Taking Heavy Fire at the Conflict Photography Workshop
How photojournalists learn to shoot through physical and mental exhaustion
I wake to multiple explosions outside my makeshift tent.
I’m already wearing my body armor and helmet. It’s about 3:30am and this is the fourth mortar attack of the night. I’m freezing cold, my gloves soaked in rain and mud, I’m shivering and haven’t really slept. Out of my bivvy (a waterproof sleeping sack) I scramble up a muddy hill into the remnants of an abandoned Spanish farmhouse — hard cover. Camera in hand.
Luckily the mortars aren’t real, just large firecrackers thrown by our instructors: Photojournalists with decades of combat experience and an expert military trainer. It is the last day of our 3-day field simulation at the Conflict Photography Workshops, an intense week of training and instruction culminating in this battlefield scenario.
We’re documenting the fighting of a small group of rebels against well armed government forces, played out with airsoft rifles, fake blood, and pyrotechnics.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 1082 journalists have been killed since 1992. The CPW course aims to help photojournalists improve their chances of survival in hostile environments by teaching medical skills while also incorporating a visual storytelling element to the course—a unique feature not offered by other, more costly, hostile environment classes.
Our lead photojournalist instructors, Jason P. Howe, Louie Palu, and Andrew Stanbridge spent extensive time in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Syria, Myanmar, and other conflict areas, witnessing first hand the toll and suffering that conflict brings. Combined with the skills of an active duty military trainer, they brought their expertise to the hills of Spain as our small group of student journalists absorbed some of their knowledge while facing the hard physical reality of the scenario.
Likewise, we were expected to develop relationships with the airsoft rifle-wielding “rebels” that acted out the battlefield scenario with gusto, pushing us away when we were too close, allowing better access after we asked the right questions and built up a rapport.
The course spent extensive time on the threats of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), Indirect Fire (IDF) and small arms attacks. All of which our instructors survived in real life. As journalists, we have no weapons to return fire—our role is to document what is happening.
A key point of the course: If you are unable to make pictures then there is no purpose in being in the conflict. You have traveled all this way, survived these threats and now the time has come to document the story.
Leading up to the workshop, I pushed myself physically to train and prepare, but I soon learned how immensely challenging it is to move with over 50 lbs of body armor and equipment loading you down.
A small piece of advice I received from a Marine beforehand? Hydrate and change your socks. This is truly key—we started to run low on water and an extra pair of socks saved my hands that night in the windy rain.
My knees and shins are covered with cuts, I’m surprised I didn’t break an ankle while running down loose soil and dirt. Already strained, then combined with a CASEVAC—carrying another wounded person to safety—lead to one of the most physically demanding weeks I had ever experienced.
Although the physical demands were considerable, the mental toll of conflict was discussed prevalently as one of the instructors has been waging a personal battle with PTSD following his experiences with decades of war.
Our instructors and casualties took steps to make the training more than just practical knowledge. They created a stressful mental dynamic. Hostile and unstable casualties, nights with little to no sleep, the uncertainty of not knowing if we will have more water or rations.
I do not know when or if I will be in a real conflict zone. Budgets for such assignments are consistently being slashed, the risks are greater than ever for journalists in hostile areas, and the general appetite of the public seems to veer more towards entertainment like celebrity news.
That said, the medical skills I learned are invaluable. Most likely they will be put to use here in the USA after a car accident. But now I may have a better chance of helping myself or another if a situation goes awry at home or abroad.