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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.

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