Photo Of The Day

Photo: Margaret Gypsy Moth/CNN. Photojournalist Margaret Moth is recalled by CNN colleagues as a true professional who lived life to the full.

Photo: Margaret Gypsy Moth/CNN.
Photojournalist Margaret Moth is recalled by CNN colleagues as a true professional who lived life to the full.


Remembering Margaret Moth

 “If Your Pictures aren’t Good Enough

You aren’t Close Enough”

Robert Capa

Margaret Gypsy Moth was one who believed to tell the story best you had to get close to the action. She followed that dictum time and time again and during several conflicts when other journalists were running for cover Margaret was seen standing her ground, pointing her camera at the soldiers pointing their weapons back at her.

She had a love of history in the making: “I want to be there,” she said, “I want to be part of it.” She did not see herself as having a death wish and resented it when she was seen that way.

Simply put, Margaret Gypsy Moth made an impression.

Given her jet-black hair, thick black eyeliner, black clothes and combat boots (which she often slept in while on assignment), people didn’t always know what to think upon meeting her. She was quirky, the sort who excused herself from a social gathering by saying she had to wash her socks. And she was fearless, the kind of woman who not only kept the camera rolling while under fire, but zoomed in on a soldier who was shooting at her.

Colleagues learned quickly to appreciate all that this camerawoman was. Beyond her rich personality, which included deep optimism and kindness, she brought to her profession top-notch technical abilities, unmatched dedication and an approach to work that inspired others to push themselves.

“The important thing is to know that you’ve lived your life to the fullest,” she said then, before tubing down a river in Austin, Texas; taking jaunts to Cape Cod and the Canadian Rockies; and piloting a houseboat up the Mississippi River — replete with beer and Cuban cigars. “I don’t know anyone who’s enjoyed life more.”

Moth was born in Gisborne, New Zealand, to a homemaker and a man who made swimming pools, she was fascinated by photography after getting her first still camera at the age of eight. She studied film and photography at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch before moving to Dunedin, also on South Island, for the local TV channel DNTV2 as the first news camerawoman in New Zealand.

These were the 1970s, before the days of a national hook-up, and colleagues recall her racing by car to the airport to get her videotapes to Auckland and Wellington in time for the national evening news. After work, she would relax on alternative evenings as a bell-ringer at a local church or by jumping out of a small plane.

Born Margaret Wilson, she changed her name to Margaret Gypsy Moth because; she wanted to have a name that was her own. She chose Gypsy Moth as she had a friend who had a little Tiger Moth aeroplane she used to jump out of.

“There was no skydiving club in town,” Dunedin pilot Mike Caldwell said. “Margaret would just walk up to pilots and ask for a lift. Even in blustery north-westerly winds, she’d jump out at 12,000ft. She could have no idea where she would land.” Since there were no instructors to insist otherwise, Moth preferred to skydive barefoot.

She originally wanted to be a motor mechanic but found that no one would give a girl an apprenticeship. “It was the first time I realised that being female is a handicap,” she recalled later. Perhaps that helped motivate her to prove the opposite.

She said she never aspired to be a photojournalist. Rather her path, she explained, was mostly driven by a love of history and her desire to see it unfold firsthand.

Whether she was amid rioters after Indira Gandhi’s assassination or covering a long menu of wars spanning continents, Moth felt she and her colleagues were the lucky ones.

“You could be a billionaire, and you couldn’t pay to do the things we’ve done,” said Moth, who had been living in Istanbul, Turkey. Reported to be New Zealand’s first camerawoman, she went to the U.S. and worked for KHOU in Houston, Texas, for about seven years before moving to CNN in 1990.

When other photojournalists dived behind cars as militiamen opened fire on protesters in Tbilisi, Georgia, she stood her ground and kept her camera running. As a band of medical professionals defied Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles, marching into then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s compound in the West Bank, she got in the middle of the group, joined them and helped nab an exclusive interview. When many around her slept in Sarajevo, she set to work in a destroyed hotel room, filming with a night scope through holes blown out by artillery fire, hiding herself and camera from the eyes of snipers.

It was in the Bosnian capital, on 23 July 1992, that Moth and two CNN colleagues set out on what correspondents used to call “one of the best laxatives known to mankind” – the pedal-to-metal dash from the centre of Sarajevo to the airport along “Sniper’s Alley”, at the time a deserted boulevard in full view of Serbian snipers.

Her crew’s aim was to interview pilots of relief flights at the otherwise closed-down and besieged airport. Despite their van’s speed, Moth was hit in the face by a perfectly-aimed bullet from a sniper many hundreds of yards away, shattering her jaw and destroying her teeth and much of her tongue.

