Alexandra Boulat

Photojournalist fearless in pursuing stories of civilian life in war zones
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Alexandra Boulat, photojournalist: born Paris 2 May 1962; died Paris 5 October 2007.

Television viewers might have seen Alexandra Boulat at work as US troops entered Baghdad in 2003: crouched in that photojournalist stance and scurrying backwards as jubilant Iraqi men dragged the fallen statue of Saddam Hussein through the city streets. Magazine readers most likely saw the rich images she produced over the past 18 years, in Time or Newsweek, Paris Match or National Geographic.

Alex Boulat, one of just a handful of female photographers working in war zones, spent most of her photographic career moving around frontlines, in Iraq and Israel, Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Rwanda. But she was most interested in the stories of civilians affected by war than of those fighting, and surely spent more time making pictures of women and children than of men carrying guns.

She was fearless in her pursuit of those stories and risked her life more often than her friends and family probably cared to know.

"Her passion was her photography – she had a real desire to do it and that kept her going," said Ron Haviv, a fellow photojournalist who met Boulat during the Croatian war in 1991 and worked with her throughout the Balkan wars. Her journalistic efforts went beyond the pictures she made, Haviv said, pointing to Alexandra's friendship with Zlata Filipovic, the young Bosnian girl whose wartime diary was compared to Anne Frank, and her efforts to ensure that Zlata's book was published.

Although Boulat, born in Paris in 1962, was trained in graphic art and art history at the Beaux Arts and started out as a painter, it was perhaps inevitable that she would pick up a camera professionally. Her father, Pierre Boulat, was a well-known photographer who worked for Life magazine and her mother, Annie Boulat, founded the Cosmos photo agency and is still a force on the photojournalism scene. Pierre photographed the young Yves St Laurent as he burst upon the fashion scene in the 1960s; almost 40 years later, Alex documented St Laurent's last show, capturing intimate moments with the designer on the edge of retiring.

On 9 September 2001, Alex Boulat, Ron Haviv and five friends and colleagues founded VII photo agency, which specialises in documenting conflict – political, social and environmental. Two days later they sat mesmerised in Boulat's Paris apartment watching the twin towers fall. She soon took off for Pakistan, looking for a way into Taliban-held Afghanistan. After weeks of frustration, Boulat walked into the Pakistani Home Affairs office in Quetta and demanded permission to cross the border – and a Mercedes-Benz to take her. The stunned officials gave her the pass – but not the car.

After that war, she took a long and arduous road trip in Afghanistan and Iran to document the lives of women who remain hidden far behind the headlines, producing a remarkable account of the journey.

In 2002, Boulat, who won numerous awards for her work, published two books showcasing the range of her career – Paris, the portrait of a city, and Eclats de Guerre, a collection of her work from the former Yugoslavia. (The latter appeared in English the following year as The Triumph of Evil: the wars that dismantled Yugoslavia.). She also contributed to VII's volume of post 9/11 photographs, War (2004).

Beyond war, Boulat had started to work for National Geographic, photographing Indonesia, Albania and Morocco, and she was perfectly placed to take the magazine beyond its normal subject matter by covering the war in Iraq in 2003.

She spent months in Baghdad waiting for the US invasion; she convinced the Iraqi Ministry of Information that she was in the country to work on a book – and asked the Iraqi officials to contribute the text, thus guaranteeing she would not be expelled. On 12 March 2003, she wrote in a war diary published in the magazine:

The Iraqi people cannot imagine the invasion of their country by Americans, and even the thought of it is forbidden. The topic is taboo. Most of them secretly wish that Saddam would disappear, but not at the price of an American invasion. For it is not war they fear but consequences. Yet without admitting it, the people are waiting for war. And so am I. Over time, the constant tension between the hope for peace and the fear of war becomes so unbearable that everyone ends up wishing that war would just begin.

As she told readers, Boulat spent months travelling around Iraq before the war "looking for clues to what is real here in the lives of ordinary Iraqis". She concluded,

Even now, on the eve of war, most of the Iraqis I talk to believe they will survive. I spent the other evening with a well-to-do woman whose villa was filled with art and antiques. She has decided not to leave Baghdad. To protect her belongings against any damage, she had packed up most of her furniture. But the next morning she woke up in her empty house and felt so depressed that she unpacked everything.

She says she's not worried about the war, but about what will happen afterward. Who will rule Iraq? Will there be a civil war? What will be left standing? Will Iraq survive as a country? These are the biggest questions of all, and no one here can answer them.

But Alex Boulat, at least, was asking.

In June this year, Boulat suffered an aneurysm and collapsed. She was taken to hospital in Jerusalem and put into a medical coma. Weeks later, she was transported home to Paris, but she never recovered consciousness.

Emma Daly