From ‘Gidget’ to Gaza

As a teenager growing up in 1970s Malibu, Alexandra Avakian honed the photography skills she learned from her father by using the scenic canyons, beaches and bluffs as her canvas. The experience served as an unlikely springboard to a 29-year career as a conflict photographer, during which she has covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and risked her life in Lebanon covering the militant Islamic group Hezbollah.

This Thursday, April 4, Avakian will give a free lecture called “Malibu Teen to Conflict Photographer and Beyond,” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

“It’s about how you go from a girl who loves the beach in 1970s Malibu, which is just an amazing place to be a teenager, to covering the major revolutions of my times,” Avakian said last week in a telephone interview with The Malibu Times. “How do you go from the beach in Malibu to covering Hezbollah?”

On display will be pictures Avakian, 53, took as a youth in Malibu. She will also show conflict pictures she shot across the globe from 1986 to 1996 in hostile environments, as well as examples of her current work as a photojournalist documenting civilians in the aftermath of warfare.

Avakian, 53, now lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and son. She said her goal is to show people in America what is going on in the world.

“As a photojournalist on assignment you are there to tell the story of these people and what is going on,” she said. “Whether it’s beautiful or difficult to look at, or a combination of the two; it’s all very interesting. It’s all about sharing the world.”

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Avakian moved to Malibu in 1973 when she was 13, and her family stayed there through 1993. Her interest in documenting countries in the midst of conflict first arose while she studied liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

“I would devour the New York Times every day,” she said. “I was already a very serious photographer by then. I started getting fascinated with revolution and what human beings would do regardless of ideology, what human beings would do to throw off oppression.”

Avakian, who is half-Armenian, said during this time she learned about the horrors earlier generations of her family experienced during the Armenian Genocide from 1915-1923, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. She learned about an uncle who was cast out into the Syrian Desert to die at the age of four. Her desire to learn about world conflicts led her to train herself to take pictures of hardship.

“I was photographing very tough subjects in New York like drug addiction and homelessness,” she said. “In 1986 I went to my first conflict when [President] Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti was facing an uprising and fled.”

Her seven months covering Haiti in 1986-87 began a career of traversing the globe and living in places such as Moscow, Gaza and Somalia. Her work has been published in National Geographic books, Time magazine, Life magazine, and the New York Times, as well as featured in several exhibits. Avakian has also published one memoir and is planning a second.

Her 1994 photograph of young Israeli men and women lounging on the sands of a beach in Gaza, with firearms resting against a wooden pool only a few inches away is one of 150 wartime photographs currently on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. The pictures, which date as far back as 1887, are part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” a 10-year traveling exhibition that will be in Los Angeles until June 2.

Avakian, a photojournalist for the National Geographic Society since 1995, said the Annenberg exhibit includes work from very great photographers.

“This is a show that starts at the beginning of war photography up until now,” she said. “I hope people learn from it.”

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