Archive for the ‘International Coverage’ Category


The Art of Storytelling Helped Me Explore Life and Myself

I remember gazing from my bunk bed every night in our house in Athens at my dad’s black and white pictures hanging on the corridor wall. I would stare at them until I would fall asleep. They just seemed to me so alive and beautiful and for some reason I wanted to do the same. Take pictures, travel, explore life and become a creator. (Just to be clear my father is not a photographer, but an architect).

My background has been in fine arts, specifically in painting and photography.

Documentary photography for me has been really my life’s dream and I truly have been lucky enough not to have worked in any other industry. It has taken me into worlds that I never thought that I could actually be a part of. It has given me strength, has made me face my weaknesses and has given me a mission — a mission to communicate, understand and respect different cultures, share and give a voice to those who do not have any other ways to be heard.

My interest in documentary photography and filmmaking stems from my passion in discovering untold stories and relating them in a way that will engage audiences on an intellectual and emotional level. As a journalist and creator I have travelled to numerous under-reported parts of the world and have seen first-hand the power that stories can have.

Greece, Kos island 2015
An immigrant wondering about at dawn in front of the port in the island of Kos.

Facts are important, but often they are only as powerful as the narratives they serve. Telling stories has always been the way people make sense of the world, and I firmly believe that documentary photography and filmmaking is one of the most powerful ways to tell them.

My name is Amani el Mekhlef I am 29 years old and mother of five. When I was in Syria I was seven months pregnant and one day an air strike hit next to my house so I lost the baby. After that they took me to a place to take out the baby from my belly without any anesthetics. It took the doctors about six hours to take the baby out. After that we decided to leave while being pregnant again. We basically left when I was pregnant to my son because of the many bombings. The borders were closed so we waited for about one week to go to Turkey. After that we went to Turkey and we stayed in a camp (Tel Abyad).

All this may sound ideal, but the truth is that to enter into these “magic” microcosms I had to struggle and work often harder as a female photographer in a male dominated world.

I had to prove that I was capable enough to work in the business in a way that my male colleagues did not; to show again and again that I could work under difficult circumstances, on interesting assignments, turning my head away from sexist comments so I could get the job, fighting for equal pay, being taken seriously by my peers.

Athens, Greece 2013: Red heels.

Nevertheless these obstacles never stopped me from pursuing my dream to become a photographer and storyteller. Indeed, these obstacles became my tools to move forward and carve a path for myself and take on stories that I was not “supposed” to work on as a woman.

So if I had to suggest something to a young female who wants to become a photojournalist, documentary photographer or a journalist, it would be to not let these obstacles stand in your way of becoming who you want to become. Work on developing a thick skin and don’t live down to others’ expectations of you. It can be hard but believing in yourself opens up new worlds in unexpected ways.

Pamir mountains, Roshkala region Tajikistan 2014
A bride getting ready before the ceremony.
Tajiks living on the plateau have very unique wedding ceremonies. Most ethnic groups in Central Asia begin the wedding ceremony with the betrothal and arrangements made by the elders of the family, but a Tajik wedding is quite different. It lasts seven days. On the first day of the ceremony, the bride and the bridegroom proclaim their marriage and hold separate banquets with their own families, which continue for three days.

In 2010 my life brought me back to Greece from New York and Italy, and here I really had the opportunity to work with major international outlets covering a wide range of stories in relation to the financial crisis and its impact on Greek society, as well as the refugee crisis.

These years in Greece have transformed and matured me. I saw a country that I often didn’t recognize and I felt obliged to report on its changes as I felt I was living through historic moments. In particular I have reported on the rise of nationalist and xenophobic movements, on the financial boom in the sex trade and on issues of European integration, immigration and identity.

In a way returning to Greece as a photographer has been both a curse and a blessing at the same time. I learned to live with the ongoing recession and all of the austerity and reforms that were imposed in the country on the one hand, yet on the other hand as a creator, I really had the chance to delve into fascinating stories and find my voice at a time when the country was in the international spotlight.

Of course, being a documentary photographer or a journalist is a never-ending journey – especially in this age of globalization and I don’t claim that I have figured everything out. Cases of editors who do not understand the situations photographers or journalists face are also part of this business. They basically often just want ‘the story’ as quickly and as cheaply as possible. But being a reporter or a photographer is often about much more than that.

Documentary photography can have a massive impact in our society and it takes a significant level of responsibility from our part to represent someone else’s life, culture, and country.

To achieve this, we need to spend time to work and develop strong relationships, gaining the trust of the people we photograph and gaining a deep understanding of all the issues and representing them fairly. Balancing the need and desire to cultivate these relationships with the pressing demands of the industry is often a difficult line to walk.

While getting stories commissioned and making a living in this field remains a constant challenge, looking back on what I have achieved, the people I have met and learned from reminds me why I chose this career to begin with and makes me eager to get out there and see what else I can discover and share. It reminds me of the feelings I had as a child: of wanting to explore life and to understand and learn about myself and others through stories.

Myrto Papadopoulos finished her studies in 2003 after completing a five-year Fine Arts degree, majored in painting and photography. In 2006, she applied for a documentary photography degree at the ICP (International Centre of Photography) in New York, where she was granted a scholarship.

Her clients include TIME Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, GEO International, Le Monde, The Guardian, nationalgeographic.com, WSJ, DIE ZEIT, WIRED, Lens New York Times, Time.com, ARTE TV, ZDF TV among others. Today she works as a freelance photographer and a documentary filmmaker and is represented by Redux Pictures in NY. You can follow her work at www.myrtopapadopoulos.com and on Instagram.

If you or someone you know would like to share her narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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Fixers: Who Are They and How Do They Work?

Even the most seasoned foreign correspondent will swear that their job is only possible because they’ve learned to rely on experienced, reliable local people to help them in the field. But these aren’t just ordinary people. As many of you know there is, spread across the globe a dynamic group of professionals who have dedicated their work to helping journalists and filmmakers tell their stories. They go under many monikers but are most commonly called, fixers.

