Hostile Environments

Petapixel has published My Experience Photographing on the Front Lines of the Syrian Civil War by Cengiz Yar Jr, (originally published by Japan Camera Hunter) which gives a very personal insight into what it is like to work in a such a dangerous situation. It makes me very sure that I don’t want to go there, however much I appreciate the work that he and other photographers are risking their lives to do, but I think others may be inspired to emulate him.

Last month the monthly meeting of NUJ London Photographers’ Branch had a presentation on Working in Hostile Environments, which unfortunately I was unable to attend, but have just been catching up by listening to the audio recording of the two talks and discussion. It isn’t a professional quality recording and comes with some very annoying noise during parts of the discussion, and of course the pictures by the two speakers are absent but it is still worth listening to if you are a photographer or have any interest in the kind of problems that photographers have and how they tackle them. Quite a lot would also apply to other journalists too, though in the nature of things photographers have to stick their necks out rather more. They can’t cover a war from a hotel bar as some writers have been known to do.

Guy Smallman talks with a great deal of personal experience as you will find if you listen, and you can see his pictures, particularly those from Afghanistan on Photoshelter.  He starts with emphasising the importance of  training for working in hostile environments (HET), which many responsible media outlets insist it and there is a useful list of training programmes on the page. Later he talks about his own training, after he had worked in various dangerous places, and that although he had felt he had little to learn, how wrong he found he had been.

Among other things, Smallman talks about protective equipment – including recommending what I think is a skate helmet from Halfords at £15.99, while later in the discussion another photographer suggests a Kevlar helmet as a better alternative.  Later in the discussion there are some other suggestions from other photographers too. You don’t just need head protection in war zones or foreign riots, but at times in British protests – both against injuries from protesters and police. I’ve so far decided not to use a helmet – and have often had to walk away when things start getting nasty. It’s not a sensible approach, and I don’t commend it to anyone.

There are some vital tips scattered throughout the talk, and I learnt a few things. Perhaps I should give up wearing polyester for example. Listen and you will find out why, as well as why if you buy a gas mask for use against tear gas the first thing you should do is throw the filter away and buy a new one.

Something there is no alternative to for photographers and other journalists who work in hazardous conditions is the membership of an organisation like the NUJ, and he talks about the great support it gave him after he was injured by Swiss police, and the fight over a number of years which eventually ended in a considerable compensation payout. You can find information about joining the NUJ on-line.

After some questions and discussion with Guy, Laura El-Tantawy talks briefly about living and working in Egypt and the problems she faces.  Her  ‘In the Shadow of the Pyramids‘, a project  documenting the everyday life of Egyptians which “continued through the Egyptian revolution and the violence prompted against the pro-democracy movement” is stunning work with an emotionally powerful view of people and events. You can see far more of her work on the web than she was able to show at the meeting.

The discussion with both speakers and the audience of photographers continues, occasionally rather losing the thread, but every now and again something of interest emerges, and it’s worth listening to the end. Perhaps like me you’ll find you have plenty of time to do so while looking at the photographs by the two speakers on the web.

Back to Cengiz, some may like his 10 reasons you should shoot film. I have one good reason not to – I’m just not cut out for masochism.

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