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SHUTTERBUG


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   It's the third day of the coup, and though it's drizzling, the crowds outside the White House are still growing larger. The barricades have become a giant tusovka, with young people banding together in happy, soggy groups to drink and to mingle, to hang out and to make out, all in the name of defending democracy. Surrounding this merry gathering are soldiers and tanks from the Taman division, all of whom decided as early as the first night to switch over to Yeltsin's side and to take up defensive positions around the parliament. For an extra photogenic flourish, they've covered their tanks with signs of support and with Russian flags, and they've plugged up the barrels of their Kalashnikovs with red carnations.

Mothers now bring their young children to the barricades, not so much to protect the White House as to use it as a playground. The kids climb up onto the barricades and jump down the other side. They mount the tanks and swing upside down from their cannon barrels. I'm shooting this, trying but failing to frame that perfect child-on-tank picture, when another photojournalist I know, a boorish guy with his gut hanging out, comes over to join me. "Don't waste your film," he says, shooting off a few frames of his own just in case. "That kind of photo's been done to death."

I disregard him and continue to shoot. "You're so wrong," I say. I circle around to the other side, where the kid is now peeking his head down the hatch. I'm frustrated. Can't get a good shot, no matter where I stand. Then the boy jumps off, and I've lost my opportunity. Exasperated, I look my colleague in the eye. "Innocence meets evil will never be done to death," I say. "It's at the heart of everything."

"Ooh, excuse me," the photographer says. He pulls out a cigarette, takes a puff end flicks the ashes on my shoe. "Is that what they taught you at your fancy university?" There is hairy blubber peeking out between his shirt and jeans.

"No," I say, slowly backing away from him. "It's what I've taught myself."

I wander off, zigzagging through the column of tanks, pausing to shoot when the occasion presents itself. I spot a babushka with a plastic bag, and I start to salivate. The babushkas, never ones for sitting on the sidelines, spend their time walking from tank to tank, carrying old plastic bags filled with sandwiches, bread and bottles of sok to feed the turncoat soldiers. "What do you have for me today?" one of the soldiers asks, as the old lady approaches with her bag of goodies.

"A little cheese, a little pig lard. Impossible to find ham today," she says, looking somewhat ashamed and apologetic.

"Don't worry," the soldier says. He bites into a sandwich, wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve and smiles. "As soon as we get rid of Yanayev and those other pigs, the stores wil1 be filled with ham." He winks at her. The babushka giggles flirtatiously and gives him another sandwich.

I have not had a real meal since the night before the coup. I try to resist the urge, but the sight of all those sandwiches becomes too much for me to bear. I walk over to the babushka and beg her for one. "Of course," she says, handing me a cheese sandwich and filling my pockets with two more. "You're still a growing child. You need to eat, get big and strong."

I'm about to explain that I'm actually twenty-five years old, that I stopped growing, oh, probably nine years ago and that I doubt her cheese sandwiches will boost me up anywhere near five-three, but instead I just smile and thank her. I bite into the sandwich, ravenously ripping off huge chunks and washing the whole thing down with a swig of sok. Then I kiss her cheeks the customary three times. "Thanks again," I say, catching my breath. "I was so hungry."

As the drizzly day melts into a wet evening, the mood around the White House intensifies. Rumors of planned late-night attacks ricochet from barricade to barricade. Some even say the Spetznaz troops have been called in to finish Yeltsin off. One of Paul's Moscow drivers, from his days working with Serge, used to be a Spetznaz soldier. A stocky, jocund veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he'd often regale us with stories of being dropped by helicopter behind enemy lines, into the heart of the Hindu Kush. There, he would execute Afghani soldiers using only his bare hands. "You've never felt power," he'd say, his eyes growing wistful and vacant, "until you've felt another man's neck snap in the palms of your hands."

I'm wandering around the White House, not really shooting much. It's too dark, nothing is happening and besides, I want to conserve my Quantum flash battery, which is fading, in case the Spetznaz really do attack. Normally I carry around a few spare double-A batteries as a backup, but I haven't been able to find any recently in the kiosks.

