the enlarger: shoulders curved, eyes looking down as clear, white light streams through the negative, projecting an image onto a sheet of smooth-white, semi-matte paper. She pulls the scene into focus, gazing at life as she once saw it, an isolated moment she tried to possess. The greasy thing about time, she thinks, is that it never lets what is be.


She slides the paper into a tray that she rocks gently so developer can swim evenly across the ivory rectangle. Three vertical streaks at the top come up first, a roundish smudge beneath, and just to the right, another thin line. Dark shapes become the sleek barrel of a PK machine gun. Next, the outline of a young man floats on the wet paper. His thick black turban surfaces fast, followed by his curly brown mustache and beard, then his olive-drab jacket appears, and a space where his face should be. Finally she sees the copper-toned rounds of belted ammunition, draped casually around his shoulders.


She studies his face as it materializes on the page. Wonders why this particular image was the one Newsweek's editors decided to use to illustrate a cover story headlined "America Is Our Target: Inside the Terror Network" (April 7, 1986). She wonders, too, if the young Palestinian fighter, who she photographed in Lebanon, managed to stay alive after his portrait was published.


What her editors didn't realize is that they chose the wrong picture. Despite her captions, they identified "the terrorist" as the young bearded man. The image they should have shown is the one she is developing now—the group of six- and seven-year-olds in camouflaged battle fatigues, carrying Soviet-made AK-47s, marching in formation. These children, each of whom wears a dog tag containing a picture of a brother or a father, a sister or an uncle who died when their refugee homes were strafed by bombs. They are the ones we have to worry about. The young girls and boys who have learned to kill and who want to die in a suicide mission. Where will they be in seventeen years' time?


That is now . . .


She pulls the photograph out and drops it into the next tray to stop it developing further. She frowns, remembering the moment of the picture. News, she thinks, fact and fiction. She leans over the sink, then moves the picture to a third tray of acid that will fix the image.




Is it done?




Show me.

Why Israel?


It was a question that would haunt me throughout my stay in the Middle East. First my father, later my mother. In between the professionals and colleagues.


"You're going where?" my father says over the telephone.




"For how long?" I can tell by his tone that he's not pleased.


"I'm not sure," I reply. "A few months, maybe longer. I was hoping we could have dinner before I leave."


"Where are you now?"


"New York."


"I know you don't want to hear this, but I don't think this is a particularly wise move. What you really ought to do is get a normal nine-to-five job, learn how to dress properly, live in the real world for a change, stop acting like a gypsy. You know you did just turn thirty."


"Yes, I'm aware of that, Dad. But I'm scheduled to fly out next week. Besides, I'm looking forward to spending some time there. And I've already sublet my apartment."


"Well, where will you be staying?"




"What's the name of the hotel?"


"I don't know yet . . ."


Our conversation is nothing new, a minor variation on a familiar theme. Adventure—which includes anything that might come under the heading of diversity or change—is perceived by my father as negative deviation, a reckless departure from permanence and stability. That one can gather bits and pieces of moveable life together and simply depart baffles him.


." . . I promise, it's perfectly safe."


"It's foolish. How are you planning to support yourself?"


"I'll get assignments . . . and freelance."


I hear a long sigh, silence, then finally, "Why do you want to go to Israel?"


It's a question I've pondered myself. I'm not sure whether or not I'll be able to make a living. I have a few assignments, enough to keep me going for several months. I'll have to cope with the competition between journalists and collect visas. I have no friends there to speak of.


I've traveled to other Middle Eastern countries in the last few years. In 1982, I was on assignment for Time magazine to cover daily life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I returned again for Time in 1984 to photograph Libya's Muammar Qadhafi. But this is different. I'm moving in, resettling.


Then there is my own history: assimilated Jew. My grandfather changed his name. I've never been to a synagogue, have no Jewish friends, didn't even really know any Jews until I moved to New York. I knew I was "Jewish," but it meant nothing to me, was not a topic of conversation. I knew very little about Jewish history and even less about religion, tradition, or culture. I went to Waspy private and Catholic schools.


So, I am on my way to the Middle East. At least that's my intention when I arrive at New York's Kennedy Airport on a Sunday afternoon to board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv.


A row of low-slung wooden tables stretches across the room in front of the Israeli airline's ticket counters. Queues of people with their suitcases staggered alongside them extend from these benches all the way back to the doors that allow entrance to El Al's check-in area. No one flying to Tel Aviv is exempt from scrutiny.


For reasons of security, every passenger is subject to routine questioning before they're allowed to check in, but in my case, the questions and answers have skewed noticeably from the routine. Even worse, my "story" is suspect; at least that's what the young Israeli security person insinuates as she disappears with my passport and airline ticket. Minutes later she returns with a more experienced colleague, and the interrogation begins anew.


