Corinne Dufka

Reuters and Human Rights Watch, United States

In 1989, Dufka joined Reuters in El Salvador and went on to Bosnia, then conflict-ridden countries in Africa, becoming Reuters’ chief photographer for East Africa. In addition to the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award, Dufka has received other recognition for her work, including a Pulitzer Honorable Mention. She is on leave from Reuters to work with Human Rights Watch – Africa Division and is posted in Freetown, Sierra Leone, documenting human rights abuses.

Of the Courage in Journalism Award, Dufka tells the IWMF that “the biggest impact of receiving this award has been the attention it has brought to the types of conflicts I cover, civil war and ethnic strife. However,” she added, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to get agencies (wire and otherwise) to commit resources to pay for covering conflict; particularly in the third world.”

Before she became a photojournalist, Dufka was a psychiatric social worker in San Francisco. After 10 years at that job, she spent two years working with the Lutheran Church of El Salvador as a social worker. She then became a human rights investigator tracking down abuses by the Salvadoran death squads.

She taught herself photography, first taking pictures for church publications, then documenting the unfolding human rights abuses in El Salvador as a freelancer for Reuters and foreign newspapers. Reuters hired her in 1989 and, after the end of the civil war in El Salvador in 1992, transferred her first to Europe, then to Africa. She took harrowing photographs of the human toll of wars and ethnic cleansings. A land mine in Bosnia badly injured her in 1993. And she lost many colleagues in the conflicts, where journalists were targeted along with the opposition.

For years, she was Reuters’ photographer in 25 African countries, many of them war zones. She rarely took time off to recharge her batteries. She kept going, kept taking risks.

Ultimately, she realized that constant coverage of war affected her in ways that prompted her to leave journalism. That insight came to her after the 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania in which there was a huge loss of life. Dufka was on a plane leaving Nairobi, the Kenyan capital where she was based, just 10 minutes before the blasts. She was jolted by her reaction when she learned about the bombing. She told a reporter in 2003 that “I found I was far more upset about missing it than about what happened, than the human impact … . Eleven years of covering war was dehumanizing.”

Documenting the horrors of war has an impact on journalists, she said. “I was quite clear about what kind of picture would be clear enough to convey a message, how that would affect the viewers and readers. But from a personal point of view, 17 conflicts, having numerous friends killed, seeing executions all around me – it took a toll on me,” she said.

She left Reuters in 1999, then moved from Kenya to Sierra Leone, where she opened a field office for Human Rights Watch.

As a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Sierra Leone, she embarked on a process of investigating atrocities that included widespread limb amputations. This meant “actually sitting down with someone, in a living room or under a tree, and talking to them for two hours. You listen to their story, write all the details. Sometimes you even cry with them. You meet their families and their kids. I just felt like it was a much more complete way of engaging with the victims of awful atrocities,” she said.

She hastens to add “that I don’t think one is more important than another. I still value the contributions that photojournalists make.”

In 2002, Dufka took a year’s leave to work as a criminal investigator for the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. “It was very rewarding to participate in a process that was holding accountable people who had been responsible for the abuses I had been documenting … I’d seen lives shattered, people having their arms and limbs hacked off.”

In late 2003, she returned to Human Rights Watch and was packing for a transfer to New York when she got the call notifying her she had won a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius award.”

A MacArthur Foundation statement said Dufka had “intrepidly recorded the devastation” of the civil war in Sierra Leone, first as a Reuters photojournalist and then in Human Rights Watch interviews.

As a court investigator, the foundation said, Dufka documented the atrocities and challenged Sierra Leoneans “to preserve their recent history both to bring past criminals to justice and to deter future human rights abuse. Her strategy of understanding, exposing, documenting and teaching, described by many as visionary, has significantly facilitated Sierra Leone’s ongoing transition towards peaceful self-government and serves as a model for this region and beyond.”

Dufka’s job at Human Rights Watch draws on all the skills she has acquired as a social worker, journalist and human rights analyst and advocate. She said that in many ways the Courage Award ceremony “was the highest point of my career. It was fabulous.” It not only brought her into contact with prominent media women, but it gave her a platform to talk “about the conflicts in the countries I was covering, facilitating exposure for a lot of forgotten places in the world. It was a great opportunity.”

Dufka feels that while the risks she took when she tried to obtain an image within a conflict zone were great, women who work within the conflict regions in their own countries have much more at stake. In addition to the danger to their own safety, they also risk harm to their families, to their professional future and their freedom. “I feel their actions take much more courage and indeed many more layers of personal commitment,” she said.

In El Salvador, the director of a local human rights commission was trying to persuade Dufka to set up a photo documentation program for them. Two weeks later, he was gunned down by death squads. She took the photos of his body that made The New York Times the next day. She also took the job he had offered her.

After the land mine injury in Bosnia, her doctor ordered rest but when Reuters called three weeks later with an assignment in Somalia, she took it – along with a cane. In Rwanda, while she was covering Hutu death squads against the Tutsi, a blood-spattered man posing as a doctor came up and pointed a gun at her head. She talked her way free and kept taking pictures.

Even though she faced these types of risks, Dufka said she realized while at the Courage ceremonies that the risks for in-country journalists were even greater. “Mine was getting these pictures and documenting what was happening. They risk even losing their lives and their families, being objects of persecution.”

Corinne Dufka is the fourth Courage in Journalism Award winner from the United States, following Caryle Murphy(1990), Donna Ferrato(1993) and Christiane Amanpour(1994). U.S. awardees after Dufka are Elizabeth Neuffer (1998), Anne Garrels (2003) and Jill Carroll (2006).

Corinne Dufka (right) with fellow 1997 Courage Awardees Bina Bektiati from Indonesia (second from the left), Maribel Gutierrez Moreno from Mexico (third from the left), and daughter of Lifetime Achievement Awardee Nancy Woodhull from the United States (left) at the Courage Award Ceremony in 1997.

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