Sparkling. Talented. Committed. Indignant. Bright.
Laurence Deonna had an infectious smile and a mischievous laugh. But she also exhibited the politeness of despair as well as sad moments that she did not hide during our interviews evoking the lightness and depth of the conflicts she had covered and the countries she helped us understand through her books and articles. We shared a desire for the Orient, a region she cherished and had explored many times, notebook and pen in hand, camera slung over her shoulder. From Egypt to Iran, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan in particular.
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Memories, impressions, anecdotes and healthy anger punctuated a tribute to her commitment on 22 October 2022 at Geneva’s Grütli Cinema during the screening of the film Laurence Deonna Libre! by filmmaker Nasser Bakhti to mark her honorary as a member of the Swiss-Romande Pen Centre. Based also on her long-standing writing for the now defunct Journal de Genève as well as contributions to numerous other media, Laurence Deonna also joined the Honorary Committee of the Swiss Press Club.
Freedom. To say, write and share what she had seen, heard and felt, I had the honour and privilege of listening to her whether holding a megaphone during a demonstration against the Gulf War, or the presentation of her book: My child is worth more than their oil (Labor and Fides, Geneva, 1992) at the L’Olivier bookstore. Or her presentations of numerous other books including De Schéhérazade à la Révolution (prefaced by another great female explorer, writer and friend, Ella Maillart, published by Éditions Zoé in 2010).
Our exchanges were stimulating whether she was sitting on the sofa in her apartment in Geneva, walking barefoot up the stairs to her office, or answering my call late one night from her hospital bed. Laurence Deonna exuded a curiosity to discover, the joy of living, without omitting difficult times, either her own or those of others. “I wanted people to understand why, after the death of my brother and the accident which cost the life of my parents, I was so close to the suffering of the people around me. In Ébouriffées Memoirs (Editions de l’Aire/Ginkgo, 2014), I wanted this book which recounts my life not only to describe facts, but to read like a novel, with atmospheres, faces and emotions,“ she told me during an interview for the NGO Press emblem Campaign (PEC).
Emotions. Laurence Deonna knew how to capture and magnify them in the photos she had exhibited in New York, Geneva, Paris, and Canada. The last show was in the Lake Geneva town of Versoix at the Boléro gallery in summer 2022 on the occasion of the double exhibition Voyages en Humanité, presenting images of peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia she had immortalized, alongside black and white photos taken in Greece (1904-1936) by her grandfather, the Hellenist and archaeologist Waldemar Deonna, director of the Geneva Museum of Art and History from 1920 to 1951.
Laurence Deonna, a great traveller, reporter and photographer. Like her friend Ella Maillart, whom I had the chance to interview at her home at the height of the first Gulf War in 1991. When I asked Laurence Deonna if their job was more dangerous or less risky then than today, she answered: “I think it was less dangerous. Shortly before her death, I spoke with Ella Maillart. She told me that everything she had done, she could not have done today, such as crossing Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan, regions that I know well. It is also more dangerous because we have rushed into a frantic and frightening consumer society where everything is sold. Blood, for example, sells very well. To be published, the reporter and the photographer must go as close as possible to the drama, at the risk of their lives. I found it noble enough to die for a cause, but I find it lamentable and melancholy to die for a group of journalists.”
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, countries that the two women of letters and images from Geneva had often travelled alone. “I wouldn’t go back there to report. However, it is important to give other words than those that we see from morning to evening on television or that we hear all day on the radio because we always hear the same words, whereas millions of people think differently. It is this variety of speech that is missing because it always revolves around dramatic events. What I liked during my reports was listening to the little people. I liked to drag my feet, which is absolutely impossible today because you have to sell at all costs, and be the first to give the news. How can we really see a country, listen to people, describe landscapes or look at posters, for example, which are very telling?” she said.
Observe the small details that make the richness of a great reportage. “I will not go back to Syria, because it would make me cry. I knew this country in the 60s and it probably looked like Syria centuries ago. Men, in Syria as in Iraq, in Yemen and elsewhere, are killing a civilization, disfiguring a culture that has existed for centuries. It is part of a global upheaval, as violent as the fall of the Roman Empire or the industrial revolution. We are in the eye of a storm and we do not know what will come out of it. This world will remain fortunately in my photos which have almost become (historic) archives. When I look at them, I have tears in my eyes, because these places have been bombed or concreted over. It may seem naive but I like to keep these images of beauty, ” she added.
Three other lands she knew well – Israel, Palestine and Egypt – have brought her just as much despair. For Laurence Deonna, “A war is never over, it continues in the bodies and in the minds,” she said. “It is certain that I could never make War with Two Voices today, because contrary to what we have so hoped for and what both Israeli and Palestinian pacifists still hope for, hatred has hardened. I do not see the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I arrived in the Middle East, in the middle of the 1967 war, and even after, we still had the impression, paradoxically, that dialogue was possible. This has now become impossible. Everything is frozen: in geography, in hatred, minds, hearts. I talk about it in my memories, because I wanted to remember that there are men and women of peace”.
Her brief stopover in the Islamic Republic of Iran also marked her. In 1984, alone with her camera, but also composure, courage and the power of persuasion, she managed to enter the dreaded Evin prison Tehran, then closed to foreign journalists.
Independent and lucid, Laurence Deonna never hid her depression, this obscure evil that she had faced in between journeys. “Independence is paid for, freedom is paid for, and it is paid for by loneliness…”, she wrote. One man who had helped her overcome this loneliness was the diplomat and senior Egyptian official Farag Moussa, her love. Invited to their wedding in 1997, I learned to appreciate this cultured, affable, feminist man with a sense of humour equal to that of his combative wife. He was the author of numerous books on women inventors and was also former president of the International Federation of Inventors. We had spoken at length about Egypt, his country, at the presentation of the biography of his father: Egyptian and diplomat, Farag Mikhail Moussa, 1892-1947 (Riveneuve 2014). The death of her husband in 2021 deeply affected Laurence Deonna.
A visionary and prescient observer of changes in the world and in the profession of journalism, Laurence Deonna also once told me: “When I wrote the book of memories, Mémoires ébouriffées, I had the impression of being a hundred years old and that everything I was saying was so old! Whereas if we look at the eternity of humanity, it has only been a few years since the world has changed a lot, especially in the field of reporting.”
She continued: “I have always thought that technologies more than ideologies change people and that is what we are seeing these days. In my time, when we left, there weren’t all these checks at airports or the phobia of terrorism. Admittedly, there was great loneliness, no cell phones, no computers, we were on our own. If we managed to get a telephone line, we had to reserve it at a certain time, between 4 and 5 p.m. or send a telegramme, often not knowing if there was a post office where we were going.”
Laurence Deonna will be missed, but her books remain to enlighten us.
Italo-Swiss journalist Luisa Ballin is a contributing editor of Global Geneva magazine.