Photographer Nicole Tung On Shooting In Syria

Dusty light shines between the bodies of the women of a Yazidi Peshmerga unit as they run during morning training. They are preparing to head to the front lines in the fight against ISIS. Most of these women, explains photographer Nicole Tung, have "narrowly escaped ISIS capture, whilst some were enslaved but managed to escape." Tung photographed the women while on assignment for Vogue in Iraq, and it is just one of many moments of history her lens has captured. Armed with her camera, she has stood alongside revolutionaries in Libya and was one of the last photographers to work with the late American journalist James Foley prior to his abduction by ISIS. She is featured in the new documentary about his life.
Tung could be defined as a conflict journalist, but there is something more in the documentary style of her work. Shot in the midst of rebel-held Aleppo, her series 'Syria: The Long Night' speaks to the legacy of destruction in the aftermath of war – the stark reality of conflict that even the darkness of night cannot coverup. It is this sort of imagery that conveys the human cost of violence without showing bloodshed, leaving a long-lasting taste of bitterness, even when you look away. Today, there is much conversation about the value of imagery, and whether such photos as Tung's, combined with the internet, can really change opinions and spark action. In part, this discussion has been instigated by the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore, and the photo of the body of Omran Daqneesh pictured in rubble. As Tung is someone who regularly risks her life to inform people of the situation in Syria, and the people displaced by it, Refinery29 decided to chat to her about these images, about her particular line of work, and about her drive to keep doing it.
Hi Nicole. Can you start by telling us how you got into photojournalism?
I got into the profession during my years in college – I had already been interested in the Middle East and had been taking photos for a while. I decided to take a trip to Bosnia for spring break in my freshman year of college after having done a lot of reading about the war in the 1990s in my own time. I reached out to a few local NGOs there and basically backpacked around the country, and met survivors of the 1995 genocide there in Srebrenica, taking photographs of them. It was those moments that I think helped convince me that working in journalism was what I really wanted. I’d also met a lot of journalists working in Iraq and Afghanistan when I was at school in NYC and that helped open up the whole world of the journalism industry to me.

How much do you think that photography can instigate societal change?
I don’t think images can instigate social change to the point of stopping a war – that is usually up to the politicians. But photography can impact people to make small changes themselves. For example, the picture of Alan Kurdi, who washed up on the coast of Turkey last year, prompted a lot of regular people in Europe and around the world to volunteer to help refugees and migrants. So there can be a change as a result of pictures, but only to a certain point. So many pictures coming out of Syria, and some from South Sudan, or the Central African Republic, for example, have failed to stop the conflicts there.
Over the years, it seems that the nature of conflict journalism has changed. Why, and how, do you think that is?
In the last 15 years, it has changed drastically. It’s changed in a number of ways: publications now have far smaller budgets than they used to, and therefore trying to get an assignment to cover an active war is pretty difficult nowadays. Publications are also finding it hard to support the journalists they send into dangerous places because it's so expensive. That’s also linked to the increased dangers of doing conflict reporting. In the last five years, wars have become so incredibly difficult to cover because journalists are no longer seen as neutral and impartial. That has been changing for some time now, where journalists are actually now the targets. I also think that because it’s gotten so dangerous, the news coming out of a particular place means that it can often be less reliable.
Yet, despite it being a pretty risky profession, you keep returning to report on stories in hostile environments. What makes you go back?
Most of the stories I prefer to tell are around the issue of conflict – not necessarily directly about an actual battle, but the stories of the people who live through it and how they cope with such extremes. I think myself and colleagues return to work in challenging places because we believe in the necessity of doing it, being there as a witness and being able to tell those stories.
Most journalists talk about "returning" to these difficult environments to tell stories. Do you think media outlets should be doing more to support journalists who actually live in these places?
Yes! I definitely think that media outlets should be doing more to support the journalists living in the conflict zones – they have the most to lose, and have the most at stake. There are some media advocacy groups that are trying to fill in the voids where local journalists used to have few, or almost no resources. The future of reporting, with the rise of citizen journalist groups, can only be positive but that is dependent on the media outlets being able to monetise the news. However, I also firmly believe that citizen journalist groups shouldn’t be mistaken for journalists because they tend towards activism. I still believe that journalists are needed to report in a balanced way. With the ways that images circulate now on the Internet, do you think photos of extreme violence or suffering are helpful to our understanding?
I think with showing graphic pictures in the news, there has to be a balance. Too graphic, or showing graphic images too often, will just make people turn away or glaze over the truth of what is happening. Too few images, or sanitising the news will not help your viewers understand the situation either. There have been some incredibly powerful images over the last few decades from wars all over the world – and almost all of them strike a balance between the emotions, and between graphic content and context, which I believe is very important. Do you have a favourite photo of your own?
As for images, I don’t have a particular one that I would call my favourite. Perhaps it’s more of a photo I wish could have had more impact. It was published in TIME during one of my trips into Syria, and it’s of a 15-year old boy who was injured, and ultimately died, in an airstrike in Aleppo a few years ago.
As annoying it is to ask this question because gender is rarely brought up in conversations with men: do you think there are particular challenges, or threats, that female journalists face in your line of work?
Of course, it can be frustrating when you are not treated as an equal – but that can happen anywhere, both abroad and at home. Yes, of course as a woman I have to be conscious of what I wear and how I act in certain environments. Working in mostly patriarchal societies, it’s often much easier to have a male colleague or fixer/translator with you rather than going some place alone, because they will be the ones to break the ice first, but that is generally in very conservative places. However, as a woman, I am also less threatening and therefore am treated differently. I often have an advantage working in the field because I have access to women in conservative places where my male colleagues don’t. But I try not to see myself through a prism of being a woman journalist; I just try to do the best I can.

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