She Traveled the World, Faced Every Danger and Hardship. Now, She is Home and at Peace.
For two decades the story of a young American, female photojournalist, etched in film, remained stored in my file cabinet. It was time for these images to see the light of day and to tell the story of Yola Monahkov.
Yola Monakhov was 26 years old when she caught a bullet while working in Israel. She would have died if not for the fast actions of her Associated Press colleagues, who rushed her to the Haddassah hospital where the doctors there put her back together. She was fortunate to have had a network of friends, fellow journalists, like Ed Gargan, Matthew McAllester, photojournalists Alan Chin, Thomas Dworzak, Katy Daigle (a college friend), and especially AP staff photographer Lefteris Pitarakis.
Yola’s dream of being a foreign correspondent, a photojournalist, and her great curiosity about the world is what put her in harm’s way on November 11, 2000, the day she almost died.
She was working as a stringer, a dedicated freelancer, for the AP in Bethlehem on that day. She was shot by an Israeli soldier at a common, barely newsworthy event; in Israel, it was small group of Palestinian kids throwing stones. She walked past the soldier who shot her only a few moments before and greeted them. The soldier’s bullet struck her in the pelvis, shattered it and tore up her stomach. Even in those days before instantaneous global communications, the shocking news ricocheted around the photojournalist community. It could have been any one of us. This news, even for those who didn’t know Yola, was personal.
Yola had moved to Israel earlier in the year with the intention of working in the Middle East. Born in Russia with Jewish grandparents, she had migrated there as a child before settling in the United States. Israel was familiar to her. She was comfortable there and thought it would be a good base from which to launch her travels around the region. At the time, there was plenty of news to follow, as Hamas had declared an Intifada against Israel. Her plan was solid, before it wasn’t. The bullet changed everything.
She spent more than three months in two different hospitals in Jerusalem. First at the Intensive Care Unit of Hadassah Ein Kerem, where she received the critical surgeries that saved her life. Later at Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospital where she relearned how to walk.
I traveled to Israel in January of 2001, as Yola was undergoing physical therapy. At this point, the hospital was her home, so it was natural for me to spend a lot of time there with her. We spent our days going on short outings, like visiting her favorite falafel cart which was located right at the entrance to the Old City. In the evenings we’d hang out at the Artist House Cafe. I documented Yola’s life in repair — colleague and friend who I was trying to help heal.
“That kind of trauma, being shot, being shot in my privates — Is there a more polite term? — continues to animate my work. It was violent, but it was also a connection. I feel tethered to the place, to the conflict, but especially to the young man who shot me.
I am now a mother of two boys, and we speak frequently about new ways to be a boy and a man, how to be loving and gentle, and to consider the feelings of other people and animals.
This experience puts me in relation to systems and institutions far larger than myself, and allows me to see the stardust of which we are made, the fat, heavy bullet, the young soldier, his friend who was shot by a Palestinian gunman the day before, the surgeon who couldn’t save the life of his friend, but saved mine, the dirt road where a grandfather passed by with his grandson, where I soon fell in a shock of near paralysis, and where people walk still. I am very conscious of our fragility, of how we are soft targets before power, and how our cameras can be seen as weapons, although they can not actually defend us. I always remind my students to be careful, mindful, and aware.
If I have anything to be proud of, it is that the bullet did not silence me completely, though it made me think much more deeply about the ethics of my actions and photographs. I have worked through the injury and recovery by continuing to make work, and not be deterred. I am grateful for the experience and send my thoughts to the soldier who shot me, and wish him a happy family life, and the joy of the everyday. I wish I could meet him and speak with him”
— Yola Monakhov Stockton
I happened across these images as I worked to digitize my film archive. I’d forgotten about them. For 20 years, they sat there, Yola’s story etched in film, patiently waiting to be rediscovered.
I first met Yola in Pristina, Kosovo in June 1999. I scrambled to get into Kosovo as 1.2 million displaced residents headed home. The US-led NATO bombing had forced KFOR into a retreat. The war was perhaps, coming to an end. The refugees were heading home, but many were still worried about European stability. There was a fear that a war in this region could give rise to another world war, as had happened before. It was in this environment of tension and despair that Yola and I first met.
“I was a newbie, and you took me under your wing.” remembered Yola to me.
I did needed a place to stay in Kosovo and Yola already had an apartment, so it was a necessary situation. Naturally, we became traveling partners. We buddied up for security, camaraderie, and even food. We traveled together to the frontlines in the northern city of Mitrovica, which was extremely dangerous. Milosovich’s soldiers were in retreat and the refugees were trying to return to their homes. It was a fluid and tense situation. The frontline was constantly changing, which is historically the most dangerous time for journalists. Yola was fearless, I was experienced. We traveled all over Kosovo.
