When your job takes you to war

12 Mins read

At the beginning of October this year, a photojournalism graduate from London College of Communication was shot dead by a sniper in Libya.

Four years earlier, Jeroen Oerlemans had been taken hostage by the so-called Islamic State in Syria but survived after being rescued by the Free Syrian Army.

Sadly, he wasn’t as lucky the second time: he was shot several times in the chest, and the bullets got around his bullet proof vest and penetrated his heart.

Oerlemans was reporting from the front line of a battle between pro-government forces and the Islamic State in the Libyan city of Sirte, the Jihadist militant group’s last bastion in the chaos-wrecked North African country.

Leaving three kids and a wife behind him, the photojournalist’s tragic death is a painful reminder of the dangers that journalists face today while covering war and armed conflicts.

Since 1992, 1,211 journalists have been killed worldwide while doing their job, according to figures by the organisation Committee to Protect Journalists.

Many others have been kidnapped, gone missing or forced into exile, while the number of unreported incidents is assumed to be even greater.

This number has steadily increased over the years, raising the question about whether journalism is becoming more dangerous?

On its own, 2015 was a chilling year of killings and attacks on journalists.

It started with the Charlie Hebdo attack in France where eight satirical cartoonists and journalists were murdered, and from there to Brazil and Mexico, the assaults on press freedom continued.

This year, 2016, has progressed in the same way. The ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are continuously affecting journalists on duty. Compared to ten years ago, the number of journalists killed has tripled.

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Number of killed journalists worldwide since 1992 (interactive map)

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Please note: Some countries have not yet been officially recognised by the International Standards Organisation, so they appear here with temporary country codes, including: XS: Kosovo; GY: Guyana; SS: South Sudan; CD: Democratic Republic of Congo; CG: Congo; SJ: Svalbard and Jan Mayen Island


Despite the horrific numbers of attacks on the freedom of the press, many journalists continue to travel to war zones to report on conflicts. After all, telling the world what’s going on is what journalism is all about.

“I do it because I’m good at it; I’m not really good at anything else. It gives me meaning,” says the documentary filmmaker, journalist and author James Brabazon, who has extensive experience of reporting from various conflicts, ranging from Liberia and Venezuela to Syria.

In Liberia, he was the only journalist to film the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) fighting to overthrow President Charles Taylor during the Liberian civil war in 2002.

As a safety precaution, Brabazon hired former South African solider and mercenary Nick du Toit as his bodyguard and the two became close friends.

The coup by the rebels in Equatorial Guinea ultimately failed, and du Toit was sent to the infamous Black Beach Prison while Brabazon narrowly avoided the same fate by being held back in the United Kingdom for a family funeral.

“If I had gone on that operation as planned and filmed it, I would’ve been arrested in Equatorial Guinea, and I would’ve been sent to jail. I don’t know under what circumstances or for how long but I know how bad the conditions there were. I wouldn’t have survived that,” Brabazon says.

Du Toit was given a 34-year sentence in a tiny cell in what has been described by Amnesty International as a “living hell”.

He was tortured, beaten, starved and kept for much of the time in solitary confinement. After five years and eight months without sunshine, he was released.

Despite this, Brabazon feels remorse and guilt for not having gone, and for not having been there alongside his friend.

Over the years Brabazon says he has witnessed the worst things human beings can do to each other, including torture and execution of soldiers and civilians, and even ritual cannibalism.

Brabazon documented LURD-rebels in Liberia committing atrocities, and had a bounty placed on his head by the government of Liberia.

Credit: James Brabazon

LURD-rebels interrogating a government soldier in Liberia in 2002 [James Brabazon]

He’s also been targeted by aerial bombardments in Syria, and has often found himself being dangerously close to combat in war.

“You need to be lucky every time; you can only be unlucky once. I’ve had people around me being killed, but I’ve never been shot. But I’ve nearly been killed by a crocodile and by drinking dirty water,” he says.

Alongside the work he does reporting from conflict zones, Brabazon is also a trustee of the Rory Peck Trust, an international organisation which supports freelance journalists and their families worldwide.

Without the support mechanism that comes with being a staff journalist, freelancers need to build their own support networks.

“It’s a lot easier to say ‘it’ll never happen to me’, than actually taking the steps to make sure it won’t happen to you,” Brabazon says.

Bombs and bullets

When you go to a war zone to report, you can never do enough planning and preparation.

There’s a lot of emphasis on bombs and bullets, but according to Brabazon, a journalist is actually far more likely to be severely injured or killed by not putting the seat belt on.