As one producer recently put it, “Without fixers, we are basically just curious foreigners wandering around with expensive equipment”. It’s a sentiment that is key to accepting your limitations as an outsider and allowing local help to really get you under the skin of a subject. You can go into an area, you can know the story that you’re going to do, you may know roughly how to get it, but you’ll never be able to fully get the nuances without help. If you take the basic knowledge of the operation aside, you still need to understand the current situation, and you also need to be understood – you need to be trusted, and fixers can help with that.

“I could not do my job without the work of the local fixers I hook up with wherever I go. They are my eyes and ears. I have worked with some of the finest in the business – and to me they have as important a role in the making of our reports as I do, as the correspondent, or as the camera person or producer.” Jonathan Miller, Foreign Affairs Correspondent for the UK’s Channel 4 News.

So who are these people and what are their qualifications? There is no qualification you can do for this kind of work, no certificate or succinct career path. This disparate group of individuals will find you subjects to talk to, get them onside, apply for your permits, translate, book your cars, feed you, find you a hotel, fulfil whatever random necessities you throw at them, make sure you’re safe or get you out of trouble when you’re not. Theirs is essentially a job title with a thousand meanings whose only qualification is a singular desire to help produce stories and enough experience of your job to become one of the team.

However, the many who view them in terms of translators or guides would be interested to learn that on World Fixer we have a range of professionals from all spheres including researchers, ex-cops, tour operators, producers from the world of TV, ex-Government communications officers, academics and increasingly journalists, diversifying in the face of an industry on the squeeze. It is wise when hiring someone to consider what their strengths are in relation to your work and play to that. A tour operator for example may have excellent access to remote communities whilst an ex cop will bring a different level of insight. You’ll never know for sure though unless you talk to them. There is no online solution for the perfect hook up and whilst our site endeavours to introduce you to as many fixers as possible you can’t ‘Uber-ize’ a people business of this kind if you want the best experience.

For many fixing is a logical extension of their exposure to the media industry but for some their work began through a chance meeting with a journalist, or a recommendation from a friend. The good ones have managed to turn it into a productive career.

Take Suliman Ali Zway and Osama Alfitory in Libya, for example. During the war in 2011, whilst many young men in their area headed off to join the rebels they decided that helping journalists was a better way to help the cause. As the foreign press congregated in Benghazi they made themselves available and quickly (with no formal media training of any kind) became the ‘go to guys’, earning themselves the title amongst international media as ‘The A Team’. They worked with everyone from top tier journalists like Leila Fadel at the Washington Post to small, independent reporters with equal fervour and those in the know fought over each other to book them. Eventually they were honoured with the prestigious Martin Adler prize and have now managed to forge a journalist career for themselves.

They became successful not simply because they spoke good English, or that they had great contacts but because they had a relentless work ethic and cared only about about getting the truth out – whatever that was. All the great fixers share this quality.

In the field, you are trusting a fixer with the success of your project and possibly your life, but it is probably the most unregulated aspect of the industry. You can literally pick someone up off the street and put them on the payroll – a situation that seems unthinkable in this modern world of risk assessment and ‘responsible’ practice. A site like World Fixer will introduce you to a range of people out there and we do strive for accountability but by working with someone in a foreign land for the first time there will always be uncertainties. Fortunately journalism has never been a business to shy away from leaps into the unknown so here’s a few tips to mitigate the chances of a bad encounter.

The first is vet. Don’t just take a name off the internet and assume it’ll go well. Check references, speak to them at length and use your instinct. This is obviously important in the case of hostile environment work but equally the success or failure of your trip will hinge to some degree on the information your local provides so it helps to know if it can be trusted.

Secondly, look for the skills he or she might need to assist you properly. Is it more important that they have an encyclopedic contacts book or that they would perform well interviewing contributors in sensitive situations? The right person for the job may not necessarily be the most connected and have a resume that reads like the Pulitzer back catalogue, you would learn more about their suitability by running the project by them and gauging their response. However, an important note here is that in order to understand the way you work and deliver properly it does help to have a decent amount of experience working with foreign journalists. At the least they should understand the importance of accuracy, unbiased reporting and responsible practice.

Thirdly, don’t forget the paperwork. We get numerous complaints from both sides of the fixer-employer equation about malpractice, empty promises and money disputes. Not always, but in many cases, this is due to a breakdown in communication — cultural differences that affect each side’s expectations or simply the fact that nothing ever gets written down. Be as clear and definitive as possible when working with fixers; don’t assume that they work the way you do or will pick up on things you have not clearly stated.

For example, ask up front if a price quoted for a job is all-in, or does it exclude extras like fuel, food, etc.? In many parts of the world this flexibility is normal, but Western employers in particular are accustomed to a quote meaning a final quote, not a flexible one. Get everything in black and white, especially when it comes to this, and confirm that it is understood. It is the quickest way to sour an otherwise great and fulfilling working relationship and is sadly extremely common.

Finally, respect your fixer as one of the team – like in any relationship the more you put in, the more you get out. Ask for their ideas, tell them yours – you never know when they are able to offer the missing link or a story dynamic you might not have thought of. They will have whatever professional knowledge you’ve selected them for but are also educated people with all the social awareness that comes with that.

Respect also means listening to them when it comes to cultural concerns, not only because failure to do so may affect your project without you even knowing but also because any social faux pas, however insignificant to you could land them in trouble when you leave. It is vital to remember that for those covering sensitive situations your presence as a journalist has repercussions – partly in the effects your report may have but also on a human level to the fixer and his association with you. For fixers, the story doesn’t just stop when you leave the country.

World Fixer is a database of media fixers and facilitators, with a membership of nearly 7000 globally they strive to make good fixers easier to find and improve working practices. They believe that giving these dynamic individuals a platform to connect with the industry we can raise standards and create transparency.

