Earlier this year, photojournalist Lindsey Léger packed up and moved to Turkey. She had been working as a photo editor at AARP, but felt it was time to pursue her career in photography. In April she documented an annual military competition at the King Adbullah Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) near Amman, Jordan. Every year, elite special forces and counter terrorism teams, mostly from the Middle East, Asia and the United States, compete. We caught up with Léger as she prepares to head back to Amman to spend some time with family, learn how to cook “proper Arabic” food and continue her photograph projects.
PDN: How did you find out about the military competition at KASOTC?
LL: Oddly enough, I found out about the warrior competition because of my mom. My mom is a bus driver in Las Vegas, and a while back, she had a passenger on her bus who was working in Jordan; she told them that I had lived there, I got in touch with him, and it turned out he was working at KASOTC. I have to give my mom the credit, since she didn’t bat an eye when I told her I was moving to the Middle East. I wanted to go and photograph it on my own for a couple of years, but timing just didn’t work out, and I finally made it this year. This was a personal project, although I did pitch beforehand to see if anyone would be interested in publishing it.
PDN: How do you feel this project relates to your other projects? Or were you trying something new?
LL: This was new for me, but I think it does tie into the other work I’ve done in the region. It hit on a number of topics I’m interested in that are all related to conflict, but is away from the front lines in a country that ostensibly shoulders the region’s stability.
I’ve photographed women digging up land mines on the Syrian border, which, for me, is part of the aftermath and how people get on with their lives. And I’ve photographed men storming fake villages in preparation for some future war. I think it says something about the gender roles involved in bringing society back to homeostasis. There’s also the fact that this is a big business, and I’m interested in the finances and how that contributes to proliferation of conflict.
The competition doubles as a trade show for buying all sorts of defense equipment. The center itself was built with an initial $90 million from the U.S. government. If your team gets into the competition, it’s free, but normally training at KASOTC can cost up to $250,000 per week. Any of these teams engaging in friendly sportsmanship could be shooting at each other two years from now. And there were also several police units participating—using the same tactics and equipment as military—and I think militarization of the police is a trend we can see in many different areas. It says something about what a country’s response might be in the face of demonstrations and civil unrest.
PDN: Why did you move instead of getting doing an extended stay?
LL: I liked being an editor, but I knew for a long time that my heart was back over here, and eventually, it was just time for me to go. I had left Jordan to finish my degree, and I think ever since I left I was planning how I would eventually get back. Once my paychecks got more substantial after graduating, I started putting money away. I made a couple of visits back and took Arabic courses in the evenings after work.
Financially, I budgeted what I would need to live, travel a bit, and work on some personal projects, for a year, even if I didn’t earn anything. I have a pretty frugal life here. But I actually feel that I have a better personal safety net in the Middle East than in the U.S., and that’s one of the things I love about Arab culture. Friends and family take care of each other. There’s always someone around for sobhayet, the tradition of morning coffee and gossip, and you don’t have to make an appointment with your friends two weeks in advance. There are definitely trade-offs, but for now, this is home.
My partner is from Jordan, so there was also the desire to no longer coordinate Skype dates eight time zones apart. We decided to try Turkey because he had work here and I thought the freelance market might be better here than in Amman. In Jordan, I generally stay with his family now.
PDN: How do you stay connected to clients/contacts in the United States?
LL: I’m still figuring out good ways to maintain communication with clients in the U.S., but honestly have been a little relaxed about it since I’ve been so focused on getting my Turkish and Arabic skills up to speed, and producing some new personal work to be able to show clients. Having worked as an editor, I think it helps to know how to communicate with certain people, what to include in a pitch, etc.
Knowing the publication’s audience is key; you don’t want to come across as careless and like you didn’t research what they do. But before I left, I mailed postcards to a bunch of editors that I knew, and got some good feedback from that. I always loved getting handwritten notes as an editor, so I dropped them a line to let them know where I was going, how to reach me, what I was working on. I try to send “thank you’s” after an assignment, or if somebody helps me out with a grant application or something. I’m visiting the U.S. this fall, so I’m hoping to set up personal meetings while I’m there to show new work.
PDN: Do you have any advice for emerging photojournalists who wish to live abroad?
LL: I would say, if you can do it, it’s worth the try—but you need to have strong reasons for doing so. Beyond earning a living and justifying your presence for a residency permit, at the end of the day, once you’ve landed in this new place and you’re sitting alone at home, you have to justify it to yourself.
Visit first, if possible, and pick someplace you’re genuinely interested in making your home. Be realistic about the cost of living, what you can earn, and your quality of life. And I’d say don’t go someplace where you have zero connections. Even for established freelancers, moving to a new place can mean work is going to be slow for a while. Try to mentally prepare yourself for it.
It might mean—God forbid—doing work aside from photography to keep you busy, to meet new people, and to make ends meet. Also, it’s important to keep your mental and physical health in check, and for whatever reason, that can be hard to do away from home. And get used to having to ask for help for all kinds of simple things—it will put a damper on your independence, but when you finally succeed doing it by yourself, it’s worth celebrating.
I would really encourage people to make an effort to learn some of the language before you go. You’ll have a totally different experience in a country if you can connect with people one-on-one. For work, I don’t like to rely on translators 100 percent of the time. My Arabic is not great, yet usually I end up being the one translating for other foreign journalists. Language connects you with a place, and I think learning some of its nuances makes you better able to report there. And Arabic is just full of flowery, at times heartbreakingly poetic, expressions that say so much about who people are and what they value. It should be personal. You should get attached.