After local emergency treatment, CNN had her flown to the Mayo Clinic in the US.

“My face, it felt like my face was falling off,” she said later of the moments after she was shot. “I remember I was trying to hold my face back on. I knew I had to stay conscious. If I go unconscious, I will stop breathing.”

She also joked later – but it was true – that her injury left her forever sounding to strangers like she was drunk. For many months, she couldn’t speak. Fellow CNN cameraman Joe Duran recalled visiting her in hospital after initial surgery, before she had been allowed a mirror. She scribbled two notes to him: “Mark is OK?” referring to one of her colleagues who had been with her, and less seriously wounded, at the time. The other note read: “Do I look like a monster?”

Others got angry, as the van she travelled in was clearly marked as a press vehicle, but she refused to go there. ‘We came into their war. Fair’s fair,’

‘I don’t blame anyone for firing at me. They’re in a war, and I stepped into it.’ ”

Her attitude made other colleagues, many of whom were interviewed for the documentary “Fearless: The Margaret Moth Story,” strive to be better at what they did. Sound techs and correspondents would often follow her lead, whether they felt ready or not. She was known to outrun her own security. Photojournalists viewed her as a bar-setter.

Sure enough, as soon as Moth could carry a camera again, six months later, she went straight back to Sarajevo to join her CNN colleagues. She joked that she was there to find her teeth. Moth maintained her humor amid madness and helped others smile and unwind when the surroundings could make levity seem impossible.

She enlisted a producer to go rollerblading with her on the marble floors of a Baghdad, Iraq, hotel lobby. She forced colleagues to tell her who they’d rather sleep with, while giving them horrifying choices. She liked to kick back with fine cigars and could drink others under the table.

Despite her tough exterior, there was insecurity, a vanity to her. No matter where she was, Moth rose early to do her eye makeup and hair. Forever worried about her weight, she picked at a block of cheese in Bosnia for about six weeks and got by on mango juice during a stretch in the West Bank.

She admitted that after being shot, she was more afraid of what she’d look like than she was of dying.  But she often worried about others more than herself.

Moth enjoyed working with seasoned correspondents but also looked out for those who were new.

Her chosen lifestyle didn’t leave room for children of her own, but she bonded with them across the globe. And her love of animals was so deep that she refused to ride in a horse-pulled wagon, preferring to run with heavy equipment in the desert heat while on assignment in Petra, Jordan.

In fact, when it became clear that the advanced cancer would end her life, the concern that drove her to tears was her cats — the more than 25 strays she looked after in Istanbul.

“She was more upset about them than she was about dying,” said Duran, who rushed to her side after she’d been medevaced out of Sarajevo. But when Duran, also a CNN cameraman, moved into her home in Turkey with the promise that he’d care for the cats, he said Moth told him, ” ‘Now I can die happy.’ ”

Duran was by Moth’s side when she died. He said he took her ashes back to Istanbul, where he placed them in her garden, beside a photograph of her. There, as she wanted, she’ll be hanging out with her cats.

There were a few things Moth wished she had done. She would have liked to have seen the Krak des Chevaliers, a medieval fortress in Syria, and the Burundi drummers. But regrets? She had none.

She “led the complete life,” Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent,  said. She was remarkable. She came back to the battle zones as soon as she could. She endured all those endless surgeries, she had to learn to eat and drink and talk again. She had to endure people’s embarrassed, curious stares. She got hepatitis C from the initial blood transfusion in Sarajevo that saved her life. And later, she got cancer, fought the good fight for longer than anyone could imagine, and died. Life battered and brutalized her, but she remained unbowed and happy. She was a survivor, a unique soul, and she bore all that came her way with a remarkable sense of calm and equanimity. She loved music, antiques, and animals. She taught us so much about what it means to be a real person, the consummate professional.

“I don’t think Margaret could ever look back and say, ‘What if?’ She did it to the max, and she did it brilliantly. And she did it on her terms.”

Margaret represented the best of CNN. Modest, yet confident, sceptical of bluster and ego, utterly dedicated to her job. She had no tolerance for the “news star” syndrome that often afflicts reporters these days.

In a CNN interview Margaret said: “Life is sort of like a game of tennis. You have no choice over how that ball comes to you, but it’s how you hit it back that counts.”

Margaret Moth, news camerawoman: born Gisborne, New Zealand 21 August 1951; died Rochester, Minnesota 21 March 2010.

 CNN colleagues and friends of Margaret Moth 

 Video: World’s Untold Stories Fearless: The Margaret Moth Story

CNN colleagues honour Moth

Another of CNN’s international camerawomen remembers Moth

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