Reporting conflict: Through the lens

8 Mins read

Photography has always been a powerful medium in documenting conflict. In this respect, it has highlighted the importance of reporting from the ground.

Born and raised in Hong Kong – Nicole Tung is an American photojournalist and a graduate from New York University.

A ten-day trip in post-war Bosnia, in 2006, would prove to be focal towards her pursuit in photojournalism, and eventually lead to her crossing the border into Libya, during the 2011 uprisings.

Since then she has extensively covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria.

During her time as a freelance war correspondent in Syria, her journalist partner James Foley, was captured by militants on 22nd of November, 2012.

Unfortunately, on 19th of August, 2014, Foley was killed under horrendous circumstances at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS).

Speaking to The Atlantic, the perpetuated and purposeful attacks on journalists, have not deterred Tung, who acknowledges that her profession is not a cause to die for.

Nonetheless, she cannot escape the sense of responsibility to document both the horrors, and the often victories of war.

Artefact had the opportunity to speak to Tung, and delve deeper into her work in conflict-torn territories – and primarily the effects of war on civilians, and her thoughts on the current refugee crisis in Europe.

Since your first project up until now, what are some of the changes you have experienced, in your profession and personally? 

Since my first project in 2008 during university I think the most obvious changes have been that I’ve matured, in both aspects. I’ve experienced a lot more and it’s helped me look at my career and the things I choose to cover in a more measured way.

Who would you say has inspired you, and at what point did you want to pursue photojournalism?

I wanted to pursue photojournalism after spending 10 days in post-war Bosnia in 2006 during a spring break I had from college. I was in my first year of university, which was a liberal arts program at NYU, and part of that was spending a year in Florence, Italy. I was close by enough and had read a lot about the Bosnian war.

I felt compelled to go to meet people along the way, but also meet local NGOs working with internally displaced persons. I met a group of women who fled from Srebrenica in 1995, and who remained at an IDP camp in Tuzla. Speaking to this group of women was remarkable, in what they said, and shared. However, taking pictures of them, which I developed after I returned to Florence, proved to be the most powerful medium to me.

Many things serve to inspire me. I’m drawn to conflict and conflict-related issues, and photographers who have covered these topics, including photographers who covered social issues have been a great influence on me; Josef Koudelka, Gilles Peress, and many others.

Your work in Libya and Syria captures the inhumanity of war. How do you mentally prepare yourself? Do you enter with an objective or mission, of what you hope to achieve?

I don’t think there is much you can do to mentally prepare yourself for the things you see in a war; it’s how you deal with it afterwards. I go with the aim of getting the story out, in the most balanced way I can as a journalist.

That’s my responsibility, on the other hand when you see human rights abuses and obvious violations of the conventions of war. It is often really difficult to remain ‘objective’ – which I don’t really believe in anyway, for example, the indiscriminate shelling/targeting of civilians.

''Ahmed, 12, from Sheikh Fares neighborhood, waits with his uncle, right, near the body of his father who was killed by a shell in the Sha'ar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Friday, August 24, 2012. Ahmed, who saw his father die, was also injured in his back by shrapnel''. - Nicole Tung

”Ahmed, 12, from Sheikh Fares neighborhood, waits with his uncle, right, near the body of his father who was killed by a shell in the Sha’ar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Friday, August 24, 2012. Ahmed, who saw his father die, was also injured in his back by shrapnel” [Nicole Tung]

Photojournalism has always played a vital role in creating dialogue amongst the viewers. For example, the Vietnam My Lai massacre prompted anti-war protests in America, and was in some way the final stray. Why hasn’t the Syrian war translated or created the same reaction? Europe’s lack of burden sharing in the migration crisis is disturbing, to say the least.

Personally I think the reason why the Syrian war hasn’t created the same reaction as something like Vietnam, or even Afghanistan/Iraq is simply the equation that the United States is not involved in a very direct way with troops on the ground. It’s much harder for Americans to connect with another Middle Eastern country half way across the world, for them to understand the desperation of civilians, in particular, because it really doesn’t touch Americans much.

Obviously it’s a different situation in Europe, but there is also something called compassion fatigue – there are so many humanitarian crises occurring, both large and small, simultaneously, that it can be really difficult to divide interests and donations, etc. in an equal way.

My family and I fled the Kosovo-Serbia war in 1999. I was only seven, but reflecting back, those three days it took us to reach and cross the Macedonian border, I can recall with clarity. In retrospect, I consider myself extremely lucky.  How important is it for you, as a viewer and photographer to convey transparency?

Conveying transparency is the forefront of what I aim to achieve when I work, all parties involved in something like the refugee crisis should be open to criticism. What is most appalling about the current refugee crisis is that the European leaders are absolutely contradictory in what they say vs. what they do. The situation on the Greek-FYROM [Macedonian] border right now, in Idomeni, is a purely man-made disaster, not a natural one, in which thousands are stranded in miserable conditions, as is the case in Calais, France, or elsewhere across smaller camps around Europe.

[pullquote align=”right”]“What is most appalling about the current refugee crisis is that the European leaders are absolutely contradictory in what they say vs. what they do”– Nicole Tung[/pullquote]

Why is it that Northern and Eastern Europe are turning away when a humanitarian crisis is on their doorstep? Is it possible that there is a detachment between what is depicted and the reality?