Mike Garrod previously worked for twenty years in documentary, current affairs and TV in the UK before setting up World Fixer. Ranging from hostile environment to factual entertainment he’s filmed in over 35 countries and worked with some of the best local professionals out there.
If you want to learn more about how you can be involved with the International Community, you can join SPJ International on Facebook. If you are a journalist or a fixer that would like to connect with other members of the the SPJ International Community, join here.
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Supporting Your Female Colleagues Will Help Grow a Stronger Community

When I began my career as a photographer, I could not imagine where I would be today. Two years ago, I planned on moving abroad to Istanbul, Turkey, to live as a freelance photojournalist. Instead, I decided that moving to Detroit, Michigan, was the best possible option for my growth as an independent visual journalist. I wanted to freelance in the United States and needed to be sure that it was right for me before living in a foreign country. Michigan became home and I realized I would be happy as long as I was still a visual storyteller. Moving to Detroit was a process of re-evaluating my world view and myself.

I often challenge myself to go beyond my comfort zone. When I was living, studying and working in Morocco for six months, I was an outsider. Regardless of how I dressed to fit in or how much of the language I learned, I would inevitably be perceived as a white, American female. I did not want to fulfill the “white savior” complex with my work. I wanted to connect with others and wanted those I photographed to feel the same connection. There were many challenges that came from living in a foreign country. For one, I could not look men in the eye while walking down the street. This was due, in part, to their culture, as well as my desire to deter unwanted attention. Despite this, I conducted interviews in French and did not let these barriers stop me. I can be different from those I am photographing, and this should not necessarily put me at a disadvantage. I work to my strengths. I am shaped by my experience as a woman who can sensitively and empathetically connect with people. This makes me the journalist I am today.

As female journalists, we need to work to create change in the journalism and photojournalism industries. There is a need for more diversity and respect, both for women and people of color. There is not an even playing field. Although this is being talked about more frequently, a lot can be learned about how privilege is favored when we are open about our backgrounds. I would not be where I am today without support. I am lucky enough to have found this through college, internships, workshops and studying abroad. All of those experiences were somewhat possible because I could afford them. Now more than ever, it is important to support your fellow female colleagues. Celebrate their wins as you would your own. Find inspiration from others to help you in moments of doubt and worry.

My biggest piece of advice to emerging female journalists is to know that where they are now is not where they will be forever. That may sound obvious. However, some of the best advice I received was to stop comparing myself to others. The more you appreciate your own growth, the stronger you can become. These days, I try to take everything a step at a time. As a young photographer without all the answers, I do not know where I will be next, or what my career holds. Regardless, I will give back to the community that inspires me to not be afraid to ask for help, to work hard and to be myself.

Rachel Woolf is a Detroit-based independent visual journalist. She specializes in documentary photography, videography and portraiture. As a visual storyteller, she works to intimately show aspects of humanity and mortality intersecting with economic and social issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, CNN, US News and World Report, Bloomberg, Education Week, Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. A native Marylander, Rachel now considers Michigan her home. You can follow her work on Instagram and on her Website.

If you or someone you know would like to share her narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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Lessons Learned From a Photojournalist to Her Colleagues

I am an Italian photojournalist of Croatian origin, and I have lived in Torino for many years now.

I come from the Balkans, territories devastated by wars in the nineties, which is something that lead me to this work. I grew up in a small town, where women became teachers or maybe work in the only food industry of the area, but always staying close to home. Looking back, my choice of career probably was dictated by a response to the highly sexist society I was raised in.

In the last years, my work as a photojournalist has focused on wars and conflicts taking place all over the world, and my investigative reports come from the Middle East, Africa, but also the Balkans, Russia, and Asia. I work as a freelancer, but also have my own news website.

Aleppo, Syria, © Andreja Restek / APR

Submitting your work to newspapers and find interested parties is always difficult as a freelancer, and it takes an extra effort as a woman: often, you need to work more, struggle more, and prove that you are good at your job more than usual.

But I love my job and I believe it is really essential in our world. What I find fundamental, in order to do it well, is being there in person: you can’t speak about war without seeing the frontline, you can’t write about refugees if you haven’t talked to them and haven’t been with them.

Sierra Leone, ph © Andreja Restek, 2016

Journalists have an important and noble role: our job is beautiful, and what we have to do is to be honest and report news without letting our views interfere with it. Without adding political or social implications. It’s not something easy, but it is due. We have the duty to be impartial, humble and not hypocritical.

Syria. © Andreja Retsek

When doing my job, I have the chance to give a voice to those who don’t have it. Often the people I interview gift us with the only thing they have left: their story. And that is why my priority is treating these stories with respect.

Refugees from Austria, Viaggio, Serbia, Ungheria. © Andreja Restek

A few years ago I realized that as a journalist I could do even more for those struck by war, and with some colleagues I founded an NGO which tries with small but efficient and precise projects to help people in need.

My father once told me that I live life breathing at the top of my lungs, and I would advise any colleague to follow their dreams and to “fully breath their lives”.

Andreja Restek is a photojournalist of Croatian origin living in Torino. She is the founder and director of APR news, an online newspaper that follows and monitors terrorism and terrorist groups in the world and conducts independent investigative reports on illegal trafficking and human rights. She is a member of the International Federation of Journalists and registered to the Albo dei giornalisti.

She has been invited as lecturer and guest to many events, organized among others by UNICEF, University of Torino, Salone Internazionale del libro di Torino, Associazione vittime del terrorismo, Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), RAI, Festival dell’Europa solidale e del Mediterraneo, photography clubs. She was the artistic director of the International Security Festival 2017 in Vicenza.

In 2016 she published “Siria, dove dio ha finito le lacrime,” a photographic book collecting her salient work regarding the Syrian war. You can follow her work on Twitter and aprnews.net.

If you or someone you know would like to share her narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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Barred From Studying Photojournalism Because of My Gender Didn’t Stop Me to Pursue My Dream

I grew up cornered by closed borders in a city on permanent lockdown and that was “home” to me. I rarely saw the surrounding concrete walls opening up, but when they did my hardworking middle class single mother was there taking a photo of it. Whenever we would be fortunate to travel around she would take her camera with her, creating her own photo biography.

