War in Winter: The Photography
of Cynthia Elbaum ’89
By Carole Fuller
Seated in the quiet of the Sophia Smith Collection research
area, I have the privilege of holding the battered, lined notebook in which freelance
photojournalist Cynthia Elbaum ’89 tried to keep a daily journal of her experiences
during her last trip to Russia. As always in working with original materials, I am
touched and amazed at the power of studying such an intimate piece of someone’s
life. It is this privilege that Elbaum’s mother sought to preserve in giving
the papers of her daughter, who graduated from Smith as a Russian studies major,
to Smith’s unique women’s history collection.
There are only a weeks’ worth of entries, dated
in Russian and written in English, made while she was looking for work after arriving
in Moscow in December 1994. In a few words, she deftly sketches observations about
relationships, life and love, her work, and how she has come to know her own personality
and values. The entries end several weeks later, shortly before she was killed in
Chechnya during aerial bombing while photographing the war that has raged since the
breakup of the Soviet Union. Moved by the bloody aftermath of Boris Yeltsin’s
takeover of the Russian parliament, she had traveled to Chechnya to cover the buildup
of Russian troops in that strategic region.
Although her camera and the film from her last day
were lost with her, more of Elbaum’s images were found in her belongings when
fellow journalists gathered her possessions to send back to her parents. The photos
show a countryside that is bleak, torn and has literally been blasted.
There are the letters from representatives and senators
to State Department officials; their careful replies underline their inability to
do more than extend sympathy for the carnage that killed Elbaum and 20 other civilians
in a matter of minutes on a quiet Sunday morning when Russian jets screamed in and
dropped their bombs. And there are expressions of grief from other journalists from
the world’s news services on the death of yet another of their number.
The Sophia Smith Collection holds the work of several
women photojournalists, and Elbaum’s images and papers bring that collection
into our own era. But what emerges most strongly is Elbaum’s determination
to find the roots of her own heritage and understand societies from the perspective
of individuals who have been yanked into the 21st century with so little preparation
and so few resources.
The work Elbaum left in her brief life is gritty, compelling
and textured. After graduating from Smith, where she studied photography and Russian,
she went to the University of Moscow on a scholarship; she later moved to New York
and worked in the city teaching English to Russian refugees. In 1994 she went back
to Moscow and then Chechnya as a photojournalist on assignment for Time magazine,
with a desire to photograph the growing conflict while trying to document not only
what is universally human but also the fierce pride that has marked the people of
the Caucasus for generations.
Elbaum brought all her learning to bear on developing
her independence, getting herself halfway around the world, finding work in a perilous
economy and putting her life on the line to capture history. She was doing what she
chose to do. Looking at her work, we can only wonder what she would have achieved
if her choice had not cost her everything.
Photographs from contact prints (Cynthia Elbaum Papers);
photographer/creator: Cynthia Elbaum; copyright: Jude Elbaum.