WASHINGTON — The explosion came in the early morning, abruptly waking Laurence Geai. It was July 2014, and the French photojournalist was on assignment in Aleppo, Syria, covering how the Assad regime was targeting a hospital in the ancient city.
While others fled, Geai picked up her camera.
“I remember I was shaking,” she told VOA from her home in Paris. “I was very stressed. My pictures were not good at all.”
While documenting the scene, she heard a fighter jet approach — a sign that another explosion was imminent.
“The blast, I remember, pushed me on the side of the road,” Geai said.
Still, she took more photos, documenting the explosion that struck just outside a field hospital.
“Some people got killed straight away,” Geai recalled. “They were laying on the floor, almost naked, because the blast destroyed their clothes.”
By the time Geai arrived in Aleppo, she had been working as a photojournalist for less than a year. Dangerous situations like what she experienced in the Syrian city set the tone for the many assignments that followed, taking her to conflict zones in Iraq, Palestine and Ukraine.
Her work was recognized in late May with the 2023 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, or IWMF.
The annual award honors German Associated Press photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2014.
Geai is the ninth recipient of the award, which “recognizes women photojournalists who document humanity amid conflict and challenges facing marginalized communities worldwide,” according to the IWMF.
Two additional honorees — Korean American photojournalist Yunghi Kim and French photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie — were also recognized this year.
“Anja’s legacy, simply stated, was to report where others may not look and bring women-led, visual journalism to people around the world,” IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz said in a statement. “The IWMF is proud to recognize Laurence, Yunghi and Veronique in this spirit and honor the importance, and nuance, of a woman’s lens in the field of photojournalism.”
Geai said she feels proud to be recognized for her work.
“It gives me the opportunity to continue her legacy,” she said, referring to Niedringhaus.
Being recognized was meaningful for de Viguerie because like the award’s namesake, she has worked extensively in Afghanistan.
“It’s the country that made me a photographer. I was born as a photographer there,” she said.
De Viguerie first traveled to Afghanistan in 2004 and stayed for three years. She returns multiple times every year.
For Kim, the recognition carries special importance because she and Niedringhaus both entered the field of conflict photojournalism when it was male dominated.
“We are of the same generation of women,” Kim told VOA from New York by phone “There’s really a handful of women who did conflict photography in the ’90s.”
All three of the 2023 honorees said that because of the nature of the work, photojournalists face safety threats that other types of journalists don’t.
Photojournalists have no alternative to being on the ground. “We cannot do it from a distance,” de Viguerie said. “If we miss it, we miss it.”
“You have to be there when the [news happens],” Kim said, recalling how she was in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, when U.S. Marines landed in December 1992.
Kim has had many close calls over her nearly four decade-long career — the first of which was on her first trip to Somalia in October 1992 to cover a famine when she was a staff photographer for The Boston Globe.
While there, Kim was briefly held hostage when a warlord took over the town in which she was staying.
“You could feel the heat from the explosions,” Kim said. “I thought I was going to die. So, the only thing I could do was sit there and smoke cigarettes.
“That experience made me a stronger person,” she added.
Geai and de Viguerie have faced more than their fair share of close calls, as well.
“The danger is everywhere,” Geai said.
But they do it all for the photos they hope will convey the gravity of crises and make people care about them, despite being thousands of miles away.
It was the extremes of conflict that first drew Geai to the field.
“I was very curious about the worst of humanity and the best of humanity,” she said. “In war, you see the worst and the best.”
Still, bearing witness to extreme violence and surviving attacks can take an emotional toll.
“I will not do it all my life,” Geai said. “We are photojournalists, but we are first human.”