Certainly, I think there is a certain kind of detachment about the experiences of refugees – I also think that it would be untrue to say that people in general are turning away when there is a humanitarian crisis on their doorstep. Many Europeans have opened their doors to the refugees, many have volunteered their time and resources to help new arrivals, particularly in Germany, but also on the Greek islands, and along the migration trail, cooking hot meals, handing out blankets, etc.

So while there has been enormous solidarity, yes, in a way there is a lot of fear about the wave of refugees – particularly because there is a fear of Islamic extremism after the attacks in Paris, coupled with the rise of right-wing, nationalist parties in many European countries.

I found the video series ‘Conflict’ extremely moving. You speak about documenting the civilians, rather than the brutality of fighting. The boy who lost his father especially resonates the devastation of war. What drives you?  As a photographer, is there a scene that you may encounter that speaks directly to you? 

What drives me is really to tell the stories of the most vulnerable, particularly civilians caught up in the war – it’s easy, almost too easy, sometimes to take a picture of a guy holding a gun. What’s more complex is the lives war affects, and that’s what I hope to convey.

  • Ruined buildings in Libya
    A view of the main downtown area of Sirte four days after the capture and killing of Muammar el Gaddafi. October 24, 2011 [Nicole Tung]
  • The Battle for Aleppo
    A mirror, reflecting a street and a building where government snipers are in hiding, balances on a stool in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, on March 19, 2013 [Nicole Tung]
  • Man and boy standing by a body bag in Aleppo
    Ahmed, 12, from Sheikh Fares neighbourhood, waits with his uncle, right, near the body of his father who was killed by a shell in the Sha'ar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Friday, August 24, 2012. Ahmed, who saw his father die, was also injured in his back by shrapnel'' [Nicole Tung]
  • Aleppo In The Dark
    A jihadi fighter, sitting on a street corner, reads the Qur'an using a flashlight in Bustan Al Qasr, Aleppo, Syria, on March 19, 2013 [Nicole Tung]
  • Lost Generation: Congo's Former Child Soldiers
    Former FDLR child soldier Samuel, 15, sits in a makeshift classroom for a photo at UPDECO's reintegration centre in Rutshuru, Eastern DRC, on Monday, July 21, 2014 [Nicole Tung]
  • Refugees in a field
    A refugee family warms themselves by a fire whilst waiting to cross the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni on December 20, 2015 [Nicole Tung]

You have placed yourself in some of the most harrowing and dangerous territories. How do you recover and move forward from those experiences?

Mostly I deal with the situations I’ve encountered by taking time to work through the trauma – spending time alone, or talking to friends, etc. I have just set myself in to a mentality of what’s normal and what’s not, i.e. war. Sometimes coming back from a dangerous place or after seeing harrowing things, it’s hard to adjust again but after a little while you realize everything is relative. For sure, certain sounds, images, conjure up memories, but it’s important to stay mentally healthy to keep going.

How important is it that a dialogue is created about the lasting effects of war, especially in today’s relevance? After 6 months of living in uncertainty, I know how important it was that my life quickly returned to a normal routine.

I think a dialogue about the lasting effects of war is incredibly important – whether it’s war veterans returning home, or refugees coming to a new country after having fled from war – everyone is dealing with trauma and mental stress, and it’s an invisible fight that people often go at alone. I think the public needs to be more understanding, or more sympathetic, of what war trauma is, so that bridges can be built to accommodate people rather than alienate them.

[pullquote align=”right”]”I think the public needs to be more understanding, or more sympathetic, of what war trauma is, so that bridges can be built to accommodate people rather than alienate them”-Nicole Tung[/pullquote]

How do you see the current refugee crisis evolving?

I think the refugee crisis will not abate until the real issues are solved – in Syria, Iraq, the conflicts that have now dragged on for years, will continue producing a stream of refugees seeking a safe place in Europe. Those who are deemed economic migrants (people leaving Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, for example) – the politicians need to find a way to discuss incentives for people to stay, or better options for those who want to leave. No one should be forced to make that decision to cross a narrow stretch of sea in a water-logged dinghy to seek a better life.

You are currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Are you working on any projects? 

I’m in Istanbul as a base for the region around the Middle East and Africa – I usually have several projects grinding along, but am taking work on assignment/commission basis here.

Tung’s prolific work showcases the true nature of conflict, and the devastating impact on the civilians.

The selective process of choosing a limited amount of pieces to accompany the article, from a tremendous collection, was difficult.

The images of Sirte, Libya, four days after the capture and death of Muammar el Gaddafi, illustrates the damage that is inflicted in the landscape.

Though it can be argued that it is just bricks and mortar, it still remains a loss, and has a devastating impact on civilians.

The photograph of Ahmed, 12, depicts a somber reality that civilians are condemned to. The graffiti in the photograph reads ‘zero hour has come’ – and may illustrate the hopelessness that many may envision for themselves.

Tung spoke about this image, in the Conflict series, and explained that his father had died from a bomb attack on their home.

With the body bag lying inches away, the death of his father did not conjure the same reaction as it would have done, had it been in different circumstances. Tung notes that “it was difficult to witness”.

The mirror on the stool can serve as a mirror of reality, reflecting back to the viewer both destruction and hidden danger – an unnerving truth facing both civilians and fighters.

While the jihadi fighter, armed and reading the Qur’an feels like a contradiction in itself. While the Islamic faith condemns violence, the jihadi fighter still finds solace in his faith, and in times of war, there is very little solace to be found.

Tung’s work has been published and featured in an array of newspaper and magazine publications; both recognised and awarded. Her latests project on the refugee crisis and past work can be found on her website.


All images courtesy of Nicole Tung

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