Life after Bethel: Destination Yemen

March 14, 2014 | 11 a.m.

2011 Bethel nursing grad pursues dream of photojournalism

Culture | Rachel Wilson

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Alex Potter, photojournalist and 2011 Bethel graduate makes a point to fit into her surroundings by speaking fluent Arabic and wearing the native dress. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Alex Potter

Four years ago, Alex Potter had a camera, a dream and a heart to see the world. Today, she has work recognized internationally and a dream come true.

“I always loved telling stories— writing, I mean—but I felt so much more engaged with the camera. The artistic side, I suppose,” Potter said.

Currently residing in Yemen, 24-year-old Potter calls photojournalism her day job.

After graduating from Bethel in 2011 with a degree in nursing, Potter dreamed of becoming a photojournalist. While initially entertaining the expectations others held for her, Potter searched for nine months for a RN job. With no success, she stepped out of others’ expectations and into her dream—photojournalism.

“I’ve always had an adventurous spirit,” said Potter, “I think I really wanted to get out into the world—first to explore for myself, then as a bridge of knowledge for others who hadn’t had the same exposure to global events.”

Fostering a passion for arts of all sorts from a young age, Potter began photographing in high school. “When I started exposing myself to real photojournalism and saw the power of the image…that’s when I was really drawn in,” she said.

Confident, driven and independent, Potter defies many social norms for a white middle-class female from the Midwest. While many consider it a little radical—outlandish, even—Potter devotes herself daily to the people of the Middle East, giving a voice to the voiceless. Her photos work to tell stories that will shape the future.

Potter’s time at Bethel significantly influenced her interest in the Middle East. Taking full advantage of the study abroad opportunities offered, Potter studied for a semester in India, a J-term in Jordan, and an additional J-term in Uganda.

Though her career takes her all around the Middle East for months at a time, today, Potter refers to Yemen as home base—that is, if she has a home base at all. Initially packing her bags in February 2012, Potter chose Yemen because of the upcoming election and because she spoke Arabic.

“That’s why I chose Yemen,” Potter explained. “But why I stayed has everything to do with the people.”

Shaking off the “us-versus-them” mentality, Potter finds herself resonating with the Yemeni’s simple lives and strong faith. Amidst contrasting backgrounds and experiences, dialogue is encouraged. For Potter, Yemen is a place she feels free to be herself.

Though she is still working to establish her “voice” per se, Potter finds herself continually examining a recurring theme in her work: the exploitation of power and how it affects citizens on a personal level. Such exploitation is exceptionally prevalent in the Middle East.

“To really make a difference, you have to feel your work so others can feel it,” Potter explained. “In that sense, you have to really be in tune to the story surrounding you.”

Contrary to popular assumptions, as a young, female American photojournalist alone in the Middle East, Potter feels quite safe. While many go to such regions of the world to infuse it with the American “civilized ways,” Potter went over to experience the Middle Eastern ways. As part of that, Potter makes it a point to fit into her surroundings by speaking the native tongue, Arabic, fluently. Additionally, she wears the native dress—a balto, or a lightweight, long-sleeve black robe worn over clothes, and a hijab, or a headscarf worn by women that covers both the head and chest.

Potter’s love for the lens and passion for the people has brought her great success. Published in Esquire Middle East, Stern, Vice, Global Post and the Associated Press, Potter’s work has been recognized internationally. In fall 2012, she was invited to the Eddie Adams Workshop, a four-day intensive workshop of top professionals, editors and elite students in the industry. Additionally, last spring, Potter was accepted to the NY Times Lens portfolio review.

“It was so encouraging to see such talent and people who have really made a mark on the world in this field,” Potter said. “The connections I made encouraged me to keep going in my work.”

Undoubtedly, the industry is changing. Photojournalism isn’t always a steady source of income, and it can be a real challenge to make it in the field today. Because of that, Potter is grateful for her RN degree to fall back on as a steady source of income. In the meantime, however, she’ll continue telling the stories that fill our world with life and color through the lens of a camera. Be sure to check out her blogs at www.alexkaypotter.com and www.alexkay.wordpress.com.

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