Interview: Nicole Tung on covering the battle for Aleppo
Earlier this month, TIME published A Syrian Tragedy: One Family’s Horror, a series of images shot by freelance photographer Nicole Tung. The images, shot in Aleppo as the Syrian city was under attack, portray civil casualties, highlighting how the war has torned apart families. For the past four months, Nicole has been documenting the uprising in Syria. Months before, she was in Libya, covering her first violent conflict at just 25.
Nicole started taking pictures when she was 15, living in Hong Kong, her hometown. “A good friend of mine, who also became a photographer, also served as one of my inspirations,” she says. “He showed me the first book in contemporary photojournalism that I clearly remember today, Winterreise by Luc Delahaye.” She studied journalism and history at New York University, and has since been published by The New York Times, TIME and Global Post among many other magazines and newspapers.
In an interview with Photojournalism Links, she tells us more about her work in Syria, how she gained access to the country and what she’s seen there.
Mikko Takkunen and Olivier Laurent: Why did you decide to go to Syria?
Nicole Tung: I decided to go to Syria because I felt that the coverage was lacking from the inside. But I was also personally curious and I wanted to fulfill something that the late Marie Colvin once said: “Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.” Marie was a friend and I felt that her death could not, should not, cow journalists from carrying out their missions. She would have been disappointed to know that her death was the reason so many decided to turn off from directly covering Syria. I admired her deeply, and felt the best way to honor her, and other colleagues killed in the past year was to continue working.
MT & OL: How did you manage to enter the country?
NT: I entered the country through Turkey, like many journalists do. Up until a few weeks ago, all the crossings in to Syria via Turkey had to be illegal. It involved some running across border areas with gear in hand, to avoid the Turkish military police.
MT & OL: How did you make your way to Aleppo?
NT: I first went to Aleppo city a week before the fighting began on July 20. I was in the Reef Aleppo (the country side), spending time in the towns there that were experiencing frequent helicopter and shelling attacks by the government forces. At that time, Aleppo was still in full control of the military, intelligence, and police units and getting in meant sneaking through back roads, avoiding the plentiful checkpoints, and high tailing it in to a safe house in the city. One could not really work as a photographer in Aleppo just four weeks ago– spies were everywhere and you were busy focusing on not sticking out, so having a camera in public, even out in the car, was absolutely out of the question.
MT & OL: Was sending your work back to your editors a struggle? How did you manage it?
NT: When I went back to Aleppo as the fighting started, sending work back to editors was and is, certainly a struggle. Many of the activists there were caught off guard, I think, by the actual fighting having finally reached Aleppo. I saw a steady decline in the quality of communications over a three-week period. Phone networks in the city started to fail, and the 3G Internet the activists often relied on began to shut down too, besides the fact that it was very difficult to buy credit. Only a few, highly skilled activists could set up satellite Internet quickly enough, or run DSL connections out of still-government controlled areas of the city. Added to that was the severe electricity cuts that about 70% of the city was experiencing. I managed to send images out because of the Syrians, who would often go to the ends of the Earth to help me. They worked tirelessly to get a car, to get fuel for the car, to make sure the roads were safe, then worked to get you to a physical location in order to connect to the Internet. And then they stayed with you, drank tea and coffee with you, for hours on end while your files were beamed halfway across the world. It is a cumbersome way, but often the only way, to work in Syria. I have never experienced such patience and generosity from people who are themselves going through the darkest hours of their life.
MT & OL: Where you working with other photographers/journalists while there?
NT: I was working with one other videographer whilst I was there. It’s difficult to work in Syria in big groups because of the logistics. Also, in a dangerous situation, having too many opinions from too many colleagues often causes more problems.
MT & OL: Did you have an assignment before you left for Syria or were you confident you were going to get published once you were in the country?
NT: The first time I went into Syria at the end of May this year, I did not have an assignment. I was there to establish contacts and get a better idea of what things looked like on the ground. I went back several times, selling images to various publications before getting an assignment in June to go back in with Die Zeit. When I was not on assignment — I want to say I was confident, but in those situations you just never know — I knew for a fact that there were very few journalists covering Syria from the inside because of the dangers it posed and for logistical reasons. I thought that having a view from the ground might be somewhat valuable in itself.
MT & OL: Your work for TIME in Aleppo has received particular attention. Can you tell us about your experience on the ground in Aleppo?
NT: I witnessed the situation in Aleppo both before and after the fight for the city began on July 20. It was incredible to see the changes because the neighborhoods which are experiencing the heaviest fighting now, and which have been hardest hit, were the most defiant in terms of staging almost nightly demonstrations against the government even in a very tightly controlled city. When I first went there, checkpoints had been set up on all the main arteries of Aleppo. I moved around with doctors and activists who took incredible risks to do their jobs and added more risk by having a foreign journalist in their car. I couldn’t have my camera out at all, because there were pro-government militias known as ‘shebiha’ all around, and informers for the regime, as well. The only time I could take my camera out briefly was when I was at the demonstrations, running the risk that the protest would be broken up at any given time if the security forces open fired on the crowd, which they did very often.
