When she was afforded a study-abroad experience in 1974 as a sophomore social work major at Eastern Kentucky University, Dr. Deborah Alexander possessed neither a suitcase nor a camera. She had never even been on an airplane, much less witnessed the ravages of war in some far-off, forgotten land.
Forty-four years later, after circling the globe with the U.S. Department of State, often helping to rebuild war-torn countries, Alexander will tell her story through a photography exhibit slated for EKU’s Giles (Upper) Gallery Oct. 1-25. An opening reception, featuring remarks from Alexander at 6 p.m., will be held on Thursday, Oct. 4, from 5 to 7 p.m. The reception will also recognize EKU Foundation Professor David Afsah-Mohallatee, a member of the EKU art and design faculty, whose sabbatical exhibition will concurrently occupy the lower gallery. For Giles Gallery hours, visit art.eku.edu/fred-parker-giles-gallery.
Alexander’s exhibit, titled “Surviving War, Building Peace: The Grace of Places,” consists of approximately 100 photographs from 1974 through 2016 that document the EKU graduate’s incredible journey from her time as a first-generation college student and Fulbright Scholar working alongside Mother Teresa in India, to her career stops in Bosnia, Afghanistan and various other nations that benefited from her selfless, and sometimes dangerous service.
“The photos are created, obviously, from my eye, my insights, some striking, some emotive, some narrative,” said Alexander, who now resides in Lexington. “These are not the photos of death, combat, destruction, sadness or tragedy, but the making peace in Bosnia and Afghanistan. And with myself.
“The fact that I live with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD and was able to pull this exhibit together pleases me,” Alexander said. “I’m also pleased that my mind and eye – not always obvious to me – looked for those faces and places of beauty, simplicity and survival. There is goodness and beauty and laughter and kindness if we look to find it, if we want to find it.”
In her role as diplomat and field program manager, Alexander oversaw democratization initiatives designed to stabilize communities, restart government services and rebuild institutions in crisis-ridden and war-ravaged countries. She became one of the state department’s longest-serving officers in Afghanistan, where she labored approximately a decade, long enough to survive three roadside bombings. Alexander’s work also took her to dozens of other countries, including Russia (Siberia), Belarus, Ukraine, Malta, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Rwanda, Somalia and South Africa. On some occasions, she was overseeing elections and helping to develop citizenship skills and political participation among the local people. Other visits were security-related. Some days, she lived in tents or mud huts alongside soldiers. On others, she rubbed shoulders with heads of state and military leaders worldwide.
“Traveling with a camera gave me a certain emotional and visual distance when seeing the death, destruction and damages of war, buffering a direct view into loss and hurt,” Alexander said. “A camera allowed me often to step into a situation that typically a woman would have been unwelcome, particularly in Afghanistan. In reviewing all my photos in preparation for the exhibit, I’ve been forced to grapple with the losses, the years away, the challenges of often being the only woman traveling in the countryside, or the only civilian woman living with the military troops, and with the sense of disappointment as the Afghanistan war drags on.
“Wars are not fought only by military troops,” she emphasized. “The nature of war and rebuilding have changed significantly since World War II, and we have thousands of civilians who go to war with our armed forces. There is little acknowledgement of their service, nor services to assist them. This is not a predominant part of my exhibit but is suggested in the questions I pose in my photo notes. I hope some viewers think about what it means to ‘nation-build’ or help rebuild a country after conflict and genocide. I want us to think about resilience, too. What is it that we all do, or can do, that helps us keep a balance, to overcome hard times or difficult experiences?
“I discovered that my answers to that query are travel, new vistas, finding the human faces, even in war; enjoying a laugh; finding joy sitting with a mountain gorilla; reassurance and curiosity in the eyes of children; and seeing the symmetry and beauty in the doorways of Italy or Malta, or the castles or waterways of the Scottish Highlands.”
EKU has stepped up its efforts in recent years to provide more study-abroad opportunities, even sponsoring an annual spin-the-wheel event, by which the University covers all program costs and airfare for more than a dozen fortunate students. Alexander, who attended the last such event in February 2018, said her own experience in 1974 changed her life. “Travel and experiencing other cultures is life-transforming. This exhibit is, I suppose, my love letter to EKU and for my study-abroad opportunity.”
To read a Spring 2017 EKU Magazine article on Dr. Alexander, visit stories.eku.edu/people/forever-changed-streets-calcutta.
This work, consisting of re-purposed paperback books, string and wood, is among the creations of EKU Foundation Professor of Art & Design David Afsah-Mohallatee to be featured in the Giles Lower Gallery Oct 1-25.