Through a Different Lens
Valerie Plesch '98
For photojournalist Valerie Plesch ’98, the pull toward visual storytelling is visceral. In fact, the yearning was so great that nearly a decade ago she left a successful career in international development to work as a freelance documentary photographer and writer. She says, “I enjoyed the development work, but the desire to take photographs kept gnawing at me.
As it turns out, Valerie was right to listen to her gut. Since switching professions, she has photographed some of the most significant events of our times, from the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan and the ugly aftermath of the war in Kosovo to the tumult of this country’s Black Lives Matter protests and contentious 2020 presidential election. Her stories have appeared in an array of renowned national and international media, from The New York Times and The Washington Post to NPR and Al Jazeera English. And talking with Valerie, it’s clear that she’s just getting started.
COMING INTO FOCUS
While she has no idea where her passion for photography will ultimately lead her, Valerie is clear on where she initially discovered her fascination with the medium. She recalls, “In my freshman year at Potomac, I took a photography class with Mrs. Da Cunha. We learned to compose images, develop film in the darkroom, that sort of thing, and I loved it. In fact, I was so excited about photography that I decided I wanted to study it in college. I applied to the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and the Art Institute of Chicago...and then I backed out.”
To this day, Valerie is not sure what prompted her decision to veer from her chosen path. “Maybe I didn’t think I could make a career in photography,” she muses. Whatever her reasoning, she instead opted to attend Colorado College, graduating in 2002 with a degree in political science. After graduation, Valerie spent a year in Vietnam. She then returned to DC to work for an NGO before accepting a job with Chemonics International, providing project management and operations support for initiatives in such farflung places as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Haiti. Valerie reflects, “I loved the work – I learned so much. But I was always thinking about the visual arts.”
In 2010, Valerie was assigned a position as director of operations and finance for a USAID-funded agriculture program based in Kabul. She was tasked with important work, overseeing the administrative and financial functions of a five-year, $133 million program. Yet, as she moved around the city, observing the people and places, her mind repeatedly drifted to photography. “I realized that I was looking at the environment as a journalist, rather than as a development worker,” she recalls, “and I knew it was time to make a career change.” She shared her thoughts with a colleague – a former CNN White House correspondent – who encouraged her to explore Columbia University’s master’s program in journalism. “It was perfect,” says Valerie, “a 10-month program that would provide me with a solid foundation in journalism. I applied, was accepted, and haven’t looked back.”
THE NEXT FRAME
After completing her master’s degree, Valerie interned at Al Jazeera and a New York documentary production company before returning to Afghanistan in early 2014 to chronicle the country’s historic presidential election. Next, it was on to Pristina, Kosovo, where she remained for five years, training her lens on a host of subjects, from war survivors to the country’s first female president. She also photographed Kosovo’s first major music festival, headlined by international pop sensation Dua Lipa, whose parents are from Kosovo.
In August 2019, Valerie moved back to Northern Virginia, where she was raised. There, she spent months documenting reactions to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, focusing on members of the Vietnamese American community. Her interest in that community springs from a deeply personal connection: Valerie’s mother is Vietnamese, and her father Argentinian. She explains, “A number of my mother’s family members fled to the U.S. as the Vietnam War came to an end; as a result, I have an abiding interest in Vietnamese Americans and, more broadly, in the experience of immigrants and refugees coming to this country.”
Valerie’s current work reflects this interest, with a focus on the experiences of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom fled to the DC area’s Afghan community in the months before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021. She says, “I’ve known for some time that I wanted to do a project about the Afghan community in Northern Virginia. I have a number of contacts among the people here and also back in Afghanistan, from when I lived and worked there. I recognized more than a year ago that asylum seekers would be leaving the country because the peace talks were so uncertain. Many journalists and activists were being targeted by the Taliban even before the fall of Kabul, so I knew this story would continue to develop.”
Initially, Valerie focused her attention on Afghan women who were asylum seekers or holders of special visas for working with the U.S. government. She says, “I knew two prominent Afghan women, a journalist and a human rights activist who came to DC last year, so I started with them.” As the months passed, her connections in the local Afghan community grew. She joined “Afghans Living in the DC Area,” a large Facebook community that helps new arrivals find their way. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan and the influx of refugees increased exponentially, Valerie met even more immigrants. She says, “I keep in touch with a lot of people, which can open doors to new opportunities.”
