War Zone Photographer Takes Time to Recharge in Steamboat Springs
● By Dan Greeson
After spending the last 10 years intermittently living in Syria, Egypt, Oman and Lebanon, 32-year-old Bridgette Auger found herself at Vista Verde Ranch in Clark in fall 2014. She planned to stay for the winter, but fell victim to the spell like so many others and remained for the summer.
In 2004, during her undergraduate study of photography/videography at New York University, Bridgette took a semester to study abroad in Cairo, Egypt, where she hoped to learn more about news reporting and journalism. “I didn’t want to just be a journalist that parachutes in,” Bridgette says. “I wanted context to what I was going to be doing.” After spending some time in Oman following her stay in Cairo, Bridgette returned to New York, finished school and began working for renowned photographer Steve McCurry. Following a year in an office, Bridgette succumbed to her need for travel, working in a Greek winery for about six months before landing in the beautiful and historic city of Damascus, Syria. It was January 2008.
At the time, about 4.2 million Iraqis were displaced and around 1.4 million people had made their way to Syria. It was the country’s first time dealing with urban refugees. Bridgette arrived in Damascus with little to no plan, but managed to find an internship doing administrative work for six months before finding work as a photographer. While in Syria, her photographs aided the production of a middle school textbook titled “Out of Iraq” that aims to better tell the story of Iraqi refugees.
In fall 2009, Bridgette returned to the States to get her master’s in social documentation at the University of California – Santa Cruz. She had befriended some Syrian musicians who called themselves El Shellah (The Guys), and who were sent to San Diego, California, through the International Organization of Migration. Bridgette’s desire for storytelling strengthened, and she used their story of adjusting to American life for her graduate project.
After graduating from UCSC in 2011, Bridgette returned to Cairo as a freelance photographer. In January of that same year in Egypt, a revolution started peacefully but soon escalated. Taking photographs in such precarious circumstances posed challenges for Bridgette, and she found more successful use of her time as a director of photography and working with videographer friends. The footage she captured was deeply imbedded in violent strife and tear gas, and the revolution was only getting more dangerous and confusing. After a while, she found the limits of video reporting to be unsatisfying. “I wanted to tell a deeper story,” Bridgette says. “What was really happening became hard to tell. The revolution became about various actors trying to impress different sides.”
Wanting to be closer to what was happening in the Syrian civil war and because the story in Egypt had changed, Auger moved to Beirut, Lebanon. She received a grant through NYU to tell the story of two Syrians, Mohammad and Hussam, whom she documented in her short film, “This is not me: Enduring Syria’s War.” Bridgette met Mohammad through his best friend, Hussam, who was a colleague of hers at The UN Refugee Agency in Damascus; a place they once could call home, for however brief a time. Lebanon was the last country to close its door to Syrian refugees, and the three watched online from other countries as the Syrian civil war created mass casualty and pain for familiar neighborhoods and friends.
“The news was all about the physical destruction of Syria, but I saw the mental and emotional breakdown of my friends, their guilt of leaving,” Bridgette says as her voice trails off. “That’s when I started on documentaries. The hardest thing for Muhammad was losing his sense of himself. He had a job, money and room to grow, then had everything ripped away from him. Hussam got a scholarship and began studying in Germany, but all-day, everyday felt guilt from surviving.”
Bridgette had just about had too much, and was planning to leave Beirut for a bit when an old friend from London proposed an opportunity. Her going-away party that night ended up being just a party, and the two allied on a new documentary project. The new film, which was shot in fall 2014, is still in progress and is gravely different than harnessing the negative emotional impact of the Syrian war; rather, it emphasizes the positive. The working title is “We’re Not Princesses.” It covers Syrian women in Beirut refugee camps who present a performance of Antigone – the Greek tragedy – as a way to deal with their trauma. Bridgette spent weeks in London tweaking the project before arriving here at Vista Verde.
“I had forgotten the good in the world,” Bridgette says, regarding her decision to leave the Middle East. “I felt disconnected.” Trying to cover Syria was a challenge, as there was no way to truly tell everything that was happening in one of the worst parts of the most brutal areas of the world. “I had been so narrowed in…I needed to remember that it’s a big world out there.”
Erica Thompson, the kids’ program director at Vista Verde, is a longtime friend of Bridgette’s from their childhood in Washington, D.C. Thompson invited Auger to take a break at the ranch, and Bridgette arrived just in time for last ski season. “I was nervous about coming here at first,” Bridgette admits, “nervous for my career and nervous that I wasn’t getting published but it’s just me against myself. If I want to come here and learn how to cook and live in beautiful nature and fill myself up, then sure, I’m the only one saying no.
“The Middle Eastern culture is so neighborly, and Clark has that same sort of feel. Life is slower here,” Bridgette says, as the wind rustles the distant pines and the creek bubbles in the background. “You take time to talk to each other. People love it at Vista Verde because it allows breaks and allows people to reconnect, and that’s what I needed.” Bridgette learned to ski and not to take herself so seriously. Spending 12 hours a day as a cook since she arrived, the in-the-moment work became a refreshing lifestyle.
As much as she enjoys Vista Verde, Bridgette’s future involves the Middle East. She returns to Beirut before the ski season starts and will embark on a creative and empowering project. “It’s still very complicated. There’s nothing simple about war and violence, but there’s so much more to the region than that,” she says. Initially motivated to challenge the mainstream media narrative with her work, Bridgette wants to move away from her previous news background and use her work to raise questions and invite people to change how they see the world. She will be working again with Syrian refugee women and, through art and film, collaborating with them to write their own play, providing space and tools for the women to process their trauma. “They’ve been culturally and creatively starved. Working with them to create a theater piece will help them define what a refugee woman is, what a Syrian woman is.”
Bridgette is talented and kind, cultured and experienced, but is also an inspiration to many. To her, the Syrian refugee women are an inspiration. “They have so much joy radiating from them. You can choose to focus on what you’ve lost or focus on what you have. There’s drama and pain everywhere. Someone loses a loved one in Steamboat, someone loses a loved one in Syria; it’s the same pain. It doesn’t matter where you are, it matters the way you look at the world,” she says.
Bridgette Auger may be just one woman, but her sense of story and understanding impacts many others. The river rocks shimmer in the midday sun and the dregs of winter’s last snow veil the peaks. In the silence and beauty of the world, as well as in the violence and terror of it, there is a connection that cannot be tethered: one life touching another.
Keep up with Bridgette’s photographs and videos by visiting her website www.bridgetteauger.com.