It automatically registered in my mind, the events you don’t document, never happened and history will remember it as such.

The ongoing siege on Gaza wasn’t on the top of my list to worry about as a young woman growing up in the city. However, the older I get, the longer the list of forbidden taboos I’ve to deal with. The dos and don’ts started to get heavier and the more dreams I explore the conservative side of the culture began to weigh me down.

In a class of 50 kids, I didn’t pick and choose between wanting to be a doctor and a teacher — it had always been photojournalist, until I wrote that word on my University application and saw the resentment on the admission worker’s face.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.

In so many words she told me I can’t be a photojournalist, starting with my high score that magically became a problem and ending with how much shame I’ll bring to my family by doing a “man’s job”.

It was just presumed that women were banned from specific jobs and photojournalism was one of them. I chose to quit being the low key, playing by the rules sort of student and choose my battles, being able to transfer the surroundings of my home, the occasional wars and the unseen mental injuries through the aftermath.

The argument to be a photojournalist grew within me like fire, but unlike foreign photographers’ situations, I was the local who could be the messenger for all the surviving storytellers or what we refer to as “story subject”, as my male colleagues in the field promised.

I failed in studying photojournalism, I was barred from having the opportunity based on my gender and I had to switch lanes and become a self taught photographer. That’s when Google became my best friend and my camera experiments became more regular.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.

While the hardship of becoming a woman photojournalist in Gaza seemed to be growing, the actual local people on the ground were the most understanding to the nature of my work, after all I was translating their everyday struggle into photographs.


Within the first couple of years of my career, I learned how to listen so carefully, give proper attention to the storytellers I’ve met and be quiet until I’m unnoticeable.

I disobeyed the traditions but showed respect to those who believed in it, until the heavy bombing on the city made me realize that my first big story as a photographer is going to be the war on home.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.

In war photojournalism, the various rules are constantly changing as some might save your life and others might cause the death of others. Being around civilians with a camera could possibly put them in more danger if the camera was viewed as a possible threat.

My confusion while covering my first war wasn’t focused on the bloodshed scene I was photographing, but also the family I was leaving behind. Not knowing if I’ll be going back home to dust and ashes.

Even though I worked with some of the best international photo editors, none were able to advise me on how to balance this job. The harsh taboos still categorized me as a “rebel” where all I wanted is to do my job, which I wasn’t better or worse at because I’m a woman but I had more access because of the same taboos that seemed to call to limit me.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.


More unseen stories were coming to the surface within my conservative community. I didn’t seek shelter in civilians’ houses, yet those were the places I was asked to come in to in hope that I’ll deliver their story to the public. My message wasn’t much different than my colleagues, but the delivery was.

Till one rainy morning during the first Gaza war back in 2008 and 2009, while I was wandering in the Northern areas of Gaza strip, a colleague of mine offered “peace”.

He expressed how it’s not any one person’s call to “allow” me to be a photojournalist but it’s more of the common norm in our society. We seemed like we began a new chapter as colleagues and so I asked if I may join the group while moving in the North. He smiled warmly and nodded yes.

I got into the armed jeep with three other local photojournalists I knew. We drove for few minutes before the expected airstrikes resumed. As we parked aside everyone got out including me.

However, the scene wasn’t anything I’m used to. The dust covered everything within my sight and the whistling sound was getting louder. I finally realized the airstrike was targeting our location so I ran towards the jeep as the rest did but as I arrived late, the passenger side door was closed.

I knocked to get it open but my “big brother” sort of colleague looked at me as he shut his door and said: “I don’t have time for you.”

Within seconds, the jeep took off and I drowned into confusion. The airstrike continued so I decided to take the only option and walk through the back allies hoping I’ll make it alive.

A few hours later, as I reunited with other photographers at a nearby hospital, I learnt this was a lesson for me to never cross the line with my male colleagues. Ten years later I must admit it was a successful lesson but not in the way it was intended, despite being a local.

Only that day that I found the answers to several questions I’ve often wondered about, specifically why would photojournalism be a man’s job? Well, it’s not. Why can’t women cover war zones? That’s a myth.

Lastly, why was I abandoned by my own people amid airstrikes just for being a woman photographer? It doesn’t even matter.

On the first day of the war, I remember thinking to myself, I’ll cover it for a week then go back home. When I became my own team I shifted the focus from my personal surroundings and put it on what counts the most and that’s the history being made moment by moment, in war zones.

Photojournalists, men and women, don’t heal wounds and don’t fix what’s broken but they do their job of delivering the truthful story as it is and those stories that inspired my unwelcome pretense in the male dominated field could only be found in the darkest corners of the city.

Women’s perseverance isn’t unheard of, and the resilience of war survivors and victims is also a well known quality spread among those who are affected. So if anything, the unpaved paths women journalists and photographers have to take often make us realize the common grounds we have with these regions and establish a better stage for the news we deliver to be heard, seen and felt.

Eman Mohammed is an award winning photojournalist and TED fellow, currently based in Washington DC. She is a Palestinian refugee, born in Saudi Arabia and educated in Gaza City,Palestine where she started her photojournalism career at the age of 19. Her work was published in The Guardian, Le Monde, VICE, Washington post, Geo International, Mother Jones, and Haartez. You can follow her work on Twitter, Facebook and her website.

If you or someone you know would like to share her narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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Never Underestimate the Power of Emotions in Journalism

I cried in my first job interview. ‘Can you list three reasons why we should give you this position?’ asked two of the editors I’d interned for over six months previously – two women with bright vintage jumpers and symmetrically winged eyeliner – two women so intimidatingly funny and cool that I used to stutter when they called my name; who I was so desperate to impress that I would rewrite three-word-long email responses eight or nine times in the hope that they might seem witty enough to make them laugh. I was applying to be junior writer at a teenage girls’ magazine, and I’d worn a Justin Bieber t-shirt underneath an H&M blazer to show just how enthusiastic I was. Still, I clarified it in my response, just in case. ‘I’m really enthusiastic,’ I said. And then my brain blanked, and my eyes welled up with panic, and I started to cry. Enthusiastically.

