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Beyond the Pulitzer Prize, the realities of covering the Syrian civil war

Six staff and freelance photographers working for Associated Press and Agence France-Presse have won Pulitzer Prizes in photography for their work and commitment while covering the Syrian civil war. BJP speaks with Javier Manzano and Narciso Contreras about the realities of working in one of today's most dangerous conflict zones

“The sound of artillery fire and attack aircraft fills the air. An L-39 MIG aircraft circles above. Death on this day will come in the form of a free-falling bomb or, worse, a missile strike like the one that ripped through Dar Al-Shifa Hospital on 21/11/2012,” writes Javier Manzano, a freelance photographer and stringer for Agence France-Presse.

“As the rebels go house-to-house in search of loyalist troops – each side monitoring the other through the sound of broken glass and debris cracking under their shoes – a rebel lieutenant moves up the stairs of an empty apartment block. The scent of decaying matter emanates from a pool of coagulated blood at the top of the staircase, which, judging by its size, must have come from an injury that cost a man his life.

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“The use of tanks forces the rebels to take cover from shells that explode on the sides of the buildings around them. A mortar round erodes the cover provided to them by an apartment block on the verge of collapse.

“A rebel died and another was critically wounded while attempting to destroy a T-55 battle tank on 26 September 2012. An Iraqi brother-in-arms summed up the day’s efforts: ‘This is not the time to mourn the death of your comrade. Honour him by continuing the fight.’

“There was no response. The smell of disinfectant, blood and burned flesh engulfed the grain of every surface of Dar Al-Shifa Hospital. Twelve people arrive at once as a doctor approaches the twitching body of a boy with a fatal head wound. A man pumps oxygen into the lungs of a clinically dead eight-year-old girl, injured by a mortar. At a different facility, smoke and vapour rises from the torso of a young man ripped apart by yet another mortar – this one landed next to a bread shop, killing the two girls next to him. The boy’s father collapses after recognising his son from an ID card; the boy had no head.”

In candid detail, Manzano describes life on the ground in Syria, where he has been working in recent months. Manzano, who is originally from Mexico, received the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for an image of two Syrian rebel soldiers standing guard in a sniper nest [pictured above]. The image is a part of the Siege of Aleppo series, which was awarded third prize in the Spot News category in this year’s World Press Photo competition.

Manzano took the image, which shows light streaming through more than a dozen bullet and shrapnel holes in a tin wall behind the snipers in the Karmel Jabl neighborhood of Aleppo on 18 October last year. The region is thought to be “strategically important because of its proximity to the main road that separates several of the main battlegrounds in the city”, according to the Pulitzer Prize website. “Both sides (the Free Syrian Army and the regime) rely heavily on snipers in a cat-and-mouse game along Aleppo’s frontlines.”

In the Breaking News Photography category, the Pulitzer Prize jurors recognised the work of Associated Press and five of its staff photographers and stringers: Rodrigo AbdManu BraboNarciso ContrerasKhalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen. The jury was impressed with their “compelling coverage of the civil war in Syria, producing memorable images under extreme hazard”. A slideshow of AP’s winning images can be seen on the AP website.

“It’s a tremendous honour, and it’s the latest in a long line of Pulitzer Prizes that we’ve won for photography – it’s our 31st,” says Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography. “It’s a tremendous recognition of the work of these five AP photographers, who are not only incredibly talented photographers but also extraordinary brave and committed. They’ve made multiple trips into Syria to document the ongoing civil war there, at great personal risk and facing grave danger.”

For Lyon, covering the Syrian conflict is part of AP’s prerogatives. “It’s a commitment that we have of reporting the news wherever it takes place,” he tellsBJP. “The AP is an organisation that was founded in a time of war back in 1846 and we have covered every conflict of note since then. We are well-versed in the art of covering war. The Syrian story is very challenging because of the nature of the conflict, but we’ve been able to cover it in a sustained manner since it began a couple of years ago.”

Contreras, a Mexican freelance photographer who sold some of his Pulitzer-winning images to AP, hopes the prize will help disseminate his work more widely. “It is not a matter of fame or recognition, it is a matter of understanding,” he says. Photography “provides a memory against oblivion”, especially since what’s taking place in Syria – the transition of powers – “affects, on different levels, everyone’s global reality”.

“Syria is a key point in this transition; it is just one chapter, but one that is deeply important,” says Contreras, who has been focusing on the suffering of the Syrian population in recent months.

For Associated Press, the win is proof of its deep commitment to covering Syria, says senior vice-president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll. “The only way to do it involved great peril for the journalists on the ground there. Without their tenacity, the world would not know as much about the heartache, blood and pain of the people in Syria.”

The peril is even greater for freelance photographers. “I’ve been working as a freelancer since the beginning of my professional career as a photographer,” Contreras tells BJP. “When covering the conflict in Syria, resources are extremely limited [but in most cases] they just do not exist. As a freelancer I have to rely on my own resources, and on the care and kindness of the local people. They do the best part. Without them – friends and colleagues on the field – it would be impossible to continue doing this job. The agencies try to do their part, but when you’re a stringer, they can’t give you the support they give, for instance, to their staff photographers.”

Manzano is in a similar situation. He’s not contracted to a wire agency but collaborates with several news outlets, including Agence France-Presse, which distributed his Pulitzer Prize-winning image. He started collaborating with AFP in October last year, while working in Aleppo.

In an email exchange with BJP, Manzano talks frankly about what life is like in Syria for a freelance photographer. “News organisations often ask freelancers to contact them once they come out of Syria in order to review their material,” he says. “This is all too common and, in a way, relieves such outlets from any moral, legal or economic obligation to offer insurance and travel cost reimbursements. Unless one is working through assignments, which are uncommon, very few news outlets are willing or able to provide journalists with this support.”

There are various reasons for this, says Manzano. “Dozens of journalists, many of them with little or no experience, arrive at the border with Syria uninsured, lacking body armour, and with little or no background information on the regions in Syria they plan to visit. In short, they are what many colleagues call ‘war tourists’. This is the image most news outlets have of freelancers and, in some ways, justifies their reluctance to provide support to them. Some of these individuals pose a higher risk to themselves and the people around them, as the likelihood of injury is obviously higher.

“The reality is that most of the independent journalists I’ve had the pleasure to work with inside Syria (and I can only speak of those colleagues I’ve collaborated with) go to great pains to minimise the risk and exposure, in the same way that staffers from large news organisations do.

“Security is an issue we all take seriously,” he continues. “The difference is that if an independent journalist gets kidnapped or killed, he or she will most likely be labelled as ‘an irresponsible daredevil’. If a staffer from a large organisation is kidnapped, he or she will most likely get television interviews and praise for ‘risking it all’ to get the story.

“We as freelance journalists obsess about security and safety every day, all day long. We stay inside Syria longer and because of this have a fairly good grasp of the conditions on the ground. I believe the level and calibre of work being produced by freelancers inside Syria is highly commendable. At the end of the day, we are here because we just want to work.”