"Are you going to Israel for business or pleasure?"


I hesitate before answering, unsure myself why I have decided to go to Israel. "I'm a photojournalist and want to work there for a while," I say.


The Israeli security agent gestures at the two camera bags placed on the bench between us. "Is that your own personal equipment?" he asks.


I tell him yes, the cameras belong to me.


"Who do you work for?" he wants to know.


I explain that I freelance for various American news publications.


"May I see your press card?"


Since I'd left my New York City press badge at home, figuring it wouldn't be of any use in the Middle East, I show him a letter from Newsday, one of the newspapers I'll be stringing for. Addressed to Israel's Government Press Office, it requests that I be issued the appropriate foreign press credentials upon arrival. The security agent reads the letter. Then he studies my passport, discovers it's valid for travel to and from Israel and South Africa only, and wants to know why. I tell him I really don't know. The U.S. State Department issued the passport, and that's what they wrote.


"But why does it say Israel and South Africa?" He seems offended. "Do you have another passport?"


"Yes," I acknowledge.


"Why do you need two passports?"


"For the same reason all foreign journalists covering the region do. One can be used anywhere, and the other I need for going in and out of Israel." His eyes immediately harden. "Look, you know as well as I do that if your passport's been stamped by Israel you can't travel anywhere else in the Middle East. Except Egypt, that is."


"May I see your other passport?"


I hand over my second passport reluctantly. He examines it for some minutes and begins grilling me about why I've been to Libya. I tell him the truth. I went to Libya for Time magazine.


"Isn't five weeks an unusual amount of time to spend in a place like Libya?"


"Yes, I suppose it is."


"Who paid for your trip?"


"Time magazine."


"I'm not sure I understand what you were doing there."


"Me either," I joke, wondering which is worse: to be detained by the Libyans or interrogated by the Shin Bet, the Israeli security service. "Honestly, I was trying to take pictures but the fact is, I spent most of the time imprisoned in my hotel."


He doesn't smile. Again he wants to know why I'm not carrying a press card. It seems he wants further proof I'm bona fide foreign press. I notice that everyone waiting in line behind me is annoyed, and suddenly his disbelief irks me. I show him a copy of a letter from Time magazine that by chance I'd left in my passport folder. Addressed to Libya's Ministry of Information, the letter affirms I was on assignment there. It doesn't satisfy him.


Now he wants to know why I've been to Jordan. And isn't it odd that my visa to Jordan is valid for one year? And why do I have a six-month, multiple-entry visa to Lebanon? And what am I going to be doing in Israel? I look at my watch. He asks me why I'm nervous. I tell him I'm not nervous but exasperated. They've been questioning me for almost forty minutes. I'd like to know what the problem is. He says something in Hebrew to the young woman agent. As she walks away he comments quietly that if I really am a journalist, I'd understand their problems.


"You know," he says, "someone may ask you to carry something that doesn't belong to you. We have to be very careful."


I assume he's talking about explosives, so I add: "But if that's what you're concerned about, then why don't you open my bags?"


He says it's not necessary. The woman reappears with another interrogator, who seems to be head of security, and again I'm cross-examined. All I want to do is get on the plane, but he wants to know who paid for my airline ticket. I tell him I did.


"Isn't it peculiar that your newspaper didn't buy it for you?"


I reply no, it's not peculiar since I'm not staff. The head of security looks unconvinced, so I further explain that my expenses are paid for only when I'm on a specific assignment.


"But I thought you were working for Newsday . . ."


All the while I'm trying to stay calm, trying to be patient, but our perceptions of each other are getting more and more wayward. While the traveling I've done may raise their eyebrows, it's difficult to accept my integrity being questioned. What I see is an American Jewish photographer who thinks she wants to work in the Middle East, despite the potential complications and danger. But what they are looking at is an anonymous newsperson who has stamps in her passport from some of the countries most hostile to Israel. On top of that, she is young and single, and for sure they've read The Little Drummer Girl.


Now he asks where I'll be staying in Israel, and who is paying for that. And may he have the telephone number of my editor at Newsday. I don't like giving out anyone's home phone number, so I tell him I've only got the office numbers with me but it's Sunday, and no one will be in.


"Isn't it abnormal to be in the news business and not know your editor's home number?"


I give him the telephone number, thinking if I don't, I'll never be allowed on the plane. One of the security agents goes off, presumably to call my editor, leaving me fretting about what's going to happen if he's not home. Lucky for me, he's there and my "story" checks out. Yet the questions continue: have I been to Israel before; who do I know there; did I pack my bags myself; were they with me the whole time; how did I get to the airport; was it possible that someone could have slipped something into one of my suitcases without my knowing; and by the way, was I carrying any weapons?


