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Shooting on the Edge: War Photographer at Cal to Sharpen His Storytelling Skills

March 17, 2016
by M. V. Wood

When Shawn Baldwin talks about the “discomforts and mishaps” of life, he doesn’t mean the little pebble-in-your-shoe inconveniences that annoy the typical American. He’s referring to the time he was kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq, blindfolded, and had a gun pushed against the side of his head, on and off, for about 12 hours. (A saga also relayed by his fellow captive, renowned New York Times journalist John F. Burns.) Or the time a Hummer came careening backward down a Cairo street, slammed into him, pinned his body underneath it—and then, when he finally regained his senses and struggled back to his feet, surged forward and crushed him again.

Such are the hazards he encountered as a freelance photojournalist for agencies including Reuters and the Associated Press, before landing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to study documentary filmmaking. He wants to hone his storytelling skills, but truth be told, he’s already pretty spellbinding. Back to the Cairo story, with his arm in shambles and blood pouring everywhere.

“So, this Hummer drove over you backward. Stopped. Waited for you to get up, and then lunged forward and ran over you again?” I repeat. “Why was he trying to kill you?”

“That’s the really funny part,” Baldwin says in a lighthearted manner. “He wasn’t even trying to kill me! He was just a really bad parking lot attendant! That’s the beauty of Egypt. Crazy things happen everywhere, but in Egypt, it’s always ten times as crazy.”

As he relates the experience, he weaves in politics and economics to explain why a farmer from the countryside was now a freaked-out parking lot attendant, unable to quite get the hang of how much horsepower a Hummer has, nor how to maneuver it through the narrow lanes of Cairo. He’s able to convey a feel for the chaos of the city and explain how the streets are so narrow that people career full speed in hopes of getting to the other side before another car turns into the alley from the opposite direction. He can empathize with the stressed-out driver who “got really confused and didn’t know what he was doing” as all the people along the street started yelling and screaming after he ran over Baldwin the first time. And he threads global context seamlessly into the telling of personal stories. When he mentions that life in Egypt is a tenfold exaggeration of what’s happening in the world, he makes the point by citing the case of a 4-year-old Egyptian boy who had been sentenced to life in prison for allegedly taking part in a protest rally when he was 16 months old. (The sentence was not carried out after worldwide public outcry.) And his wry, almost humorous take on the craziness makes it easier to take in all the turmoil and grief.

U.S. soldier checks ID of locals on overnight sweep in Shia area north of Baghdad, Iraq; photo by Shawn Baldwin

Even kidnapping in Iraq failed to undermine his commitment to his edgy line of work. “There’s always so much going on—so much chaos—that somehow being kidnapped didn’t seem all that out of place,” he recalls. “Things like that happen. I mean, it was a scary situation, definitely. But…maybe it’s because you’re constantly in some sort of strange situation so much of the time, that it doesn’t quite have the impact you’d expect.”

A Shiite cleric ultimately intervened to help secure the release of Baldwin and Burns. “After we were released, we went to an office we had worked from, and there was a girl who worked there, and the rest of her team had been kidnapped earlier, and she had no idea where they were,” Baldwin says. “And then here we were, another group who had just been kidnapped. I remember feeling it was probably scarier to be in her shoes, not knowing what was going on, not knowing what to expect. It must have been really confusing for her.”

After a couple of decades of working as a photojournalist, it’s not surprising that Baldwin is recognized as a skilled and gifted photographer. He was recently named a recipient of the prestigious Dorothea Lange Fellowship, a competition open to all Berkeley graduate students and faculty to encourage the use of photography in scholarly work. For his application, Baldwin submitted a portfolio of photos he took between 2003 and 2005 that conveyed the turmoil in Iraq.

But why now, in his mid-40s, has he returned to grad school? “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to make documentaries. But it took me a while to get around to it.”

Boy after receiving treatment at main hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan; photo by Shawn Baldwin

The injuries he suffered in Cairo forced Baldwin back to The States for surgery. Recuperating back home on the East Coast, he had time to just sit and think—and the old childhood dream began to rise.

Lying there in a hospital bed on a cold November day, Baldwin had an epiphany: California. “I knew about the program at Cal and it’s pretty amazing,” he says. After years of working in war zones in the Third World, the idea of being somewhere nice and sunny, with water and electricity always at your fingertips, was appealing. “I thought I’d stir things up a bit,” he says with a laugh.

These days, Baldwin is enjoying his classes as well as the warmth and beauty of California. But Cairo is never far from his mind. His documentary project for graduation is a film about the city’s young journalists at Mada Masr, which bills itself as an “independent, progressive media” outlet.

In the past few years, the Egyptian government has been cracking down on the media in the name of national security. The assessment from the Committee to Protect Journalists: “Nowhere has the climate for the press deteriorated more rapidly than in Egypt, now the second worst jailer of journalists worldwide. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues to use the pretext of national security to clamp down on dissent.”

“It’s really quite amazing that the reporters at Mada Masr haven’t been imprisoned,” Baldwin says. “No one knows how they’ve managed to stay out of jail.”

Photographer Shawn Baldwin

Baldwin’s documentary will be finished soon and then screened as part of the journalism school’s student showcase in May. After that, he hopes to enter it in some film festivals and other outlets. In the meantime, as he’s finishing up the project, the scenes are bringing back memories of his past life and triggering a bit of restlessness.

“I’m really tempted to go there this spring break,” he says with a sigh. “I mean … I really should stay here and enjoy California, because I won’t be here forever and it’s really wonderful here. But … you know, there’s something I miss about Cairo. I could just fly over and pop in…. I don’t know…. Spring Break isn’t for another few days. I still have time to decide.”

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