Examining how far people will go to get the photo and story that could make their career
By Chihiro Miya
Many Canadian journalists are working in high-risk travel areas that are in conflict zones. They put their lives in danger covering places like the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia.
According to the annual “kill report” from The Associated Press, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), at least 81 reporters were killed doing their jobs in 2017 while the violence and harassment against media staff has skyrocketed. Its report also says the reporters lost their lives in targeted killings, car bomb attacks and crossfire incidents around the world. More than 250 journalists were in prison at the same year.
Journalists, however, have been on the frontlines of wars, conflicts or disaster in those high-risk countries. They have been working in this world even if the attackers target them, or there are risks of losing their lives. Reporting, observing, photographing, and filming allow for journalists to tell their stories in battlefields and chaos even though they risk being victims in violence.
Zachary Prong, a Toronto-based photographer, who has been photographing people in war-torn countries of the Middle East.
Prong has gained recognition for a photo of a young boy who fled violence in the Middle East after his father was killed during the fighting between the Taliban and government forces. This photo won the National Picture of the Year (NPOY) Award in 2016.
“I felt uncomfortable receiving recognition and congratulations,” Prong says. “Because I took a picture of him in this really unfortunate situation.”
The young boy who Prong photographed fled the violence in southern Afghanistan and lived in a refugee camp in Kabul.
“It really made me step back and reconsider what I’m trying to do with my photography and journalism and also just the idea of a war,” he says. “It’s almost like a misery industry or something.”
Prong was interested in the Middle East because his aunt married a Palestinian. Through his uncle and a lot of books, Prong learned of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he was a high school student.
“It was just a part of the world I was interested in, but for Afghanistan specifically, I remember 9/11 was a pretty big event in most people’s lives who were old enough at the time to remember,” Prong says.
Prong felt the coverage of the country had dropped quite drastically after Canadian troops had pulled out of Afghanistan. However, he still had some interest in those specific areas.
“I had some sense that we had a responsibility not to look away after so many years spent in the country and altering the course of the conflict there in some ways. It was just something that I wanted to do, was to look into that conflict,” he says.
Prong also had awful experience in the country.
When he was a student of the University of Toronto he travelled to Egypt in 2013. When he returned as a photographer in 2015 there was a massacre in Cairo, battles in the city and a car was bombed up the road from the apartment where he was staying.
“Some young men in Cairo thought I was an American spy,” Prong says. “My Arabic wasn’t fluent, so there’s only [a little] bit I understood, but they more or less attacked me and held me. They didn’t take my money or camera, but they were searching me and they had threatened to kill me because they thought I was an American spy.”
All ended well when some women and another young man in Cairo spoke up on his behalf and they let him go.
Despite of those experiences, Prong plans to go back the Middle East, especially Afghanistan. He has a wife and two children in Canada. However, he wants to tell the stories and do in-depth reporting even if that means his family is at risk of losing a husband and father.
“Everyone already knows that there is a war in Afghanistan and that children suffered the results of this war. That’s not enough on its own,” Prong says. “I think that journalists and photojournalists need to dig deeper than that and they need to provide the proper context for the people in those photos so that it’s not just a picture of someone suffering.”
Ali Ledgerwood, a sales and marketing coordinator for NPOY, says “It’s important for photographers to understand that their stories are being told and they’re being told properly.”
According to Ledgerwood, the NPOY is an annual ceremony that promotes the ethics of photojournalism and the best of Canadian photojournalism. They have a number of judges that review the images every year.
She also explains this is the largest photo contest in Canada and it showcases the best work of its members. It’s a peer review of their work, but it also helps them stay current with trends and techniques in photojournalism. NPOY also exhibits all the nominees and winners in Vancouver, Toronto and Quebec, expanding across Canada.
“I think it’s important to photojournalists because it actually has their work out there,” Ledgerwood says. “Their images are getting international acclaim, just like with a national newspaper would. It’s highly recognized amongst their peers internationally and because it’s the largest photo journal contest in Canada, for the journalist. It actually brings up a lot of credibility. It gives them an opportunity to get their peer work done, with the students here.”
