"The training was an incredible experience," says freelance photographer and filmmaker Marie-Helene Carleton, one of RISC's first trainees. "We practiced different scenarios and the hands-on, practical aspect was the best part; how do you tie a tourniquet or move someone who can't move. There was fake blood, smoke, heavy mannequins, wailing and only a few minutes to do something." Image © Katie Khouri / Bronx Documentary Center.
Tim Hetherington’s death might have been avoided if his colleagues had had some basic first aid training, believes Sebastian Junger, who is determined some good will come of his friend’s loss. He set up Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues but, as Olivier Laurent discovers, the charity has yet to receive proper support from the wider media
On 20 April 2011, photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington bled to death after being hit by shrapnel in Misrata, Libya. At his funeral, a combat medical officer told Sebastian Junger, with whom Hetherington had produced the award-winning documentary Restrepo, that if the people present during the incident had had some level of first aid training, they might have been able to stop the bleeding and Tim might have lived.
RISC was set up a few months later, when Junger realised that after covering conflicts for more than 20 years he didn’t have any first aid training. “If he had been with Tim in Misrata, he probably wouldn’t have known how to save him,” says Lily Hindy, deputy director of Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues. “And when he realised that most of his friends and colleagues – freelance journalists – don’t have this kind of training, he decided to create RISC.”
The goal of the organisation is to prevent future such incidents, especially in light of the pain that Hetherington’s family went through. Junger’s idea was to start a training programme dedicated solely to freelance journalists. “If you’re a staff reporter for a news agency and are going into a war zone, you’ll hopefully receive that kind of training, but for freelancers, a week-long course is too expensive. Junger wanted to start an organisation that would provide this type of training, for free, to people who really need it, especially since freelancers are increasingly going to the front lines.”
The training is called First-Aid+. “We teach basic first aid, with some extras,” says Hindy. “Basically, we teach battlefield medical response. We teach journalists about the typical wounds they might encounter on a battlefield. A bleeding wound is the number one preventable death – and that’s based on US Army statistics. We also did a study before we started which showed that most journalists killed in conflict die because of gunshot or shrapnel wounds. So our main focus during our training sessions is to stop the bleeding, and that involves learning to tie a tourniquet and applying direct pressure on the wound – whatever you can do to stem the bleeding.”
The trainers also teach journalists how to assess a situation. “How severe it is? Does the victim need attention from a local clinic or from a major hospital? We also show women how they can pick up the wounded body of a guy who is bigger than them,” says Hindy. “It’s really important because if you’re dealing with someone who is wounded, he might be unconscious. That’s something a lot of people mentioned after Tim died: they didn’t know how to lift his body. It seems basic, but it’s really important.”
RISC’s first training session took place last April, with 24 freelance journalists carefully selected from hundreds of applications. “We get applications through our website from all over the world,” says Hindy. “There are two main criteria: they need experience in conflict zones, as well as publishing experience. Sebastian’s view was that there are many experienced war journalists who don’t have this type of training, so we wanted to get these journalists off the field and into training before we started training people who are less experienced.” As for publishing experience, Hindy says that RISC wanted to make sure it was training journalists and “not just anyone”.
Photographer and filmmaker Marie-Helene Carleton was one of these first trainees. She has worked in Pakistan, Lebanon and Iraq, and signed up for the course because, even though she has worked in conflict areas, she didn’t have any basic physical life-saving skills. “I’ve learned a lot of other skills in the field, but didn’t know those. After Tim died, a lot of us in the photography and film communities, especially freelancers, took stock of what it meant. A sense of helplessness added to the tragedy,” she says. “The training that RISC offers is crucial, not only as filmmakers who work in conflict areas, but also as a freelancer. As freelancers we are responsible for everything and have so many upfront costs that paying for RISC-like training would not be possible. Having to pay for all of one’s equipment, travel, insurance and so on puts training initiatives such as these at the bottom of the list affordability-wise.”
Trainees are taught how to apply a tourniquet to stem the bleeding. A study has shown that most journalists killed in conflict zones die from gunshot or shrapnel wounds. Image © Katie Khouri / Bronx Documentary Center.
And while she admits that freelancers learn survival skills by working in conflict areas, “especially in trusting one’s instincts”, they don’t always learn what to do if someone is injured. “Knowing the technical specifics – how to handle someone who is critically hurt – is what we have to learn.”
For Carleton, the goal isn’t to take this class “because you hope someone will be there to help you if you are injured, but really because you want to be able to help your friends and colleagues if they are injured. Not knowing what to do is to feel helpless,” she says. And one of the greatest lessons she’s learned from RISC is to remain calm. “One of our instructors said it well: ‘Panic and calm are both contagious.’ If the proverbial shit hits the fan, you can either freak out, or you can remain calm. If you don’t know how to help an injured colleague, you might panic, and that doesn’t help anyone, but knowing a few skills helps you stay calm.”
RISC doesn’t try to provide a complete overview of all the possible situations freelancers might encounter in a conflict zone. “We provide common sense training,” says Hindy. “Our trainers teach the main things journalists will need to remember. If they get these into their heads, then they should be able to deal with most situations.” At the end of the course, the students also receive a medical kit based on what the Army uses in the field and, says Hindy, some of RISC’s trainees sign up just for that kit, which can be expensive to put together.
But while participants such as photojournalist Ayman Oghanna found the training outstanding and essential, so far RISC has only been able to hold two sessions in New York due to financial restraints. “In our first year, we started our operations with seed money from the Committee to Protect Journalists,” says Hindy. “They gave us a starting grant, and from there we approached five news organisations that Tim Hetherington had worked with directly, asking for grants to help us get started – CNN, ABC News, National Geographic, Getty Images and Vanity Fair at Condé Nast.
That funded our first training session. We also relied on the public and launched a fundraising campaign on the website Global Giving.”
RISC also received some donations from the film industry because of Hetherington’s work on Restrepo – yet the organisation is struggling. “We were originally planning to run a training session in London in the fall of 2012, but then decided against it, partly because of budgetary restraints but also because of logistical issues. For example, our training sessions require life-size dummies and we can’t ship them from the US. It’s just too expensive, so we need
to find them overseas.”
RISC also expected to receive more support from the news industry. “It seems to us that there is a clear need,” says Hindy. “News organisations need these freelancers to get them those images from the front lines in Syria. They should want to train them – they have a moral responsibility. At one point I was on a panel with the legal counsel of one of these big news organisations and he glossed over the questions: ‘Do you only hire freelancers that have been trained before?’ I pressed him on it and he said: ‘We have our guys look them in the face and see whether they are capable of going to a war zone.’ But you could have looked Tim Hetherington in the face and known at once that he was a very experienced war journalist. He had been doing it for years, but anyone can get injured.”
RISC is looking to apply for bigger grants from different foundations. “That kind of money is significantly larger than what we would get by appealing to individuals.” If it’s successful, Junger’s organisation will look at organising new training sessions in London and Istanbul. “Our priority is Syria, where a lot of freelancers are going to at the moment.”
For more information and to support RISC, visit www.risctraining.org.
This report was first published in BJP's February 2013 print edition.
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