We lost touch over the years. Some of those years were dark times for Yola. She was fragile and still not fully recovered. I remembered, during her physical therapy, she was quite afraid that she’d never be able to have children. She grilled the doctors for answers, but she didn’t get much in the way of reassurance.
When she could she return to photojournalism. She was doing the work she loved, but it was tough on her. In 2001, while covering an election in Iran, she was forced to remove the orthopedic ankle brace she’s compelled to wear. (Yola still has a dropped foot because of the damage to the nerve that runs through her leg. She wore ankle-foot-orthotic to keep it aloft during the five years. She still trips because her foot still is dropped). She tripped and twisted her ankle chasing after Mohammad Khatami after he cast his vote that morning. Her editor at Getty wanted to know why she hadn’t worked throughout the rest of the day but Yola simply couldn’t tell him her ankle had swelled up like a tire.
About this time, she learned her father, who was retired and living back in Russia, died unexpectedly.
“Now, I was burying him. I had no work. I felt like a cripple. I had no currency in the marketplace of freelance glamor…It was a very tough time after my injury, a sad, lonely time of reckoning and figuring out my purpose.” she recalls.
Then in 2002, I saw her at the Mustafa Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. She seemed to be doing much better. She’d been living in Afghanistan for about five months to cover the military action there after 9/11. She was freelancing for magazines like Newsweek, Der Spiegel, and US News & World Report.
In 2003, during a series of violent incidents in Baghdad, Iraq, she started to rethink what she was doing in war journalism. “My vehicle was ambushed in Iraq, and the driver barely got us away from the gunman, whose sinister gaze I can still see. That moment marked a point on my transition away from hot-spot freelancing. Aside from what we know now about the insecurity of the gig economy and the immense vulnerability of its workers, there was also something uneasy about the context, a sort of violence of willy-nilly consumption of a place where we were only visitors,” Yola recollected. I asked about the Israeli soldier who shot her. Yola told me that while an investigation did find that he violated rules of engagement, he suffered no criminal charges or prosecution. When she tried to find him later, the Israeli military was careful to conceal his identity, so she doesn’t know if his record even reflects his action.
In 2005, she decided to shift gears and pursued a Master’s of Fine Arts at Columbia. Later she landed a teaching job at Smith College. Currently she’s teaching photography at SUNY Buffalo State. I caught up with Yola last summer in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she was visiting family. I was happy to see calmer, and settled since her marriage (to Jonathan Stockton) and now with two beautiful sons, Leopold (8) and Thomas (5). She glowed as she pridefully talked of them. She spoke with pride of her being a homeowner and that she authored a book of fine art photography, The Nature of Limitation, a title with some irony given the arc of her life.
“I work on projects about the environment, migration, folklore, and equitable cities. A new public art project is about redlining and segregation in Buffalo and was made in collaboration with artist Jared Thorne, and community activists and historians. My book of photographs of birds and landscapes, The Nature of Limitation, was made in collaboration with ecologists and scientists who study bird psychology and migration. I am also working with the Great Lakes Center at my college on a project about invasive species in the Great Lakes. I guess I like to collaborate and to draw on the expertise and research of colleagues, translating data into visual form, and information into the meaning of emotions and senses. Other work is about Hawaiian nationalism and colonial history, and a series of photographs made by sending pinhole cameras through the mail.”
— Yola Monakhov Stockton
After all these years, I recognized the same sweetness in her that I first saw when we traveled together in Kosovo so many years ago. It showed in the way she spoke of and mothered her two boys; in the satisfaction she was getting from her present day work and in the comfortable home she has built for her family.
She had traveled the world, faced every peril, yet Yola found her grace in a place of stability and in faces that didn’t shift from month to month. She’s in a happy place now not altogether far from where her journey first started in NYC so many years before.
Yola Monakhov Stockton is an Assistant Professor and Director of Photography Program, SUNY Buffalo State.
BA with distinction, Comparative Literature and Italian, University of Wisconsin — Madison, 1995
Master’s in Italian Literature, Columbia University, 1998
Master’s of Fine Arts — Photography, Columbia University, 2007
Photography book “The Nature of Limitation”
NY Gallery, Rick Wester Fine Art
Show on the Great Lakes at Garden Gallery
Current Project: Redlining Buffalo
- A special thanks to Ken Jarecke’s edit of pictures and words. Two images next to each other, to show the contrast, were his edit. And always further delicate edit by Jeffrey D. Smith, Director of Contact Press Images.
- Stories highlighting womens role in photojournalism: 10 World Press Photo Awards, 10 Backstories and One Piece Of Advice.
- RECENT PROJECT TrailblazersOfLight, Pioneering women of Photojournalism. Twitter @TrailblazersofL, Instagram @trailblazersofLight
- All photographs are copyright registered with the Libary Of Congress, Copyright Yunghi Kim. All Rights Reserved. Please respect photographer copyright, please do not repost photographs.