These Photos Exist So People Won't Say "That Never Really Happened"

Fresh out of nursing school and just 22 years old, Alex Potter dreamed of being a photojournalist and bridging the gap between her home in the Midwest and the Middle East. After graduating from college, Potter left her native Minnesota and traveled to Jordan. When she saw that Yemen, a country on the Arabian Peninsula, had a big election coming up, she hopped on a plane in a matter of hours. Potter has been living in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, ever since.

When Houthi rebels seized power in February and forced out the country's president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Potter pointed her lens at the families around her as they struggled to cope. Airstrikes from neighboring Saudi Arabia, as well as the participation of fighters from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, or ISIS, have made the conflict a complex one. In March, ISIS carried out two major suicide bomb attacks at mosques in Sana'a, killing 137 people.

From behind her lens, Potter captured the anguish of her friends and neighbors when the section of the Old City she was living in was destroyed by an airstrike in June.

Potter's full breathtaking photo essay, "The Unthinkable: An Ancient City Plunges Into Darkness as a War on Civilians Rages" was recently published on NPR's website. Potter shares her photos and speaks with Refinery29 from Djibouti.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
What did you learn about the Middle East while growing up? What drew you to Yemen?
"In high school, I was pretty locally focused. Growing up in a small town allows you to engage with many parts of the community, so I wasn't very internationally focused until my junior and senior years in high school. By the time I went to college at Bethel University, I was very interested in the world in general, and by my junior year, I knew I wanted to be a journalist.

"I figured journalism was very competitive, [and] it's always good to have a practical trade. I enjoyed nursing as well, so I finished my degree. I studied for a month in Jordan, just a short interim trip about leadership in the Middle East context, but I took to the language and the people right away. I still have friends I keep in touch with there, so I knew I wanted to return to the Middle East. I started interning at a Minnesota nonprofit organization called the Iraqi American Reconciliation Project, using art and rehabilitation to engage communities from Minnesota and Iraq.

"...There were no nursing jobs about, so I headed to Jordan anyway. Jordan is a lovely country, but very quiet as far as news is concerned, so I started looking elsewhere as to where I could work as a journalist. Egypt was full of journalists, Syria and Iraq were at war, I wasn't interested in the Gulf, North Africa had a really difficult accent for Arabic, and I had a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to Lebanon coming up — so that left Yemen. I saw they had a post-revolution election coming up, so I bought my ticket and flew there from Jordan in the space of a few hours."

Photo caption: A Yemeni mother of seven lost her husband to an airstrike in Amran, Yemen, July 2015.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
When you arrived in Yemen, did you want to work as a nurse? What made you pick up your camera and start shooting?

"My purpose in coming to Yemen was photojournalism, and I immediately took to the people, so it made working there very easy. I had very little experience in the photojournalism industry or contacts in the community before Yemen. I took a Maine Media Workshop with Ron Haviv (who remains a good friend to this day), and photographed a few weeks of the Occupy Movement. Other than that, I was very green.

"But the community of local and international journalists who were there at the time, all people who loved and were very dedicated to Yemen, were so kind and helpful, showing me the ropes for Yemen and journalism in general. Over the next three years, from 2012 to 2015, I came to love the country and the people as if they were part of my family. Rather than coming to nurse and picking up a camera, I've reported on the country now for so long, I wish I could do more in the health context to help people during this conflict."

Photo caption: Yemeni women and children play near the Silah, a drainage road running around Old Sana'a, after heavy afternoon rains on August 6, 2015. Even before the war, Yemen had a severe water shortage; with the conflict complicating things, families have an even harder time accessing enough clean water.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
What happened when the airstrike hit your neighborhood? How did you feel, and why did you keep taking pictures?

"I was awake, as were my other friends in the house, when the strike hit. It was a strange sound, as most strikes have hit very solid buildings, hospitals with gas tanks, or a military area with weapons, all of which cause huge explosions. This time, we heard planes circling, a thud and very dull boom, then a whooshing sound, like dust and rocks falling down a hill, or like crumbling paper.

"My neighborhood is probably just 100 meters [328 feet] away from the site of the strike, so dust drifted over into our alleyway and into the window. I ran up to the roof and saw dozens of men running out with flashlights, and the most beautiful area in the Old City flattened. It was pretty surreal. A Yemeni friend ran out of our house to check it out, and I waited a bit to photograph, because you never know if there will be another strike or secondary explosion.

"Sure enough, the planes started circling again, and everyone turned off their flashlights. After about an hour I went out, and they still hadn't pulled out the first [lifeless] body. When they did, it was Shawki Qalala — a doctor that everyone knew and loved; later they pulled out his three cousins and one of their wives."

Photo caption: Yemeni men pull out the body of Shawki Qalala, a doctor at one of Sana'a's top hospitals, from the rubble following an airstrike on the Old City of Sana'a, Yemen, on June 12, 2015.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
What happened when the airstrike hit your neighborhood? How did you feel, and why did you keep taking pictures?
"Thank God, most of the families in the five homes that were destroyed had left that evening to another area when they heard the planes; if they hadn't evacuated, it would have been more than 50 people killed. The Old City homes are beautiful, but they're basically made of bricks, sticks, and dirt — they crumbled to dust when the strike hit.

"I felt so, so terrible. These people were my neighbors and friends, an educated family with no political ties, people who I had just talked to a few days before. The neighborhood was shocked because they — and I — believed the Old City was safe, that it would never be hit. It's very much a symbol of life and identity for those in Sana'a, the fact that that bubble wasn't impenetrable hit many people very hard.

