Death and Taxes and Danger Pay

05/25/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

This past April 15th marked the 5th anniversary of my sister's death.

Carol Spencer Mitchell: Fearless Photojournalist, Loving Wife and Mother, Her indomitable spirit lives on. 1954-2004.

Of course, how much can you put on a gravestone? My sister led an unbelievable life. She went to Israel in 1984 to freelance and learn about the "situation." That's what they called it in the Middle East then. She had already been Andrew Young's photographer at the UN, chased Jim Jones to Guyana and covered the Manley elections and riots in Jamaica. Always drawn to the edge, she was among the first Americans allowed into Libya to interview and photograph Quaddafi in the mid 80's.

When em>Newsweek offered her a contract to work solely for them she accepted on the condition that she be allowed to live in Israel. She said she wanted to learn by living in one place and covering the other.

She demanded a unique situation, and led a double life with two passports; a Jewish woman hiding her identity, traveling alone with her cameras on assignment in the Arab world, working with some of the most infamous terrorists at that time.

When she died, it took me a year to go through all of her notes and writing. She had begun a memoir, called Danger Pay, and I had promised her it would be published. It was her legacy for Sam and Brian -- the son and husband she'd left behind.

Her story documents the turmoil roiling the Arab world in the 1980's and 90's. Through her eyes, we experience the media frenzy surrounding the hijacking of TWA flight #847 and the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. She takes us through the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip before, after and during the intifada. We meet Middle Eastern leaders like King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat, and finally follow her on a harrowing journey into the PLO military training camps in 1986 for Palestinian children. Along the way, she takes us to places like Cyprus, Yemen, and Sudan, where she photographs "thousands of ragged refugees, in case the public cares about starving Africans and a civil war in a town called Wau."

My sister began to struggle with her feeling that she was an active participant in a process that was resulting in "the triumph of image over reality." Eventually her experiences compelled her to set aside her cameras and reexamine the way images are created, scenes are framed, and how "real life" is packaged for specific news stories.

At her funeral I read a piece she had written when she was telexed the news that a relief volunteer she had traveled with the week before had been shot down in a plane over Sudan. Carol wrote that when she had trouble falling asleep she organized the details of her funeral the way most women plan their wedding.

Carol spent a third of her life in the Middle East, covering the Arab world and terror. She moved back to the US 2 weeks before 9/11, and said, "I hoped to leave this behind." Soon afterwards she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer which she called "war on another front."

I feel so privileged that I had a legacy of material to sort through. It allowed me to know my sister in a way I never knew her when she was alive. Her final gift to all of us was a look inside her heart; the feeling of hope you get when the sky begins to show a light after a very intense storm. Carol was very private. She never talked about her work, and we never knew what her life was like. At that time, there was no instant communication, cell phones, or computers. She was out there all alone where terror was commonplace and everyday, and we were here, safe in the US. Time has not eroded her loss, but somehow muted it; there are songs that remind me of our childhood that make me pull off the road, and moments when the hard lump rises in my throat and I cannot speak, but for the most part I am at peace. I have closure. I am fortunate. And every year when April 15th rolls around, I don't think about taxes. I think about Carol.