Lessons Learned in Libya

When photojournalist Nicole Tung set out to photograph the 2011 uprising in Libya, she had a body of work and a journalism degree under her belt, but she was unprepared to cover war.

“I knew that I would react fine under fire,” says Tung. “But I think many people going into conflict for the first time, don’t.” She had no prior training to work in a combat zone, nor did she have insurance, which she looks back upon as the “dumbest mistake” she ever made.

Libya taught Tung many lessons. From planning and logistics, to the pain of losing colleagues and friends in war. Tung was in Misrata when Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were killed in April of 2011.

Now, looking back, the first and foremost advice that she passes on, is to take a first aid course or a battlefield trauma course. Tung says it’s vital to learn how to treat wounds on yourself or a colleague.

Perhaps nothing can  fully prepare journalists for the front-lines, but medical and hostile environment training, like that provided by RISC, are the best ways to get ready. Tung points out that there are media advocacy organizations, like the Rory Peck Trust, that help freelancers with financial subsidies for these courses.

“It’s already difficult to cover people who are at their most vulnerable, as well as keep yourself physically safe during a trip,” she says. “But it’s also hard to deal with the psychological toll of witnessing violence in conflict.”

If you’re determined to cover conflict, you have to think about the lasting consequences of war. This work won’t just affect you, it will also affect your family and friends. “They will worry about your safety and well being, and they will be taking care of you if you’re hurt, and will ultimately have the hardest job of dealing with immense pain if they lose you,” says Tung.

Going to cover conflict or war is a big decision, and Tung is hesitant to tell aspiring journalists whether  they should or shouldn’t do this work. It’s a personal choice, she says. If you do want to go, she strongly suggests you ask yourself these questions:

Why are you going?

What are you willing to risk?

Why do you have to do it?

If you’ve weighed the consequences and you’re set on going, planning is key. The following is a list from Tung of  things to consider before you go:

  • UNDERSTANDING THE CULTURE: “The other mistake I sometimes see people make, especially when working in foreign countries, is their lack of cultural or religious sensitivity. It’s generally just bad form to dress inappropriately in a conservative place, for example,” says Tung. “Obviously, it’s a good idea to know a little bit about the local language even if it’s just greetings and how to say ‘thank you’. It goes a long way with people and can help break the ice sometimes.”
  • EMERGENCY CONTACTS: Have someone (who isn’t going into the conflict zone with you) know where you are at all times. Give them a list of emergency phone numbers. “I make it a point to check in with that person at least twice a day, and more often when I’m actually on the move or on the road,” says Tung. That person should have a contingency plan, and all relevant emergency contacts in case something goes wrong. You should also have trusted local contacts looking out for you when you’re there.
  • GETTING IN & AROUND: “I usually have local contacts who I know I’ll be working or staying with. If I’m just traveling around in a relatively easy to access, or ‘safe’ country, I’ll have some hotels or other places in mind before arriving. A lot of traveling just means doing things on the fly when there’s no set schedule. It’s also important to estimate how long you’ll be staying, and it’s vital to know what “immediate evacuation plans are available if things go south.”
  • YOUR PHOTO GEAR: “I take the necessary photo gear, including extra audio recording equipment, lots of batteries and chargers,” says Tung. “I carry my photo gear in one bag, and the rest in another large camping-type pack, which is probably very bad for my back, so bags with wheels are ideal.” She also recommends bringing flashlights, solar chargers or car connections to charge things for locations where electricity is scarce.
  • SAFETY AND MEDICAL GEAR: Safety gear includes a flak jacket (level IV), helmet, first aid kit with Tuff cut scissors (trauma shears), tourniquets, bandages, gauze, gloves, anti-biotic cream, etc. She also takes a separate kit that contains a space blanket, medications, ear plugs, hydration salts, matches, sunscreen, and other little things like a knife or Leatherman. (See all of Nicole Tung’s gear here.)
  • WHEN YOU’RE OUT SHOOTING: Tung leaves most of my gear at her base and I take only what she needs. “If I’m going to the front lines or just out and about where things can turn deadly very quickly, I always have my medical pack with me, and of course, camera gear and batteries,” she says. “If I’m wearing a flak jacket, all of the gear put together can end up being about 50 pounds, so I have to know what I’m comfortable carrying if I’m out and on my feet all day.”
Photojournalist Nicole Tung

Photojournalist Nicole Tung


  • DRESSING FOR THE JOB: “I usually pack two to three pairs of pants, like loose fitting jeans or cargos, long shirts with long sleeves (because I usually work in conservative countries), and all other necessary clothing,” says Tung.“Shoes are really important. If it’s not winter, I’ll just take a pair of tough, rubber soled leather boots. If it’s snowing and cold, the North Face is my trusted brand of winter boots.”
  • EATING & DRINKING: “Being hungry makes it difficult to work or think rationally in a dangerous place, so eat whenever you can, even if you’re not that hungry. Often you don’t know if you’ll get a meal later on,” says Tung. She carries emergency food like Power Bars, chocolate and instant coffee. She also takes water purification tablets or a water bottle with a filter for when it’s need. “I observe what locals are drinking and if they seem fine with it, and if the water looks somewhat clean, I’ll take a gamble,” she says. Otherwise you should boil everything. “I eat whatever people around me eat, especially when I’m in a place like Libya or Syria (where food can be amazing when available). Eating local cuisine is a good way to get to know the culture and to bond with people.”
  • DIGITAL SECURITY: “Another resource in demand, that is relatively new, is how to keep your digital security up to standard,” says Tung. “ It’s something I’m still learning, but it’s something we need more than ever; to protect our sources and also the images, videos, and interviews we gather.”
  • DON’T WORK FOR FREE: Some publications may offer inexperienced writers or photographers jobs that don’t pay, in exchange for “exposure,” says Tung. “Just don’t take it. Paying is a way to gauge if publications actually respect the work you’re doing. There are only some exceptions I’ll make: if I really think the organization/publication is absolutely for non-profit, or if I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do to establish a business relationship for the future.”
  • PITCHING YOUR STORIES: You should pitch beforehand and while you’re there but definitely “keep editors in the loop on your whereabouts or interesting stories you might have,” says Tung. But for certain cases, like the conflict in Syria, assignments have become rare, she explains.“Editors and publications are no longer willing to take that risk of something happening to the freelancer, so they’d prefer to just not commission or guarantee anything.”

Comments are closed.