Marissa Roth captures the devastation of international conflict through a different lens
By Michael Aushenker
Last weekend, “American Sniper” director Clint Eastwood defended his movie’s point of view, stating that “the biggest anti-war statement is what it does to the families left behind.”
As with most war films, Eastwood’s is told largely from a male perspective. Photojournalist Marissa Roth — among a group of L.A. Times shooters who won a Pulitzer Prize for photo coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots — flips the script with “One Person Crying: Women and War,” an ongoing exhibit at the Venice Arts Center.
“Venice Arts specializes in showing documentary photography, often with a social justice end,” said center Associate Director Elysa Voshell. “Through the lens of individual women’s stories, I thought it was a unique approach; something familiar but also a new way of looking at war.”
Three decades in the making, “One Person Crying” includes 70 images within the nonprofit’s 3,200-square-foot space and covers conflicts from World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Roth’s stark photos put a face on the fallout, whether it’s My Lai Massacre survivor Pham Thi Thuan or Vietnam War Army nurse Sarah Blum, who incurred Agent Orange-related health problems. There’s a poignant 1999 shot of Kosovar Albanian refugee Sebanate Berisha, who lost all of her children in a bombing raid, with a boy at a Tirana refugee center. There are also powerful images of Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Iwamoto; Alice McNally, a Catholic mother caught in the Northern Ireland conflict; and Auschwitz survivor Cathy Weiss, who once faced the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
Roth’s use of 35-millimeter black-and-white film stock heightens the inherent drama.
“Her portraits are incredibly real. They’re windows into the lives of her subjects,” Voshell said.
Roth’s “One Person Crying” journey began in July 1984 with Roth shooting her grandparents’ former home in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia.
“They were killed on the doorstep of their home in a massacre in January 1942, along with my great-grandmother and great-uncle,” Roth said.
Her Hungarian-Jewish mother and Yugoslavian-Jewish father fled Europe two weeks before Kristallnacht and got separated at Ellis Island but reunited by chance at Times Square five months later.
Raised in Beverly Hills, Roth joined her school paper while attending UCLA: “That galvanized my path [toward photojournalism]. The kids on the Bruin, we were very like-minded,” she said.
After apprenticing with UCLA professor and Oscar-winning documentarian Lou Stouman and landing fashion photography assignments at Fairchild Publications for W and other periodicals, she joined the L.A. Times as a freelancer in 1984 and jumped to The New York Times in 1994.
“I loved it. I’m pretty high energy,” Roth said of traveling into danger zones, including to the Philippines during an attempted coup. However, “the [L.A. Riots] were personal to me as an Angeleno. I realized that the line between civilization and anarchy was extremely thin.”
Roth flies to Rwanda and Asia in December to shoot the final images for a 2016 book. She’s also creating “Infinite Light: A Photographic Meditation on Tibet,” a series stemming from a 50th birthday trip in 2007 about “another culture forced into the Diaspora like the Jews.”
The images pack a punch: an Iraq-stationed American soldier’s intimate, “in-case-of-death” letter “made me cry as I was installing the show,” Voshell said.
“I’m very proud of this project,” Roth said. “I’m extremely grateful for this journey. It’s also healed me. I always had a longing for family. I found my own inner peace through war.”
“One Person Crying: Women and War” runs through March 12 at the Venice Arts Center for Media & Learning, 1702 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. Call (310) 392-0846 or visit venicearts.org.