Today I am thrilled to be able to share this interview with photographer, storyteller and conflict management professional, author of the wonderful blog ‘Stories of Conflict and Love’.  Harvard graduate Roxanne has ‘lived, loved, laughed, worked, photographed, and agonized in Latin America, East Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East’.  We talked about seeing the world differently through the lens of a camera, life in post-conflict zones and about the role of creativity in making the world a better place. Dive in…

Roxanne Krystalli

1. How differently do you see the world through the lens of a camera?

In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton discusses the process of drawing while traveling. He remarks that drawing enables the traveler to see: to squint, to scrutinize, to look in a way that transcends the fleeting glimpse. Photography plays a similarly enabling role in my own life, even though it is more instantaneous than the process of drawing. I look through the viewfinder searching for beauty… or for surprise, incongruence, contradiction, conflict. The camera reminds me to look – to really look.

2. Your photos are beautiful and seem to capture so much emotion. How do you do that?

Elizabeth Gilbert has said that “we write only the books that we need to write”. That resonated deeply with me. We tell the stories we need to tell, we take the photos we need to take. I photograph scenes that closely mirror what I am thinking about, what I am drawn to: love and affection, compassion and kindness, contrast, contradiction and paradox, conflict and trauma, hope. When I witness those moments, they become a story I cannot imagine not wanting to capture and share.

The Taj Mahal reflected in a pool of water in Agra, India, courtesy of Roxanne KrystalliThe Taj Mahal reflected in a pool of water in Agra, India, courtesy of Roxanne Krystalli

3. Of all the photos you have taken on your travels, which one is your favourite and why?

When it comes to my own photographs, I have trouble distinguishing between the artistic value and the memory attached to a particular image. One of my favorite memories captured on film this year was on my birthday, January 2nd. I was visiting Greece, my homeland, with one of the people I love the most in this world. During one of our sight-seeing activities, we found a little girl playing in a puddle. The puddle reflected one of the monuments of the Acropolis. Her curiosity and whimsy still make me smile.

 Image courtesy of Roxanne KrystalliImage courtesy of Roxanne Krystalli

I also really enjoy assembling photoessays, containing variations on a theme of photography. One of my favorite photoessays is titled “Learning Lessons of Love” and contains images of affection I witnessed around the world. Another is titled “The places that make your heart crack” and it contains my photographic reflections, in sepia, on my time in Cuba.

4. You have lived and worked in many post-conflict areas.  What draws you there each time?

This is a question I keep asking myself. What originally drew me to this work and what keeps me in this field are by now distinct forces. My first exposure to gender-related development and conflict management happened when I received a fellowship to design projects that benefit populations living in conflict or post-conflict areas. I applied for the fellowship after graduating from Harvard University and working in Washington DC. At that point in my life, I felt the need to be “shaken by the shoulders”, to be moved by the world.  And shaken I have been! Through my work, travels and the people I have met, I have discovered an unprecedented level of fulfillment, inspiration and – paradoxical as it may seem in conflict or post-conflict areas – happiness. My own happiness has kept me accountable to myself: once you have experienced being moved by the world in undeniable ways, it is difficult to put yourself into situations that do not inspire you to give all of yourself and allow all of yourself to be affected in return.

What keeps me working in conflict and post-conflict zones are the stories. Stories of resilience, overcoming, courage, and optimism even in the darkest places and darkest times. I draw so much strength from the men and women whose paths are intertwined with mine on this journey. Their stories keep me out there.

The Acropolis is viewed through a wine glass in Athens, Greece, courtesy of Roxanne KrystalliThe Acropolis is viewed through a wine glass in Athens, Greece, courtesy of Roxanne Krystalli

5. What is the most important thing you share in your conflict management work that is a lesson to us all?

While the dispute resolution and post-conflict reintegration and development tools that we use are immensely valuable, what I feel most strongly about is the transformative power of empathy. I think of empathy as sitting with someone through their dark or happy place and sharing that space. The notions of empathy and compassion are strongly linked in my mind. One of my greatest sources of inspiration, Marianne Elliott,  frames this in terms of kindness – a kind of kindness we extent to ourselves and others alike. According to Marianne, “self-kindness is a radical act. It sets us free to serve others, to live a life of courageous compassion, to create positive change.” In my mind, I cannot use the words conflict, violence, and cruelty every day if I do not commit to having the words and practices of compassion, empathy, and kindness outshine them.

A kiss in Plaza de la Catedral in Havana, Cuba, courtesy of Roxanne Krystalli A kiss in Plaza de la Catedral in Havana, Cuba, courtesy of Roxanne Krystalli

6. What role is there for creativity and storytelling in making the world a better place?

On an initial level, creativity and storytelling can breed empathy. They allow for a cross-pollination of ideas and life experiences that can inspire us to see the grey, to understand complexity, and – hopefully – to extend compassion. On another level, telling one’s story can be empowering for oneself as well. One of my favorite books about storytelling and the ways stories shape not only the lives of readers, but also of the storytellers and the people sharing their experience is Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Miller argues that the act of telling our story can plant a seed for living a better story too. Miller uses the term “emotional inheritance of stories” and I have been enchanted by it since I read it.

On the flipside, there is a responsibility attached to storytelling and an associated danger as well. Jina Moore discusses issues of meaningful consent in journalism and storytelling, particularly in conflict zones or trauma situations. Acumen’s Blair Miller highlights a few challenges and calls to action for storytellers and The Rumpus sheds light on the fake memoir and on the stories we wish we could tell. These articles have planted a few questions in my head: Whose story is it to tell? How can I tell it responsibly? How does this story affect me and others and how does the telling of it affect the subject? And what do I find magical about all this? Why am I even drawn to this story in the first place?

7. Looking back over all your travels to date, who is the most extraordinary person you have met, and why?

There is a woman I met in a country recently. She will remain “a woman in a country” because I cannot disclose her identity or the closed, highly-controlled society in which she lives. She is a journalist in a place where speaking the truth can cost one her life. She is a mother who joked that the two bottles of refreshments and bag of pastries that my friend and I brought to her home were the most food her fridge had ever seen. She understands the limitations and sees the glass ceiling, but is determined to shatter them. She admits to her own fear and vulnerability, but will not let them overshadow her struggle for justice. Her story moves me and haunts me to this day and I hope that, one day, she can safely share it with you herself.

Boys playing soccer in an alley in Havana, Cuba with a peace sign in the background, courtesy of Roxanne KrystalliBoys playing soccer in an alley in Havana, Cuba with a peace sign in the background, courtesy of Roxanne Krystalli

8. What does ‘doing what you love’ mean to you personally?

Coming alive, being moved by the world, being shaken by the shoulders. There is a slight nausea attached to publishing a piece I care deeply about or sharing a photograph or putting my heart on the line. The rushing feeling at the top of my stomach reminds me of my attachment. I am still discovering the beauty of being attached: it enables me to be fully affected by people, places and stories without shielding myself from their grip over me.  Doing what I love, essentially, means seeking the experiences that inspire me to be engaged and attached, finding the people and places that make me come alive.

Roxanne chronicles her journey of conflict management and storytelling at Stories of Conflict and Love.  She can also be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rkrystalli.

This interview is part of Photography Fortnight on Do What You Love. Check back each day for the next week and a half for more images, stories and photography tips!

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See here for more interviews with inspiring people doing what they love.

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