Feature: Becoming a war journalist – more than just dodging bullets

Entering buildings safety drills. Source: Lauren Rooney.

How often do we stop and think about the journalist behind the camera, the journalist furiously taking notes from a forlorn civilian in a war-torn land? Do we ever consider where the written content and images plastered over today’s newspapers come from?

The journalists who create this content keep society linked to what is happening in war zones, a job which means entering territory where there is a large risk of injury, death or abduction. It does not just begin or end with taking a camera and a laptop to these dangerous locations; the preparations that a journalist must make for this role require an extremity of physical and mental capacity.

With war zone assignments becoming few and far between for journalists, there has been an insurgence of young, untrained and unprepared journalists taking to the war zones to get a hard-hitting story.

In turn, these inexperienced journalists can become a dangerous risk not only to themselves but to others, often other journalists, fixers, soldiers and civilians.

Former soldier for the British Armed Forces and close worker in media relations, AJ Vickers said:

“The soldiers have a job to do, that job can become much harder when you have someone on the ground who has no idea how to work in such an environment. Not only is it physically demanding, but mentally it’s not easy having to see death on a large scale.”

In an aim to minimise the risks of war to journalists, foundations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues raise awareness of how journalists can cope in these environments. Alongside these foundations, various training courses are available, including the Conflict Photography Workshop for aspiring war journalists. 

Founder of the Conflict Photography Workshop, war photojournalist Jason Howe, said:

“Working within a war zone is not a pretty place. Professional soldiers are not sent to war without training, a photographer works in the same battle space without any training given to them in the journalism industry. This course enables some training and has been prepared to give even just the basic and minimise the risk they put themselves in.”

My experience at the Conflict Photography Workshop in the mountains of Spain showed me that there is much more to war journalism than I could have ever imagined. 

Upon arrival, all trainee journalists were given metal plated body armour, a helmet and ballistic glasses.  These items added an additional 10-15 kg weight to the already heavy equipment journalists carry, such as cameras and lenses – physical fitness is essential in a war zone.

The 9-day workshop saw journalists working closely with both ex-soldiers and those serving currently in simulated battle scenarios. The ability to keep on top of the action with the additional equipment, whilst also taking photographs, notes, and avoiding the firing line, encapsulates the role of a war journalist.

One of the simulated battles was held whilst journalists ascended a waterfall as bullets cascaded into the valley. The difficulty of this task was further increased as journalists determined their footing through fogged up protective glasses, all whilst attempting to document the situation and not fall into the water with all their gear on.

As well as physical fitness, which is not posted in the job description, superior mental health is essential.

Journalists are expected to go to bed in protective gear and with wet shoes. The embed was targeted multiple times with indirect fire and mortars during the night. The mental stamina it takes to keep pushing yourself no matter how tired, bruised or uncomfortable you may be is quite unbelievable.

The toughest part of the course was realising that although this was a simulated war zone, if it was real, the death tally would have been on a large scale. When you are forced to watch someone dying or being tortured, it is difficult to find a balance between working and saving a life. As an example,the rebels held a government soldier captive.

They demanded that the journalists document and take pictures of the captive’s throat being slit. In a scenario like this, you need to step back from the job and question yourself, your humanity and whether you can allow this to happen. Fortunately, we convinced the rebels not to slit the captive’s throat but more often than not, there is not much a journalist can do to stop something like this from happening. 

Source:Lauren Rooney

War photojournalist, Eric Bouvet, recalls some of the times he had to witness a scene like this.

He said:

“Watching that scenario really brought back some bad memories for me, I have seen this many times and it hurts to recollect these moments. I never lift my camera to situations like this, I don’t want to remember it in my mind let alone in pictures. It is just not morally right.” 

Jason Howe, the founder of the workshop, has spent years seeing and photographing a chain of treacherous scenes. These scenes led to a decline in his mental health and saw him diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

The workshop also focuses on the mental capability of journalists and on how important it is to learn what your mind can be pushed to.

Rebel held captive, Source Lauren Rooney.

To be active in the field, journalists need to be able to spot mines, how to treat a casualty and yourself for wounds including bullet wounds and loss of limbs.

Work includes sending files to editors, working in the dark, living off rations, and working with other religious cultures. It is a tough new learning experience.

Source taken from CPJ, statistics of journalists killed in conflict zone.

Figures drawn up by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) include 1220 journalist deaths since 1992. This year there have been 72 deaths. CPJ considers a case work-related only when they are certain that a journalist was killed in direct reprisal for his or her work, in crossfire, or while carrying out a dangerous assignment, therefore leaving an exclusion of journalists that are missing, imprisoned or cases deemed as unsolved.

These figures include both young untrained journalists as well as experienced war journalists, showing that even they can be at risk in a war zone.

Training courses like the Conflict Photography Workshop can help journalists minimise the risks that they face in a war zone.


A few of us are now preparing our own risk assessments before going to report in hostile lands.

However, nothing can ever quite prepare you for working in a war zone where the unexpected is always to be expected.

The whole team of trainee journalists, source JB Russel.

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