How we tell stories of conflict

Civilian casualties have increased since the turn of the century, but narratives of war are often dominated by dramatic front-line imagery. Yet the stories found in the shadows of battle and wake of war are just as essential to building peace.

From left: 1) Portrait of Major General George G. Meade of the Federal Army (center) and corps commanders in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., June 1865. Photo by William Morris Smith/Library of Congress 2) Camp of the 6th New York Artillery at Brandy Station, Virginia, showing Union soldiers in front of log company kitchen in April 1864. Photo part of Brady Handy Collection/Library of Congress

Technology has changed the way war is fought and documented in the past century. The American Civil War was one of the first well-photographed wars, primarily by Mathew Brady and a team of photographers he commissioned. Because of limited technology at the time, photographing war’s action wasn’t possible. Archives of the time show portraits of soldiers, endless landscapes of battlefields, and a few re-enactments. Visual documentation of battles and their aftermath was instead brought to the world through drawings made by eye witnesses and illustrators.

In 1862, photographic coverage of war changed forever. Photographer Andrew Gardner, on commission for Brady, arrived at the Antietam battlefield to find it littered with bodies. He photographed the scene and, not long after, Brady publicly exhibited the images in New York City. The New York Times responded to the photos by saying, “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Confederate soldiers dead by a fence on Hagerstown Road in Antietam, Maryland. Photo by Andrew Gardner/Library of Congress

Undoubtedly, gritty images such as these that document the direct and true consequence of war are imperative. Today photographic technology allows us to freeze bullets in the air, and airplanes transport us from peace to war overnight. Both war and the rhythm in which we document it have accelerated, but the impact of war is increasingly felt far beyond the front line. And when speaking with journalists, conflict experts, and civilians about the depiction of war, a common thread emerges: Everyone wants to see more than guns, tanks, soldiers, and bodies.

Peace and security analyst Christina Bache says images and stories about conflict are more likely to portray military force, violence, and combat. According to Bache, the images that do portray more peaceful scenes often show “negative peace,” or the absence of violence, such as the signing of a ceasefire, rather than daily life in the streets.

Syrian Nuri Al-Khalaf, who now lives in Turkey, says the media has even perpetuated violence, hate, and sectarianism in his country through coverage of combat. A former literature student, Al-Khalaf says he has a “specific relationship with words because each word is accompanied by thoughts, images, feelings, and memories.” He cringes when people call what he considers a “revolution” in Syria a “civil war.” He thinks about the thousands of people who died before the journalists arrived and their untold stories. He wonders why there weren’t more pictures of peaceful demonstrations and daily life during the first seven months of escalated conflict in Syria.

“Now there are no demonstrations because of the dangerous situation,” Al-Khalaf says. “However, once the military conflict ends, we will witness millions of demonstrators.”

Meanwhile, the media has largely painted Syria as a country reduced to rubble. Type “Syria” into Google and most of the images show destruction, injured children, and armed men. These images show only a sliver of Syria’s many realities.

Results of a recent Google Images search for “syria.”

Photographer Tasneem Alsultan has never covered conflict, but she grew up in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Though she was far from imminent danger, she remembers sleeping with a gas mask next to her bed. Her family took in many friends from Kuwait.

“We shared our homes, food, and classrooms,” Alsultan says. “We, the young children, thought the time of war was the most memorable and best part of our childhood.”

It’s these mundane moments that bring people together through tears and laughter, Alsultan says, and the media doesn’t show them often enough.

“It’s upsetting when we’ve become desensitized to tragic images of war and terror,” Alsultan says. “If one image of a hungry crying Palestinian child is repeatedly used in the same way, we become desensitized to the cause, and are no longer moved. Same with raped women in India, brothels from Bangladesh, hungry children in Africa, and working children in South America.”

According to information released by UNICEF:

Civilian fatalities in wartime climbed from 5 percent at the turn of the century, to 15 per cent during World War I, to 65 percent by the end of World War II, to more than 90 percent in the wars of the 1990s.

