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Obituary: Paula Lerner

Award-winning photojournalist know for works chronicling issues facing women.

Bravery comes in many forms; the courage to document the pain of others despite personal danger, the spirit of self-sacrifice to seek a better world, to fearlessly face a life-threatening condition by continuing to live a life of purpose and hope.

Those were the qualities Paula Lerner brought to her work as an award-winning photojournalist and multimedia producer and to a personal struggle with an illness thought subdued but which returned.

Lerner, a long-time Belmont resident and member of Beth El Temple Center, died Tuesday, March 6, 2012, at her home with her family present.

Lerner, 52, died of breast cancer.

"Like everything else she did in her life, Paula met this illness with a strong and beautiful soul, with great determination and above all, with enormous courage," wrote Beth El Rabbi Jonathan Kraus in an email today. 

"Though the cancer ultimately took her life, it never vanquished her incredible spirit," he said.

A freelance photographer since 1985, Lerner focus was directed to issues facing women of all ages and nationalities.

"The trick is to find the energy and discipline to not let go of your dreams and to find ways to make them happen," Lerner posted on Dirck Halstead's Digital Journalist website in 2002. 

"You will be responsible for finding your own path and for overcoming the obstacles you encounter. Maintaining the passion and commitment to go forward can be a daunting task. No one said this would be easy, but then not much in life that is worth doing is," wrote Lerner.

For nearly a decade, Lerner followed that personal passion by documenting in stark detail the women of Afghanistan who are all but hidden from the world by custom and culture in a land of conflict.

, Lerner talked about the life-threatening hazards she encounter for her best known work, the multimedia presentation, "Behind the Veil," which won an Emmy and web awards for her and her collaborator, the Toronto Globe and Mail, chronicling the daily life of women in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

"Kidnapping, armed robbery, suicide bombers or improvised explosives (IEDs) are all possible scenarios when a Westerner travels there. I've had some close calls (a bomb went off shortly after I left an area). I try to minimize my risks through my contacts in Afghanistan, whom I trust with my life," Lerner told Belmont Patch.

But the threat of violence never prevented Lerner from traveling five times to the war-torn land, ventures she took as a volunteer with the Business Council for Peace, a non-profit network of business professionals who volunteer to train local entrepreneurs in regions recovering from war.

When her friend, Afghan legislator Sitara Achakzai, was targeted and assassinated by the Taliban in 2009, Lerner acted.

"Because I did not want her death to go unnoticed in the West, I produced a multimedia feature titled 'The Life and Death of Sitara Achakzai.' Her murder definitely has had a chilling effect on Afghan women promoting women's rights," said Lerner to Belmont Patch.

Lerner's own work, "Afghan Stories," toured the country in 2009 and has been made into a hard cover book.

"Paula didn't have a chance to see a hard copy, but her new book [Afghan Stories] is now available" on Blurb, according to her family on an on-line post.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2004, and after surgery and treatment, Lerner resumed photography. But five years later cancer metastasized to her bones and organs, according to the NPPA.

While co-authoring the book "Why We Walk: The Inspirational Journey Toward a Cure for Breast Cancer"with Deb Murphy, Lerner was diagnosed with the same disease.

As a freelancer in Boston, Lerner had many international corporate and advertising clients, and her personal work won acclaim in photojournalism contests including first place in the 55th Pictures of the Year competition in Issue Reporting for her essay, "A Widow On Welfare: An Untold Story," said the NPPA, which Lerner joined in 1993.

A native of Hudson, Ohio, Lerner was a graduate of Harvard College where she met her husband.

Lerner is survived by her husband, Thomas Dunlap, and their daughters, Maia and Eliana.

A memorial service for Lerner will be held at Friday, March 9, at 10 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, the photographer requested that donations be made to the Business Council for Peace,or to Metavivo, a research, support, and awareness group for families and patients with metastatic breast cancer.

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