Cheryl Hatch

Shipping film from outside the U.S.

As a young photojournalist, I based myself in Cairo from 1988 to 1992. I did contract work for Reuters and the Associated Press. Later Sipa Press in Paris represented my work. 

I shot black-and-white for personal work, color film for the wire services and chrome for Sipa and magazine work. When I traveled, I carried three film cameras: a Leica M-3 with b/w film, Nikon F2 with b/w, and a Nikon FM-2 with chrome. And I always had my trusty Sekonic light meter strung around my neck. Two of my three cameras did not have a reliable meter.

In the summer of 1992, I began covering the famine and civil war in Somalia. I traveled from the capital, Mogadishu, to Baidoa, in the interior, to Merca, along the southern coast. I documented the humanitarian efforts of the Somalia people and the international aid organizations, photographing at the starving at feeding centers, the victims of gunfire at hospitals, the dying and abandoned bodies along the country’s roadsides and the burials. 

I had a system for filing stories and shipping film. I would fly in-country for a couple of weeks at a time to do my reporting then I would return to Nairobi to send telexes to my editors to pitch and file my stories. Occasionally I would ship my film using a local freight company, but most often I would carry my film to the airport and ask a tourist or businessperson if she would be willing to carry my film to Paris. I’d telex the flight details, the name and a description of the passenger to my editor and Sipa would send a messenger on a moped to pick up the package from the passenger at the airport. An editor would then text me to confirm that the film had arrived and informed me of potential play and upcoming stories.

In October, I began spending time at an orphanage in Baidoa. A Somali man started it in an empty school, picking up abandoned and dying children off the street and begging for supplies and assistance from the international NGOs. The Irish NGO, GOAL, eventually helped run the program. 

I began visiting the orphanage regularly; I considered it a positive story in the midst of the suffering and madness. In the late fall of 1992, President Bush announced that he would send the U.S. military to assist with humanitarian efforts. A story that had been underreported throughout the summer and fall suddenly drew American media attention and TV outlets, newspapers and wire services began sending in their teams of reporters. 

I was on the beach at Mogadishu airport on December 9, when the U.S. military came ashore in the middle of the night. I flew out after the landing to file my photos and stories then I flew back in to cover the story as it shifted from a humanitarian operation to a military intervention. 

Before Christmas, I flew back to Nairobi. I had to hustle to find original, fresh stories and work since Somalia was blanketed in American and international coverage. I called Fred Nelson, a photo editor at the Seattle Times. He said he needed a story no one else had. I told him about the orphanage I’d been covering for the past few months.

“Is that the orphanage that President Bush will visit?” he asked. “What? It’s the only orphanage I know of, so yes,” I replied, though I wasn’t aware of the president’s impending visit. Fred told me he’d take the package if I could get him story and photos immediately after the president’s visit.

I needed to find a flight back into Somalia with an aid organization and get back to the orphanage in Baidoa before the president arrived. A tough task, again, with so many media organizations on the story; however, I’d built relationships with staff at most of the NGOs. I got a flight to Mogadishu the next day then hitched a ride to Baidoa. 

I learned only the press pool traveling with the president would be allowed inside the orphanage. I spoke with the GOAL and the Somali staff and they invited me inside ahead of the president’s arrival. It had been tricky because a gunman had shot and killed a volunteer teacher in front of me as the children returned from their noon meal at the orphanage the previous day when I was there photographing. They were concerned for my safety; again, they knew me and let me stay.

The following day, the president arrived with the press pool (Carol Guzy was in the pool.) I got inside early and had great access. I did my reporting and found a flight back to Nairobi from Baidoa. I wrote my story by hand on the bumpy flight then I typed it into the telex for transmission. I sent the chrome to Sipa in Paris. I sent a telex to Fred and let him know stories and a photo package with my b/w film would be heading his way. It was such a tight turnaround. The film had to make it to Seattle, so I shipped it via freight, telexed my story and waited.

Success. My photo package and story ran on the front page of the Dec. 31,1992 issue of The Seattle Times. It was packaged with a sidebar news story by Associated Press Nairobi bureau chief Reid Miller, who covered the presidential visit.

Then I hopped a plane back to Somalia and resumed my coverage.