For example, Valerie recently landed a photo assignment for The Wall Street Journal, providing visuals for a story on how Afghan refugees who came to DC in the 1980s and ’90s are helping the current wave of refugees. She says, “The reporter posted in the Afghan Facebook group looking for leads, and I responded right away. I explained who I was, sent her links to my past photos and stories, and told her about leads I could supply within Washington’s Afghan community. Within hours, I was on the phone with the Journal’s photo editor and had been assigned the piece.”
This is often the way that new projects emerge for freelance photojournalists, Valerie explains: An opportunity presents itself and a person with relevant connections and experience will seize it. Most of the stories that Valerie pursues, however, spring from her own thinking. She notes, “In recent weeks, I’ve been working on stories about the DC-area protests against Russia’s war in Ukraine and how Ukrainian Americans are mobilizing to provide humanitarian aid for the refugees and victims of that conflict. Ukrainian refugees have just begun coming to the U.S., and I hope to help tell their stories in the future.”
Valerie observes, “To be successful, a photojournalist has to stay informed about current developments and be alert for opportunities to tell stories that have impact. I’m constantly cultivating my networks and keeping an eye out for story lines, so I can pitch my own ideas or, when I see an opportunity out there, I can tell the editor that I’m ready to go.”
Valerie’s extensive contacts offer her a leg up in the intensely competitive world of freelance journalism. With a little luck, she says, she’ll eventually parlay her connections and personal experience into an in-depth assignment such as a longform photo essay or even a book. She notes, for example, “I would love to travel around the country and see how different communities across the U.S. are resettling Afghan refugees.” For now, though, Valerie has plenty of photographic fodder right in her own back yard.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Glancing through Valerie’s portfolio of stories and images, it’s evident that she doesn’t shy away from challenging topics. Whether capturing the stoic stares of war victims in Kosovo or the daring defiance of female voters in Afghanistan, she approaches her subjects with compassion and a clear eye. Asked why she gravitates toward such difficult subjects, Valerie pauses then reflects, “I’m not sure. I think a lot about that myself. I think I’m drawn to immigrant and refugee stories in part because of my own family’s experiences. My mother and father met while studying in Geneva and later moved to Virginia, where both worked at the World Bank. My grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles fled to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975. They arrived with nothing and built a new life in this country. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by my extended family, and I think that experience compels me to document the stories of other refugees.”
She also has a desire to dispel misconceptions and reveal universal human truths. She observes, “Everyone has a story, and I can play a role in sharing those stories honestly. For example, immigrants don’t want to leave their homelands and their culture. It’s not a decision made lightly. They leave to make life safer for themselves and their families. They seek freedom, and they come to the United States because of the opportunities this country offers.” She adds with a touch of sadness, “I wish people could show more compassion toward refugees. They’re not a burden on our system. The melting pot image reminds us that almost everyone in this country was an immigrant at some point.”
Valerie’s own story is a perfect illustration of this drive to find safety and success – and how people can help one another achieve those goals. She recounts, “My family came to America in search of a better life, and I was fortunate enough to attend The Potomac School, where I was nurtured and encouraged. I’m incredibly grateful to my English teachers, Ms. O’Marah and Mr. Jenkins, who helped me so much with my writing. They saw something in me that I didn’t always see in myself and devoted many after school hours to working with me one-on-one. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of the dedicated faculty at Potomac.”
Now, in her own way, Valerie is paying it forward, leveraging her skills as a visual storyteller to capture the trials and triumphs of individuals around the world. She admits, “It was scary to switch careers in my mid-30s and leave the security of a full-time job for life as a freelance writer and documentary photographer. A lot of people questioned my judgment. I heard things like ‘What are you doing... newspapers are dying,’” she says with a laugh. “But it was something I really wanted, so I did it.” Freelancing isn’t easy, she concedes, and the idea of being a full-time staffer at an outlet like The Washington Post holds a certain allure, but for now, Valerie is happy paving her own way. “It’s a lot of work, but very rewarding,” she concludes. “I’m constantly scanning the news and social media to see what’s happening that I could document. I’m always thinking about that next story.”