Sometime before midnight, I run into Paul wandering near one of the barricades. He looks exhausted. Tells me he's spent the past twenty-four hours running around inside the White House with a bunch of his ABC colleagues, trying to procure an interview with Yeltsin for Ted Koppel. Ted, he says, waited dutifully on the floor in the corridor outside the Russian leader's office, at one Point taking off his shoes and laying down for a nap when he grew tired. Paul hugs me, puts his head on my shoulder. "Don't mind me," he says, speaking quietly into my neck, "I'll just take my own little snooze right here."

"Poor baby," I say. "Maybe we should just go home. I'm toast, too." I've slept only four hours since the first day of the coup, and those were spent curled up in a fetal position on the floor of an ABC editing room while my flash battery recharged.

Paul lifts up his head. "Yes," he says. "I can barely stand."

A misty rain is falling as we wander our way back home through the crowds, between the Taman tanks, over barricades and around the parked trolley cars blocking the path between the White House and the Ring Road. I can't put my finger on it, but something about tonight feels different than the two previous nights. More intense. The demonstrators, growing ever more agitated, have linked arms to form an enormous human chain across Kutoozovsky Prospect. Swaying back and forth, they are shouting anticommunist slogans and singing old Bolshevik revolutionary songs, completely unfazed by the contradiction.

Paul and I look at each other, sigh and take out our equipment. "So much for sleep," he says.

I take a few pictures of the human chain, my flash popping here and there, but then I notice that, like me, my detachable flash battery is truly on its last legs. When it's fully charged, its line of green diode dots are all illuminated. Now, only one dot remains lit, the one lone soldier still standing, which means that even if something were to happen tonight, there will soon be no way to record it.

"Forget it," I say to Paul, pointing to the spent battery. "It's useless. I can't even shoot. Let's just go home."

It's after midnight as we start home, our necks bent down against the increasing rain. I lean my head into the hollow space between Paul's chest and his clavicle bone and, just for a moment, allow myself the indulgence of shutting my eyes.

And then, just as my muscles start to relax, just as I can practically taste the pleasure of sleep, a man comes running up to us out of nowhere. He's panting, his face glistening with rain, sweat, and fear.

"You two, with the cameras! Come with me! Run! There are tanks on the Ring Road." He's speaking so fast, I can barely understand him. The only other word I can make out in the avalanche of sound coming out of his mouth is stryelyayut -- "they are shooting." Paul breaks into a sprint. I follow, the sudden rush of adrenaline obliterating both the tranquil moment and any lingering fatigue.

When we reach the overpass above Ring Road, we both see and hear them. A column of tanks is exiting the underpass directly below us, its path blocked by a massive barricade of abandoned trolley cars parked closely and densely together. "Let's stay up here for now!" I scream at Paul, partly out of fear, partly because I have no idea what's happening and partly so he can hear me over the now familiar din of metal tracks on pavement. On either side of the sloping walls leading out from the underpass, a crowd of people has started to gather. Someone yells, "Fascisti!" -- "Fascists!" -- and then someone else yells, "Go back where you came from!"

It's dark, the scene lit only by the streetlights above and by their reflections in the wet puddles below. Dammit, I think, remembering my flash, and then I start cursing out loud, banging my flash battery against the wall of the overpass in anger. It's the Murphy's Law of photojournalism: just when you need them, every battery that can go dead will. Fuck! I have only enough juice for two, at the most three or four more pictures.

I decide to start with pictures I can shoot without a flash, like a compressed overall shot. I take out my 180-millimeter lens, attach it to my Nikon and place the camera on the overpass wall to steady it during the long exposures. I open my aperture as wide as it wil1 go and shoot off ten pictures of the tanks approaching the trolley car barricade at various shutter speeds, bracketing for safety -- 1 second, 1 1/2 seconds, 2 seconds, 2 1/2 seconds, etc. -- hoping the vibrations from the tank engines and my shaking fingers don't blur my photos.

Two gunshots ring out, and we duck. Paul is crouched down right next to me, holding his video camera at his side and muttering, "Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod," under his breath.

A minute or so later, we stand up to assess the situation. There are now hundreds of shouting, angry spectators gathered around the tanks, their jumbled cries growing louder and louder. Paul and I seem to be the only two journalists around, the others dutifully waiting back at the White House for the purported Spetznaz attack. But then I spot a single reporter scribbling frantically into his notebook. "Follow me," I shout to Paul, and we run over to ask the guy what's going on.