Civilians are more affected than ever, yet images from the front line still seem to get more attention in the industry. Cameraman Salam Rizk says the extreme and dramatic stories are always the most “sexy” to readers and editors. Photographer Nicole Tung agrees, saying that she easily published a story of fatigue-clad Yazidi women in Iraq, but when she repackaged the story to show more about the women and their community at large, it was impossible to pique editors’ interest.

From top, left to right: 1) Soldiers with the Yazidi ‘Sun Ladies’ run laps during morning exercises at their base near Sinjar in Iraqi Kurdistan. 2) A woman waits to have her baby baptized with holy water on the grounds of the temple in Lalish in Iraqi Kurdistan. 3) Lina, a soldier with the Yazidi ‘Sun Ladies’ battalion, sleeps just before dawn at their base near Sinjar in Iraqi Kurdistan. The ‘Sun Ladies,’ made up of several hundred Yazidi women, some who were formerly enslaved by ISIS, are attempting to fight back against the extremist group with the help of the Kurdish Peshmerga through training, funds, and arms. Photos by Nicole Tung, @nicoletung

“I have not been able to publish the story as its own package, only as part of a set of other images from Iraq, which includes dramatic pictures of burning oil wells, for example,” Tung says. “These stories are just as important as the very hard hitting emotional front-line photos, but it’s a lot more difficult to get them in front of an audience.”

Tung and Rizk strive to focus on civilian-driven narratives that show how conflict affects everyday life in the shadows of the front line and in the wake of war. Yet they admit that these stories weren’t always their priority.

Deciding to tell stories from a conflict zone as a freelance journalist is a personal and professional risk. Sometimes it results in a major career boost, recognition, and assignments. More often it leaves journalists deeper in debt. The pressure, competition, and demand of the industry drive journalists to document the most visual and dramatic scenes, with the hopes of being able to sell the material. This idea has brought Rizk close to death a handful of times in Syria.

Two years ago he was filming a chaotic scene in Aleppo: A man had lost his son, and he was angry and crying. When the man saw Rizk filming, he came at him with a Kalashnikov rifle. Rizk dropped to his knees. The man cocked the gun.

“I thought I was finished,” Rizk said.

Minutes later, he was rescued by a rebel group, and the gun was never fired.

Rizk first picked up a camera in 2012, after working as a fixer for international journalists, leaving behind his job at a dental laboratory in Baghdad.

He devoured books, articles, and the Koran as a way to better understand the history and ideology of what was unfolding in front of his eyes. Andrea Bernardi of Agence France-Presse and Khalid Alayash, a BBC cameraman based in Baghdad, mentored him.

“I would take big risks,” Rizk said. “I was trying to prove myself. It took me ages to jump from fixer to cameraman.”

A girl under a darkened sky in Qayyarah, Iraq, herds a flock of sheep, their fleece blackened by the smoke from oil fires that had been burning for months. Oil wells were set on fire by retreating ISIS fighters in the summer of 2017, before the start of the Mosul offensive. The oil from the town provided a huge source of income for ISIS to help finance its activities. Many civilians remained during the Iraqi Army’s mission to retake Qayyarah and continue their daily lives despite months of smoke clouds hanging over the town. Photo by Nicole Tung, @nicoletung

Like Rizk, Tung says she never set out to be a war photographer. As a toddler, she was afraid of waves lapping up on the beach and of feeding the ducks in a pond near her home. She remembers watching the news of the World Trade Center and the wars that followed on television. From a distance, she became interested in the history of the Middle East.

In 2011 an uprising of young adults about Tung’s age started making headline news in northern Africa. She was working in nearby France as a freelance photographer and her curiosity and proximity led her to Egypt to cover the early days of what would become known as the Arab Spring. She arrived the day before Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the presidency and ended up staying on to cover the Libyan Revolution. What she thought would be coverage of protests had quickly escalated into conflict.

“I had this idea I had to be at the front line,” Tung says. “I thought if I wasn’t there I was missing something.”

But in Libya Tung’s ideas about covering conflict started to shift. One day on the front line, she turned and noticed a pickup truck a few meters away. In the back of the truck were bodies of rebel fighters who had been killed. Fellow rebel fighters gathered around the truck, trying to identify the bodies.

