As media and news organization staff numbers shrink, they increasingly rely on freelancers to produce content – often putting those freelancers in harm’s way. Thankfully, there are organizations committed to giving you the skills and training needed to stay safe and react appropriately when disaster strikes.
Laurence Cornet chats with Sebastian Junger, founder of RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) who explains why freelancer safety is important and how to be prepared.
Sebastian Junger, you have covered conflicts on and off for 18 years. What made you stop war reporting?
My last war experience was with a photographer named Tim Hetherington. We worked together in an outpost in Afghanistan where we shot Restrepo, which was nominated for an Oscar. Two weeks after the Oscars we were supposed to go on an assignment to cover the Arab Spring, but I found out at the last minute that I couldn’t go. Tim continued his work in Libya as a freelance photographer and was killed in Misrata on April 20th, 2011. He was hit in his groin by a mortar fragment; it was not a very big wound, but it hit his femoral artery and he died of blood loss. Had he been with the American military, the medics could have saved his life, but nobody around him knew what to do. I wouldn’t have known what to do either. I would have watched my friend die.
Very few journalists on the field have medical training…
Freelancers do most of the front line war reporting but they are often the least prepared, and the least supported by the industry. After I learned that Tim was killed I decided within an hour to stop war reporting. I started an organization called RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) where we train experienced freelance war reporters in combat medicine for free. We originally did it in New York, and we are now starting to do it in other areas of the world.
How many people have you trained so far, and do you have any feedback from them?
We have trained 200 people in three years. The response has been amazing. Journalists, especially freelancers, are not used to anyone doing anything for them. Our organization puts them in a hotel for four days and gives them medical training for free. A lot of them cannot believe it.
The deal is: if you get the training, you have to always carry your medical kit with you in a war zone. Not in the car, not in your hotel room, but on your body.
Anti-trust laws in this country make it illegal for freelancers to unionize or to collectively demand fair pay, and they prevent news agencies from agreeing to elevate pay. However, there is no law against someone making a statement about what they believe, and RISC just issued a statement.
Can you talk about this?
For me, a huge safety issue is fair payment. If you don’t pay people well, they are economically desperate, and they might take risks they would not otherwise take. If you pay them decently, they will be a lot calmer and wiser about the decisions they make in a war zone. When successful news organizations pay $25 for a combat photo, they are exploiting people. It’s not any different than paying a Mexican migrant $1 an hour to pick fruits in an orchard. It’s exploitation and it has a direct impact on the journalist’s safety.
Our statement lists what level of medical training and what equipment freelancers should have, and what they should get paid per word for an article, per photo, or per day.
A photographer just forwarded us an email that she sent to an editor declining a job in Syria and including the link to our statement. So it is starting to be used to demand fair payment from editors.
What about their liability?
I am not a lawyer so I don’t know what the liability of companies hiring freelancers is. Ethically, however, if you send reporters to a war zone you should support them. But this goes in both directions. Employers have the right to expect that freelancers being sent to a war zone have a bulletproof vest, a helmet, medical care, and have been medically trained. It’s a fair thing for employers to expect. And if they are hiring someone who has those things, the freelancer has to right to expect fair payment.
In the meantime many reporters take fishing trips to war because that’s a great opportunity for them to sell a story…
That’s true. That’s a great reason to go overseas. That’s one of the great things about journalism. You can just go overseas, start working, be recognized and work your way to an assignment. It’s amazing. You can’t do that as a lawyer, an accountant, or as a doctor. In journalism you can just go.
So would you advise freelancers to cover wars, warning them about the risks, of course?
Yes. I wasn’t conscious of the risks and of their consequences when I was 30. I wanted to be a journalist; I was totally self-focused, which you are supposed to be when you are young. If you are not self-focused, you are not going to go anywhere. That’s natural, but there is a point, at least in my life, there is a point where I made it; I didn’t need to go back to a war zone in order to become a journalist.
There is also a point of maturity where an experienced war reporter starts to understand that war is super exciting, compelling, frightening, very demanding, it’s all these amazing things, but it’s also incredibly sad. And it takes a long time to understand how sad it is.
Let’s go back to the notion of risk, for people around you.
Until Tim was killed I always thought of the risks that I took as a personal matter. I was gambling with my life and if I lost that gamble I was the one paying the price. Then, when Tim died I suddenly realized that actually, if you get killed you are the only one not suffering the consequences, ironically. Once you are dead, there are no consequences; but the emotional consequences continue for a lifetime in everyone you care about. Your family, your loved ones, your friends, everyone else you love is going to pay for that shit their whole life.
It suddenly made war reporting sort of selfish, and it only felt selfish because I was 50 years old. I think there is a point in your life where you have to start living for others primarily and not for yourself. Tim’s death triggered that realization in me. I am no longer married but my wife and I got the news about Tim by phone. I realized that if I continued war reporting, even if nothing ever happened to me, every day that I was gone she would jump every time the phone would ring. That would have meant inflicting harm to someone I love, there is no other way to put it. And I just couldn’t do it. There are other people, younger people, doing really important work and that’s why I am trying to support them. If you can create a sense of mutual responsibility between freelancers, everyone would be better.
What about you? Can you tell us a few words about your latest movie, The Last Patrol?
I took two soldiers from Restrepo and a photojournalist named Guillermo Cervera who was with Tim when he died, and we did a long walk along the railroad lines from DC to Philadelphia, to Pittsburg. What I wanted to do was not a matter of survival so much. I wanted to experience the closeness of combat at home, and you need hardship and difficulty for that.
I think it is really healthy. I cannot ethically advise people to put their life at risk, but you don’t have to be in danger in order to be out of your comfort zone. You have to do things that you dread in order to lead a really interesting and fulfilling life. If nothing scares you, you are not doing enough.
Sebastian Junger is a freelance journalist, documentarian and best-selling
author of “The Perfect Storm,” “War,” “A Death in Belmont” and “Fire.” He
has covered major international news stories since the early 1990s in
combat zones around the world including Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and
Afghanistan. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and his work has
also been published in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, National
Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Men’s Journal. Junger’s documentary
“Restrepo,” which he co-directed with close friend and colleague Tim
Hetherington, won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival
and was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2013, Junger directed “Which Way
is the Frontline From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.” In 2014
he released “Korengal,” a sequel to “Restrepo,” and “The Last Patrol.”
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.Read more →