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The Committee to Protect Journalists recently published its 2011 Impunity Index, which ranks the perceived danger of the world’s nations based on the number of unsolved journalist murders. After the report came out, we were not surprised to find many that PhotoShelter members had photographed in these places. And we wanted to know, did they risk their lives to be there? Surprisingly, not everyone said ‘yes’, and many were quick to draw attention to the more severe danger faced by local journalists. Read below to see our photographers’ stories firsthand, in order of “most dangerous” to “least dangerous” countries.We’ve also taken some editorial license to include Libya, while not present on the CPJ list, due to the losses our community has suffered this year while covering the conflict there.
In the comments section, tell us about your experiences in these dangerous locations.
“We’ve known for years how dangerous it is for Western journalists to work in Iraq. Last year, for example, I was in a U.S. military vehicle that was hit by a 200 pound suicide car bomb. However, the real dangers are not faced by us, but rather by Iraqi journalists and photographers. Not only are they at risk from radical ideological groups such as Al-Qaeda, but they are also at risk from their own governments. Last year, in the mostly peaceful Kurdish region of the country, a young journalist, Sardasht Osman, was murdered after writing a satirical anti-corruption op-ed about the region’s president, Masoud Barzani. Living and working in Iraq as an American photographer is certainly dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as it is for my Iraqi colleagues.”
Photo by Sebastian Meyer
Siegfried Modola is a documentary photojournalist based in Nairobi whose work captures his unique understanding of the surrounding region.
“As a freelance photojournalist based in Nairobi, I often travel to Somalia for assignments. The country’s danger levels are divided into different stages: from the fairly safe and stable self-declared sovereign state of Somaliland, where one can move around fairly easily (with of course the right planning) to the more highly risky south, in which a lawless scenario creates an incredibly difficult and often impossible scenario for journalists to work in. As a foreigner, the risk is always present in this kind of situation. Especially in a time where journalists and aid workers are facing increasing hostilities in conflict zones. What I fear the most is the ever-present risk of being kidnapped. As a foreign national, I know that I am worth a lot of money. As a freelance, I am on my on my own and my government will hardly negotiate for a fee if something goes wrong. It is just not foreign policy any more.
“Sadly, it is always the local journalists that pay the highest price for their profession. They are subject to imprisonment, beatings and murder, and often are forced to flee their home country in fear of reprisals as the perpetrators are aware that, in contrast to foreigners, there is no institution that will ensure the person’s rights are taken into account. It is them who should be acknowledged and who should receive all the possible support, as they are the ones who face the highest risk in their profession, knowing very well of the price that they might have to pay for it.”
Photo by Siegfried Modola
Jacob Maentz is a freelance travel, culture and documentary photographer based in the Philippines. He also volunteers with conservation organizations and local NGO’s.
“I’ve lived on and off in the Philippines for the past eight years, but only four of those years working as a photographer. I’ve always heard that being a journalist here is a dangerous job, mainly when working on stories in the political arena. When looking at this report, it’s clear that most of the journalist murders in the Philippines since 1992 were politically motivated in some regard. The 32 journalist deaths from the tragic Maguindanao massacre in 2009 is a sad but real example of how many politicians will do whatever is necessary here to remain in power. I have never felt unsafe or been threatened while working on an assignment; however, I don’t cover political or highly controversial issues. I think local journalists doing political reporting here are at a much higher risk than other journalists doing non-politically related work. Politics can run very deep in society here, but from my own experience, I don’t believe journalists should be hesitant of covering those important stories that need to be heard.”
Photo by Jacob Maentz
Steve De Neef is a nature, documentary and conservation photographer who specializes in underwater photography. Steve currently lives in the Philippines.
“I mainly work as an underwater photographer, so it’s not nearly as dangerous for me as for the photographers and journalist covering politics. My experience in the Philippines has been a positive one so far–most people are very friendly and willing to share their knowledge and information. Even politicians are open to some advice that photographers and journalist may have for them. I have personally talked to mayors and politicians about the need for coral reef protection and controlling illegal fishing operations, and they always listened and shared their knowledge. I do agree with the ranking regarding photojournalists if you’re dealing with corrupt politicians and try to put them in bad daylight. Then there’s a big chance of getting into trouble.”
Photo by Steve De Neef
4. SRI LANKA
Australian-born Asanka Brendon Ratnayake now lives and works in both Australia and Sri Lanka, where he takes on editorial, humanitarian and commercial photo assignments.
