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Looking further than the frontline

© Nicole Tung

May 2017

Istanbul-based photographer Nicole Tung has experienced her fair share of the frontline, documenting conflicts in Libya, Syria and Iraq. While she still believes frontline photography to be crucial, over time, she has widened her view to also show the lasting effects of war on civilians. CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim speaks with Nicole on her evolving approach to covering conflicts and being an independent photojournalist in today’s industry.

When the Arab Spring spread to Egypt in 2011, Nicole Tung had only been building her portfolio as a freelance photojournalist for less than year. She was following the uprisings closely and could no longer bear to watch the events unfold from afar. Inevitably, Nicole’s most defining quality took hold; she had to see for herself.

“I was sitting in France at the time and watching the events go on in Tunisia and starting in Egypt. And I was like, you know what? No one is going to send me. I’m this nobody; I just have to go. I bought a ticket to Cairo and I got there the day before [former President] Mubarak resigned. So I started getting into covering the Middle-East and from there I went to Libya,” she shares.

© Nicole Tung
© Nicole Tung

October 7, 2011. Libyan rebels run away from sniper fire during a series of heavy fighting against government forces in the final battle for Sirte, Libya, days before Muammar Gaddafi's capture and death. Taken on an EOS 5D with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/5, ISO 125.

Nicole went on to spend almost a full year covering the Libyan Civil War in 2011, up through the fall of the Gaddafi regime’s 42-year rule. It was her first time being in a conflict zone. She rode with her more experienced counterparts, watched them work and underwent a steep learning curve on the frontline.
But, as Nicole points out, the nature of covering conflicts, especially in the Middle Eastern region, has changed since drastically – demanding a new rule book for war photographers.

“When I got into Libya, I did things which I would never suggest anybody to do now in a conflict zone, because it has just gotten so much more dangerous in terms of journalists being targeted. I think Libya was sort of the last conflict where you could easily go up to the frontlines and cover what you like and do what you like – even though it was very dangerous. And it was trial by fire because I went in without any hostile environment training which is something I suggest to every freelancer now who is interested in covering any sort of protest or conflict.”

Having lost close friends and colleagues to conflicts, hostile environment training is a cause close to Nicole’s heart. As well as having served on the board of the Frontline Freelance Register, she has completed and wholeheartedly recommends medical training programmes with Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues and with Global Journalist Security.

Beyond battlefield first aid, Nicole goes on to identify several reasons why the landscape of being a war photographer has shifted. For starters, reporters are increasingly becoming targets for violent non-state actors and also becoming victim to a diminishing rule of law in conflict zones. Furthermore, as staff photographers continue to be pulled out of volatile regions, freelancers take it upon themselves to “fill that void” and continue reporting on events. Moreover, “the democratisation of technology” means that terrorist groups such as ISIS no longer require journalists to communicate a message.

The fallout of war

Still, it was not a concern for safety but a desire to present context that caused Nicole to reconsider her approach to conflict coverage. She reveals, “Where it switched for me was in the summer of 2012 when I was covering the start of the [Syrian] conflict in the city of Aleppo itself. I was seeing what was going on with civilians and the fact that the field hospitals had so few resources to deal with this massive emergency. The young doctors and nurses – who were former students – started becoming surgeons. [They were] learning on the fly while being in this eternally hopeless situation. It never stopped. So I turned my focus to civilians after I saw what was going on both to the civilians and to the doctors who were treating them.”

© Nicole Tung
© Nicole Tung

August 26, 2012. A young man grieves over the death of his father in the Dar Shifaa hospital in Sha'ar, Aleppo, Syria. After he was shot and killed in the crossfire. Civilians are the subject of random, sometimes deliberate, attacks by the Syrian Army in Aleppo, often killed and injured by sniper fire, shelling, or airstrikes. Taken on an EOS 5D Mark II with an EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/2.5, ISO 1000.

Nicole is also fervently aware that others do not necessarily share her political awareness. (She received a double major in History and Journalism from New York University and she still spends her spare time reading history books). So in 2012-2013, Nicole decided to photograph two series on Syria – ‘Syria: Battle for Aleppo’ and ‘Syria: War on Civilians’ – in the hope to avoid alienating audiences.

“Even I get confused by this group or that group. And I understand that for audiences half a world away it can be very cumbersome to try and even understand any of it on a very basic level. So I think the reason why I chose to focus on civilians was, first of all, they are the most vulnerable. Secondly, I didn’t want to throw around the labels that have been used in all sides in Syria. The most important factor to me was to focus on people who had nothing to do with this conflict and just wanted to get by; live their lives, protect their children, have some kind of income.”

