British photojournalist Paul Conroy, pictured on his way to a hospital in the U.K. in 2012, after surviving a bombing in Homs, Syria. The attack and Conroy's escape from Syria are featured in the documentary, Under the Wire. (The Sunday Times/Ray Wells)
British photojournalist Paul Conroy, pictured on his way to a hospital in the U.K. in 2012, after surviving a bombing in Homs, Syria. The attack and Conroy's escape from Syria are featured in the documentary, Under the Wire. (The Sunday Times/Ray Wells)

‘We face a different danger,’ war photographer Paul Conroy says

In a Q&A with CPJ, British war photographer Paul Conroy discusses his last assignment with Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin in Syria, in 2012, and the dangers for photojournalists, especially when covering conflict.

“Bearing witness. That’s what everything boiled down to.” Photojournalist Paul Conroy is speaking about his reporting partner, Marie Colvin, in the documentary “Under The Wire,” released on the U.S. network Starz last month.

Based on Conroy’s book of the same name, the documentary details the pair’s reporting trip to Syria in 2012, during which Colvin and the photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed, and Conroy and Le Figaro reporter Edith Bouvier were severely injured after forces for President Bashar al-Assad bombed their improvised media center in Homs. On January 30, a U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C. found the Syrian government culpable in Colvin’s murder.

CPJ ranks Syria as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. And for photojournalists globally, the risks are heightened. Over the past decade, 103 photographers have been killed in relation to their work, CPJ has found. The killing of freelance photojournalist Ben Khalifa outside Tripoli, Libya, in January, and clashes that injured Italian photojournalist Gabriele Micalizzi in Syria in February emphasize the dangers, especially in conflict zones. CPJ last month launched the #SafetyInFocus initiative to improve safety for photojournalists.

Despite the dangers, Conroy told the British journalism publication Press Gazette earlier this year that he and Colvin didn’t take “completely foolish risks” when they reported from Homs.

Conroy, who has worked as a photojournalist for about two decades, says in “Under the Wire” that when they returned to the Baba Amr district of Homs after a brief break, a part of him was saying “This doesn’t feel right.” He added, “Whenever I’ve got this feeling, I’ve heeded it, because it’s one of the only lines of defense I have.” When he spoke with CPJ this month, ahead of his next assignment, he said that journalists should always trust their instincts, but that more training and preparation were also important in ensuring safety.

[This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

What are the biggest issues for photographers and their safety?

People are getting away with killing the messenger. Over the last 15 or 20 years, you don’t walk around so much with “Press” written on you. The difference for photographers and reporters, editors used to say, is a few yards: photographers always have to be popping their head around the corner. It’s a different danger, but that danger’s always been there.

The danger isn’t coming from just one angle, either. People are also taken hostage and ransoms are paid. Look at [the militant group] ISIS; it’s an ideological thing to do.

What safety training did you receive? If you were starting over, would you like or need different training?

I received a bursary from the Rory Peck Trust for HEFAT [Hostile Environment First Aid Training], despite my military background. Frontline Freelance Register has a really good set-up, too. When you undergo HEFAT, you don’t have a long time to spend doing it, but it’s still important, even if it’s only a week, and especially for people who are coming straight to it. It’s important to have awareness of the weaponry that’s used against you. It’s not just war or conflict journalists should be trained on. You need to know how to handle yourself in crowds; when things go wrong, they go wrong quickly.

The idea of “mission creep,” or becoming desensitized to danger or violence–that comes with experience. It all depends on who you’re with. It looks extremely hard when you watch it in the film or read [Under The Wire], but it’s a series of small steps. Each step was carefully weighed up. It’s experience, but people can get sucked up in it.

How has the landscape for photographer’s safety changed over the past few years, especially after the high-profile deaths of Western journalists such as Marie Colvin, James Foley, and Steven Sotloff?

After Marie’s death, there was a big clampdown on allowing people to roam [in Syria]. After, they did rein things in there. I think The Sunday Times [the national British newspaper that Colvin and Conroy worked for] certainly took the stance, at least morally, to not encourage freelancers to go.

However, once you’re going somewhere, once the decision is made then or now, there’s not a lot on the ground that changes with protocols and safety. Not that much that can be changed, so it’s all in your hands then.

Do you think photographers are well-equipped against digital threats, and how can photographers improve safety in this area?

The actual danger that is so obvious is people announcing they’re going to these places. I’ve seen people on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter announcing they’re going to dangerous places. We face a different danger as photographers. You can end up beaming out your location, so I’d set my BGAN [Broadband Global Area Network, a device that allows users to access the internet from anywhere in the world] and get about 200-300 yards away. It’s a whole new world and the people you’re working with, you’re putting them in danger [if you don’t take precautions].

In Under The Wire, fixers and media support staff were integral to your and Colvin’s ability to work inside Syria. What support do they have?

We were duty-bound to do everything for Wa’el [Conroy and Colvin’s fixer, who is referred to only by his first name]. We got him into Beirut and he’s set up in Europe now. That was an absolute priority. Wa’el wouldn’t take money for us when we were reporting in Syria; he did it out of a sense of duty. Fixers like Wa’el should be given the same protection as journalists. Some people tend to wash their hands of them when they’re done working. Without them, as you know, we couldn’t do our work.

[CPJ recently documented the death in Syrian custody of Ali Othman, a freelancer who also worked with Colvin and Conroy in Syria, and who ran a makeshift media center in the Baba Amr district of Homs that numerous international journalists used.]

What needs to be done to ensure better safety for photographers?

Right now, most HEFAT courses are one-week long. There needs to be longer hostile environment courses that are set-up almost like a basic training like the army. There should be more awareness and longer, more rigorous courses. Everybody is starting from scratch, and no one comes out of their studies and is prepared. One-week is laughable. Training should be more adapted to the environments you’re going to face, and there should also be more thorough battlefield trauma training and medical training. I’ve seen so many levels of injury while on assignment.

Finally, can you take us through the steps you take to protect your safety when on assignment?

It starts before you arrive in-country. Before we went out to Beirut, and even before we went in, we established one really good point of contact on the ground. There’s no point showing up in these places with nothing. We talked to people who knew people there, and found a trusted person. Every connection that was made was pre-verified. That got us in with good people all the way in. Don’t just show up and hope you’re going to find someone.

You should also trust your instincts. You might not speak the language, but you know your instincts. Me and Marie used to do that in Libya a lot. It wasn’t something we’d seen or heard or knew. It was an instinct.

Once you’re in the conflict zone, everyone always thinks that everyone’s always desperate to go to the front line. Don’t spend any longer than you have to on the front.