In just eight months, 34 journalists have been killed around the globe, 16 of them in Syria alone. As the death toll mounts, representatives of the photojournalism community gathered at Visa pour l'Image to discuss the cost of covering conflict. Olivier Laurent reports from the event
In early 2011, when Libya's uprising turned into a full-blown conflict, dozens of young journalists and photographers found themselves on the front lines, for the first time in their lives. And as experienced photographers paid the ultimate price, questions were raised about the cost of covering conflicts.
In a discussion moderated by Aidan Sullivan of Reportage by Getty Images, a panel that included Gary Knight of VII Photo, Jon Jones of The Sunday Times Magazine, Brent Stirton of Reportage, and freelance photographer Nicole Tung questioned whether the industry, as a whole, could help journalists in conflict zones.
"Since this business started, let's say around the 1930s, young men and women have been going off to war, and a number of them have been getting killed," said Knight in front of an audience of 80 people at Perpignan's Palais des Congrès. "That hasn't changed. It's the same today as it was in Vietnam, Beirut, Bosnia, where Jon [Jones of The Sunday Times Magazine] and I first met, all the way to the Arab Spring. When you go off to war, you can't expect that you and your mates will always come back unscathed. I think we're foolish to think we can remove risk from war journalism and war photography. It will not happen. I don't think it's reasonable or fair to start putting in place barriers to entry – preventing young freelancers who don't have training from going to war. If we had been doing that for the last 60 years, Don McCullin wouldn't have gone to war, Larry Burrows wouldn't have gone to war, most of the war photographers we know about would never have set foot in any of these places."
The issue, according to Jones, is whether journalists are more targeted today than they were in past decades. "When I was with Gary in Bosnia, I was no more targeted than in any other place," he said. "But when we did it pre-internet, people really weren't that aware what we were doing. They didn't see our pictures every day. We would turn up and disappear. So we were less of a threat. But now, if you Google someone, you can find out exactly who they are, you can see their pictures and what they are doing – that's a big change."
As a result, it's much more of a threat for journalists and photographers. "If you're working with some people, and you have their trust, and you take pictures, and they are available overnight, or even that very evening, and they see what you're doing, that becomes an issue. When we did it, we would turn up for a few weeks, go back, and no one saw a thing."
The result is a mounting reluctance from magazines and agencies to send journalists and photographers into a conflict zone. "I think large organisations are becoming more risk-adverse," said Knight. "They are becoming more worried about having to get involved." Tung agreed. "Editors are hesitant to assign anybody to Syria because of the risks involved," said the young photographer, who had just come back from the war-torn country. "People pause. Editors will say: ‘Email when you get out. We'll look at your images when you get out. But while you're inside, we can't really communicate with you because of the risks it carries, and we don't want to be held responsible if anything happens to you.'"
This situation, said Jones, had led to a catch-22 in which young photographers are unable to get assignments because magazines and agencies refuse to take responsibility for the risks involved. "I think there's a reluctance to send people into conflict zones. It doesn't mean it's right, but it's the economic reality." But that's nothing new, he added. "When I went to Bosnia [in the 1990s], I didn't have any support. I went with no money, then went back with £300, then again with £400, and built it up each time. It takes a while. But the initial step was just to go. Today, you get the same answer I was given 20 years ago: ‘Great. I'm not going to assign this to you, but I'd love to see you when you come back.'" And somewhere down the line, after a young photographer has proved his worth, it changes, he explained.
"You basically have to earn the right to get an assignment," Knight added. "Nobody is going to assign you to a conflict zone right out of college. They want to see what you've done and what you are capable of. When I started it was the same. Once you've done that enough times, they might give you an assignment," he told the audience. "When I started, I had to sell my own blood to eat."
Yet photographers shouldn't get themselves in dangerous situations without proper training and preparation, warned Jones. "Anyone who goes anywhere should be as prepared as [he or she] can be. If you go into a conflict zone, the best thing you can do is be prepared. You have to give yourself the best chances. If you don't do that, all you're doing is increasing the chances of something happening to you."
Tung, whose first experience in a conflict zone was in Libya last year, said the only preparation she had was a contact book with the names of people she knew would be there as well. "I just went by myself and found Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch at the border." Bouckaert, who is the organisation's emergencies director, asked Tung to ride with him and his team. "They looked after me," she said. "And I was fortunate to have many other experienced journalists around. I was learning from them: how they moved, how they worked, what security calculations they were doing. There were also a lot of security consultants around, who were there for television networks especially. I met somebody who gave me body armor and a crash course in first aid. That was my learning curve, and it was a very lucky learning curve because there were so many people."
In Syria, however, it's the complete opposite, she explained. "There are very few experienced journalists around who can tell you, ‘This is a really bad situation.'"
So, should the industry do more to help photographers in dangerous situations such Libya and Syria? Halfway through the discussion, Sullivan floated the idea of making it a war crime to target journalists. Yet, said Knight, you'd run the risk of creating a new debate about what constitutes journalistic work. "I think it's a nice idea, but the word for journalist in Khmer is the same word used for propagandist. I mention that to say that the standards of journalism are flexible and pretty loosely interpreted. There are journalists who support one side or another in a conflict. So it's hard to ask the Geneva Convention to protect people that can be, in essence, spokesmen for protagonists involved in a war."
Instead, he said, the industry should try to set universal standards for journalism and "try to redefine what a journalist is and isn't. Perhaps we should take control of the narrative in which we are discussed and try to differentiate competencies and educate the public so they understand the difference between people who are engaged in our kind of work and other forms of journalism. We also need to educate ourselves and set higher standards for ourselves." And for that to happen, Stirton added, "we, as an industry, have to come together" and reshape the way the journalism industry is seen. "There's no question that the work we do is undervalued. I think we undervalue ourselves. We live in a bubble, and I don't think the majority of the world knows what we really do. We have to highlight the value of our work. We need to demonstrate what would happen if there were no news. We need to create unity. It amazes me that so much of the money that goes to NGOs comes directly from the information we provide."
Stirton added that to truly help the industry – from training young photographers to providing proper insurance coverage – journalists have to look beyond their own circles and not rely on magazines whose budgets have been slashed over the past decade. "I watched Warren Buffett give $40bn to the Gates Foundation and thought to myself: ‘What would happen if someone gave journalism a billion dollars to create a foundation that made insurance a possibility for war correspondents? What if there was some way to unionise this?' It's something to think about. I think we're not petitioning the right people because we undervalue ourselves. I think our own public relations is bad. We just need to find the right statement and the right approach. We need businessmen. I know that as photographers and journalists we are notoriously bad at business."
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