Often car crashes and faulty planes to take one over the border can be a more severe problem than being shot at.

Niclas Hammarström, a Swedish photojournalist agrees: “Journalism isn’t dangerous just in conflict or war zones, but even in Sweden it’s a dangerous profession. If you’re doing investigative journalism or attending a protest, it can be very threatening,” he says.

Almost three years ago, Hammarström was kidnapped in Syria together with his colleague, the Swedish journalist Magnus Falkehed.

After a week of reporting from the civil war, they were on their way home accompanied by a translator and two soldiers, when a big Jeep stopped them at a checkpoint.

Close to the Lebanese border, the men forced the two Swedes into their car and drove into the wild.

After a few days in captivity, they attempted to escape but it failed, and it had its consequences.

Hammarström was shot in the leg and Falkehed was tortured. After being held hostage for a total of 46 days they were released, and were later on reunited with their wives and families in Stockholm and Paris.

“I’d love to go back to Syria, if I knew I could do it in a different way than last time. But even if I would want to, my family probably won’t let me go again. I’ve had to give that up,” Hammarström says.

Hammarström and Falkehed didn’t know who had kidnapped them, what they wanted and why they were later released.

They didn’t know if their families had found out what happened, nor what the Swedish police were doing in order to release them.

In addition, they didn’t know if they would make it out of Syria alive or if they were going to be killed, and if so, whether their families would ever find out about the truth or whether they would live the rest of their lives wondering what actually happened.

Swedish journalists Niclas Hammarstrom (left) and Magnus Falkehed (right).

Photojournalist Niclas Hammarström (left) and journalist Magnus Falkehed (right) in Yabroud, Syria. A few days after this was taken, they were kidnapped. [Niclas Hammarström]

There are many similar cases like Hammarström and Falkehed’s; some well-known examples are John Cantlie, Steven Sotloff and James Foley, all of which ended very differently.

While Cantlie is believed to be alive, he remains in captivity. The others were publicly beheaded by the Islamic State.

Today’s Western journalists have become key players in war and are seen less and less as outside observers by warring parties.

Instead they have become easy targets, and as the organisation Reporters Without Borders states, the neutrality and the nature of their work are no longer respected.

“A number of conflicts that are taking place globally, and have been since 2001, have a religious and ideological basis to them. A lot of the Western press have been identified as the enemy by different armed groups; the international press core has largely become a target,” Brabazon says.

Patrick Sutherland, professor of documentary photography at London College of Communication and also Jeroen Oerlemans’ course leader during his time at the college, believes that although there have always been risks involved in the journalistic profession, they have become greater as of late.

“In the last decade or so, journalists have been specific and easy targets. Killing someone from a news team is a way of dramatically getting more coverage from the conflict,” he told Artefact.

Reporting from war zones has always been a difficult proposition, but the statistics are clear. In the last ten years, covering conflicts have become a particularly dark and depressing time for journalists.

The front lines are fuzzy, the fighting is crude and indiscriminate while combatants have become more ruthless. If you’re unlucky and find yourself to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you may never come home.

This started to change in the 1990s, according to Brabazon: “It began in the Bosnian war where the Serbian irregulars fighting around Sarajevo didn’t see the distinction between the international press core and the NATO army fighting them. That caused a lot of problems for journalists trying to accurately report the conflict.”

Participants in war 

Some argue that journalists have become participants in a greater scale. To report on a war, many journalists see themselves being embedded in fighting units to get close to the conflicts and warring parties.

Some would say that a journalist has to choose a side. However, Brabazon disagrees.

“It’s not a question of taking sides. I think it’s absolutely impossible to report objectively in war. I don’t think it’s ever been possible; I don’t think it’s ever been done”, he says.

“You can be authentic and credible in your reporting, but if you’re on the front line, you’re going to act in self-defence. And if you’re in a war and you’re acting in self-defence, whatever steps it is that you’re taking for your own survival, immediately it means that you’re participating. As soon as you participate, you cannot be objective,” Brabazon continues.

One may also say that along with today’s faster pace of war and conflict comes faster news – and sometimes faster injury and death.

[pullquote align=”right”]“A lot of the Western press have been identified as the enemy by different armed groups”[/pullquote]Today, with the war zones being closer to each other and the fact that global travel has become easier, going to war is not difficult.

“In my opinion, it should be extremely difficult to get into a war zone. The harder it is, the less likely people who aren’t serious about it will end up on the front line.