He stares up from his notebook, his eyes wide and scared. "Fuck if I know!" he snaps, his pen now poised helplessly in the air.

Suddenly, as if to answer our question, the first tank in the column starts to accelerate forward, crashing forcefully into the side of a trolley car. The crowd lets out a collective howl.

"Come on," Paul says, grabbing my hand, "let's go."

I hesitate. I shouldn't be here. I promised Gad. I promised myself. I love Paul. My flash isn't even working. But the moment passes. Give a well-intentioned, recently reformed heroin addict a junk-filled needle -- just one, just for old times' sake -- and watch what she does with it.

Breaking into a sprint, we head down alongside the outside of the underpass wall until we reach the barricade. We make our way through the trolley buses and enter the blockaded area. Suddenly, we are on the Ring Road. Boxed in. Surrounded on two sides by the underpass walls, on another side by the barricade of trolleys and everywhere we look by tanks, lurching, clanging, belching black smoke. A few demonstrators are inside with us, dodging tanks, yelling at the soldiers, running from here to there and back again across the glistening wet pavement.

The first tank tries once again to push its way through the barricade, backing up and ramming forward. "Watch out!" I scream to Paul, who has his camera glued to his eye, and he jumps out of the path of the tank's backward trajectory just in time. Another man is less lucky. We hear screams and cursing, and out of the confusion run five panicked men, carrying out a bleeding tovareeshch in their arms. "Move, move! Get the fuck out of the way! He's injured!" they scream. I shoot a few pictures of this, but the flash goes off only once.

What I wouldn't give right now for a fresh pack of double-A batteries. And a lobotomy.

"Shoot, little girl, shoot some more!" the spectators are yelling at me, and I'm pointing to my flash and yelling back, "It doesn't work!" and they're yelling back, "Yes it does!" and I'm yelling back, "No it doesn't!" and then someone calls me an idiot and I give up trying to explain the vagaries of my flash battery while I pray for the Quantum to recycle, which it does, but while it's recycling I hear a couple more gunshots go off, and all I can think is, Oh God, what am I doing here anyway? Shooting pictures? This is insane! Where's Paul? There he is. Watch him. Watch his back. Why am I here? Come on, you goddamned flash. Work! Why am I doing this? What's the point? It's too dark anyway. What kind of life is this? I can't focus. I can't focus. IT'S TOO FUCKING DARK. AND I CAN'T FOCUS! "Ahhhhrrggghhhh!!!!" I shout, full of addict's remorse, holding my head between my hands, trying to silence it, still waiting for that one remaining diode to appear.

The percussive beat of metal hitting metal punctuates the clamor of mass chaos as the first tank finally rams its way through, leaving a huge gap where a trolley used to be. More demonstrators appear, running out of nowhere to try to close the gap, rocking the displaced bus back and forth in hopes of moving it back into position. "Are you insane?" someone shouts. "You can't move a fucking bus!"

"Fuck your mother!" someone else yells. "Let them try!"

A few civilians have now climbed onto the second tank to try to keep it from getting through the newly exposed hole in the barricade. Others are throwing large wooden sticks and scraps of metal underneath the caterpillar tracks to try to stop it, but the sticks snap in two like matches and the metal scraps are no more effective than dough under a rolling pin. The men who've climbed up onto the tank are cursing and yelling and trying to open the hatch. Suddenly, the tank lurches back, and one of the men is thrown to the ground. Before he can get up, his body disappears, crushed effortlessly underneath the tracks of the tank. Everyone watching this, including me, screams. We are helpless, lost in collective horror. "You're killing him! You're killing him!" the crowd wails, but by the time the tank has finished traversing his body, the man is already quite dead.

A flock of bodies and lights and flashes encircles the bloody corpse a few feet from where I'm standing, and I know I should get over there and join the twinkling vultures, but I can't move my feet. It's not that I'm having a self-righteous epiphany. I figured out the parasite thing a long time ago, and it still hasn't kept me from working. It's just that I'm so scared, I'm barely holding it together. It's the way I should have felt in Israel and Afghanistan, had I been less of a first-time hack. The way I should have felt the moments before being stabbed in my hotel room in Zurich, had I not deemed myself wholly invincible. The way I should have felt when I was dropped all alone into the jungles of Zimbabwe, had I understood jungles and my own smallness in them.