"It wasn't even a question for me to keep photographing, and while people in the neighborhood were very emotional and angry, they wanted me to photograph as well. People rarely pay attention to Yemen anyway, so when something like this happens, it's necessary to at least have a record of it, so people can't say, 'Oh, that never really happened.'"

Photo caption: Mohammad Abdulrab Qahed stands for a portrait with his wife, Um Saad , and children Imad, Wiam, and Dua'a, at a school where they now live in Sana'a, Yemen on June 10, 2015. They are just one family out of the nearly 1.3 million Yemenis forced to leave their homes since the war began.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
Why is it important to you to document what is happening in Yemen? Do you feel Americans know enough about the conflict?

"I've just left the country after a few months back, and I feel terrible. I know there are people who advised me not to go back, that it was unwise and unsafe, especially since the U.S. has no diplomatic presence, but there are calculated risks to take in any conflict and unstable situation, and I do what I can to stay safe.

"If I wasn't there, people wouldn't have seen this strike, or the strike in Amran that killed 30 civilians, including nine children, and governments could continue to deny events like this ever happened. So for me, it was absolutely necessary to go. When the public hears news about Yemen, it's always in the form of 'Al Qaeda,' 'rebels,' or humanitarian statistics.

"People rarely, if ever, engage with Yemenis as individuals and human beings whose lives have value and worth. This is what I hope to do with the work I've done there in the past months. Americans know little to nothing about a conflict whose roots go back to the founding of Saudi Arabia as a country in the 1920s and the founding of Yemen as a republic in the 1960s — [the] repercussions [of which] continue to direct the country today. If I can even give a slice of what people are experiencing, people on the other side of the politics, it's a start."

Photo caption: Yemeni brothers climb the broken stairs of an apartment building damaged by airstrikes in the Faj Attan district of Sana'a, Yemen, on August 17, 2015. Faj Attan Mountain may have a large weapons cache inside, which, if hit by an airstrike, some assume could wipe out half the city.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
How are you able to take photographs of human suffering? Is it ever difficult?
"I've always been able to deal with the physical part of suffering — injuries and deaths — maybe it's [because of] the nursing? It does bother me, but what really hurts me is the emotional.

"When I see usually very stoic men cry at their mother's funeral, how a roomful of covered women surround a mother of seven who just lost the last male provider for the family, when I saw how Yemenis stuck in Cairo were being treated, how they were extorted for hotel rooms in Djibouti, how displaced people really have nowhere else to go, how refugees have nowhere to run except Djibouti and Somaliland, how most people I know would rather die on their own land than run, and how through all of it they keep strong and thank God for everything.

"That is what really hurts, the disregard for Yemenis' lives as individuals, how they're treated like they have no human worth. How exactly zero of the over $200 billion pledged by Saudi Arabia has been delivered, and all Yemenis want is a simple life, to provide for their families, and they're not able to have even that. That is was makes me furious and so sad."

Photo caption: A Yemeni man from Al Joob lifts the
thobe, a traditional robe, to show a shrapnel wound on a boy from the village on July 7, 2015. The injured youth was one of several boys selling produce to passing cars when the Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit, spraying them with shrapnel and killing nine children.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
Are you ever afraid when you are taking photos on the front line?
"In Yemen, I've never been on what one would call the 'front line,' I've never been where people are, for example, shooting at each other on the ground; that hasn't come to Sana'a. It's been more of an after-an-airstrike type of thing.

"But there are other things in Yemen one has to be prepared to have plans for — security-wise, political sensitivities, to know where to go in case things get bad, always having an out. It's always calculated when and where I take photos — I'd rather deliver the message safely than not be here to speak anymore; then I'm no help to anyone."

Photo caption: Yemeni boys drink tea in the darkness near the Old City of Sana'a on June 6, 2015. Since the war, most of the country has been plunged into darkness, leaving families to rely on generators for which there is no fuel, or on expensive solar panels.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
What do you hope your photos will inspire people to do?
"I hope people will finally pay attention — and put pressure on all the governments and parties involved with this conflict to find a solution, before Yemen goes down an even darker path. I hope people will finally see Yemenis as people rather than numbers, and at the very least, let others know that things like this are happening."

Photo caption: Yemeni women pray after burying their relative, Basim Sharqawy, who was killed in an airstrike in Sana'a, Yemen on May 27, 2015.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alex Potter.
What advice do you have for other young women who want to make a difference in conflict zones around the world, as you have?
"So many people told me this going into journalism, and I didn't believe it, but I would say if you want to do something, just do it. Even if it takes you a while, even if you have to do what you want part time and something you have to do part time, don't worry about it. If it's a money issue, you can make it work.

"At least three of the many times I've been working overseas I've had to go back to Minnesota and work as a nurse, because I'm still paying off my university loans. When your heart is really into something, you can make it work.

"As far as being a woman, 90% of the time I've found that as an advantage in conflict zones, so don't worry about that holding you back. Just be smart, tough, and dedicated to something you feel matters."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length. To hear more about Potter's work, listen to her interview with NPR host Rachel Martin on Weekend Edition here.

Photo caption: Yemenis from Al Joob village walk away from their new cemetery, dug to accommodate the 30 civilian victims of an airstrike, Amran, Yemen, on July 7, 2015.
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