It’s been five full time jobs and seven years since that interview, and these days I’ve learned a few – <a few> – things. I’ve accepted that winged eyeliner, symmetrical or not, will fall off my face two seconds after application wherever I am in the world – and that bright vintage jumpers just take up unjustifiable proportions of space when you’re living out of a backpack for six months at a time. I’ve discovered that when men stare at you – whether while reporting from a brothel in Bangladesh, or standing in a boardroom in Bermondsey, the last thing they’re expecting is for you to stare back. I’ve proved that no matter what anyone tells you, you don’t have to remain pigeon-holed in one small sector of the industry for the duration of your career – that writing about Justin Bieber (and wearing his facial features on your chest) doesn’t mean that three years, or five years, or ten years later you can’t write about human rights, or gender politics, or Iraq. I’ve discovered that even if and when you do start writing about human rights, and gender politics, and Iraq, you can still write about Justin Bieber. And I’ve realised that while crying in interviews may not be ideal, emotions in journalism are often under-estimated, just like women.

Corinne_Redfern_Frontline

Photograph by Francesco Brembati.

There’s a pressure in this world, of frontline reporting and international freelancing, to not only protect your skin, but to also armour yourself from within. When I started out, I thought sensitivity was synonymous with weakness, and that my feelings were my failings. If you’re working primarily with men – be they journalists, or photographers, or fixers – and they’re more established and acknowledged than you, it’s easy to try to follow suit and embody their behaviours. Their approach to storytelling must be the default way to go, I thought. Their attitude to chasing stories must be mimicked and mastered. I wish someone had told me earlier that they’re often wrong; that the way women are raised to empathise is a strength that we can use to our advantage – that relating to the people we interview can draw out stronger stories, and enable us to recount their histories with humanity and care. That’s not to say that many men aren’t capable of the same – but when women are outnumbered, the qualities we’ve practiced and perfected are easily overlooked.

As a freelance international journalist specialising in women’s issues around the world, I see a lot of trauma, and I hear a lot of tragedy. In Iraq, a nine-year-old recounted running home from school on the last day of term, excited to tell her parents she’d received the highest grade in her year. She was five metres out of the gates when she heard an explosion behind her. When she turned around, her classroom had disappeared; the playground red with the blood of her best friends. In Benin, a mother of 10 listed all the ways she’d tried and failed to kill herself: one method after another after another. ‘And I’ll try again later,’ she said, as I stood up to leave. In Sri Lanka, a woman told me how her husband would assault her and lock her outside, naked – so that she’d be too embarrassed to run away or ask for help. Bound to stay in the shadows by her own shame, she would curl up in a ball in the dirt and pray through the night for death to come. Sometimes, I’m a witness to their pain as well as an earpiece to their experiences. While working on a story in brothels in Bangladesh, I sat with a 15 year old girl and held her hand as she had an abortion – the blood seeping through her knickers and onto the floor as she cried for her mum.

It’s true that you can’t take all these stories on. I’m lucky – I don’t lie awake at night, reliving what I’ve seen and heard. Boundaries are important, and so far, I’ve been able to maintain mine – you’re not there to cry too. After all, the story is never about you.

But it is about <someone>. When people share their stories, they’re sharing a small part of themselves – often for the first time in their lives, and often – by dint of our industry – about the worst thing they’ve ever been through. We’re all working under time constraints, but while rushing a case study along or jumping straight for that pullquote might appear editorially efficient, it’s invariably damaging and generally unkind. Typing this up seems like I’m spelling out the obvious, but I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve been working alongside a male journalist who has interrupted an abuse survivor or trauma victim mid-flow – his irritation clear as he clarifies dates that don’t appear to add up, or brusquely questions the order of her narrative. One time, I even saw one yawn and roll his eyes. Our subject saw him too.

And empathy swings two ways. To ignore or repress emotions evoked by another’s experiences is to do them a disservice – be those emotions yours or theirs. As a female freelancer working thousands of miles away from the editors I’m filing to, I’m offered little or no psychological support for the environments I’m placed in and the stresses I’m working under. Tight deadlines and limited budgets mean I jump from one story to the next; barely finding time to unpack my bag, let alone my feelings. But I need to get better at that: because taking the time to process what I’ve seen and heard benefits my work, and benefits my mind, too.

Journalism is a male-dominated world, and as such it’s one that continues to teach both genders to feel shame should we embrace our emotions and allow ourselves to feel. One Iraq-based evening’s attempt at decompression was recently marred when a man remarked – with discernable derision – of another female writer who ‘looked like she was about to cry’ after four days on the frontline. When I once recounted a particularly grim day’s work in Bangladesh over WhatsApp, I received a lengthy message from a friend back home, questioning whether I was ‘too thin-skinned’ to sustain this career. And when one of my colleagues, a brilliant photojournalist with a decade’s experience – a woman who I count myself privileged to work with – broke down on our way home after a particularly long day of working with teenage trafficking victims, she felt the need to apologise, again and again. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I never normally let it get to me.’ But the photos she took that day are beautiful. They’re sensitive, and they’re full of feeling. When I watched her work, she did so carefully and kindly. And when we talked about that day’s events later – with wry laughter and warm whisky and wet eyes, we didn’t pretend it hadn’t been horrible to see.

I got that job, by the way. My editors were women empathetic enough to know that while tears might be a sign of inexperience, emotions are a strength, not a weakness. Whether recruiting from behind a desk, or reporting in the field, it would serve us all well to remember that.

Corinne Redfern is a multi-award winning freelance international journalist with a decade’s experience specialising in women’s rights and human interest stories from around the world. In the last year she’s filed from four continents, including the epicentre of the Zika outbreak in Brazil, the frontlines of the Mosul offensive in Iraq, and the decks of a particularly unstable boat in a waterlogged district of Benin. As the former Features Director for Marie Claire magazine, she’s also written for the Guardian, Telegraph, Sunday Times, Stylist, Grazia and ELLE among many others.

