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CNN's 'No Ordinary Life' highlights the lives of 5 women war videographers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Before smartphones or social media, the only way to see images of war zones from around the world was through someone else's camera. In a new CNN documentary airing tonight, we meet five women who forged careers behind the video camera starting in the late 1980s.

HEATHER O'NEILL: It was literally walking through decades of history from the fall of the Berlin Wall, early Gulf War, Lebanon, Sarajevo, I mean, to the Arab Spring uprising. But the reason I did the film was because I didn't think that people actually knew that it was these women behind the camera.

MARTIN: That's Heather O'Neill. She's the director of the film "No Ordinary Life." It reveals how these brave women carved out careers in a male-dominated profession all while on the frontlines of war zones.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO ORDINARY LIFE")

JANE EVANS: I had to be twice as good and twice as fast just to be on the equal playing ground as a guy. I had to work harder. I had to be better to be seen as an equal.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Jane Evans, one of the camerawomen profiled in the film. She's joined by Mary Rogers, Cynde Strand, Margaret Moth and Maria Fleet. I asked Maria about the sexism she faced on the job.

MARIA FLEET: Many times, people would look at me and say, that camera's bigger than you are. And it's a very aggressive business, too - a very competitive business. So we had to prove ourselves in the field and make sure that the guys took us seriously.

MARTIN: There's a sort of duality in being among the first to do something, right? I mean, as women in this field, you and your female colleagues wanted to be treated equally to your male counterparts. But at the same time, the film points out that you brought something different to the work. What was that?

FLEET: You know, as women, I think we have a particular different experience going through the world, and so that gives us a different perspective. We didn't focus as much on the hardware and the strategy, but what was happening to the people who, through no fault of their own, were displaced and uprooted by these conflicts. And we felt like that actually could maybe capture the viewer's attention more readily and help them understand what was happening in this conflict.

MARTIN: You and the other women in the film each kind of nod to the toll that this kind of work takes on anyone who does it. But these stories in particular, especially the coverage of the genocide in Rwanda - it is hard to imagine how difficult it was to shoot those images. How did you learn to compartmentalize that trauma? - because no doubt, it had - it - now we call it that. Back when you were covering these stories, we didn't really talk about PTSD, especially not for journalists.

FLEET: No. That's true. And you used the word compartmentalize. And that's exactly what you have to do when you're in the middle of something unfolding like that that is really horrific. So you have a million things going through your mind. You're thinking about, where is this going? Where might I need to move? What might be happening around me that is unsafe? And, you know, I think it does take a toll later because you - you know, those images - as visual people, those images float around in our brains afterwards. And, I mean, it's nothing compared to the trauma that the people we've witnessed have gone through. But there is a residue of this information and these horrible images that rest with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: With each new assignment came new risks. And while covering the Iraq war in 2003, Maria Fleet found herself in a situation that would change the rest of her life. A warning to listeners - you're about to hear the sound of gunshots.

You recount one reporting trip to Iraq when the vehicle you were traveling in came under attack. Can you tell us about that moment and how it then changed how you assessed your own risk out in the field?

FLEET: So we were coming down from the north and investigating Tikrit, which was Saddam Hussein's hometown, and it was thought that if he were to make a last stand, he would make a last stand there. And we deemed it safe enough to go into the town. But once we got in there, we were almost surrounded by a couple of pickup trucks with guys with AK-47s in the back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO ORDINARY LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're going to stop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. All right. They're saying don't film.

FLEET: And we decided to leave. But they chased us and shot into our cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. That's gunfire. OK. We've just come under attack, under attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBJECTS SHATTERING)

FLEET: There were, like, 12 rounds that came into my car.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Got to go.

FLEET: Stop. Stop - so Will (ph) can catch up to us, please.

One hit my flak jacket and thankfully shattered. And so I only got a scrape on my head. Salam (ph) is bleeding, and I've got - I don't know. I was hit with shrapnel in the head or something. Both of us are bleeding in the head.

But, I mean, I really - at the moment that all of that was unfolding, I just thought, we made a mistake. We took a risk that way, but we - know, we miscalculated. And this is how it ends.

MARTIN: You ended up turning down your next assignment to Iraq, right?

FLEET: I did. It was very unusual for me to turn down an assignment, but I had had two very, very close calls in Iraq. And I just thought - I'm a little bit superstitious. And I just thought, no; I have to pass on this one.

MARTIN: I think it was Cynde Strand in the film who talks about the responsibility of filming people in their most vulnerable moments. And she says that she makes peace with that by promising herself to continue to do the work. Did that resonate with you?

FLEET: Oh, absolutely - because being in situations where you're often meeting them in the very, very worst moment of their lives, and you are covering the story for a couple of weeks, and then you go home to your nice and comfortable life. There's a certain guilt associated with that. Like, you feel like you want to do more, and why couldn't you do more? But I felt like my offering was my witnessing. I was the witness to what was happening for the world, and that gave me some peace. I felt like that was my offering to the people I was meeting.

MARTIN: Maria Fleet, former CNN camerawoman. She is one of five videographers featured in the new documentary "No Ordinary Life." It debuts tonight on CNN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.