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Eye for Trouble : Pierce Graduate Captures Faces of Mideast Conflict

November 05, 1987|DINAH BERLAND | Berland is a Seal Beach free-lance writer.

When Aline Manoukian was a student at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, she lived in a variety of neighborhoods, including one of the more crime-ridden parts of Hollywood. But the danger never bothered her.

"If I walked down Hollywood Boulevard and somebody gives me a weird look, I'm not scared a bit. If a person doesn't have a machine gun, why would he scare me?" she asked.

Manoukian, now 23 and recently named chief photographer, Lebanon and Syria, for Reuters wire service in Beirut, spends her days on the streets, aiming her camera at bombed-out cars and fleeing refugees. And, when it comes to heavy artillery, she admits to being frightened.

"Yes, of course I am," she said. "I've heard lots of photographers say, 'No, I'm not scared.' They're liars. Because they're not humans if they're not scared."

Manoukian, born to an upper-middle class Armenian family in Beirut, is no stranger to violent conflict.

"The war started when I was about 11," she recalled. "So I never enjoyed childhood. Since I was 11, I worried about staying alive and about my family and friends staying alive. That was my main concern."

Rather than withdrawing from the danger around her, however, Manoukian's impulse was to capture what she saw on film.

"So many incredible things happen during war that you want to keep some of those images--to freeze them," she said.

After graduating from high school at 17, Manoukian came to Southern California to visit her sister in Reseda, near Pierce College.

"I told her I wanted to study photography. In Lebanon they don't have a photography major in colleges and universities. She said, 'Why not try it here?'

"I had just come with a small suitcase with some blue jeans and a few shirts--so I got a student visa and decided to stay."

At Pierce, Manoukian studied the history of photography and also learned darkroom techniques that became invaluable after she returned to Lebanon. During the 2 1/2 years in California, Manoukian lived in Reseda and Van Nuys, as well as Hollywood, sampling everything she could of California life styles, from punk to hippie to artist and intellectual.

'Like to Be There'

"I like to experience things," she said. "I don't like to just see them in movies or on television. I like to be there."

Manoukian returned to Lebanon in 1984 wanting to become a war photographer.

"Everybody discouraged me," she said. "In Lebanon, women usually get married and have kids or work in banks or schools. They never go out in the streets where there is fighting."

But, after showing her student work to a local newspaper, she earned a chance to free-lance at the Daily Star in Beirut on a trial basis. "They said they'd give me a week's press card and, if it worked out, they'd give me a press card for a month.

"The first week I worked for them, I went to a place that had been under siege for a long time," she said. "I went in with the Red Cross, not knowing that I was doing such a great thing. There was a lot of sniping, and, when we finally got there, I took some pictures."

The Daily Star was impressed that their photographer was the first person on the scene. The paper published three of Manoukian's pictures on the front page and gave her a press card for a year.

She became known to the international wire agencies, and when the TWA jet was hijacked to Beirut in June of 1985, Reuters called Manoukian, asking her to cover the story until the plane left.

TWA Hijacking

Manoukian spent the next 15 days at the Beirut airport with a crowd of other journalists, waiting for events to unfold as passengers and crew were held captive by a band of armed terrorists.

Manoukian's photographs of the hijacked plane, its captors and the release of the hostages were printed in newspapers all over the world, and, as a result, she was hired to cover other major stories--among them the fighting in Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

The U.S. air strike on two Libyan cities in April, 1986, led to the evacuation of most Westerners from Lebanon and left Manoukian with the opportunity to become photo editor, an unusual position for a woman in her country.

"One thing that helped me," she said, "was that I knew good darkroom technique. For a person to have studied darkroom in Los Angeles was a big thing."

Manoukian soon took charge of the Beirut office, planning assignments for a staff of men, most of whom were considerably older.

"When I took over, all the stringers left because they didn't want to take orders from a woman," she recalled. Eventually, they all came back and were joined by several others.

Manoukian is not only photo editor, but continues to photograph the Lebanese war and events nearby. Although she has frequently photographed military action, her favorite pictures focus on people and their emotions in the context of war.

When asked what she looks for when taking pictures, she doesn't hesitate: "Faces. You cannot describe war by shapes. You can just describe war by noise or by grief."

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