Currently working on a longterm project in brothels across Bangladesh, she’s given up trying to plan her life more than two months in advance – but also can’t seem to stop Google Image searching pictures of the Philippines. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and corinneelizabethredfern.com.

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How a Network of Females in the Journalism Community Helps Me Do My Job Better

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my time in the journalism community and if I have what it takes to hang on. It’s a tough time to be a journalist for all the obvious reasons — ad sales declining, cutbacks in newsrooms, and of course our president’s never-ending hatred of everything we do. But I realize it’s also an important time to be a journalist. Now, more than ever, finding the truth matters. I mean, it really matters. The work we produce, what we uncover, will impact the way this country moves forward. The problem, though, at least for me, is finding a way to wade through all the mud, all the gook that is the bad pay and unsustainable lifestyle, while still doing important work.

I’ve come to a conclusion: I can do this if I have people to lean on. Sure, I have family and friends that are always going to be there for me. But that’s not the kind of support I am talking about. I am talking about having support from other people in this industry who will go to bat for you. I’ve found that group of people — all of them young women like myself — and with their advice and guidance, I can produce my very best journalism. And it’s a mutual support, of course. We all promote each other’s work on social media. We talk about things like navigating delicate sourcing relationships and dealing with unbearable bosses. Most importantly, though, we can talk about things that no one else likes to talk about in the newsroom. We talk about things like unfair freelance contracts and how to negotiate them, misogyny in the workplace, and making sure our voices are heard in editor meetings.

I think one of the most important things for women in this industry to be talking about, especially women in my generation, is the fact that many of us are continuously overlooked for staff positions. I can’t tell you how many times outlets have passed by my application and hired a man either my age or slightly older who has less experience and less education. What this has taught me: Middle East conflict reporting is a man’s game. I think any woman out there working in this field will tell you that they have to work harder and longer than their male colleagues in order to prove themselves to their bosses. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Women have done this since the age of time in America. But it seems like we are in a time in history, especially in the journalism industry, where women, no matter how well we do are work, can’t get ahead. We continuously find ourselves running up against a brick wall and falling back sometimes to jobs we held when we were just out of school. (I’ve thought about applying to unpaid internships and I am 28).

To all my ladies in the industry out there, know this: There will always, always be men that are threatened by what you are doing. Sometimes that manifests itself in really destructive ways like them trolling you on social media. Other times they will call you out on live TV or treat you inappropriately on the ground in far flung places like Iraq or Afghanistan. It is always better to stand up for yourself and fight back, no matter what other people say. In the end, your reputation and your work is in your own hands. You have to claim your own future. Speaking up and back at those who treat you poorly or speak to you in either sexist or degrading ways is important. Even if those people are your superiors.

The other thing my comrades and I talk about is freelance contracts and negotiating with intimidating individuals. What we’ve come to vocalize on our many many conversations is that both women and men to stand up to their superiors and ask for what they deserve. This includes asking for proper protection and payment. I know not only freelancers but also staffers that have to continuously beg their publications for funds for simple things like drivers and fixers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember one time when I was working in Turkey, I had an editor tell me that I “didn’t deserve the perks that people at the New York Times get” because I hadn’t yet proved myself. I had asked this editor for funds to pay for things like fixers and translators while I was covering the battle against ISIS in Syria from Turkey. The email I received my editor was long and filled with reasons why I didn’t deserve protection. I’ve kept this email and periodically look back at it for inspiration.

I’ve gotten better at negotiating freelance contracts. But honestly, it gets exhausting. I’m tired. I’m tired of continuously having to ask editors to pay me the standard day rate. I’m tired of having to tell my editors that I won’t go into the line of fire unless they give me proper protection. Why do we always have to ask for things that should be considered standard? I’ve started saying “no” to publications that offer laughable payment terms. I’ve started telling editors that their demands are unrealistic. I’ve come to understand that keeping peace of mind by saying “no”, even if that means I don’t make as much money that month, is worth it.

Lastly, I talked with my female support “sisters” as I like to call them, about the need for more people in the journalism industry to talk about mental health, especially those that reporting in conflict zones. I’ve dealt with a lot of health issues in my times reporting in the Middle East, some of which I have written about on Narratively. I’ve also been diagnosed with PTSD and had to deal with that. I think these are issues that a lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking about. There needs to be more discussion about the issues, especially mental health struggles, that both men and women face working in this field. I overcame these issues by simply relying on my family and friends, and a really good psychologist!  

I don’t claim to have everything figured out in this at times crazed journalism industry. I still struggle day to day in thinking about whether all the bad gooky stuff I mentioned above is worth it. On bad days I’ll reach out on our group’s WhatsApp thread and vent. And other days I think back to the beginning of my career as a campus editor at The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was a full-time job. And it is where I learned how to be a reporter. It was fun. We put out a paper every day. We stayed some nights until 11 p.m., drinking skunked beer and copy editing with red colored pencils.  We did serious reporting, too. We broke stories the state papers didn’t even have on their radar. I need to remember that fun. I need to remember that despite all the BS that we have to deal with, our stories can end presidencies. That is a power, and privilege, that should be protected and nurtured.

Erin Banco is a Middle East reporter whose first book is Pipe Dreams: The Squandering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth, which will be published by Columbia Global Reports in November 2017. Banco has been covering armed conflict and human rights violations in the Middle East for six years. She covered the revolts in the region and the war in Syria. After graduating from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, she was a fellow at The New York Times and then the Middle East correspondent for International Business Times, breaking stories on the rise of the Islamic State group and on the Free Syrian Army arms program. Banco also traveled to Gaza to cover the war with Israel in the summer of 2014. More recently, Banco began covering the Islamic State group’s economy by tracking illicit oil sales in Turkey and Iraq. You can follow Banco for more of her work on her website and on Twitter at @ErinBanco.

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French Female Pioneer is My Role Model in Journalism

My role model is a woman that died 67 years ago.

