As a young girl, Mary Rogers loved looking at photos in National Geographic. She dreamed of a job that would take her all over the world, to see the images in the glossy magazine up close. Her journey is part of “No Ordinary Life,” a new film by Heather O’Neill, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Atlanta. The film follows Rogers and four other pioneering camerawomen — Cynde Strand, Jane Evans, Maria Fleet and the late Margaret Moth — who braved the front lines of wars and revolutions from behind their cameras, in a male-dominated field.
Rogers became a multiple Emmy and Peabody Award-winning photojournalist with CNN International, placing her in the middle of major conflicts in countries around the world. She has filmed news footage of wars in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Syria and more.
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie. It’s not all about the front lines and bang-bang with me,” Rogers said. “In war zones, what I care about the most are the civilians, the human beings through no choice of their own, are forced to live in these places.”
“No Ordinary Life” is O’Neill’s directorial debut on a feature documentary film, which will have its online world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday.
O’Neill, who worked on CNN documentaries before the unit she was in closed, said she had wanted to make a film about these camerawomen for years. She said she knew four of them and, having worked internationally herself, she rarely saw women photojournalists.
“I just knew of these women, and they were such legends,” O’Neill said. “I want people to understand that there is great value in telling women’s stories. A film about five strong, accomplished camerawomen has the potential to transform people’s existing beliefs about the power of women. I think this will make people think differently about what women can achieve and what women accomplish.”
A few years ago, O’Neill began to approach them about the film (with the exception of Roth, who died of cancer in 2010). The conversations happened slowly, but they eventually agreed.
Evans admitted to being hesitant at first. It wasn’t that she thought her stories and those of the other camerawomen were not interesting. “We could entertain a dinner table quite easily,” Evans said with a chuckle.
It was that the stories of the people whose lives were shaped by the events she covered were important, not her own.
Evans, who won multiple Emmy awards as a photojournalist and producer with CNN International, covered world events like the civil war in Lebanon, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution. She’s been based in Beirut, Rome and London.
Evans said her female and male colleagues all faced the same challenges in the circumstances they found themselves in. But there were personal challenges for the camerawomen, such as figuring out where to go to the bathroom in the middle of nowhere. Evans said she used a military green poncho she’d throw on that formed a sort of tent around her for when she needed to go.
Sometimes, in the Middle East, Evans said there was some maneuvering around spaces that only allowed women or men.
“But did I ever find that it prohibited me from doing my job? No,” she said.
When she was living in Beirut, Evans — who was in her early 20s at the time — recalled being peppered by questions from local women. “They were my age, they were already married with two or three kids, they would ask questions like ‘Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you have kids? What are you doing?’ Evans said. “But in a very kind, wonderfully lovely manner. I never felt insulted or anything.”
In the film, Evans talks about how her fourth-grade teacher wanted her class to give a gift to the world. Evans’ gift to the world was a camera. “I was worried about people in war and I wanted to help make peace and I also wanted people to understand each other and I felt like, with a camera, you could understand each other,” she said.
In “No Ordinary Life,” the five camerawomen reflect on their careers, the challenges they faced as women in a male-dominated field and the trauma they witnessed and experienced as part of their jobs.
We hear Mary Rogers talk about being on the frontlines when Libya fell into civil war. There were a couple close calls, she said.
When Moth is introduced, we hear her talk about wanting to be a “cameraman in news.” She says she fought for years to get that position. “And they would say outright, ‘Oh we don’t hire women,’” she says. “I do seem like I was born to be a news cameraman.”
Cynde Strand, who for more than 20 years traveled the world as a CNN cameraperson/producer, says in the film that they took care of each other. “Back then, we certainly didn’t have the knowledge of PTSD like we have today,” she said.
Maria Fleet, who was based in CNN’s Rome bureau for a decade, said that photographers have a “daunting responsibility” because they witness events for the world. “There’s such a power in pictures,” she said. “People often will remember only the photograph.”
“No Ordinary Life” includes commentary from other journalists like CNN’s chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour and Ingrid Formanek, an executive producer for CNN International, and includes footage of conflicts the camerawomen filmed themselves. O’Neill said the footage the photojournalists kept all these years was “an absolute treasure discovery.” CNN granted a license for O’Neill and Rich Brooks, director of photographer/producer of “No Ordinary Life,” to use the footage. Brooks, who has also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, knew the women and worked with them at CNN. He said hundreds and hundreds of hours of videotape had to be digitized so they could view it while making the film.
“I likened it to a mining operation — where you just keep going through the tape and you mine the little bits that you’re going to use,” Brooks said. “There’s so much left on the floor, still.”
Over the process of making the film, O’Neill said the most surprising thing for her was how the camerawoman transformed and opened up.
“The more footage we would watch together, they would tell me about it. They surprised me in the sense that they really got into the story and into the film,” she said. “It took them a little while, but I think there just came a point where they could stand back and say, ‘Wow, look at the body of our work collectively.’ It was a process for them to let go. They’re also producers, they’re strong women, but I think it was interesting to see how they transformed through this process.”