Traveling to Afghanistan after cancer treatment gave her pause to contemplate her own future, Paula Lerner trained her camera on women and captured the rich complications of their lives in arresting photos.
A freelance photographer, she documented the day-to-day hopefulness of ordinary acts set against a backdrop of war.
“There has always been a dearth of positive stories about Afghan women in the media,’’ she told the Globe in April 2011, when her work was exhibited at the Groton School in Groton.
“Part of my mission as photojournalist was to try to ameliorate that. I don’t mean to be Pollyanna-ish about anything that is going on in Afghanistan, but there is another side to life there that the media tends to overlook, and that’s the story of women in business rebuilding their lives as they build their businesses and their country.’’
Ms. Lerner, who was honored for her Afghanistan photography and for “A Widow on Welfare: An Untold Story,’’ a photo essay early in her career, died March 6 in her Belmont home. She was 52 and the breast cancer with which she was diagnosed in 2004 had metastasized to her bones and elsewhere.
‘Her genuine interest in the work and lives of Afghan women was immediately visible with her beautiful photographs.’
“Her genuine interest in the work and lives of Afghan women was immediately visible with her beautiful photographs,’’ her Afghan friend, Rangina Hamidi, wrote in a letter that was read at Ms. Lerner’s memorial service earlier this month.
“Her eyes were special; they saw things that ordinary visitors to my country did not,’’ Hamidi wrote. “Paula would humbly say that her camera allowed her to see things differently, but we all know that a camera is only a machine; the real eyes were Paula’s and the search for that special sight was Paula’s.’’
For Ms. Lerner, creating the Afghanistan images meant keeping her own eyes open after the world had averted its gaze.
“When we see war and violence and catastrophe, we risk closing off emotionally,’’ she told the Globe last year. “We say, ‘Well, that’s happening over there; I don’t want to deal with it.’ But when you see people doing their laundry, you say, ‘That’s something I do, too,’ and you make a human connection.’’
Connecting with subjects of photographs was a talent Ms. Lerner had cultivated since first considering photography as a career while studying at Harvard University in the early 1980s.
“She had a real gift for listening to people, who would feel close to her quickly,’’ said her husband, Thomas Dunlap. “She was very passionate about giving a voice to people, and she felt very privileged that they let her into their lives.’’
Born on Long Island in Great Neck, N.Y., Paula Marie Lerner moved with her family to Ohio when she was young and grew up in Hudson, southeast of Cleveland.
At Hudson High School, from which she graduated in 1977, she sometimes played guitar and harmonized with her older brother, Matt, who lives in Hudson.
“She was a much more accomplished musician than I was vocally,’’ he recalled. “I loved to sing with her because our voices blended well together.’’
Ms. Lerner also began to learn photography, first from her father, who developed photos at home, and then in a much larger darkroom at the high school.
From high school she traveled to Brazil for a year as an exchange student, becoming fluent in Portuguese. Then she joined her brother on a trip to Israel, where they lived on a kibbutz, and she became adept at Hebrew.
After a year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Ms. Lerner transferred to Harvard, where she and Dunlap met through mutual friends. They married in 1988, three years after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
For a Harvard course on photography as sociological description, “my final project for the class was a documentary photo essay on an immigrant Portuguese family living in East Cambridge,’’ she wrote in an essay for the website digitaljournalist.org.
Upon completing the project, she wrote, “I found I was hooked. I was taken with the beauty of the medium, and with the immediacy it offered as a storytelling vehicle.’’
“After that,’’ her husband recalled, “she said, ‘This is the kind of work I really want to do. I’m going to see if I can make a career out of this and make a living.’ ’’
Combining commercial assignments to pay the bills with documentary work that fed her soul, she shot photographs for universities, for newspapers such as the Globe, and for magazines in the United States and Europe, including Newsweek, the Smithsonian, Time, and Yankee.
As the demands of her work evolved, she did, too, creating multimedia exhibits such as “The Women of Kabul,’’ which was published on the website of The Washington Post and was awarded a Webby in 2007.
“Behind the Veil,’’ a multimedia collaboration with The Globe and Mail, of Toronto, that evolved out of Ms. Lerner’s Afghanistan work, was awarded an Emmy in 2010.
She and her husband both were freelancers. Dunlap is a translator who works at home, which helped Ms. Lerner pursue her career because he could stay with their daughters, Maia and Eliana, when photo assignments required travel.
“It’s very challenging to have two people be freelancers, and a little scary some of the time, but it really worked for us and gave her the freedom to do the work she had to do,’’ Dunlap said. “With the freedom it gives you, we both always said we wouldn’t have done it any other way.’’
In addition to her husband, her two daughters, Maia Lerner Dunlap of New York City and Eliana Lerner Dunlap of Brattleboro, and her brother, Ms. Lerner leaves her mother, Dorothy (Simon) Lerner of Cambridge; and her father and stepmother, Bernie and Mary Lerner of Aurora, Ohio.
“One thing she never liked was photojournalists who parachuted into people’s lives, took pictures for one or two days, and then vanished,’’ her husband said.
Though the scheduling demands of freelancing sometimes forced her to spend less time than she would have liked with her subjects, longer projects such as “A Widow on Welfare’’ and her work in Afghanistan “were close to her heart,’’ he said.
“When many international visitors were trying to discourage others from going to Kandahar for security reasons,’’ Hamidi wrote in the letter read at the memorial service, “it was Paula who insisted that ‘we must cover the lives of women in a region where everyone refuses to go!’ ’’
Ms. Lerner, Hamidi added, “certainly was and will always remain an extraordinary soul for me and the thousands of Afghan women and men whose lives she touched.’’