First French war correspondent and investigative journalist Andree Viollis started her career during the first World War, she traveled to Afghanistan in the 20’s and extensively to Indochina to expose the dark side of the French colonization. She covered the war in Ireland, the Spanish civil war and World War II.  What an incredibly adventurous life. She was well-known and respected. Always the first to interview the powerful leaders of Europe. As famous then was Albert Londres, who is a myth for all young French journalists.

Two years before dying at 80 years old, Viollis was still travelling to South Africa to write stories about segregation there. She even planned to cover at 80, the war in Korea that had just began. She was a mother and a practicing journalist throughout her lifetime, even when quite old! This is everything we are told that is not quite possible when you are a woman. Sadly, very few people remember her and her name is almost completely forgotten.

And in good old paternalistic France, that’s very unfortunate. Young French female journalists need to know her. Working in dangerous zones or being a war journalist for a woman is, in fact,  an old story, “not something we should always prove we are entitled or competent enough for…”

I wish I heard about her earlier in my career, especially ten years ago. I was working for a French production house where the boss was openly discriminating women. “No females on the frontline,” he used to say. Younger and less experienced male staff would be sent to the best assignments from Ivory Coast to the West bank. I stayed and struggled for three years because it was still an exciting organization to work in and the team was wonderful. Also, because I was a young and stupid, I suppose.

Eventually, in 2007 I won a prestigious award known as the Albert Londres prize for a documentary about the murder of a French NGO employees in Sri Lanka. I then left the production company.

As a freelancer, I never again was openly exposed to this kind of discrimination. The downside to that is the insecurity that comes with being independent.

The lesson I’ve learned in my career so far is to find a new employer when you are told, “this is not a story for women.”

Anne Poiret is a filmmaker and investigative broadcast journalist based in Paris. In 2007 she won the prestigious Albert Londres Prize in France for her film shot in Sri Lanka “Muttur: a Crime Against Humanitarians”. Her work with Welcome to Refugeestan (2016) on refugee camps all over the world was selected in European documentary festivals. Her latest film, The Envoy: Inside Syria Peace Negotiations focuses on the work of Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Stay updated on Anne and her work on Twitter @Annepoiret.

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How Comics Empowered Me

I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid and it’s fair to say that they influenced my decision to become a journalist.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent have a lot to answer for. I might be in mid-thirties but I still have my trusty worn-out Superman sweatshirt I curl up into after spending intense days either working on investigations or sharing remarkable stories in ways that will make them interesting to a global audience. My job as a journalist at the BBC is a varied one and everywhere I go, I pop a pen and a notepad into my bag – because you just never know when a story is going to unfold in front of you. It’s a lesson I picked up at an early age thanks to roving reporter Lois Lane.

I wish I had her fashion sense but for now, I’m just pleased that she helped me find a career that I quite enjoy.

It’s not to say I didn’t have other female journalist heroes. Much like Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo from the TV series the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – I too was a little bit in awe of “determined TV news reporter” April O’Neil. She was always getting up to adventures and helping them out. Surely that’s what being a reporter was about? These were strong women and I admired them.

Elizabeth Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High book series, Lynda Day in the British children’s television series Press Gang; these were accessible role models whose love of journalism and telling stories and being powerful female figures were all influential as I hit my teenage years.

I moved on and started devouring newspapers and books. I loved Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing. I was lucky that I wasn’t a shy adolescent – at least when it came to being curious about the world. In everything else, I felt like I was on the fringes of whatever “normality” was. But if there was anything to do with storytelling in whatever medium then I’d put myself forward. Work as a children’s bookseller? Yes please. Help set up a youth magazine for my borough so people my age can tell our stories? Of course.

When I got older, my local paper asked me to write a column about what life was like for a girl from a working class background to study English Language and Literature at the hallowed halls of Oxford University. It was there I saw first-hand how if I was to succeed in a highly competitive environment, I needed chutzpah. I needed to take ownership of my writing and believe in my capabilities. I also soon realised I needed to learn the art of networking – something incredibly key for any journalist to be good at. It’s through our networks we find out opportunities, are able to help each other, and get our stories the exposure they deserve.

What drives me is telling a good story. I began my career in local newspapers where I would go to court, inquests, carry out death knocks, write features, columns and learn how to make people accountable to the community around them. It was the best training any journalist could have. I then worked for an independent production company specialising in human rights stories – Insight News Television – where the documentary makers instilled in me an importance of remaining passionate about the story and the difference one journalist can make to the lives of so many others just by giving them space and a platform to share their experiences.

And then I ended up at the BBC, where I’ve been for the past nine years. I’ve worked in a variety of departments, on youth programmes, investigations, the website, World Service radio, digital newsgathering, the business unit and partnership projects. I’ve won awards and worked with the best in the industry – people whom I am in awe of everyday. I am a digital storytelling specialist and I’m glad I’ve moved across departments and allowed my passion for finding ways to stories in creative ways to drive my ambitions. One day I’ll be a verificationista – debunking fake news and investigating emerging breaking news stories; the next I’ll be figuring out the best way to get people to share a story focusing on economics and making it relatable to their lives. Then again, perhaps I’ll be popping up on a Facebook Live or researching inspirational stories of innovation.

Of course it’s difficult to be a woman working in this industry; especially when you begin to realise the importance of having a degree of a work/life balance. Life and its associated challenges doesn’t stop. We’ve all got families and commitments. But journalism is a profession which is hard to fit into a normal eight hour slot. Stories emerge at any time; or you have to follow up at times convenient to the person you need to interview. It’s key to build a strong support network around you who can help you achieve your ambitions as well as make sure you don’t sacrifice everything for work. Here at the BBC, I tried to be involved with the organisation’s pioneering Global Women in News network at its founding stages. It’s an amazing support network. I’m surrounded by amazing women producers and journalists whom I learn from every day. Women who are juggling families, caring responsibilities, multiple projects at work but still produce some incredibly creative interviews and ideas because they love their jobs so much despite its demanding nature.

