Talking About the Deaths We Don’t Talk About

In the two weeks since the deaths of photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, the photojournalism community has been working through the stages of grief – bargaining, depression, lots of anger—and searching for ways to make something positive out of tragedy.   Forced to admit their vulnerabilities, conflict photographers are facing some unpleasant truths about the inequities in their industry. As the publishing industry shrinks, media companies are retreating from obligations to help freelance journalists when they get into trouble. They are also avoiding responsibility for the fixers, translators and drivers whose dangerous work is essential to war zone coverage.

An article in PDN’s June issue explores what freelance photographers can and can’t expect from clients if they are injured. In reporting the article weeks before the tragedies of April 20, writer Jay Mallin could find no newspapers or magazines willing to state their policies regarding support for injured freelancers– or even if they have a policy at all.

Photographers often put their trust in the photo editors they work with to bail them out of dangerous situations; there are plenty of anecdotes of photo editors working the phones to make sure contributing photographers get proper medical care. But in corporate media entities, legal and accounting departments hold sway.  Tom Kennedy, who has worked as director of photography for National Geographic and editor for Washingtonpost.com, says, “Most organizations that I am familiar with that are working with freelancers regard them as independent contractors who are responsible for their own insurance, their own well-being.”  As magazines move from contracts and assignments to more tenuous “guarantees,” their obligation to photographers becomes more vague.

And what help can the fixers, translators and drivers whom news organizations employ in war zones expect? Every conflict photojournalist acknowledges that a veteran fixer with proven local knowledge, contacts and language skills is an invaluable asset. They also admit that these locals (whom the Committee to Protect Journalists call “media workers”) face far greater risk for retaliation or attack than the foreign journalists they work for.  Paid by the day or the job, they face the same hazards without insurance, workers compensation or contracts with their employers. When they are killed doing their jobs, their families receive no pension or insurance settlements.

In an article published last week on Gizmodo, photojournalist Teru Kuwayama, wrote, “Those people constitute a vast, grey, undocumented labor force that the international news industry is 100 percent dependent on. They face the highest risks, and almost invariably, they pay the highest price.”

Statistics and anecdotes bear this out. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that of the journalists killed in 2010, 89 percent were local, 11 percent were foreign.

In their first-person account of being taken captive by pro-Qaddafi forces in Libya, photographers Lynsey Addario, Tyler Hicks and two New York Times reporters reported that their driver, Mohammed, tried to plead with the soldiers, shouting, “Journalists!” The four Times journalists were about to be shot when a soldier spared their lives with the words, “You can’t. They’re Americans.”  As they were driven off in a truck, “Lynsey saw a body outstretched next to our car, one arm outstretched. We still don’t know whether that was Mohammed. We fear it was, though his body has yet to be found.” To date, The New York Times has described Mohammed as “missing.”

Kuwayama argues that the disparity in treatment, attention and concern paid to “internationals” and “locals” kidnapped, injured or killed on the job is “the Achilles heel of the war reporting business.”

It’s a topic the photojournalism community has been reluctant to discuss.  Kuwayama’s decision to talk of “bodies swept under the carpet” in the midst of the mourning for Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros has offended so many, Gizmodo’s editors introduced his essay with a disclaimer:  “The words are provocative. We ask that you read them with an open mind.”

We would encourage readers to do the same, and also to openly and candidly ask clients what support they and their colleagues – all of them, local and not—can hope for if they find themselves in danger.  There’s no bad time to try to make something positive out of tragedy.

Related story:
What To Expect if You’re Injured on Assignment

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