“My experiences in relation to working as a photojournalist in Sri Lanka are varied: on the one hand, I work for a newspaper which has been attacked and its staff is under constant threat. Its former editor, Lasantha Wickermatunge, was brutally murdered, and I myself have been threatened and was even beaten by government-sponsored thugs while covering a political rally. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call Sri Lanka the one of the top ‘dangerous places for a photojournalist’. Still, you certainly do need to be aware of your actions, and for the most part you will be constantly looking over your shoulder.”
Photo by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake
Paul Smith‘s most recent project has been to cover the internal displacement in Colombia for aid agencies and the Catholic Church.
“I personally do not feel threatened because of my activity as a photojournalist. Although I have been threatened and have, by good fortune, escaped death (my friend was murdered with two others), these were situations in which our activities somehow compromised the illegal activity of individuals and groups involved in profiteering. And there lies the danger: getting between unscrupulous people and their ‘interests’. Colombia saw some 16,000 homicides in 2010, so statistically you are significantly more likely to become a victim. Working in the field, you have to keep your eyes and ears open, listen, and take heed of local advice and make decisions based on instinct and knowledge. Personal security/safety issues are mainly common sense decisions. If groups or individuals who rule by force say you are not welcome, then you leave! As a photographer I am particularly exposed whilst working alone in areas where armed groups hold power. So, you have to quickly build relations and talk straight with people (no hidden agendas) to be able to remain in the area in which you wish to work and get people to help you out. Other than being detained by State security entities, I have never experience any inconvenience, threats or violent acts against me whilst working, which is more than I can say for walking the city streets in my off time.”
Photo by Paul Smith
After living and working in Colombia for 10 years, Scott Dalton is based in Texas where he works on projects along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I worked and lived in Colombia from 1999-2009. Although the country underwent dramatic change during that period, many of its problems remain. Working as a photojournalist in Colombia requires exploring the regions most affected by conflict. It is a difficult and, at times, dangerous job. One day you may find yourself embedded with anti-narcotics police as they use high explosives to destroy coca labs; the next, you are roaming the coca-growing regions to photograph the drug trade. I had a handful of close calls in Colombia. In 2003, a colleague and I were kidnapped by ELN rebels. Fortunately, we were released after just 11 days, but it left me with a more profound appreciation for the dangers the country presents not only for people who live in the zones most affected by violence, but for journalists trying to cover the story. The problem is perhaps most acute for Colombian journalists, who can face dire consequences for their work. All of the journalists that have been killed in Colombia have been Colombians. I would venture to say that most of them knew the risks they were taken; nevertheless they felt driven to do their work and tell stories that they thought had to be told.”
Photo by Scott Dalton
Jason Howe has worked on numerous reportage and documentary assignments worldwide, and in 2007 he relocated to Afghanistan where he’s been living and working throughout the country on and off to cover stories in some 14 provinces.
“Every conflict is different and has its own unique set of dangers and challenges. Afghanistan stands out for being one of the most difficult recent conflicts to tell more than just one side of the story. The foreign journalists who have tried to cover the other side have often ended up getting kidnapped and local journalists have been killed. Working with coalition forces of course has its dangers, too: the threat of IED’s (improvised explosive devices) is huge and something that is constantly on your mind, particularly when out on foot patrols and especially given the dreadful events that have befallen our colleagues recently. However, if you do get injured, the medivac system is so amazing that your chances of survival are very high and this is at least somewhat reassuring.”It is very sad to note from CPJ’s reports that it’s almost always local journalists who are being killed and whose murders are going unsolved, and sad to note how few of these murders are ever written about at any length or receive very much attention from or by the mainstream international media. When a foreign journalist or photographer is killed, the coverage is extensive and often completely self-indulgent.”
Photo by Jason P. Howe
With a passion to meet new people in their own country, Valerio Berdini travels around the world to any place where a transformation is in place.
“I have been following the Maoist revolution in Nepal for years, but I waited for its end to go and photograph the transition period after ‘peace’ was achieved. I flew to Nepal when the Maoists, after years of guerrilla, democratically won the election and their leader, Prachanda, became Prime Minster. The secular monarchy was abolished. I visited remote villages, and travelled on top of buses and old cars in search of testimony and signs of the fights, but there were few. Either I was very lucky or the report is too harsh regarding Nepal. All I found was people happy and curious to interact, children willing to play, farmers harvesting rice. Once I forgot my camera bags on a river banks where women were washing clothes, and I took my bike and rode away. I came back in a panic half an hour later to find everything was still there, untouched. Maybe the years before the reality were much worse, but in 2008 I found no obvious danger for a photojournalist.”
Photo by Valerio Berdini
Jack Kurtz is an American photojournalist and documentary travel photographer who has traveled to Mexico for self-assignment projects.