I saw the Aleppo Underground as it was. There were doctors clandestinely treating injured protestors at private and sometimes public hospitals, and falsifying their medical reports (taking care not to write ‘gun shot wound’ or any other violence related injuries) to avoid scrutiny by security. There were pharmacists shuttling medical supplies in and out of the city to other affected areas around the country. Women who left the comfort of their middle-upper class life to deliver clothes, food, and formula to families who sought refuge in Aleppo from places like Homs and Hamah. One woman even counseled girls who had been raped. There were teenagers, all high school students, who dared to protest and were arrested, often tortured before being released and they were back on the streets the very next day protesting again. And then there were the Aleppo University students who became the heart of the uprising in city, through their shows of multiple, daily demonstrations in front of their faculties. They paid a high price for it, often getting beaten, shot at, and arrested by the security forces on campus. No less than one dozen students were killed on university grounds over the months of protests, and in June 2012, three medical students were found bound, shot, and their bodies burned for attempting to treat an injured protestor. The revolution was very much alive, and it was conducted almost completely through peaceful means. But finally, the war came to Aleppo, and since then, overcrowded neighborhoods have become ghost towns, the chatter and noise of daily life and children has given way to the sound of incoming mortar rounds, tank shells, the drone of helicopters and furious sound of diving fighter jets. Shelling in the contested areas of the city has no pattern and it is indiscriminate, often hitting civilians in their own homes. The Free Syrian Army has continued to pour in to the city. They have the advantage of knowing the streets and urban warfare is their forte. But they still lack weapons to make any real gain on the government forces. Civilians in some neighborhoods have fled to other parts of the city, to parks, university dormitories, and mosques whilst others have gone to Aleppo’s countryside. Some families have been displaced twice over as they left Hamah and Homs, only to be leaving their refuge in Aleppo. That was my experience in Aleppo: the situation was fluid, and working around it was incredibly difficult.
MT & OL: You concentrated a lot more on civilians rather than FSA fighters. Was this something you had decided beforehand or did it just happen?
NT: I did not decide beforehand that I would cover specifically civilians, but it became very apparent to me, once I was there, that it was necessary. The war is fought by two sides with particular, sometimes varying, agendas. Photographing combat is dangerously addictive to some people. I have a one-day tolerance for it when I’m there before I find that most of those images end up looking the same and provide little scope for what else is happening. Certainly the FSA is up against a violently disproportionate use of weapons but the civilians are the quiet sufferers of what happens on the battlefield. Assad’s forces don’t hesitate to kill them if they peacefully demonstrate or harbor FSA fighters in their neighborhoods. Often, the FSA base themselves there to try and protect the civilian population or use it as a point from which to attack the Syrian Army. But it’s the civilians who pay the price because they lose their lives and lose their homes. Sometimes there’s no reason at all for killing civilians. The worst is seeing children getting injured, or dying. For what, though? When I witnessed an airstrike last week that killed five children from the same family, it occurred to me that it was something beyond comprehension, beyond reason. At that point, agendas don’t matter at all.
MT & OL: How widely have your images been published?
NT: Certainly the advantage of having published with TIME is that many people see those images, and I have the editors there to thank for their support when I was working in an extremely difficult situation. They have since gone on to CNN, Human Rights Watch, Paris Match, other European publications and will also be screened at Visa Pour l’Image in September.
MT & OL: How different was covering Syria compared to Libya?
NT: Syria is far more dangerous and complicated than anything I ever experienced in Libya. Libya was the first combat zone I’d ever been to and I was lucky to have so many veteran journalists around who looked out for me and guided us younger photographers. We also shared rides with them and listened to (or more correctly, noted) their advice, followed them as they worked, and learned from them. I was fortunate to have security consultants lend me body armor and give me crash courses in first aid. Syria has none of those luxuries. I’ve since picked up my own body armor, took a combat medical training course, and made a fair number of my own contacts inside. You are on your own from beginning to end, and you cannot rely on anyone but yourself. The government’s use of fire power is unlimited. At least there was a no-fly zone very quickly established in Libya, but in Syria, anything goes. The people of Libya and Syria are not so different, though. I have met some of the most generous, warm hearted people working in both countries and their hospitality often knows no bounds.
MT & OL: Now that you are out of the country, what are your plans? Are you going back? Or will it prove difficult to go back?
NT: I will continue to go back to Syria because, like Libya, I have become committed to the story and the path of where the country will go. It will prove difficult going back only because of people’s concerns about my safety, which I certainly understand.
MT & OL: How do you see the situation evolving in Syria in the coming weeks?
NT: In the coming weeks, the fight for Aleppo will still be going on. The rebels there are no match to the forces of Assad, especially when they continuously run low on ammunition. The country is already in chaos when you think about how many millions are displaced by fighting, how many thousands of lives have been lost, and the amount of destruction this war has wrought, physically, financially, and emotionally. Added to that is the lack of unity from both political and military groups from the opposition. While Damascus and Aleppo become the biggest news stories, other cities near Idlib and Hamah continue to get pounded by government forces. And let’s say Assad were to be finished off tomorrow, what will a new government look like? Will minority groups be proportionately represented? And what about the regional implications of this war? These are all questions the Syrians are still wrestling with. Most don’t have answers that would satisfy the international community.
For more information about Nicole Tung, visit her website at www.nicoletung.com.