She also says when people see the images and when they get published out that it will entice more people to get involved with the awards. It helps the general public to have a better understanding about what Canadian photojournalism can mean. However, what sold the paper was people would see the image and it would be gone the next day because the paper would be thrown out. The same thing happens for people online.
“They see the image but they don’t necessarily acknowledge it as part of what’s actually happening in everyday life,” Ledgerwood says. “Once they see it, it’s gone and they’ve gone on to the next one. What we’re trying to do with the awards, especially when we put it in a gallery format and people see and digest the images and they story. How the photographer got the picture, what they had to do to get that shot and what’s the story that they’re really trying to tell.
“For me, it’s important for the photojournalist to have their work out there so they can see what their peers are doing and the other story telling opportunities, and to the general public to see what’s happening,” she says.
It’s not only the frontline of wars or conflict that puts journalists in high-risk situations, but also there are high-risks of secondary disasters like nuclear warfare or natural disasters.
David Common, a CBC Journalist and co-host of CBC Marketplace, visited Japan to report on the deadly situation after the huge earthquake in 2011. Common was a foreign correspondent at the time. It was an expectation of his job when big news happens somewhere that he would be there. It wasn’t the first time for him to experience a natural disaster and to see large-scale death.
“It’s always a difficult thing, and particularly to see survivors, to talk to people who have lived through it and to understand all of that,” Common says.
He also says there were other concerns at that time. The first was the earthquakes continued, and the second danger was of nuclear radiation.
“I didn’t want to be anywhere near Fukushima because we didn’t have a good sense of how bad it was,” Common says. “We also didn’t think the Japanese government was being entirely upfront about what the real numbers were, and there was a lot of misinformation. So, we had concerns about the amount of radiation that we were being exposed to and our teams in the country were being exposed to.”
According to Common, the Japanese government gave them information and made it seem like it was safer. In fact, it was clear that people with the Fukushima Electrical Authority appeared safer than information. Common says this was a full, uncontrolled meltdown, and it was catastrophic in nature. This was not a place that humans could be anywhere near.
“I don’t think, particularly in those early days, there was a full reckoning, a full sense of what that meant,” Common says. “When we came back, because we just didn’t know, we all went for radiation testing, radiation poisoning testing to make sure that we haven’t been overexposed, and we hadn’t. We were fine. We’d been exposed, the tests showed that, but not to a degree that it would be a major danger.”
Visiting disaster zones isn’t part of Common’s job anymore, but he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of doing it again in the future.
“I would (because) it’s less my job now,” he says. “I spent about 15 years doing conflict, and now I don’t do that as much. In fact, it’s been a number of years since I’ve been in an active war zone, and it’s partly because my job has changed and other people are doing that, and there are fewer wars. There are not as many wars that we are covering. But I wouldn’t be opposed to going.”
Common says it’s his job, but it’s also important to have neutral observers record of what is happening when it’s happening. He says the history of the world is written by those who triumphed, succeeded or won the wars.
“It’s also very important for outsiders, in our case Canadians, to have a good understanding of what’s happening, going on around the world, and it can often be easiest to hear other Canadians explaining that to you,” Common says.
“When we go to a conflict environment, we want to hear from local people about their experiences, we want them to tell us what it is (and) how they see things playing out. And then we use our own journalism as we would with any story, and try to explain the context of it and why someone would say certain things that they say.”
Often times, the frontline of conflicts are where the most important stories take place, and where there’s a lot of drama and human interest, says Duncan Pike, a co-director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJPE). Pike also says the frontline is where important conflicts get decided and decisive action takes place.
“That’s exactly in the thick of things where journalists need to be to get the most updated, up-to-date and current information and important information, and to be able to pass that along and to include that in their coverage,” he says.
Pike says CJFE advocates for better safety standards for freelancers and better support for media outlets for their journalists when they’re in areas where they’re under threat.
“A lot of the journalists that we’ve helped have had very dangerous, very difficult experiences in these areas. Sometimes those have been harmed, had to spend some time in hospital and sometimes have been killed,” Pike says. “Every year, we recognize at our annual gala the number of journalists who’ve been killed every year while doing their work. A lot of the time it takes place because journalists are covering stories in war zones and in areas of high conflict.”