Margaret Moth was born Margaret Wilson in Gisborne in 1951. As a child she noticed how many ‘Margarets’ and ‘Wilsons’ there were in the world. In her early 20s, seeing no reason why women must have the name of their father, she decided to become her own creation. “I had a friend who had a little Tiger Moth plane I used to jump out of, so I thought why not ‘Margaret Gipsy Moth’?”
Moth picked up her first stills camera aged eight. At first she was keen on becoming a mechanic, but was turned down for apprenticeships because she was female. It was the first time she realised her gender was seen as a ‘handicap’. She studied at Canterbury University, majoring in photography and film. In the early 1970s she started work as a camera-woman for the Dunedin arm of state television, DNTV-2. At this time she was the first female camera operator in a television news team in either New Zealand or Australia, so she was already a pioneer.
In Dunedin she discovered her passion for skydiving, a pastime that captured much of what made Moth tick; a sense of freedom and autonomy. In 1976 she was captured skydiving from a hot air balloon for regional show Look South. She also volunteered as a bell-ringer at local churches. Moth wanted to meet life head on, and there was a sense of not wanting to waste chances. Paul Donovan, her supervisor at DNTV-2, described Moth as a "loveable rogue" who was committed to her work. She became known to her television colleagues as ‘the lady in black’ because of a penchant for black eyeliner and black clothes, topped off with her signature shaggy black hair.
In 1976 TV One producer Deidre McCartin was busy trying to find an all-female crew to shoot a major documentary series focussing on the issues facing New Zealand women. McCartin had persuaded the Department of Education to help finance it, to the tune of $15,000. State television then came on board with the bulk of funding. McCartin admitted to some ‘Machiavellian tricks’ to secure her team, telling her bosses that the Department of Education would only provide the money on condition she use an all female film crew.
Moth was an obvious candidate and came on board as camerawoman. The team that made Women were a mix of experience ( like Moth) and newcomers. The episodes dealt with issues like abuse, sexuality and mental health, using everyday voices to bring light to subjects that hadn't been fully explored on New Zealand television.
Moth left New Zealand in 1980 and found work with American news channel KHOU 11 in Houston, Texas. She wasn’t afraid to go where the action was.
In 1984 she covered the violent aftermath of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In 1990 she started a new job with American cable channel CNN. One early assignment was covering the 1990 Gulf War; for the next twenty years Moth would take her camera to the world’s hot spots, including Lebanon, Zaire, Somali and Chechnya. Some say she rode on the first US tank into Kosovo from Macedonia.
Moth’s career would be defined by one major conflict. In 1992 the team at CNN were sent to Sarajevo to cover the Bosnian civil war. Moth and her team would often run the gauntlet of so-called ‘Sniper’s Alley’, a bombed out road heading to the airport. On 23 July 1992 the team’s van came under attack and Moth was shot in the face, a sniper’s bullet shattering her jaw. She was lucky the field hospital had enough blood that morning for her to undergo life-saving surgery. Moth revisited that day in Fearless - The Margaret Moth Story, CNN’s 2009 documentary on her life and work.
She remembered the moments after being shot; holding her face in her hands and being aware of the need to keep awake. In the coming months she would undergo a dozen surgeries to reconstruct her lower face. Her speech was permanently affected. This injury would change anyone’s life, but Moth was determined to get back to her work. Despite her colleagues’ concerns she returned to Sarajevo in 1994, her love for the job undimmed. Moth was clear-eyed that being in a warzone, "you have to take what comes with it”.
Another assignment in Georgia in 1992 demonstrated Moth’s unwavering sense of duty. A street protest turned ugly when hired militia opened fire. CNN presenter Stefan Kotsonis recalled ducking behind some cars while Moth remained among the crowd, her camera still running. In 2002 CNN were on the ground on the West Bank in Palestine, witnessing a massive Israeli invasion. Israeli forces had completely surrounded Yasser Arafat’s compound when a group of doctors protesting a curfew walked towards the soldiers. CNN presenter Michael Holmes was working with Moth that day. He kept low while trying to find his cameraperson, only to spot her filming from within the group of advancing doctors. Holmes managed to join Moth and they made it into the compound, securing an on the spot interview with the besieged Palestinian leader.
Moth knew the need to ‘cool down’ and switch off the adrenaline after work. She loved animals and would refuse to engage in any activity that might harm them. CNN reporter Hala Gorani recalled feeling annoyed that one simple piece to camera had to repeated multiple times, because Moth refused to sit in a horse-drawn wagon. Instead she ran alongside the horse with her camera.
In 2009 Moth was diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer. Her attitude to this new war was sanguine. She told a friend that she would feel differently if she had led an uneventful life. Giving her last interview for CNN documentary Fearless, she stated simply “ I’ve gotten everything out of life”.
Moth died in a hospice in Rochester, Minnesota on March 21, 2010, at the age of 58.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Published on 30 August 2018
Fearless- The Margaret Moth Story (Television Documentary) CNN, 2009
Sandra Coney, 'New TV Series on NZ Women' - Broadsheet, 29 August 1977
Phil Davison, 'Margaret Moth: Fearless camerawoman who faced dangers many war zones and was seriously injured in Sarajevo' - The Independent, 2 April 2010
Mark Price, ‘Margaret Moth, seldom out of the light’ - The Otago Daily Times, 17 October 2009
Marty Sharpe, 'Moth drawn to hottest flames, 'got everything out of life' - The Dominion Post, 23 March 2010, page A11
Unknown writer, ‘Pioneering NZ camerawoman Margret Moth dies'. Radio New Zealand website, 22 March 2010