In conversation with conflict photographer Nicole Tung
We caught up with MAKE IT Speaker Nicole Tung on her work, her creative process and her experiences on the ground in the midst of conflict zones.
With a double major in journalism and history, Nicole currently freelances for clients including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other international newspapers and magazines. She spent 2011 in North Africa following the developments of the Arab revolutions from Egypt to Syria, and continues covering the region focusing on conflict-related issues and how the most vulnerable are affected.
Q. What drew you into photography overall and what spurred you on towards covering conflict zones?
Nicole: I think I first became interested in photography through history classes because the textbooks that we were using had photos of key events in history such as the Russian Revolution, the Vietnam War etc. Also, as part of the generation that visually watched what happened after 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I was curious about understanding conflicts. It was how I saw the world and how I wanted to engage in it.
When I was in school in Hong Kong, which is where I grew up, I started taking pictures. I am basically a self-taught photographer, but what interested me then was always current events in the context of history, stories about war and what changes those conflicts brought about. I think it was always in my nature to be interested in these issues, but I never intended to go out and cover a conflict. It just happened that way as I was very interested in the Middle East. While there is a lot of conflict going on in the Middle East, there’s also another side to the story which is on the effects of that conflict and how people lead their daily lives.
In my first year at university, I went to Bosnia because I had been reading a lot about the Balkan conflict in the 1990s. Once there, I decided to meet people who had lived through the Siege of Sarajevo and with local NGOs who were helping internally displaced persons. Many of the people that I met at the time had fled from the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. There were women and their children as well. I was taking photos and writing notes all the time.
It was after the conversation with these women when I got back to school and developed the film – I was still using film at the time – it struck me that it was the photos that were the most surprising. I realized that there was so much more power in the still images of what I had experienced in talking to these women, who had survived a genocide, than what I could ever portray in words.
I was also influenced by a lot of veteran journalists, my predecessors who had covered Chechnya and the Balkan Wars themselves. Throughout my university years, I was always keen on meeting journalists. I was introduced to a lot of people and started working on my own stories and I think that’s what propelled me into journalism.
The other part was looking at ways of approaching conflicts. For example, I did a project on Native American war veterans in the United States during university and I went back to that project for Al Jazeera America a few years later because I hadn’t experienced conflict like the soldiers that I was photographing had, and there was a disconnect. I think in order to tell those stories you must have a certain level of context given to you. That, in a way, was my path into photography and conflict.
Q. Give us an insight into what the day is like for you in the field and the workflow that you follow?
Nicole: It really depends on what assignment I am shooting. For example, if I am working in Iraq or even here in Turkey, if I am shooting something, I mostly download all my cards once I get back. I don’t usually bring my laptop out with me unless I have to file something immediately. I just download all my files and start picking out which ones I think are the best ones for an edit and import them into Lightroom. I then start going through all of them and start just basic toning. If there’s more specific toning that I need to do I use Photoshop, and that’s about it.
I try to keep it to a minimum, but again it depends on what the assignment is. Usually, for news assignments, I keep the toning to very minimum, because I obviously want to follow ethical rules of not retouching too much. The same goes even for feature stories. I try not to do too much toning or being very heavy handed with the images themselves but Lightroom and Photoshop are key components of my workflow.
Q. Working in conflict zones, have you faced even more challenges as a woman photographer?
Nicole: I get asked this question a lot. I really try not to see myself as a woman photographer. Obviously I am, in outward appearances and to other people, but I also don’t like to call myself a woman photographer or an issues photographer. Working in conflict zones I think my experience has been varied and it depends on where I am.
A lot of the times I am actually treated as a kind of third gender, where I am not even a woman, at least not the kind of woman they know and this is because I work in very deeply patriarchal societies. However, because of this I am able to navigate between two worlds. On one hand, I can speak to women who are generally not allowed in the presence of male strangers. I get the opportunity go into their bedrooms or the kitchen and talk to them in my broken Arabic.
On the other hand, I can easily sit and talk to the men as well. It’s quite fluid. There are times when it is frustrating because you are treated as a woman and it can feel very condescending, but I’ve never really felt it was more of a challenge. I think that being a woman in a conflict zone is actually very advantageous because I do get to see both sides of men and women.
Q. What has been your most unforgettable experience till date?
Nicole:I have different experiences that are both good and bad. As far as bad experiences go, being in Syria and witnessing civilians and children being targeted with impunity was difficult to deal with, and also knowing that I wasn’t able to affect any immediate change with the images that I was shooting.