And of course it’s hard not to be affected by some stories that you work on. I started at the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub when the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011.  I have extensive experience working on disinformation, of working on stories of school shootings and murders; terror attacks and other traumatic reports; of seeing unspeakable acts. But that’s when the art of resilience plays a role. I took my experiences and made them into something to learn from.

I was selected for an Ochberg Fellowship focusing on trauma journalism at the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. My interest in that and wanting to be a better storyteller led to another fellowship, this time a Rotary International Peace Fellowship focusing on peace and conflict – something that underpins everything we do as journalists. I took a career break to do this professional development course because it was important for me to embark on this path and meet with non-journalists who worked in this field. If I understood why people worked in war zones; took up careers as peace activists; I felt I would be able to tell their stories better. I’d have more context. It’s important to defend press freedom but first I felt I needed to understand more about whose voices were the ones that people in positions of power want to suppress and why.

I’m back in London right now and currently am with the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit helping to demystify the world of business so that people understand how it affects their daily lives no matter where they are.  It’s a challenge, but then again, every role I’ve ever done has been.

In my career at the BBC I’ve been fortunate to work on big projects. One of which was called What Does Freedom Look Like? We asked the world to share their images of freedom. The season had a massive effect on me. Everything I do now I think about how as a journalist at the BBC, I am in a privileged position; able to give people a voice. When I worked on that project, I came up with the idea of creating a superhero especially for our season. We eventually commissioned a wordless comic which was shared across the World Service and our language services focusing on the idea of freedom. It was a success.

And me – I still read a lot of comic books and they still help me be a better journalist.

I have a dream – shh – that one day I’ll make it into a comic book. Maybe other kids, who don’t quite fit in will see my story and understand that it doesn’t matter what they look like, what they identify as, or what their background is; if they want to be storytellers too and they’ve got the determination to succeed, they can do it.

It won’t be easy but they can do it.

Dhruti Shah shares her story with the SPJ International Community as part of the women’s series for #PressFreedomMatters. She is an award-winning journalist, 2017 Rotary International Peace Fellow, 2015/2016 Ochberg Fellow and strategizes and produces the social media output for the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit. You can follow Shah on Twitter, Facebook, website and personal blog to keep up with her work.

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Daring to be Courageous in Work ‘That is Dangerous For Women’

Jodi_headshotFrom childhood I always believed I would be an artist, like many of my relatives. My paternal grandmother was a printmaker, my grandfather, an architect and an amateur bronze sculptor. My uncle was an accomplished painter and my mother a potter. But sometime near the end of my time as a college art-major, I veered off the art path.  I got interested in street photography and made a series of black and white prints from my travels along the U.S. –Mexican border.  My interest in the social and humanitarian dimension of the border and immigration led me to wonder how to best tell the stories I had experienced en route.

Long story short, I asked my mentor, a man who ran one of the best art-printing labs in the country, what he thought of my idea to become a photojournalist. Here was a prominent man, trusted by the best art photographers to handprint their portfolios, and friend to many of them as well.

My mentor told me that photojournalism was dangerous, and maybe not a good choice for a woman.

The last part stunned me. After all, I was raised to the “Free to Be You and Me” soundtrack, songs that championed the idea that girls could do anything boys could do (and vice verse). My mother is good with a drill and a belt sander and my father has no problem managing a load of dishes.

Riot police fired tear gas against protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 11, 2013, the 11th day of the Gezi Park anti-government protests engulfed many Turkish cities. Photo by Jodi Hilton

So, I dismissed my mentor’s advice, and took it as a dare: I would prove him wrong. I would be daring and courageous. During my first years as a photojournalist, I worked in newspapers. Interspersed with the more mundane assignments, I chased ambulances, photographed fires, floods and other disasters. In Ecuador I photographed street protests, in Honduras, ultra-violent Mara gangs. I eventually relocated to Turkey, where I covered many more protests, including the Gezi uprising that often featured violent conflict between protesters and police. I traveled across the border to Syria where internally displaced people were camped near the Turkish border and gunshots rang out in the distance. In Northern Iraq, I visited the Peshmerga frontline and through binoculars took a look at the black flag-bearing trucks that marked the ISIS frontline.

 

Fljurija Katunari, 18, with her two month-old daughter Elvira in a shack on the outskirts of Belgrade. Seventeen years after the war in Kosovo ended, many Kosovar-Roma families lack the documents, including a simple ID card, that would entitle them to social benefits, health care and the right to work. Photo by Jodi Hilton

My courage grew alongside my portfolio, and I thought that being in the middle of the action was actually a good choice for a woman, at least for a woman like me.

And then something happened. I’m not sure exactly when it started. But somehow over the last years I stopped longing to feel the thrill and adrenaline of an escalating situation. I had proved that I could be courageous in the face of danger. I needed a more compelling direction. It came to me shortly after I got rid of my gas mask; I rediscovered my initial keen interest in documenting human rights stories, and in particular, the plight of refugees, who are forced to leave their home as a matter of survival.

So now, my work is mostly focused on the everyday lives of people struggling to survive. I try to transmit empathy through my photographs, so that others may also see their humanity. Rather than capturing peak action, I’m trying to make nuanced images that initiate questions and encourage viewers to put themselves in the shoes of someone different than themselves.

Jodi Hilton photographing during a riot at the Hungarian border checkpoint in October of 2015. Photo by Maciej Moskwa

I’ve found that my art background is increasingly informing my work, too, as I look for any possible angle (using light, color, composition) to draw attention to the situations I’m documenting.

Now is the time to go back to my mentor, and tell him he was right, but that he was also wrong.

Because photojournalism isn’t only about covering battles, and the requisite courage needed to face down danger. It is just as much about empathy, expressing nuance. And art.

—–

Jodi’s is a photojournalist currently located in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her work has appeared on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Time, Vocativ, GlobalPost, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, PRI and National Public Radio. You can see more of her work on her website. You can also following her on Twitter or Facebook.

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