It is vertigo, the sick, hollow, air-sucking kind that strikes when you gaze down from the tightrope you've been casually traversing and suddenly realize there's no net after all, when the enormity of what it is you stand to lose finally -- finally -- hits you.

A man pushes his way through to the corpse and, sobbing, bends down to scoop up the mangled body. He cradles it in his arms and begins to rock back and forth. Is he a stranger? A brother? A friend? Does it matter? His clothes are being soaked with the dead man's blood, and he's crying and screaming and rocking and shaking and shouting obscenities at the soldiers. "You've killed him! You've killed him, you fuckers!" he wails.

The tank backs up quickly along the wall, shooting sparks as it scrapes the concrete not ten feet from where I'm standing with my back pinned against it.

Now the crowd of onlookers, which has swollen to well over a thousand people, becomes infuriated. From their semisafe vantage point behind the underpass wall, a few of them start to yell, "Killers! Fascists!" and then they all join in the rhythmic chorus, their fists raised angrily in the air, crying, "Fa-sci-sti, fa-sci-sti, fa-sci-sti...," each pounding syllable a drumbeat against the dread of their own fragile mortality.

And then someone lobs a Molotov cocktail over the wall, which explodes on the ground, and then another Molotov cocktail is tossed, this time hitting the top of the tank. A few seconds later, the tank -- this massive hulk of metal, this heavy behemoth monster -- jumps two feet into the air as it bursts into flames.

"Holy shit!" I can hear Paul yelling through the reverberating boom, but in the seconds that follow the explosion we are separated by people and fire and pandemonium and darkness. I panic and start screaming his name, but, once again, he is gone.

"Oh, God, oh, God," I'm crying. "NOOOOOO!"

The crew of the burning tank bails out and, agitated and frightened, they start to fire their Kalashnikovs into the crowd. Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa! Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa! The bullets are ricocheting everywhere, the wall behind me separating the underpass from the road leading to the overpass is too high, I'm too smal1 to scale it, I'm boxed in, I'm screaming, I drop to the ground, in a puddle right next to the wall, my cheek in the dirty water slick with oil, my arms covering my head. "Paul!" I yell. "Oh God, PAAAASHAAAAAAA!!!!" and then my voice is choked with sobbing while my convulsing body makes tiny ripples in the water, and I'm staring at the ripples because only a fool would look up, and I'm thinking to myself while the rain hits my neck and the bullets pierce the air and the water soaks my knees and the ripples flow out, This is what fear looks like.

The machine-gun fire is unrelenting, coming in angry spurts and cackles, crackling over the voice of the enraged tank commander, who's shouting Russian words I either don't or no longer understand. "Paul!" I scream again, raising my head for just a second to let the sound escape, and just as I do, I see a man no more than a few yards in front of me fall to the ground. Blood squirts out of his skull and onto the pavement. It mixes with the rain and flows in small, quiet rivulets down the gradual slope of the pavement to where I lie paralyzed.

I open my mouth to scream, but the sound that comes out is nothing like I've ever produced before. It's guttural and shrill, a moan more screeching tire than human, and it comes from a place inside my body I don't want to find again.

Somehow, I get up the courage to crawl on my stomach, inching forward with elbows and knees toward the trolley cars, but they are now engulfed in flames, utterly impassable. If I could just get over the wall behind me, I'd be fine.

I will beg.

Still crouching, the gunfire to my back, my hands stretched beseechingly into the air, I start to shout. "Pozhalsta! Pozhalsta!" -- "Please! Please!" -- I yell up to the people behind the wall, and within seconds I am lifted up and over, skinning my knee and the side of my face against the wall on the way up.

