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Her Voice: Photojournalist Nicole Tung on why she covers conflict zones

Photojournalist Nicole Tung shares her experience reporting in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones.

For Nicole Tung, photographing conflict zones is not just a job but a duty. The 33-year-old photojournalist, who was born in Hong Kong, has been covering issues in Africa, Asia and the Middle East since 2011.

Tung’s career began after she graduated in journalism and history from New York University. Keen to report on the Arab Spring, she traveled first through Egypt, then to Libya and Syria.

Currently based in Istanbul, Turkey, Tung is often on assignment across the region where she has recently covered the aftermath of the war on ISIS, the Syrian conflict and, in Africa, former child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Her civilian-centric work has appeared in international publications such as The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Washington Post, and more. She has received 17 awards and counting, including the International Photography Awards as well as the 2018 James Foley Award for Conflict Reporting.

We spoke with Tung about her work, and why she believes it’s crucial for female photojournalists to cover conflict zones.

Nicoletung Headshot
Hong Kong-born photojournalist Nicole Tung

Ariana: What drew you to this line of work?

Nicole Tung: I wanted to explore the idea of neighbours and the evolution of conflict – how people who are living side by side one day can turn against each other the next. I was keen to understand and tell the stories behind that.

I consider myself a witness and a documentarian. I see my work as a way to keep a record for our future history – a way to create evidence for posterity, so that no one will be able to say we didn’t know what was going on – be it a war, protest, or social injustice.  

Having women covering conflict is highly necessary. If we only get the male perspective, how can we understand the full spectrum of the war and how it affects the other 50 per cent of the population? There has to be a shift – and editors should be a big part of it. It’s up to them to hire more female photographers.

Ariana: You’re one of few female war photographers. How hard are things for women on the job?

NT: Quite hard, although there are more women paving the road for change. Overall, gender equality is a long way away for this particular type of reporting and the field is still dominated by men. Often, there’s still this traditional mindset that women are not capable of being conflict photographers because they’re more vulnerable. I couldn’t disagree more.

The Road To Mosul
A boy carries a white flag while fleeing Mosul, Iraq, in 2016. Photo by Nicole Tung

Ariana: Do you think being a woman ever plays to your advantage?

NT: Absolutely. Being a female journalist in a very conservative place, or even in conflict zones, can be positive because women seem less threatening. People tend to open up more – women in particular, which is so important. In deeply religious societies, many aren’t allowed to speak to male colleagues, so if they want their voices to be heard, they approach me or other female journalists.

Ariana: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in your career?

NT: It depends where I am and what type of work I’m doing. Sometimes it’s having to deal with people who don’t want the press to be there, whether it’s a protest or a sensitive situation. For instance, families might have just lost a loved one, or are in the middle of incredible trauma, such as being shelled relentlessly in Syria by government forces.

I’ve also worked in hospital wards, covering the extremely high rate of maternal mortality in the Central African Republic. None of these situations were easy to photograph because of just how invasive it is for the people I am photographing. But when I am given the privilege of doing so, I have to get it right.

Waiting around is also something I’ve had to learn to deal with. War reporting is often based on patience: you wait for permission to access places, situations to escalate or calm down, and people to talk with you.

Ariana: Which of your photographs has stuck with you?

NT: Probably one that I took in November 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, just a couple of months after ISIS had been ousted. It depicts a group of schoolgirls getting off a bus. When I took it, most of the city was still in a state of devastation, with so many people struggling to rebuild their lives. But the kids were just so eager to go back to school.

In the photo, the girls are all dressed in clean uniforms with bows and ribbons in their hair – something that would have never been allowed under the fundamentalist regime. I think that photo is symbolic of how life finds a way of coming back, of how resilient people can be.

Schoolchildren exit a bus in western Mosul, Iraq, on Monday, November 6, 2017. Since Mosul was declared liberated by the Iraqi forces four months ago, some schools have reopened in the city where many children have missed years of their education.
School children exit a bus in western Mosul, Iraq, in November 2017. Photo by Nicole Tung

Ariana: What impression do you want your photos to make?

NT: I look at my photography as a way to build bridges, so that people can take notice of what’s happening in certain parts of the world. I always hope my work – the work of journalists covering conflict at large – will have a positive impact and raise awareness.

There are people who decide to get involved after seeing a photo series, or reading a story, and that’s so important. Obviously, that’s not always the case. So many of us covered Syria, and nothing came of it in terms of positive change.

Ariana: Have there been situations when you decided not to photograph something?

NT: Yes, there are certain times when I decide not to shoot. Once, there was a very traumatic bombing of a civilian neighbourhood in Syria. I was in the hospital covering the victims coming in to get treated, and I witnessed parents being told their children had died. I chose not to photograph them because it felt too private and intimate. It was their loss, their moment of despair, and it wasn’t for me to share it with the rest of the world.

Other times, people don’t want to talk or be photographed – a camera can feel invasive. I completely understand that, and in those cases, I try to find other ways to tell the story. I also have to protect the people I photograph while still doing my job, because they might be at risk of being detained or kidnapped if I don’t.

Ariana: How do you decompress after an assignment?

NT: Anybody who’s worked in a conflict zone comes out of it changed. I certainly have. Every time I finish an assignment, I have to find ways to cope with the situation – either by isolating myself for a few days or going to see friends. I’ve never been diagnosed with PTSD, but I think I have it to some extent. I’ve had flashbacks, nightmares. It’s not as simple as putting something aside and moving on.

A boy walks through a street near his home in Qayyarah, Iraq, on Thursday, November 10, 2016, as an oil well burns nearby. Many streets and neighborhoods in Qayyarah look apocalyptic, with oil residue covering all surfaces, turning small streets into muddy oil slicks, yet children can still be seen everywhere playing outside. Dozens of oil wells were set on fire as ISIS fighters retreated from the Iraqi Army in August, before the start of the Mosul offensive last month. The oil from Qayyarah provided a huge source of income for ISIS to help finance its activities. Many civilians stayed in their homes during the fight to retake the town and remain there today despite the months of smoke clouds hanging over the town.
A boy walks through a street in Qayyarah, Iraq, in November 2016. Photo by Nicole Tung

Ariana: Could you tell us a bit about your exhibition at PMQ in May. Why Hong Kong?

NT: My Hong Kong exhibition was done in tandem with Save the Children’s centenary. The theme of the exhibit was children in conflict, and I showcased work from the last eight years on children living in war zones, specifically in Iraq and Syria.

It was important to show that in Hong Kong, because the Middle East can often seem abstract to people who don’t live there, and the idea of war is so far away from most people’s minds. It was necessary to show the reality of war – particularly to people in Hong Kong who aren’t exposed to it and live in a rather safe place.

Ariana: What’s next for you?

NT: For now, I plan to keep photographing conflict because very few women are out there doing it. The people I meet and photograph are also tremendously important. Ultimately, this is not about me. It’s about the civilians’ stories and helping people grasp the full picture. They need to hear women’s voices.

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