There was this one day when I walked out of an apartment building that I was staying in and in the opposite neighborhood, a warplane just came swooping down and dropped a bomb. It came back again and dropped another one. The second one hit a building with a family in it. There were about eight people from the same family who died and five of them were kids under 15 years old. I just remember switching to this mode of photographing, even though the bomb was landing. The plane came back for a third time, and the bomb was very close to where I was standing and photographing. I was in the midst of it with the civilians, watching them deal with this horrific situation, but having my camera was a way of delaying the emotions that I had. But still, watching the whole event unfold in front of my camera was very difficult to witness.
As far as good experiences, I’ve had many. I think one of my favorite times was again in Syria, sharing ‘the breaking of the fast’ with university students who were sheltering me at the time. It was the holy month of Ramadan, they were fasting all day, and many of these students were also activists against the Syrian regime. They had allowed me to come and stay with them to document the protests and the conflict from their side. It was just a beautiful thing to share this elaborately prepared meal and to have these conversations with them despite everything else. Their world was falling apart around them but they were still so gracious. It was a very beautiful experience to be able to share a meal which in all cultures brings people together.
Q. How do you channel your creative energies in the middle of such difficult, dangerous and conflict ridden situations?
Nicole:I think in the beginning when I was covering conflict it was very difficult to switch off that part of me, and it’s not so much switching off your emotions. You are still experiencing what’s going on in front of you especially when you are either in a firefight or witnessing something happening to civilians.
My first job is, if I am in a situation where I can help somebody, I will most definitely step in to help them. That’s just what my obligation is as a human, as a photographer.
If I am in a situation where there are other people helping, then my role becomes to document. And in that vein, I have to be quite deliberate about what I do, because you also have to be sensitive to what other people are going through. The people in front of your camera, who are allowing you to be there in that potentially very difficult and devastating moment for them, especially if they’ve lost family members.
While I am obviously thinking about framing the images, the light and everything else, what’s most important to me is the content of the image and the context. I generally try to stay away from areas where there are many other journalists because I feel that part is covered. I think it’s really important to show other aspects that we might not be thinking of in the heat of the moment. In dangerous situations, I still look around me. First of all I have to be safe, and secondly, I look at not just focusing on the most dramatic thing but the quiet moments as well. That’s how I think I channel creative energy, in trying to show a broad picture of the situation and what’s going on.
Q. How do you translate a multitude of experiences from conflict zones into a single image?
Nicole:I don’t think that a single image I have taken could characterize all my experiences in a conflict zone, because the feelings are so complex. The experiences are so extreme and dynamic that I think there has to be a few images that can portray the context of what I am seeing in front of me. So, I don’t identify with one single image.
There are very striking images of other photographers and maybe powerful images that I’ve taken because of the moment that it was in. One image for example was of the same airstrike that I was talking about previously, where a 15-year-old boy was being carried down the stairs. You could see the grief and the feeling of absolute helplessness. Amidst the destruction, you can see all the rubble and the building, I think that for me was a moment that said a lot to me and I hope that other people would be able to read that message from looking at that picture.
Q. How do you stay motivated during such strife and human grief that you witness every day?
Nicole:Well, I think people tend to think of conflict as this very negative and devastating experience, which it is, but in many cases I’ve also come across children who are the most optimistic and resilient people. I think that’s what keeps me motivated because if they have hope, then I have no reason to not feel the same way.
I think it’s important to remember that there is still a balance of life even though there is death and everything else going on. And certainly, the situation in both Iraq and Syria and even Libya, which I covered in 2011, was not as heavy on casualties in terms of civilian deaths. I think there was still a lot of beauty to be seen. People try to adapt their lives during a very difficult circumstance and that’s very beautiful, and I think that it’s worth recording and documenting that and it’s worth seeing that people are incredibly resilient even though they are going through the most difficult of times. That’s what keeps me going. I think it’s very important to remember that there is that kind of contrast. You find these very – even bizarre – contrasts sometimes when you are in a war zone.
Q. Give us a sneak peek into what your talk will touch upon at MAKE IT?
Nicole:What I like to talk about is the power of photography – in relation to current events, and how all that fits in technology and the process behind it.
I will also be talking about individual photographs that I have taken, and the process behind them. I think a lot of times, there’s a kind of misconception about how these photos were taken or how you got there in the first place.
Find out more details about Nicole on her website www.nicoletung.com