Stunned and in an oddly calm, psychotic daze, I wander aimlessly through the crowds on the other side of the wall after that, my hair falling out of its braid, my clothes soaked with mud, rain and the blood of an unlucky stranger. When the remaining tanks finally retreat, and the demonstrators joyously take over the one they set ablaze, I shoot a picture of a euphoric man in front of the burning trolley cars, his hands raised victoriously in the air like a quarterback's after a touchdown. This is the photo Newsweek will choose to run as a double-page spread in their next issue, accompanied by three various others I also shot. I practically step on another man, whom I think I recognize as the one who got the bullet, but I can't be sure. It was so dark back there, and he's lying on the other side of the wall from where he fell. Whoever he is, half of his forehead is gone, and someone has just left him lying here all alone on the side of the road, his brains leaking out of his skull. In his pocket is a pack of cigarettes. He won't be needing those anymore.

I fall to the ground behind the man's head and pull out my camera. Looking through the viewfinder, I make a vague attempt at proper framing, but not for Newsweek's sake. Pictures of bloody heads missing big chunks of flesh are not published in America. No, this is more of a souvenir photo, a small keepsake to remind me of the darkness.

I press the shutter. My flash goes off. I press the shutter again, then again, waiting to hear the high-pitched whir of a recycling flash, knowing full well that without the flash the pictures will come out completely underexposed. I take my eye away from the viewfinder and look down at my battery. It is finally dead.

Paul and I manage to find each other amidst the residual flames and anarchy, and when he hugs me I begin crying all over again. "You're covered in blood," he says.

"I know," I say, giving in to the sobs. "I lost you back there." My tears soak his shirt.

"No you didn't. I'm right here, see?" He takes my hands and puts them on his cheeks to prove his point, and when I don't laugh he lets me cry a little more, using his thumb as a squeegee. A few minutes later he says, "Let's go," and I want to just stay there hugging and bawling and chewing on life, but I know we have to get Paul's footage back to ABC within the next hour or so, and I need to call Contact on the satellite phone to tell them about my photos, otherwise what the hell were we doing back there boxed in between tanks and bullets? There had to be a reason.

We walk quickly, both still dazed and disoriented, clinging tightly to each other as we make our way on foot back to the bureau. At first we try to speak, to make sense of what we saw -- "That was pretty intense, wasn't it?" -- but after a while we submit to the silence that descends when words become impotent.

It's after 1 A.M., and yet the streets are still choked with people, their umbrellas, their smoldering cigarettes, their outrage. Because of the blood on my clothes and my scraped cheek, we are stopped periodically by curious barricade-sitters, who ask us to explain what we saw back there on the Ring Road, but our imprecise answers inevitably disappoint. Everyone wants numbers. How many died? We don't know. We saw two, but we heard there were more. How many injured? A few. How many tanks were there? Five, maybe six or seven. How many shots were fired? A lot.

Death is so much tidier when it's reduced to statistics. Numbers are safe, empirical. Three dead, eighty dead, a thousand dead: these are the facts we crave, the stuff we can understand. Sure beats imagining one man, lying all alone in the rain, his brains slowly oozing out of his skull.

Even six million is fathomable as a number. It is large, horrible and awesome in scope, but conceptually much easier to stomach than the thought of a single person -- someone just like us -- standing naked, cold and abandoned, waiting for the gas to be turned on.

Paul and I finally arrive at the ABC bureau. When we open the door, both of us out of breath, we see a sight so incongruous with the madness we've just survived that it makes us stop and stare. There in the middle of the room, sitting on a foldout metal chair with her head upside down between her legs, is Diane Sawyer. Impeccably dressed, with perfect little pointy shoes, she is vigorously brushing her famous blond hair, tousling it, stroking it, making it perfect. When she finally flips her head up, the hair falling flawlessly around her face, she sees us staring at her and gasps. "Oh, my," she says, her signature voice mellifluous and deep. "What happened to you two?" She addresses the question not really to us, but rather to the bustling room at large, which makes her query feel like one of awkward celebrity politesse, not curiosity.

Paul, never one for catching subtleties in conversation (is any man ever?), starts to explain -- "Well, you see, we were on the Ring Road..." -- but before he can get another word out, a producer appears yelling, "Live shot!" and two tungsten lights go on, and last-minute makeup is applied, and there's some discussion about a flyaway strand of hair, and then Diane says, "Okay, I'm ready." She quickly blots her lipstick one last time.

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Excerpted from Shutterbabe by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Copyright © 2001 by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.