“I’ve worked a lot in Mexico, though not as much recently. It doesn’t surprise me that Mexico placed so high on the list of places that are dangerous for journalists. Mexican journalists have been in the drug cartels’ cross-hairs since before the official start of Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs in December 2006. I’ve never had what I would consider a ‘close call’ in Mexico, but have been through a couple of incidents that had the potential to end badly. In 2005, I was in Nogales, Sonora, covering violence between rival drug gangs. During a ride along with the Nogales police SWAT team, the team was assigned to make a foot patrol through a contested barrio (neighborhood). I was supposed to accompany them. As the patrol started, the unit’s commander called one of the officers back and ordered him to take off his body armor and ballistic helmet and told me to put them. I asked what the officer would do [without the gear] and the commander said it was more important that I have the gear than the officer. I declined use of the gear because I didn’t want to be responsible for an officer being hurt if things had gone badly and so was not allowed to go on the patrol. So instead I was driven through the barrio in an open pickup truck. When the foot patrol was safely through the neighborhood, their commander explained that while the police was the enemy of the cartel, killing a journalist, especially a North American one, would have served as a warning to other journalists planning to cover the violence. This was more than a year before the official start of the drug wars.
“My way of dealing with assignments in dangerous places is to work closely with local residents, either other journalists or assistants that I hire, and to follow their advice. So if a local assistant tells me not to photograph someone, then I don’t photograph them. If a particular neighborhood isn’t safe, I’ll try to avoid the neighborhood. If my assistant says it’s time to leave, we leave.”
Photo by Jack Kurtz
Jeremy Nicholl specializes in reportage from across Russia and the former Soviet Union, with a number of images featured in international publications.
“For photographers, I’d say Russia mostly just isn’t that dangerous so long as you exercise the kind of caution you would anywhere else. There are exceptions: the Caucasus [a point of political, religious and military contention on the border of Europe and Asia] remains the danger area, especially in and around Chechnya. And the writers there were mostly, if not all, involved in long term investigative work covering either corruption, the military or the Caucasus, sometimes all three. I’ve had a few close calls in that region: I got bundled into a car late at night in some kind of botched kidnapping, but the guys forgot to lock the door so I just got out and ran away. I got pinned down on a rooftop by very heavy fire directed at me in Grozny one day. But the guys targeting me didn’t know I was a photographer; they just saw someone with a tripod on the highest vantage point in the city and thought “sniper”. And it was a war zone: the guys with guns are usually at least as scared as you are, and you know the risks going in.”
Photo by Jeremy Nicholl
Born in Australia, Warrick Page is now based in the Middle East. His most recent photos were taken outside of Osama Bin Laden’s compound.
“The dangers for journalists in Pakistan differ greatly between internationals and locals. While there are risks for foreigners, many of them are well known and possible to avoid or navigate. I have covered a great deal of unrest in Pakistan without any major problems, but there were a few occasions where I’ve found myself in immediate danger. Each occasion involved protesters, or rioters turning on me. For local media, the dangers they face is at times unknown and potentially life threatening, as we’ve seen just this year with the murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, who reported extensively on the Pakistan military, Taliban and ISI (Pakistan’s military intelligence). I believe the [CPJ] ranking reflects the dangers locals face, rather than internationals because, as a foreigner, I’m afforded a level of protection with the government/authorities that is not extended to them. As a consequence, locals who choose to tackle the sensitive stories take far greater risk and frequently pay a higher price.”
Photo by Warrick Page
Sam Phelps is also based in Pakistan, where he works to photograph and document world events that society might not otherwise see.
“As a foreign journalist working within Pakistan, one of the difficulties you face is not being able to travel to regions of the country where the security situation is extremely fragile. Many journalists that have been attacked or murdered are often working within their own communities in these regions. Sometimes though, chaos can strike close to home, as was the case in September 2008 when I was covering the presidential elections in the country. A truck bomb carrying hundreds of kilograms of explosives was detonated at the gates of the Marriott hotel, which was one of the premium hotels within the city accommodating both Pakistanis and foreigners on both business and leisure. I was a few kilometres away when the bomb went off at about eight in the evening. You could feel the vibrations of the explosion move through your body as it detonated even from that distance. I arrived thirty minutes later at the scene and documented the impact as emergency services searched for survivors within the burnt out shell of the building. I was drawn at the time to photographing the local press covering the attack. Some of these photos to me speak of the dangers that the Pakistani press faces in the current climate of the country. One in particular always comes to mind: that of a journalist illuminated by a spotlight holding a microphone and standing surrounded by the burnt out carcasses of cars and twisted metal with the smoldering Marriott hotel in the background.”
