L.A. Times Photojournalist Carolyn Cole

I Don’t Have Post-Traumatic Stress from All the Conflicts That I’ve Covered; I Have PTSD About the Future

L.A. Times Photojournalist Carolyn Cole | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Photo by Aaron Salcido.

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.

Q:

What are you reading right now?


A:

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.


Q:

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?


A:

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.


Q:

What keeps you up at night? I guess this is also sort of a related question, since you're doing environmental reporting.


A:

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.


Q:

So pre-traumatic stress disorder?


A:

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.


Q:

Is there a person that you’ve photographed in your many travels who’s stayed with you?


A:

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.


Q:

What is the best gift that you ever received?


A:

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.


Q:

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.


A:

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.


Q:

Sweet or savory?


A:

I wouldn't say sweet, probably more savory.


Q:

OK. French fries or onion rings?


A:

I think onion rings.


Q:

What surprises you most about your life right now?


A:

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.


Q:

What's the difference between reporting on the environment and the kind of conflict reporting that you did before?


A:

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.


Q:

Where do you take guests in L.A.?


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.


Q:

What's the best advice you’ve ever gotten?


A:

My father just told me to not linger on the bus and keep moving forward.