Pioneering Photographer Françoise Demulder

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Françoise Demulder, 61, the French war photographer who covered most of the combat zones of the last quarter-century and became the first woman to win the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award, died Sept. 3 in a Paris suburb after a heart attack. She also had cancer.

Ms. Demulder was among a handful of French female photographers who entered a largely male trade and earned the respect of their peers in Vietnam and Cambodia. She burst onto the world stage in the 1970s and '80s, alongside the petite spitfire Catherine Leroy, as well as Marie-Laure de Decker and Christine Spengler.

Tall and gaunt with kohl-rimmed eyes and a deep tan from walking for days in the jungles of Asia and Africa, Fifi Demulder, as she was known, traveled extensively on assignments for French and international publications, including Time, Life and Newsweek.

She gained enduring prominence for her black-and-white photo from Jan. 18, 1976, titled "Distress in Lebanon," which won the World Press Photo award. It was taken the morning after Christian Phalangist gunmen massacred 1,000 Palestinians and set their homes on fire.

She photographed an elderly Palestinian woman pleading with a masked Christian militiaman who was holding a World War II rifle while barefoot children and residents fled their smoldering slum of Karantina going up in flames behind them.

At a time when photographers couriered their films over land by taxi via Damascus or Amman onto Paris-bound flights, that famous frame almost was not published. It arrived two weeks later at the offices of the Gamma photo agency, where Ms. Demulder then worked, and was lost in the shuffle until the photographer returned to France to help editors there understand its significance.

Ms. Demulder later told French television that only the young girl and her child, visible in the background, survived the horror depicted in her famous shot of Karantina.

"The militiaman killed himself playing Russian roulette," Ms. Demulder told an interviewer. This iconic image haunted her for years, the photographer said, reminding her of "the demented hatred" and butchery during some of the worst fighting of the Lebanese war.

A philosophy student and a model, the Parisian-born Ms. Demulder headed to Vietnam as a young woman with her then-boyfriend and started taking pictures to cover her expenses.

On April 30, 1975, she got her first world exclusive when, holed up in the presidential palace in Saigon, she became the only one to capture the moment at which Vietcong tanks rumbled into the city to end the war with the United States and the South Vietnamese.

She covered the departure of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, from Lebanon by sea to North Africa in 1983.

Ms. Demulder was quiet and soft-spoken -- qualities that helped her talk her way to the front in many situations that seemed insurmountable.

French Culture Minister Christine Albanel said last week that France has "lost a remarkable woman, a great photographer and a war reporter of exceptional courage."

Doctors diagnosed leukemia in Ms. Demulder in 2000, and she had been bedridden since 2003.

A friend gave her two cats for companionship to help her deal with the longing for "being on the road again as part of the movable village that was the heart of her life for so many years," Jonathan Randal, a veteran war correspondent who worked for The Washington Post, wrote in an e-mail from Paris.

In 2003, Ms. Demulder's friends and fellow photographers, and art gallery owners organized an auction of 300 prints to raise $247,000 for her hospital care.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company