Photo by Sam Phelps
Allison Joyce is an American photographer who has recently completed several projects throughout Bangladesh and India.
“Over the past year and a half, I spent almost 5 months working and traveling in Bangladesh. The people I encountered were some of the most warm and generous people, but the government and its politics tell a different story. I worked on a variety of stories, from the garment industry to the sex trade, and I rarely encountered problems, but I also rarely admitted to be a journalist. I was there on a tourist visa, but I had heard that journalists and photographers can run into problems when covering stories. For this reason, the CPJ rating does not come as a surprise. While I was there, Shaidul Alam had a controversial exhibit about the extrajudicial killings by the Rapid Action Battalion and it was immediately shut down by the government. One day while I was photographing outside the Cricket World Cup, I came across a police officer kicking and beating on a teenager with his club. As a photojournalist, your instincts kick in and I began photographing the scene. Within seconds, I was surrounded by the officer and other police demanding that I delete the photos. They insisted that I show them my passport and visa, while repeatedly asking if I was a journalist. For safety reasons, I admitted to being a tourist.”
Photo by Allison Joyce
A self-described “lone photographer”, Dado Galdieri is a Brazilian-Italian photojournalist covering and bringing attention to underreported people and themes.
“Being a Brazilian myself, it was not until 8 years after I was away from my home country that I started to compare and realize how dangerous Brazil is for journalists. In my case, one of the most threatening situations I’ve experienced in Brazil was far from the obvious narco (drug) riots in Rio or from the tense, daily wanderings in the outskirts of Sao Paulo. I was pursuing a story on the burnings in the Amazon state of Para in 2002. It was allegedly one of the worst years in the region’s history in terms of clearing the land for ranch and agribusiness. After some weeks trying to spot the worst place by bus and plane, I found a small team of Brazil’s environmental agency IBAMA idle in Altamira. They had a helicopter and were about to depart to a city well known for all these problems: Sao Felix do Xingu. I made my way into the helicopter and after a two hour trip over the majestic canopy, we overflew this city and surrounding areas, where the beautiful Xingu River sneaks through. From above I saw many illegal sawmills, thousands of logs floating in the river, huge swaths of land cut. And by the end of the day we were overflying one of the saddest scenes of environmental destruction I saw. The agents were really upset and went after a few loggers they knew were responsible for the mess. After capturing two men and delivering them to the police, we had to find a place to sleep over in the small town. The helicopter couldn’t fly at night, not to mention with all that smoke around us. We found a small hotel when it was already dark and I could feel the agents were frightened by something. We went outside and I saw a huge crowd shouting and trying to break a 10 police officer barrier, machetes in hand. They were demanding the loggers would be freed. We were literally surrounded by angry workers that wanted their bosses back. We spent all night awake. The agents were holding their weapons inside our rooms. The next day, the crowd was gone. We departed quickly and silently.”
Photo by Dado Galdieri
Sue Cunningham’s Photographic archive holds a comprehensive collection of photographs from Brazil, Peru and other Latin American countries, as well as other parts of the world.
“Brazil is a country of undeniable dangers, though as the CPJ analysis makes clear, these are far greater for local journalists than for international photographers. There are many instances of local journalists suffering attacks and death threats, and some cases of them being murdered. I have heard of international journalists being held captive in Amazon towns where the local population doesn’t like what they are doing. My own experiences are more to do with precarious forms of transport and criminal activity, though I have received some politically-motivated threats from gunmen and illegal landowners who would like to wipe out all indigenous populations and take their land. It helps to know and understand the local situation, but you have to be permanently in a high state of awareness and ready to get out if the situation turns threatening–which it does sometimes! As a fluent Portuguese speaker, I can usually talk my way out of a situation, but when I’m travelling with my husband, who is 6’4″ and an obvious ‘Gringo’, it sometimes gets sticky. When I look back over the last thirty years I sometimes wonder how I managed to survive!”
Photo by Sue Cunningham
Matthew Williams is a Seattle-based freelance photographer.
“Two years ago,I spent three months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, attempting to explore the inherent violence and poverty that is apparent throughout the favelas that are scattered throughout the city. Although my Portuguese was less than fluent, I began living and photographing in Rocinha, the largest slum in the city, as well as throughout the streets closer to the city center. Throughout my trip there, I was very conscious of the risks associated with photographing in the favelas. Several times while taking pictures I was approached by young men with guns telling me I couldn’t take pictures of what I was photographing. While I never felt overly threatened while I was in Brazil, the presence of violence was always visible. In terms of the ranking, I can’t say it is a fair assessment of the country as a whole. Brazil is a huge place, with lots of facets and stories, some more dangerous to cover than others.”
