Potter to present 'The Cost of War'

WINDOM -- A Windom High School graduate will return to her hometown Thursday to present "The Cost of War," featuring images she's captured and stories she's gathered during her budding career as a journalist in Yemen.

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A Yemeni man from Al Joob lifts the thobe, a traditional robe, to show a shrapnel wound on a boy from the village July 7. The injured youth was one of several boys selling produce to passing cars when the Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit, spraying them with shrapnel and killing nine children. Photo by Alex Potter

WINDOM - A Windom High School graduate will return to her hometown Thursday to present “The Cost of War,” featuring images she’s captured and stories she’s gathered during her budding career as a journalist in Yemen.

Alex Potter left Windom behind after her 2008 graduation, and attended Bethel University on her quest to become a nurse. But midway through her college coursework, Potter felt a tug toward journalism. She wanted to tell stories, through both words and photographs.
Rather than change her field of study, Potter went on to graduate with a bachelor of science in nursing and registered nursing degrees. She even looked for jobs in her field of study, but when nothing looked promising, she packed up and moved to the Middle East - Jordan, specifically. How does one just go from the Midwest to the Middle East?

For Potter, the transition made sense.
“Throughout my senior year (of college), I was interning with an NGO (non-government organization) in the Cities called the Iraqi American Reconciliation Project,” she said. The IARP brings Iraqis injured by the U.S. Coalition to the United States for rehabilitation and surgery.
“I was taking some photos for them, and then I did a photojournalism workshop in Maine.”
The instructor was a leader in the industry - one who continues to be a mentor to Potter.
With the training, and without a nursing job, Potter decided to try a new approach. She had friends living in Jordan, which drew her to the Middle East, and she made a break into journalism.
“Most photographers … have always told me, ‘Just go for it - what you want to do, just do it, don’t worry about the finances at first if you are passionate about something, just kind of throw yourself into it,’ and I guess I did,” Potter shared.
After her arrival in Jordan, Potter realized the country wasn’t really “in the news cycle.”
“I thought, ‘Yemen is having an election, post-revolution,’ so I just bought my ticket and went.
“Since then, I’ve been bouncing between there and other places. I love it,” she added.
Potter said her interest in journalism comes from seeing the career as a “really good way to build bridges and to dispel preconceived notions about things.”
Her works have been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and National Public Radio.
“I didn’t start off taking photos for those people,” she said. In fact, her first published piece written from Yemen appeared in a magazine in Jordan.
“It was enough to buy dinner,” Potter said of her pay. “But, it was that first small step that encouraged me.
“Now it’s been three years since I started working in journalism and every year has gotten better - better work, more connections and me not taking bad pictures like in the beginning,” she said with a laugh.
Though she took just one photography class in college, Potter said the photography workshop influenced her most - primarily because of the contacts she made in the industry and in the photography world.
“The photo community, at least for me, has been very helpful,” she said. “People are very willing to take a look at your work and let you know, “This is great, this is terrible” - give you some tough love and yet also give you very practical advice on what to do next.”
Life in Yemen
Potter spends about 75 percent of the year in Yemen, living in a house with neighbors nearby who look after her.
“During peacetime, I love Yemen,” she said. “It is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to. It is very conservative, but it’s also a great family-oriented country. People are so kind … I’ve never felt unwelcome.”
Since war erupted in March, however, things have changed. There are airstrikes and fighting all across the country, but despite the war, Potter said she doesn’t fear for her life.
“Some things make me a bit nervous, but there’s no reason to be scared if I can’t do anything about it, you know?” she said. “Strangely, Yemen is the only country where I’ve not been scared. Other countries like Eritrea, Kurdistan and even Lebanon, there have been times when I’ve felt afraid.
“I guess in Yemen I have people I really trust and I know who care about me,” she added. “Wherever I go, I think this is one tenet of responsible journalism - finding really good, trusted local journalists. ... Our job would not exist without those people.”
Potter said other journalists have taken her under their wing and showed her the ropes.
She was actually out of the country - on assignment elsewhere - when the war broke out in Yemen in March. It took her two months to get back inside the country.
“Saudi Arabia wouldn’t allow any journalists on flights to get in the country, so I just kind of followed the Yemenis,” she explained. “There were thousands stuck in Cairo because they had gone for medical treatment, so I did some photos there and in Djibouti as well.”
When she finally returned to Yemen in May, her work was focused on the cost of the war for civilians, from victims of airstrikes to how the people are struggling because of the blockades and the rising cost of food.
Sharing her story
Potter said during her presentation, set for 7 p.m. Thursday at the BARC Auditorium, 1012 Fifth Ave., Windom, she will talk about what is happening in Yemen.
“Even if you do follow the international news circuit, Yemen is kind of an enigma - it’s very important strategically and internationally, but it doesn’t make a lot of international news cycles,” Potter said. “Even now, with the war, there’s hardly any coverage. I think it’s important to tell people what’s going on in the country.
“I think it’s really important to be engaged in your own community, definitely, but I think by understanding other parts of the world, you can empathize, even with your own neighbors,” she shared.
Potter plans to remain in the United States through November to work on other projects.
“There are stories I want to tell in the Midwest - from the Somali community; about some young girls on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,” Potter said. She is also awaiting word on some grants and proposals she has written.
Next week, prior to her presentation in Windom, she will speak on a panel to the International Committee of the Red Potter on journalism and modern warfare.
Potter anticipates returning to Yemen early in 2016.
“It’s a bit difficult to work there now, and I think it’s always good with any story to take a step back and re-evaluate things and take a breather,” she said. “I get very emotionally involved and (with) the stories, especially in Yemen. I just need to take self-care.”
Potter’s presentation in Windom is sponsored by Chapter J P.E.O. of Windom and the BARC.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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