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Documenting Displacement 

By Max Kutner

Amy Kaslow ’81 has long written about and photographed the fallout from those other conflicts. “I always knew I wanted to be a journalist,” she says. That interest developed at Vassar, where she studied religion and international law and wrote for The Miscellany News. After graduation and a stint writing briefs at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she flew to Cairo and then Tel Aviv for graduate work. She soon started covering the Middle East as a journalist, before traveling to report from other regions. Since then, she has witnessed and documented a seemingly endless string of refugee crises around the world. “It’s a tumbleweed,” she says. “It’s one after another after another.”

Kaslow says she was drawn to covering “messy stuff and how to move through mess and somehow create order out of chaos.” Starting early in her career, she threw herself into the chaos, flying to conflict zones overseas where few Western journalists would go. She sometimes ran into trouble; while reporting from Iraq in 1989, she says, she was poisoned and hospitalized for two weeks. When she recovered and returned to her hotel, she found signs that someone had gone through her notes and yanked the tapes out of her microcassettes.

The kind of work Kaslow does remains risky. As captured on video in January 2016, migrants at the makeshift camp on Calais, France, known as “The Jungle” attacked two journalists. (The victims later said that people on both sides of the issue criticized them for posting the footage.) Meanwhile, certain European governments have been hostile to journalists covering the ongoing refugee crisis, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit, as have nationalist groups that have gained prominence due to the influx of migrants. A July 2017 study of 80 journalists by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that journalists covering crisis sometimes suffered from “moral injury,” such as feeling guilt or shame.

But taking those risks produces important work. Kaslow’s writing and photography have appeared in outlets including the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and the Economist, and she has advised organizations and the United States government. She compiled some of that work for the traveling exhibition Victims, Perpetrators, Eyewitnesses, and Survivors: Life After War, which Vassar showcased in 2016. The collection of more than 25 photographs depicts victims, some of whom are survivors of conflicts long over. Her images include people who lived through fighting in Iran and Iraq, the Khmer Rouge killing fields, apartheid-era South Africa, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust, and other atrocities.

“In these troubled spots, it’s easy to read a headline or form a quick opinion based on limited information,” she says. “But these are complex issues, and I think the more we can do to pull apart the onion, the better we can understand people.”

One photo in the current version of the collection, which Kaslow took to Hanoi, Vietnam, this year, depicts an elderly woman sitting against a tree. In exhibition notes, Kaslow describes how millions of people in that country have migrated to cities from rural areas in search of work. While in Vietnam, Kaslow interviewed members of the “Boat People,” Vietnamese who fled by water after the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam in 1973. Another photo, from 1997, depicts an elderly Jewish woman outside a soup kitchen in Moscow. The woman and others there continued to struggle after years of displacement and conflicts such as the Holocaust, according to Kaslow. “There are scars from war that just linger,” she said in a 2011 TEDx Talk. “Refugee status sometimes is years and years and years, or decades. Its also a very stubborn thing to shake.”

Kaslow and Shiva both want to make an impact with their work. Shiva said she hopes people who see her latest film—which can be found on EPIX—will find was in their own communities to respond to the refugee crisis. Kaslow would agree with that goal; in a convocation address she gave last year at Carleton College, she implored the students to go out into the world and make it better for others, naming dozens of potential careers and ways to achieve that. “Help those who can’t help themselves. Help those who need protection,” she said. “Push hard for results. Join others.”