Photo by Matthew Williams
In addition to his work in Nepal, Valerio Berdini has also spent a great deal of time in India.
“I think the part of India considered dangerous is the Muslim Kashmir valley. I wanted to go there for years and the spring of 2010 seemed calm from riots (Kashmiri people fight for independence from India supported by Pakistan). Once there, I was amazed by the hospitality. I visited people living in house boats, and they offered us saffron tea and cakes. I wandered in bazaars of the old town with my cameras, talking to Muslim priests and they invited us to come back for the Friday prayer in the big mosque. I was allowed to take pictures of men and women praying. Just as a comparison, in the Whitechapel mosque in London, non-Muslim people are not even admitted. I was also walked the streets with my camera. People were curious about me, but there was no anger whatsoever. My approach is always to be open, always interested at the people and always interactive. To me, the best qualities of a photojournalist are good psychology and good shoes.”
Photo by Valerio Berdini
While Libya was not included in CPJ’s report (the report’s numbers run from January 1, 2001 through December 31, 2010, which predates the current conflict) we thought it was important to include it given the present situation.
Syrian-born Ammar Abd Rabbo is a photographer and reporter who runs the Paris-based Blakis Press, covering news from the Middle East and Arab world.
“I arrived in Libya on August 23rd, the day of the fall of Gaddafi’s strong place ‘Bab Al Aziziya’. I felt frustrated because I missed the ‘main’ action that day, as I was travelling. When I went to this area the next day, it was supposed to be under rebel control. But while there, we came under fire from some of Gaddafi’s loyal troops who did not totally leave the place. Being in such a situation is always risky–you have to concentrate on the images you want to make and you’re looking for an image that will illustrate the whole situation, but you end up hiding and caring for your own safety. Over the week, I faced other similar situations. Some streets and squares of Tripoli were filled with dead bodies. For a few days, the city was facing shortage in water and electricity power, and what was even more scaring, it was empty; only reporters and rebels with weapons were touring the streets. It’s always weird to be in such a large city with nobody in the streets. It gives the impression to the young rebels who ‘hold’ the city that their power is limitless. So you always have to be careful when approaching them and taking photos of them. Some love to pose, some others just don’t like it!”
Photo by Amar Abd Rabbo
No novice to conflict, Heathcliff O’Malley has worked extensively on covering 9/11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, before reporting on the current conflict in Libya.
“Libya was one of the toughest places I’ve worked in a long time. With almost unrestricted access to frontline fighting, more so in the earlier months of the conflict, you had to really decide what your boundaries were, as you could find yourself in incredibly dangerous situations. Unlike working in smaller scale conflicts, in Libya you had to deal with a lot of indirect fire from heavy artillery, mortars and Grad rocket launchers, which I for one have never had to deal with before. Shelling by heavy artillery from Gadaffi’s forces was part of daily life working on the frontline in eastern Libya and for those that worked in the besieged city of Misurata, where the heaviest fighting took place. Three photographers I knew were tragically killed and others wounded during the continuing conflict, which made some of us take a step back and think more carefully about how we were going about things. One reporter from a British Sunday newspaper was saved by his Helmet when a bullet round lodged in to it during the battle for Tripoli, dispelling the myth that body armor doesn’t save lives in such situations.”
Photo by Heathcliff O’Malley
Shawn Baldwin spent three years covering the war in Iraq, and has since traveled extensively. He’s based in Cairo, Egypt.
“Libya is definitely one of the most dangerous places I’ve worked. Just a few days ago, I saw a severely wounded journalist as the result of shrapnel. And he is just one of a number of journalists who have been injured or killed in Libya already this year. The chaotic nature of the fighting is what makes Libya so dangerous. There’s no overall command structure for the rebel forces, who are largely untrained. And a lot of the fighting has taken place out in open desert where there’s very little cover from shelling or bullets. The battle for Sirte over the past several days is more of city than open desert, but it’s still a battleground that is unfamiliar to most of the fighters who come from Misrata, which is about 150 miles away. There has been heavy, and generally random, shelling and sniper fire on the front lines, which surround the city. In a few places, the fighters–and the journalists who are with them–have been ambushed. I’ve seen a lot of casualties rushed to Sirte’s field hospital, which is just a converted petrol station on the city’s western outskirts. In the late afternoon, when the shelling usually intensifies, it’s packed with people, who the volunteer doctors and paramedics are struggling to perform triage on. At times, the doctors have had to treat the wounded on mattresses on the floor.”
Photo by Shawn Baldwin