The Military Army Blog

‘The camera is not a shield’: life and death as a war photographer

On 22 November 2012, the American photojournalist James Foley[1] visited an internet cafe in the town of Binnish, in northwestern Syria s Idlib province. In the hour or so he spent there, he sent a series of emails, one to his field partner Nicole Tung, arranging to meet her in the safety of Turkey. Then he set off, in a taxi, for the border. I was going to meet him that evening, Tung tells me.

Foley[2] s email was one of the last pieces of contact he had with the outside world. Soon afterwards, his taxi was ambushed and four masked jihadists took him, his fixer and another photographer prisoner. The next time he was seen, in an orange jumpsuit[3], heralded the announcement of Islamic State on the world stage.

Tung, 28, is one of six photojournalists featured in Conflict[4], a new Netflix show about photography in war zones. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Tung graduated from New York University in 2009, and became a photographer after travelling around Bosnia-Herzegovina in her first year of college. There, she met women who had experienced places such as Srebrenica. Hearing their stories had a massive impact on me, but not as much as the photographs they allowed me to take of them, which I developed after I returned to school, she says.

'The Camera Is Not A Shield': Life And Death As A War Photographer James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, just weeks before he was ambushed and kidnapped. Photograph: Nicole Tung

After travelling to Libya woefully underprepared to report on the civil uprising against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Tung now photographs primarily for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But in her short time reporting from the frontline, she has been witness to two of the most tragic deaths of photojournalists in recent history. Before she became close to Foley, who was killed in 2014, Tung shared a safehouse in Libya with Chris Hondros, the British photojournalist killed, along with Tim Hetherington[5], in a mortar attack[6] just a few miles from where she was working in the Misrata, Libya. In six bitesize films, the miniseries produced by Hetherington s partner Idil Ibrahim and created by the American documentarian Nick Fitzhugh explores how Tung and photographers like her cope with the extraordinary stress of trying to share the experiences of people victim to the most extreme violence. Doing so is endlessly complex, says Tung. Within a war, yes, there are a lot of crazy, gory and very sad moments, but there s a lot of joy as well, she adds.

'The Camera Is Not A Shield': Life And Death As A War Photographer There are lots of situations I wouldn t put myself in any more Nicole Tung captures Libyan men as they head to fight Gaddafi loyalists outside Ajdabiya in 2011. Photograph: Nicole Tung

Tung talks on camera about her time documenting the early days of the uprising. I was 24 when I crossed the border into Libya, she says. I remember going to the centre of Misrata. There was this sea of people. There was this euphoric feeling. In war, there are moments when people have something to celebrate, despite the hardship. Many of Tung s images, though, are ones of unimaginable suffering. Looking back over the last three years, continuously going to the frontline, there are lots of situations that I wouldn t put myself in any more, she says in the show.

I took a photograph of a boy in a chair, she continues. The graffiti in the background, in Arabic, reads Zero hour has come . The person in the bodybag at his feet was his father. It was after a bomb attack on their home. His father had gone, and he didn t quite understand that. It was just so fresh and so raw. But that look on his face he wasn t even crying, and that s hard to witness.

'The Camera Is Not A Shield': Life And Death As A War Photographer His father had gone, and he didn t quite understand that Ahmed, 12, waits with his uncle by the body of his father who was killed by a shell in Aleppo, Syria. Ahmed was also injured in the back by shrapnel. Photograph: Nicole Tung

The series shows the lengths photojournalists now go to keep themselves safe, as they report from conflict zones more risky than ever before. Reporters including Tung are routinely schooled in battlefield first aid, as well as hostile environment training. But many photojournalists are self-employed, the risks their own.

I think the public has become desensitised to what they see in the media, almost no matter how powerful it is, Fitzhugh tells me of his films. One of the ways to combat that is to personalise conflict. I wanted to pull back the veil of objectivity and expose the experiences of the photographers who capture these images. Also featuring are photojournalists Pete Muller, Jo o Silva, Donna Ferrato, Robin Hammond and Eros Hoagland, as the show attempts to convey the different forms of conflict that define our age, from soldiers in wars of occupation to civilians attempting to evade carpet bombs, the victims of rape used as a weapon, and the people forced to live under terrorist insurgencies.

In the episode focused on the South African Silva, we see the photographer lying in bed, his imagery projected on to the ceiling above him. This simple trick makes us imagine what it s like to replay such memories in our minds, even in our most private moments. The camera draws back as Silva pulls off the duvet and twists off his bed, revealing the stumps that were once his legs. On 23 October 2010, we learn, Silva stepped on a landmine while on patrol with US soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and lost his left leg below the knee and his right leg above it.

Being behind the camera doesn t exclude you from being there, Silva says on-screen. It s not a shield, it s not a filter.

'The Camera Is Not A Shield': Life And Death As A War Photographer Being behind the camera doesn t exclude you from being there Silva on the ground in South Africa. Photograph: Joao Silva

Conflict photography has never been more dangerous. Since 1992, 1,197 journalists have been violently killed trying to do their job. In 2015, that figure stood at 109[12]. As major news publications close down their foreign bureaus, they rely more and more on independent photographers working without the backing of a large organisation and on a shoestring budget. And, as we saw with the death of the British journalist Marie Colvin[13] in Syria, journalists are now targeted as enemy combatants. The conflict in Syria has crystallised this shift. At one point last year, around 30 individuals were being held by the regime and rebels who do not view western photojournalists as trying to expose the abuses of dictators, but instead as sworn enemies of the jihadist movement.

It s hugely risky for photographers these days, says Fitzhugh. The more the public understands what they re putting on the line every day the better. I honestly don t know how they do it. The series is trying to right a basic misunderstanding of what motivates these journalists. There s a huge misconception that they do it exclusively for the adrenaline rush or to save the world, he says. Conflict reporting is a hugely complex thing to pursue that defies easy categorisation.

'The Camera Is Not A Shield': Life And Death As A War Photographer You have to take care of your head and your heart after witnessing terrible things a father runs out of his apartment carrying his daughter following airstrikes in Aleppo, Syria in 2012. Photograph: Nicole Tung

The show also acts as a memorial to the people who have given their lives to this onerous craft. James Foley was kidnapped and killed before his capabilities as a journalist had fully formed, yet his skill shines through.

You have to take care of your head and your heart, says Tung. When you ignore that after witnessing terrible things, that s when you start to lose sympathy, or empathy, for the people and the issues you are covering.

I ll always remember Jim as the most loyal, warm-hearted person. My best memories are of us just waiting around while working in Syria, because as frustrating as those hours were, we managed somehow to make it through a very tough situation and share a drink afterwards.

Conflict is on Netflix now.


  1. ^ James Foley (
  2. ^ Foley (
  3. ^ next time he was seen, in an orange jumpsuit (
  4. ^ Conflict (
  5. ^ Tim Hetherington (
  6. ^ in a mortar attack (
  7. ^ Pete Muller (
  8. ^ Jo o Silva (
  9. ^ Donna Ferrato (
  10. ^ Robin Hammond (
  11. ^ Eros Hoagland (
  12. ^ 109 (
  13. ^ British journalist Marie Colvin (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *