Three Female Conflict Zone Photographers Discuss the Challenges of Front Line Work

It’s tough to imagine a job that’s more harrowing, or more important, than being a photographer covering conflicts, violence, and natural disasters on the ground. Doing it as woman brings a whole other layer of challenges to the job — but not quite in the ways one might think. Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, a Romanian-Iraqi American citizen whose home base is Brooklyn, came to her profession after an itinerant life that has included living in a refugee camp, earning two bachelor’s degrees (in economics and neuroscience), and contracting as a crisis-zone aid worker. Annabell Van den Berghe, a Belgian national, was intrigued enough by her grandfather’s experiences fleeing Hungary in 1956 that she immersed herself in Middle Eastern studies, photographed the turmoil of Egypt and other Arab Spring movements, and was taking a break in her hometown of Brussels in 2016 when that city’s terror attacks hit. And Alison Baskerville, from the U.K., started out in the Royal Air Force and first picked up a camera on a tour in Iraq as a way of dealing with life in a strange new land. Here are their stories. 

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Worked in Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Romania

Clients: The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, and Wall Street Journal

I’ve had a windy path to photography. I was in Congo working for Oxfam, a humanitarian aid organization, when the war broke out in the fall of 2012. It made international headlines because the M23 rebels, who were the main rebel group plaguing eastern Congo at the time, took Goma, the key town in the east of the country. So all this media came pouring in, because the Congo is one of those places where the conflict has gone on for so long that no one pays attention to it unless something big happens. All the humanitarians, including myself, were evacuated to Rwanda as they were pouring in. So during that time I met a lot of these photographers and I started asking them how someone does this kind of career. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to do humanitarian aid work anymore.

A woman suffering from malaria is carried to a ward at a rural clinic in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, the poorest state in South Sudan. Image taken by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi.

I later came back to the Congo as a self-proclaimed photographer, taking pictures of anything I could and sending them out, and I eventually broke into the field. I’ve only been doing photography for about three and a half years now, focusing on cultural, conflict, and geopolitical stories. My entire life, I wanted to be a painter. I painted before I could even write or speak; my grandmother taught me in Romania. Painting is a very slow art form. But the type of lifestyle that I led and the manner in which I was thinking over the years started moving a lot faster, and photography began to look like something I could do better than painting.

There are a lot of risks and dangers in this profession, and it’s important to identify and minimize them, whether that means meeting with authorities that can give you security briefings, getting the appropriate fixer that knows how to work with the specific topic you’re covering, and making sure that you’re traveling at the right times, wearing the right things. But I think it’s also really important to recognize when you can’t minimize risks. There have been times when I’ve said, “I can’t take these pictures. I just can’t. It’s going to put me in a lot of danger.” And editors are, I’ve found, understanding. They don’t want harm to come to me, and they don’t want it on their outlet’s reputation either, for their reporter to become the story.

“There are a lot of risks and dangers in this profession, and it’s important to identify and minimize them.”

There are many advantages to being a woman doing this. Mostly it’s that we’re inconspicuous, underestimated, and therefore easier to trust – we’re not intimidating, and so again, easier to trust. The inconspicuous and underestimated part is really important because, if you want to be a good documentary photographer, you want to be able to disappear. People need to trust you and then forget about you, and it’s much easier for them to trust and forget a small woman than it is a big, imposing man. And then you become a fly on the wall, and you get into that moment and into the pictures.

People think that conflict zones hinder women more than men. I’ve mostly worked in the Congo, where the big danger is being raped, which is a very real danger that women face and men usually don’t. Something happened in the Congo that I thought was quite sexist. I was on an assignment at one point for a nonprofit, working near a certain area where there was rumored to be a rebel group that would rape women if they came across them. But the thing is, the rebel group would kill men if they came across them. And the nonprofit group allowed male photographers to go into that particular area but not female ones, because females would have been raped. It’s not as if the males faced a lesser danger. It’s that somehow, my being raped was deemed by the nonprofit to be worse than a man being killed. So the men could go, but I could not. I was very upset by that. This is just one example of why male photographers end up having more material from insecure areas than women do.

There are other factors that contribute to this scenario in which there are much fewer female photographers working in conflict zones than men. Sometimes it has to do with editors who will primarily assign men, however, a lot of editors do encourage women, and not just female editors. There are male editors who are very supportive as well. For me, it’s the expectations back home [in the U.S.] that will possibly, eventually, hinder my career. Like, am I going to have a family, am I going to settle down, and how am I going to raise a child? Things like that. But then there are conflict zone photographers who have been able to figure it out, like Lynsey Addario, who has a family and child and is still working. So there is a way to do it; I just don’t think it’s as easy as it is for a man. I think you have to find the right partner [Laughs].

One of Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi’s images from the Minova Rape Trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a victim — veiled to protect her identity — testifies before the closed military tribunal.

One of the things I love most about my work is this feeling of getting lost — like when you end up in a new place and don’t know anyone and you’re trying to figure everything out. Recently I was working for a coffee company in Congo, and there was a point where I was out on this tiny wooden boat with these fishermen on Lake Kivu. When it got dark, you could see all the stars out and I fell asleep. There’s a certain feeling of freedom you get that you can’t really replace. Recently someone asked me if I did this work because I thought I was making a difference. I don’t, actually. The gratification that I have gotten is when locals have contacted me to thank me for the work that I’ve done, like when I did the series of the Minova Rape Trials, a court case where 37 members of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo faced charges of raping civilian men, women, and children in the town of Minova during a ten-day run of violence. Congolese citizens found me on Facebook or wrote me emails to thank me. They would say, the world forgot us for so long, and thank you so much for caring about us.

“If you want to be a good documentary photographer, you want to be able to disappear.”

For the past year I’ve been doing only assignment work, for media outlets, NGOs, and corporate companies. I’ve only said no to one assignment, and it was because I had just left the Congo and couldn’t make it back there that quickly. I’ve said yes to pretty much everything because I really felt like I needed to establish working relationships with editors and clients, and I couldn’t be very picky about what I said yes and no to. I think of myself as a documentary photographer rather than a photojournalist, but this last year I’ve definitely been only a photojournalist. This year I want to balance it out and work on some personal projects. I have been thinking about going to Iraq, actually. I know loads of photographers are in Iraq right now, but I’m half Iraqi and I’ve never been.

Annabell Van den Berghe

Worked in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Jordan

Clients: BBC, The Washington Post

My grandfather used to tell me stories about war and conflict where’s he’s from, Hungary, and the fact that he was a refugee triggered my interest in discovering more about my family’s past. I was drawn to the conflict in Israel/Palestine, so I chose Middle Eastern studies in college and learned Hebrew and Arabic. While studying Egypt, the Egyptian revolution started, and the Arab Spring in general, so that’s how I ended up covering these conflicts. I feel that doing this job is the only way to understand what’s going on. I want to get a better understanding of what drives people to do what they do or how war affects people. I’ve said no to assignments when it was about me writing something or doing something that a news outlet already thought was happening, and I had to confirm it. But I’m not there to confirm their truth; I’m there to investigate the truth. That’s why I’m a photo reporter. I write every story I shoot.

“I feel that doing this job is the only way to understand what’s going on. I want to get a better understanding of what drives people to do what they do or how war affects people.”

There is way too much sexism in the world still, in every kind of job, and this is one of them. People at home tend to think that, as a woman going to conflict zones, I would be the one talking to the victims, poor people, and refugees far away from the front line, away from the military hats or operations, because that is more “male.” That is a misconception. But it’s about the editors as well. They can be hesitant to send you, because they believe that being a woman makes you more vulnerable. So often they prefer a man over a woman, which is sad because if you’re fatally hit by a bullet, whether you’re a man or a woman, you’ll die. It’s not like if somebody has more muscle they can resist a bullet. It doesn’t work like that.

But there are advantages to being a woman in the field, especially in very split communities, as in the Middle East, where men and women tend to live separately for their daily routines. There are separate rooms for women in the house, and rooms to have guests over where women do not enter. When there are funerals, there’s a split room, one room for men, one room for women, and the same goes for weddings. In these situations, as a female journalist, you can enter both. You’re allowed at the party or the room at a funeral where the women attend or where the men attend. It is more difficult to do that as a male journalist. Women from these societies are rather closed toward men, because that’s how they are raised, so it’s easier to get access to their information, feelings, and their story as a female journalist. The disadvantages are that you have to fight twice as hard as your male colleagues to get something published, because it’s still a male-dominated field.

“I’m not there to confirm their truth; I’m there to investigate the truth. That’s why I’m a photo reporter. I write every story I shoot.”

There is also competition among conflict photographers, and I try to stay as far away from it as possible. If somebody wants to compete with me for a certain assignment, they can have it. There’s plenty of work, plenty of stories that have to be told. Plus, when you’re in a war zone and you’re working with someone who’s competing with you, it just doesn’t feel safe – and it is already not safe. You have to be with somebody who has your back, literally, and who will help you when something goes wrong. Once a group of us were in an ambush together, and another time we were all together under fire, with guns on us, for hours. So I try to work with people who are safety first and will stick with me and not leave a man behind.

A portrait of Annabell Van Den Berghe taken by Jeffry Ruigendijk.

Most of the time, fear is something you just deal with afterward. When you’re on an assignment, of course you have to have some kind of fear, because you have to consider danger. But if you’re really afraid, then you should not go. When I’m in the field, I’m not afraid, which does not mean that I’m reckless. But you try to put it in perspective. You know that something can happen to you, but there is no use in getting paralyzed over that feeling because then you can’t do your job.  The point is, when you’re there, you focus on the job, and when you come back from the front line, then that’s when you talk about it with your colleagues.

When I first started my career it was more difficult to have a personal life because you feel that you still have to prove so much and you have to put yourself on the map. I sometimes thought that I would always have to be in conflict zones, for the rest of my life, when there was an attack, but now it’s not like that. I limit myself to certain areas at certain times. I take my holidays if I plan my holidays. It’s not always easy but it works. It’s difficult to say what experience has had the most impact on me. I can tell you the most shocking thing, but you can be shocked in so many ways. For example, a couple of months ago I spent a month in Iran, and I was shocked by how open-minded the Iranian people are – much more so than what I am used to in the West. I didn’t expect that.

But then on the other hand, when you are covering a massacre in Egypt, when SiSi and his troops committed this massacre on the Muslim Brothers, where hundreds of people died, that is also shocking. When you put all of these things together, you can’t really see them as separate from each other. Although Iran might not, in fact, have something to do with Egypt, you still feel that, despite repression, people are always trying to find ways to survive, and always growing. And of course, there were the Brussels attacks. I’m used to covering the Middle East, and I came home for a while, and the attacks happened. All of a sudden your work comes home — it comes with you.

“The point is, when you’re there, you focus on the job, and when you come back from the front line, then that’s when you talk about it with your colleagues.”

Alison Baskerville

Worked in Afghanistan, Gaza, Mali and Somaliland

Clients: BBC, The Royal British Legion, and Women for Women International

I always say I’m an accidental war photographer. I think I was very naive when I joined the Royal Air Force. I’d never really been outside Europe, or even the U.K., and suddenly in 2005 I was in this Middle Eastern environment where nothing was familiar to me, and I found the whole experience quite overwhelming. We had cameras with us, and I used that as a way of processing what was going on. I mean, I didn’t have the language to explain that then. I got to the 12-year point in the Royal Air Force and was offered a promotion to further my military career. I thought, If I don’t leave now, I will be in this position for probably the rest of my life. I didn’t want that. So I left and started taking lots of pictures. A good friend of mine said, “Whatever you do, don’t go anywhere near war again.” I thought, Okay, I won’t. But I soon felt there was something missing. I actually missed the military a great deal. When I was asked to go back to the army as a photographer, I thought, Great, I’ll get more camera training and equipment. Eventually I got sent to Afghanistan as a combat camera team photographer.

That’s when I met other photojournalists and gained an understanding of the access I had, which was really unique and different. I decided to really explore this and I got sent back to Afghanistan as an embedded photographer to document women in war. As was the case then, sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle ground, which is quite challenging. I know that there are things that other photographers choose to photograph in conflict zones that I sometimes won’t, because it looks normal to me – familiar. That’s something I have to check in about with myself all the time when I’m doing a job. I have to think about that.

A portrait of Alison Baskerville.

The way I deal with fear is to fall back on that military training. It gives me an enormous amount of reassurance. A lot of times when people go to war zones or places of danger, they rarely get enough training or think about their mental health. I have had a 12-year military career, which has given me an enormous amount of training that a lot of photographers and journalists don’t have. They get, like, a weeklong hostile environment course. My military training does make a difference in the way that I perform. It takes away that element of fear. I mean, I still get afraid. I’m very aware of the danger I’m facing, but I’m better prepared than a lot of my colleagues. 

“The biggest advantage of being a woman on a conflict zone photo assignment is that generally men have a lower expectation of women.”

Though people say they’re quite progressive and open-minded about gender, I still think there are a lot of stereotypes that fly around, especially if you’re documenting an area where there’s a strong patriarchyThe biggest advantage of being a woman on a conflict zone photo assignment is that generally men have a lower expectation of women. People say, no they don’t. But I say, yes you do. Those of us who do this know that a lot of times your male colleagues will have a lower expectation of you, and so will the people you’re photographing. That can be used to your advantage because then you can pass by and do your job with minimal fuss. You can slip in a lot quicker and easier. Sometimes embedding with a militia of men, if you’re a woman, is better. They don’t see you as a man, so they’re not expecting anything from you. It’s not that it’s right. It’s just that it is often easier.  

As for bias among editors, yeah, that happened last year. It was the first time I’ve ever been knowingly discriminated against. I’m sure it’s happened without me realizing it, but because I have the military background, it normally eliminates that thing. I was asked to go to Syria to embed with the regime by a major British publication. They asked me to meet the photo editor, and all through the conversation, the editor just kept saying, “Are you sure you’re going to be all right with it? Are you going to be all right with being scared?” [Laughs] I thought, This is a bit too frequent, right? Afterward my colleague who is a television journalist confirmed it and said, “He’s concerned about sending a woman.”

Alison Baskerville out in the field reporting.

Once you’re on the front line, though, it pretty much evens out between male and female because you have to be close to each other. Where the discrimination appears, or what I think shocked me about becoming a member of society away from the military, were the things I learned. I thought that women and men were equal in the workplace. I didn’t even understand that women got paid less than men. When that first hit me I was quite shocked. Sexism exists more in day-to-day society, I think. When you’re on the ground, doing the job, it’s irrelevant.

It’s hard to say what keeps me going back. Mostly it’s been moments where I’ve met people dealing with huge obstacles, whether it’s dealing with longtime war, having to find somewhere to give birth, or how to raise children in an environment that’s heavily traumatized. The reason I keep doing it is to find bits of hope and inspiration in what we would see as being utter devastation: the human spirit in the face of such horror. I rarely make it look as grim as it is, because I think about the person in that picture, and why should I show them in a negative way when they’re dealing with very uncomfortable situations? 

As for a personal life, I don’t manage to have one [Laughs]. It’s a weird one, actually. I have amazing friends back here where I live in Birmingham, U.K., and they’re all artists, but very few photographers actually. I don’t really meet people. I mean, I meet people, and I can get to know people, and then I go away. So it’s not the best. But I live near my brother, who I’m really close to, and I think that’s important: not to isolate yourself too much.

“The reason I keep doing it is to find bits of hope and inspiration in what we would see as being utter devastation: the human spirit in the face of such horror.”

It’s a weird job. Some days I hate it. Some days I think, What on earth am I doing, like I have to be skint [broke] all the time. You know, photography is not very lucrative. Everyone in the industry knows that. I come from working-class parents. The military gave me my stepping stone in life. Above all of that, it’s the bigger picture that matters to me. Even if my work is not hugely well known in the duration I live, I know that after that there will still be this documentation that might help someone in the future, either to do research or to understand what it was like in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Central Africa. During my time in Iraq, we lost three people in my section in the course of a week, so some of the photography I did was of people who died. That’s when I realized that I was memorializing and perhaps capturing something that becomes more historical rather than current. Everyone wants to shoot for now, in the moment, to capture something, to hold onto it. But I think we often forgot that sometimes in documentary, you’re creating a kind of archive as well. Because look at those photographs now.