Rita Leistner '82, Alumni of Distinction Award Recipient 2013
"I want to help tell people's stories, especially those who have suffered most from war, and I am constantly exploring new ways to do this. My job is putting together the pieces of the puzzle that show what is going on in the world. One story at a time, we try to educate ourselves and others through that."
In 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq war, Rita Leistner paid smugglers to lead her through the mountains from Turkey into Iraq while Turkish guards patrolled the border with shoot-to-kill orders.
"I felt like I had prepared my whole life for this moment," says the TFS alumna and award-winning freelance photographer and documentarian. "It was insane, but this was the war of my generation and the story deserved to be told."
From inside the front lines, Rita set out to capture on film the cost of war. It's a mission that has defined her entire career, covering stories in war-torn countries from Iraq to Afghanistan and Lebanon to Israel. Her pictures have been exhibited widely and published in Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, The Walrus and Rolling Stone magazines, among others, and she has earned three national magazine awards and a nomination for a Courage of Journalism Award by the International Women's Media Foundation. Rita has co-authored numerous books, including Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (2005) and Memory of Fire (2013). Her first sole-authored book, Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan, is due out this summer. Also this year, she will release her first documentary film: a 13-minute short filmed in Israel and called MIKLAT: The Bomb Shelter Project.
Rita's career took root at TFS, where she developed a lifelong love of languages. She earned undergraduate and Master's degrees in French and English comparative literature at the University of Toronto before freelancing as a photojournalist in Cambodia and moving to New York to study at The International Centre of Photography. "I'm definitely not a traditional photojournalist," she says. "I want to help tell people's stories, especially those who have suffered most from war, and I am constantly exploring new ways to do this."
In addition to writing, photography and filmmaking, Rita teaches a course on the history of photojournalism and documentary photography at U of T.