Carolyn Cole is a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, who has covered conflicts in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Liberia, and now focuses her lens on environmental journalism. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Getty event titled “Is Journalism About Social Justice?” at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, she visited the green room to discuss pre-traumatic stress disorder, a savory Sudanese custard, and life on a houseboat.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished The Elephant Whisperer. It's a fantastic book about a man who sort of took on a wild family of elephants. It’s just fascinating. He and his wife created this reserve. And now I want to go and visit the reserve.
Well, this is a related question: If you could time travel to any year, in the past or the future, where would it be? What would it be?
You know, I'm pretty happy right where I am right now. I'm working on all these stories about the environment. And I feel like we're in a crisis period, and I want to try to help do something about it. So, moving forward, I'm afraid it would be very sad. And I've already lived in the past.
What keeps you up at night? I guess this is also sort of a related question, since you're doing environmental reporting.
I am very concerned about the environment. I tell people that I don't have post-traumatic stress from all the conflicts that I've covered; I have PTSD about the future.
So pre-traumatic stress disorder?
Yes, pre-traumatic stress, absolutely. I am really terrified about what we've done to our planet. And I've dedicated the rest of my career to trying to do something about it.
Is there a person that you’ve photographed in your many travels who’s stayed with you?
There's a couple of people but, you know, I am a news photographer. So I move very rapidly from one story to the next. I'm not a documentary photographer where I spend long periods of time with certain people. There's a couple of people, a young woman in Afghanistan I met as women were starting to gain ground in their rights in Afghanistan. And I've kept in touch with her. And there's a young boy—well, at the time he was young—that I photographed in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Those two I think stand out to me.
What is the best gift that you ever received?
You know, I have a great family. I mean, I think that is a gift. My mother and father have been always very supportive of the work that I do, as well as my sister. And you know, if I didn't have their support it would be a tough road. I’ll just say that my family is.
What's the most amazing meal you've eaten? It doesn't have to be delicious, just could be the one that blew you away.
There's something they eat in Sudan, which is sort of a rolled-up custard in gravy sauce. I think that's probably the most amazing thing that I have ever had.
Sweet or savory?
I wouldn't say sweet, probably more savory.
OK. French fries or onion rings?
I think onion rings.
What surprises you most about your life right now?
Let me see. I feel like I'm starting all over. I’ve worked 35 years but yet I feel like I'm just beginning again. I'm in a whole new area. I’d say that's pretty shocking.
What's the difference between reporting on the environment and the kind of conflict reporting that you did before?
I guess, you know, the environment can't stand up for itself—we have to stand up for it. That's a little different than man-made conflict.
Where do you take guests in L.A.?
I actually live on a houseboat in Marina del Rey. So they come to the houseboat, which has been really fun. I just moved back to L.A. after 14 years in New York, so for the last year I've been living on a little boat down in Marina del Rey. It just has one room and an upstairs living room. And I take them sailing, so those are the two places.
What's the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
My father just told me to not linger on the bus and keep moving forward.