“The expressions on their faces was really interesting to me because it was the first time they had experienced death so closely, too,” Tung says. “There was some shock, there was some incomprehension on some of their faces. [They were] men trying to grapple with this situation for the first time in their lives. To me, that was the more interesting photo.”

Rebel fighters in Libya attempt to identify their dead comrades near the front line between Ajdabiya and Marsa Brega in March 2011. Many Libyan men like these picked up weapons and heavy machinery to fight against Ghaddafi loyalists outside of Ajdabiya — they had been regular civilians just days before. Photo by Nicole Tung, @nicoletung

Rizk’s mentality also changed after meeting Nizar, a 5-year-old Syrian boy wearing a Spiderman suit. He met Nizar in Turkey where he was filming Syrian refugees and the items they brought with them from home — a coffee pot, fashion sketches, and even the superhero costume. While the story was quiet and filmed mostly in living rooms, it touched Rizk more than others. He believes it’s the best war story he has ever told.

“It’s a simple story and a very simple idea,” he says. “It’s nothing new, but it really challenges people to think about what it means to be a refugee.”

The 12-minute documentary video was published by BBC Two.

“Now I believe the story is behind the front line,” Rizk says. “It’s the people living on the front line who are more important than the soldiers fighting. They are ones who pay the cost without any reason or choice.”

So Rizk continued telling their stories. He filmed a girl named Miriam comforting her little brother at a field hospital in Mosul, the boy’s leg injured by fragments from a mortar. As he lies on a gurney, she strokes his face and kisses him. It’s a moment that transcends geography and culture.

Rizk also helped to report a story about orphaned children of ISIS fighters for The Guardian. “To many in their own society, they are the devil’s spawn,” the article reads. “Stateless outcasts, unworthy of basic care. Aid agencies and state welfare systems do not want to acknowledge them.”

The story calls on the local and international community to provide psychological and psychiatric rehabilitation programs for children orphaned by war, who likely number in the thousands.

In January 2017 Salam Rizk documented a field hospital in Mosul, Iraq, where twice as many civilians than soldiers were being treated.

Bache, the peace and security analyst, believes lasting peace is built by these quieter characters: the doctors in the Mosul field hospital, women, children, and small community groups contributing to economic development. She asks herself, can too much depiction of the front line reinforce a militaristic approach as the only road to peace?

Tung says that it’s important to remind people that conflict is happening, especially as we become more insulated and polarized in our own “echo chambers.” Conflict affects us all, no matter how far away it seems, and she believes that her job as a journalist is to look at all the layers of the story.

“It’s important to provide more nuance and context to how conflicts start in the first place, but also look at the commonalities between not just the warring parties, but those caught in between, to potentially seek answers on how peace can be attained,” Tung says.

This month War Stories Peace Stories and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting will fund three projects “focused on an underreported nonviolent response or peace effort in an international conflict area.” Hopefully others in the industry take note and continue to fund and support this type of work.

Images of dead bodies and soldiers firing guns may have lost some of their intended impact, but by visually covering war in more critical and less obvious ways, photographers can replicate the human response evoked by images like those taken by Gardner in 1862. When they do this, their images can take on far greater meaning, becoming tools for inspiring action and, ultimately, creating peace.

“If you refuse or ignore situations such as these,” Tung says. “We become the worse for it.”

A vegetable seller tends to his stall under a darkened sky in Qayyarah, Iraq, as oil wells burn nearby. Many streets and neighborhoods in Qayyarah look apocalyptic, with oil residue covering all surfaces, turning small streets into muddy oil slicks, but civilians go about their daily lives as best they can. Photo by Nicole Tung, @nicoletung

Elie Gardner is a photojournalist, filmmaker, and member of The Everyday Projects Community Team. She regularly collaborates with editorial clients and humanitarian organizations to tell character-driven stories that dissect how war, climate change, and poverty affect lives across the globe. Follow Elie on Instagram.

Next in our series “Truth-Telling”: Shaminder Dulai highlights blind spots in coverage due to lack of newsroom diversity. And don’t miss our previous article, “The ethics of seeing” by Neeta Satam.


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