An hour and ten minutes after the inquiry began, it abruptly concludes. The woman slaps yellow stickers onto my camera and duffel bags. At this I'm relieved. Had it been the red stickers, my suitcases would have been unpacked and every item examined, squeezed, or meticulously taken apart. Next comes a body search with clothes on. And if there are still any questions, a strip search.


I am finally allowed to check in at one of the El Al ticket counters, after which I pass through the carry-on X-ray security and then call Newsday's photo editor.


"What was that all about?" he asks.


"I haven't the foggiest. Security's incredibly tight, and I've been to all the wrong countries. They won't even tell us what gate the plane's boarding from."


"Christ," he says, "that bastard actually refused to believe I was Newsday's photo editor until I finally got mad and told him to call the managing editor."




Thirteen hours later, as my plane touches down at Ben Gurion Airport, everyone—men and women, young and old, religious and secular—begins clapping wildly. The gesture is emotional, sentimental, spontaneous. I think something has happened that I didn't see. Years later, I will realize that this delirium, to which I have been witness, was connected to a hidden subcurrent in their lives. From the very moment the wheels graze the runway, an ancient dream metamorphoses from a mystical kind of symbol into something visible before their eyes, a nation of their own. We have arrived safely in Israel.




I am standing in the stone courtyard of the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem scanning the front page of the Jerusalem Post, the local Israeli English-language daily. The headlines jump out at me: "Man killed as rocket hits Arab bus in Jerusalem."


The rocket, fired at point-blank range, ripped a thirty-centimeter hole in an Arab bus en route to Bethlehem. The bus was moving slowly and crammed with Palestinian workers and shoppers returning home. If the shoulder-launched weapon had hit ten centimeters lower, there would have been ten times as many casualties. As it was, one Palestinian was killed and eleven others wounded, many of them lacerated by shrapnel.


A note left at the scene was handwritten in Hebrew. The authors of the letter, who called themselves "the avengers," stated that for every Jew killed, they would kill two Arabs because, in their opinion, the government does not deal firmly with them. The immediate motive of the attack was to avenge the murder of two Israeli students that had taken place four days earlier. In that incident, a twenty-two-year-old Palestinian man from the Dehaishe refugee camp shot an Israeli couple in their early twenties hiking in the wadi below the Cremison monastery near Beit Jalla. He tied them to a tree in the Bethlehem countryside, covered their faces with rags, and executed them with one bullet each to the head.


The Israeli newspapers are filled with articles about mayhem. Jewish terrorists are on trial, accused of planting car bombs that amputated the legs of two West Bank Palestinian mayors; of conspiring to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the most sacred mosque in Jerusalem; and of planting powerful bombs beneath the chassis of five Arab-owned buses, which fortunately were detonated minutes before they were timed to explode. The more I read, the more it's difficult to distinguish between what the paper calls Arab terrorism and Jewish counterterrorism.


After unpacking, I lie down on my bed, fall asleep, and dream. The scene takes place in one of those great old Arab courtyards with a mosaic inlay crisscrossing its stone floor and a vine tree overhead, oozing oversize green grapes. Off to the side, a gigantic cheesecake sits on a round marble-topped table. The courtyard swarms with Arabs and Jews, except instead of shaking hands they swap faces, so that everyone is getting confused about who is who. In the meantime, the host is slicing cheesecake faster and faster, trying to fill the demand, which is more and more pressing. Miraculously, the cake continues delivering, although he's doled out more than could possibly exist. What is this supposed to mean, I wonder after I awake. The burning bush that is not consumed? Palestine? The proverbial cake that everyone wants a piece of?




The following day, in opening a debate on terror in the Israeli Knesset, Police Minister Haim Bar-Lev states: "The basic question we must ask ourselves with respect to Arab and Jewish terror is whether we believe in a single standard of morality or a double standard—one for Jews and one for Arabs. Counter-terror only incites further terror; it is the height of irresponsibility."


How much more than an arbitrary border stands between these men called enemies?




“Reading Danger Pay was a harrowing experience. Being a photojournalist on the front lines in the Middle East is no easy assignment. Writing about it with such vivid detail and thoughtful analysis is an equally impressive feat. This is a truly moving memoir in every way.”
Douglas Brinkley, Rice University, author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and editor of The Reagan Diaries

“A deeply felt and moving account from an enterprising and conscientious news photographer who worked the always busy beat of the Middle East in the last, great days of film photography.”
Rod Nordland, Chief Foreign Correspondent, Newsweek


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