Indeed, Nicole now insists on looking further than the frontline. When covering the Mosul offensive in November 2016, for example, she challenged herself to adopt a wider view. “I’m not going to deny that I get a rush from going to the frontlines. I do still. In Iraq, I was trying to get up to the frontlines – so there’s a selfish adrenaline draw to it – but at the same time, I had to show a story in context. You have to show a particular part of the story which is the frontline. I also had to be mature enough to say: what’s the real fallout? What are the real consequences of this conflict? So being able to pull yourself away from the most dramatic scene of a guy in the frontline shooting a gun; it’s just another guy shooting another gun. I think that’s really important to have that realisation of what do I need to show which is actually, in more respects, more important to this particular story: the civilians.”

© Nicole Tung
© Nicole Tung

November 17, 2015. A father comforts his crying son shortly after arriving on the shores of Lesbos, Greece. The roughly 1.5 hour boat ride between Turkey's western coastline and the closest Greek island has cost anywhere between 900-3000 US Dollars per person. With winter approaching, the weather also becomes more unpredictable, causing further confusion and fear for refugees fleeing conflict. Taken on an EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/9, ISO 320.

Affording to work independently

Nicole freelances for major international clients such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But, being an independent photographer, she is “hustling all the time” for funds. Although there are more grants and awards out there now than ever before, Nicole says it is disheartening when “98 percent of them get turned down.”

Recently, Nicole received a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IMWF) to pursue a long-term project on ‘Violence Against Women’ in Turkey (working title: 'In the Kingdom of Men'). Even though Nicole received financial backing to take on the project, getting published is another story. “I thought there would be a news hook before the [Turkish] referendum [on April 16, 2017] so I pitched to at least 12 publications and no one wanted the photo essay. I’m going to keep working on it and give it a bit of time from this referendum to then pitch it again to see if there’s interest.”

Are foundations like the IMWF which are “dedicated to strengthening the role of women journalists worldwide” necessary to ensure equal opportunity in the photography industry? The success of a new database and grants programme featuring female photographers called Women Photograph which launched February 2017 may be the answer. Nicole shares, “I’m part of this new group called Women Photograph and its founder Daniella Zalcman has compiled some very revealing statistics on the percentage of front pages of major publications shot by women. Out of six months, how many front pages were shot by women? Often the average is about 10 percent or less for the major publications. And also, when you look at the percentage of the people who apply for awards and who win awards often they’re men. And I think the reason why men are winning the awards or are getting the recognition is because they’re being sent on these assignments.”

© Nicole Tung
© Nicole Tung

November 5, 2012. A fighter with the Free Syrian Army walks through heavily damaged buildings in the Karm Jebel area of Aleppo, Syria. Four months after fighting began in Aleppo, the war here has drawn to a stalemate on most fronts although heavy shelling and close combat continues in areas such as this one. Taken on an EOS 5D with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/40sec at f/4, ISO 1600.

She continues: “A woman doesn’t get the same treatment. Being sent to a dangerous assignment especially is not appealing to many publications because they feel like a woman is more likely to come under physical or sexual assault, which they don’t want to have the responsibility of dealing with. Therefore the men continue to be sent to these places. I just really believe that it should be merit-based. If you’re a good photographer, you’re doing good and thoughtful work, you know how to operate in a country safely, then why not? It is incredibly frustrating.”

By now, it is common knowledge that women get special access to women’s issues. But Nicole voices what I hear echoed by many female photographers: “I hate being labelled an issues photographer.” Naturally, it should be the photographer’s choice what they would like to document. As Nicole has proven again and again, women can handle extreme conditions if they wish to. But whether the industry will afford them an equal chance is yet to be seen.

Biografie: Nicole Tung

Nicole Tung

Nicole Tung (b. 1986) is an American citizen born and raised in Hong Kong. She graduated from New York University in 2009 after studying journalism and history and freelances for many international publications and NGOs, primarily covering the Middle East, and also Africa and Asia. After covering the conflicts in Libya and Syria extensively, focusing on the plight of civilians, she spent 2014 documenting the lives of Native American war veterans in the US, as well as former child soldiers in the DR Congo, and the protests in Hong Kong. She has received multiple awards for her work and has her images included in various exhibitions, including a current show at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Nicole was awarded the 2016 IWMF Awards for Women’s Stories to cover violence against women in Turkey, and received an honourable mention in the 2017 IWMF Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. She is based in Istanbul.


October 25, 2011. A destroyed poster of Gaddafi lies in ruins on the floor of a school in Towergha, a town east of Misurata. Towergha has been cleared of all its residents accused by the Misuratans of fighting for Gaddafi forces during the siege of Misurata between March and June. Taken on an EOS 5D with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/80sec at f/5, ISO 125.