Survival Tips for The Aspiring Conflict Photographer

Survival Tips for The Aspiring Conflict Photographer

Afghanistan British and Afghan troops battle Taliban.

 “No professional soldier is sent to war without extensive training. Photographers who operate in exactly the same battle space without any training, experience or proper preparation put themselves in increased danger and potentially put others around them at risk also.”

Photojournalist Jason P. Howe has spent over a decade covering breaking news on the front lines of conflict zones worldwide, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Colombia. What he learned about staying safe in these areas, he learned on the ground.  There simply were no workshops for photographers to learn Battle Field First Aid Drills, IED Awareness or Fieldcraft like his counterparts in the military.

And yet conflict photographers often put themselves in the same dangerous and unpredictable situations as soldiers. You have only seconds to figure out your course of action before danger goes from being a potential to imminent threat. Soldiers are equipped with guns – you only have your camera and your quick wit to ensure survival.

Back on safe ground, we civilians take real-time war photography for granted. When you see a photo of two snipers shooting through bullet holes in a stone wall, do you think about the photographer who got access to that image? Or how about an image of a soldier who found himself next to an exploding IED – do you wonder why the soldier lost both his legs but not the photographer?

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As news media budgets continue to shrink, many freelance photojournalists find themselves compelled to enter the field without proper resources. So Jason Howe and his fellow photojournalists decided to start a workshop of their own, focused exclusively on conflict photography and equipping photographers with more of the necessary training, experience, and preparation to enter conflict zones. In hosting the first Conflict Photography Workshop this November, Jason is joined by photography legends Martin Middlebrook, Javier Manzano, and Eric Bouvet.

What will photographers take away from investing in the workshop? We talked with Jason to learn more, and get his viewpoint on the 3 most important survival tips for conflict photographers.

PhotoShelter: What spurred you to develop this workshop? 

Jason Howe: One of the things that inspired me to start this workshop was the volume of emails I (and other working photojournalists) receive every week asking: how to get into photojournalism, what equipment is best, how to contact editors, how get to conflict zones and work safely, and so on. Giving interested parties six days of access to a group with over 60 years of front-line experience and throwing in lots of very relevant role play and and simulated scenarios is a very good way to boost young or inexperienced photographers’ awareness of what they are getting into by going to conflict zones and how to be better prepared for what awaits them.

Over the years I have always done my best to help out other photographers in the field where possible, whether that be with advice, lending them my body armor or other equipment, or buying broke freelancers dinner or a drink – just as the more experienced photographers did for me when I first started. Now that I have made the decision to no longer put myself in harm’s way on a regular basis, this feels like an excellent way to pass on some of the skills that have kept me and my colleagues alive and working.

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PS: What type of photographers do you think will benefit most from the workshop? 

JH: This workshop would most suit those who already have a desire to travel independently to hostile environments but do not want to do so without some additional training. We are looking for people who rate caution and preparedness highly as opposed to those who trust in blind luck and their own confidence to get them through. They will already be competent photographers who wish to push their skills further, to learn how to make images in fast moving, potentially dangerous situations, how to survive, maintain themselves and their equipment in the field whilst editing and filing images to their clients from a remote and hostile location.

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PS: What do you think are the top three most important lessons to be learned in conflict photography?

JH:

  1. Conflict photography is not a game. The decision to go to a war zone can have far reaching and long term effects, not just on the photographers themselves but also on their families and the people they photograph.
  2. Less is more when it comes to equipment. If you can’t carry it all day everyday, ditch it. Simplify your kit so you can concentrate on staying safe and making images without worrying about changing lenses, etc. Buy less equipment and spend the money on insuring yourself.
  3. You can never be too fit or too prepared. Covering a conflict will sap every physical and mental resource you have. Every piece of equipment will let you down in some set of circumstances. But the better prepared and adaptable you are, the higher your chances of surviving unscathed and producing good work.

PS: What’s one thing you wish you knew before entering the field?

JH: I wish I had better appreciated what the long term psychological effects would be of witnessing so much violence and trauma, and not just brushed aside the warnings and doubts. I also wish I had thought more about the stresses my choice of profession would cause other people.

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PS: In your opinion, what motivates a photographer to enter an area of conflict?

JH: Everyone will have slightly different motivations for wanting to cover conflict, and these reasons often evolve over time.  Some people want to try and bring an end to the wrongs they see happening by raising public awareness; some go as part of their own journey or life experience. There are no strictly right or wrong reasons, but the crucial thing is to strip away the glamorous, adventurous and romantic images of war, and be fully aware of the consequences and limitations of what one is getting into.

PS: What’s one of the most dangerous scenarios you’ve found yourself in so far?

JH: In November 2011 I was on an operation with British Forces in Helmand province, Afghanistan. I followed 6 soldiers through a doorway into a compound, each of us stepping in the footsteps of the other after the ground had been swept with a bomb detector. As the soldier behind me stepped onto the ground I had just left, an IED exploded and blew off both of his legs. After making images of the medics working on him, I joined the stretcher party and helped carry him towards the inbound MEDIVAC helicopter. There was a high threat that the ground we were covering may be hiding more IEDs. If even one of us stepped on another one, we would have had a mass casualty situation. As if this was not bad enough, as the stretcher bearers ran towards the helicopter a Taliban sniper opened fire.

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It was one of the most intense situations I have found myself in and required constant decision-making where the wrong decision could result in further injury or death. I had to think about where and how to move without risking triggering other IEDs or cause problems with shocked and angry soldiers who had just seen their friend horribly wounded. How and when to stop being an observer and do something to help save the life of the wounded man is a tough choice.

PS: Do you think fewer news outlets are sending photographers into the field these days? 

JH: I feel as though fewer people are being sent into the field as budgets shrink and publications become more risk adverse. They simply do not want to be responsible for the possible death, injury or long term psychological damage that sometimes results from exposure to war.

I know from personal experience that clients can and will insure you, pay you properly and on time, and offer after-care if they want to. Sadly, too many people are willing to work for clients who do not respect them enough to do this and have enough images coming in from unpaid, uninsured freelancers. I am not sure that it is possible to reverse that situation, but if that is how it is going to be then photographers need – more than ever – to know how to look after themselves and each other, and be aware of the resources that are out there for them.

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See upcoming dates and registration details for the Conflict Photography Workshop here.

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There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Richard at 9:07 pm

    I met Jason years ago when he was shooting with the various factions in Columbia. Nice guy and a great source of information before we set off into the mountains. Glad to see he is still at it.

  2. Rui Silva at 4:44 am

    This guy must not die until I complete my degree and have the opportunity to take this workshop. Being 16, I’ve had this dream for about 4 years, and I hope I can make it to the frontlines some day.

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  5. Dan at 5:59 pm

    I remember years ago seeing photos taken in Vietnam, of dead photographers and journalists stacked like firewood, on carts. I thought, I sure will not put myself into that photo!

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