“But in Libya for example, you could take a flight to Cairo, take a taxi to the border and you’re over the border and in Benghazi. There were university students turning up with their iPhones, without medical equipment and training. It’s crazy,” Brabazon says.

Going to war is now open to a larger number of young people who doesn’t necessarily have such a breadth or depth of experience; this can lead, argues Brabazon, to very severe problems without proper care, consideration and training.

Sutherland and Jeroen Oerlemans’ agency in London, Panos Pictures, share the same view: “Digital technology and mobile phones now enable even the most inexperienced photojournalist to board a flight to the closest conflict zone and enter potentially deadly territories”, says Michael Regnier, commissioning editor at Panos told us.

“In the past, the sheer amount of equipment required to make a journey to a conflict zone worthwhile made war photography a more inaccessible field. Today, encouraged by the feats of subterfuge and daring of some photographers, too many people with little experience in conflict zones continue to put themselves at risk, hoping for that elusive scoop,” he added.

Glamorous image

There is a glamorous and romantic picture of reporting from war. Tim Page, a photographer who made his name during the Vietnam war, expressed it as being sexy, glamorous and fun with lots of drugs and young girls.

“I think there’s a glamorous, very naïve image about war photography, in a way that you might encourage students to go into war zones. I think that is really incredibly destructive, unethical and dodgy. It’s also fantastically naïve,” Sutherland says.

“In order to get the great picture or the defining picture that nobody else gets, as a photojournalist you need to go away from the pack. And possibly the pack is where there is support and some kind of safety,” he told us.

Written war correspondents have existed as long as journalism has. And as long as there are wars, journalists will go to report on them. It’s a pillar of modern society.

“If you’d like to see war end, you need to understand why people fight wars and there are many geopolitical answers to that. Whatever they might be, at the end of the day, you need young men to go and kill other young men. And the damn thing is that young men can enjoy doing it. It’s sickening and horrific but at the same time, sometimes war can be fun,” Brabazon says.

Continuously reporting from war doesn’t come without consequences; often it is two completely different worlds, and adapting to every-day life after a trip can be difficult. What you may witness will stay with you forever.

“People who haven’t been to war don’t understand what it’s like to go to war. It separates you from society, as I see it. When I’m at war I just want to come back home, and when I’m at home I just want to go back to the war. It has a very corrosive effect on personal relationships,” Brabazon says.

“But I have two small kids now and that keeps me on the straight and narrow. You got to keep it together for them. They think I go to Africa to shoot wild-life documentaries,” he continues.

The godfather of Brabazon’s children, photographer Tim Hetherington, was killed in Libya; while his kids know that, they don’t understand the connection between his job and what their own father does for a living. For now, that is something Brabazon doesn’t want them to know.

The world of journalism is changing, alongside technological developments and ongoing civil wars. There will always be people going to conflict zones to report and picture the stories of the silenced.

Telling the tales of the people who don’t necessarily have a voice in our society is what journalism is about. And this is something Jeroen Oerlemans found meaningful.

Jeroem Oerlelams was shot dead by a sniper in Libya in October 2016.

Jeroen Oerlemans during one of his many trips to war zones as a photojournalist [Joeri Boom]

As a freelance photographer, he covered areas in conflict ranging from Afghanistan and Haiti to nearly all countries of the Near East such as Syria, Israel and Iraq.

“People trusted him and this shows in his pictures – a closeness to the action, people at their ease in his company. Though he was tall and strapping, he seemed to be able to fade into the background and let things unfold in front of his camera. I trusted him with the most delicate and difficult assignments,” says Regnier about Oerlemans.

Although the 46-year-old studied at London College of Communication many years ago, his course leader Patrick Sutherland still remembers him.

“I remember him as typically Dutch, tall but also very good-natured, easy-going and committed. His final major project on heroin addicts in Rotterdam was a very strong piece of journalism, very direct. After he graduated, I would occasionally see his bylines from various places around the world,” Sutherland says.

Jeroen Oerlemans’ appalling death is an example of the consequences of when your job takes you to war; he died while accompanying a mine-clearing team in Libya –he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However the statistics make it clear: today’s journalists are facing an increasing amount of dangers while reporting from war and conflict zones.

The attacks on journalists are horrific, but it cannot stop wars from being covered and reported on. The whole idea with journalism is that it is a free press – despite what happened to Jeroen Oerlemans and many others in the journalistic profession, we need people like them.




Featured image of James Brabazon in Monrovia in 2003 by Tim Hetherington

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