Known for her work in conflict, photojournalist Nicole Tung has, over the last few years, dedicated herself to documenting the turbulence in the Middle East.
Covering conflict is a specific vocation, one that has become increasingly rare over the years, not only due to the demands of the media industry, but also because of the increased risk that war documentarians have had to face.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Nicole graduated from New York University with majors in Journalism and History, before moving to the Middle East. Now based in Istanbul, Nicole was recently featured in the Netflix documentary, Conflict, which profiles photographers whose works revolves around war.
Over Skype calls and emails, we have a conversation that traces her career so far, and looks at her motivations, her identity as a photographer, and the particular issues that she faces as a photojournalist covering conflict. We conduct the interview in July, during the outbreak of the anti-government protests in Turkey and in the aftermath that followed.
The following interview with Charmaine Poh has been edited for clarity and brevity.
On finding photography
What were your growing up years like?
Nicole Tung: I grew up in Hong Kong, and I applied to NYU, and spent my first year at NYU in Florence, Italy, studying liberal arts, and then moved to New York after that, and after graduating in 2009 I started freelancing right away, for publications like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in New York, and then I moved abroad to Europe, and then pretty soon the Arab Spring started in the Middle East, and I covered Egypt and Libya for a very long time, and then moved on to Syria in 2012 and then covered Syria for about one and a half years, until it was too dangerous. A lot of journalists were getting kidnapped and injured, and I had a lot of close friends who just disappeared. I stopped covering Syria from inside, and covered it from the outside, photographing injured Syrians crossing the border, and Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Turkey.
When you were growing up in Hong Kong, had you already been involved with photography or journalism or activism?
I started picking up the camera when I was 15, 16, and started self-teaching myself photography. I don’t think I really realised what I wanted to do with photography until I went to university. And in my first year I was really interested in what happened in the Balkans in 1990s, I was reading a lot about the Bosnian war, and so I decided to go to Bosnia to look at how it was doing ten years after the war. I met a lot of people who sparked my interest in foreign correspondence and journalism, and using photography as a tool.
Did your parents create this environment?
I studied history, and history was kind of my biggest love when I was in high school and university, and I think that I wanted to be documenting history as it was happening, and obviously going into news or journalism was the best way of doing that. I don’t like to call myself an activist, because there is a very big difference between activism and journalism. Sometimes, in the case of Syria, it’s been quite sometimes difficult to stay objective, but I still have a job to do, even though I think there’s still a lot more that should be done for the injustices that are going on there.
Your trip to Bosnia was in the aftermath of war and your first encounter with a situation of that nature. What was your first experience of combat like?
Libya was the first conflict I covered. I was completely unprepared. I think a lot of people, even veteran journalists who went there, we went there quite quickly without thinking that it was going to turn into a war, so people didn’t come prepared with the right equipment. And also I was very inexperienced navigating a conflict zone. I relied a lot on veteran journalists who had covered Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and I learned a great deal from being with them, and spending time with them, so without them, I think I probably wouldn’t have made it out alive, I suppose.
The experience of covering it was quite exhilarating. What I grew up with watching Iraq or Afghanistan on the television screen… The access to the Libyan rebels fighting against the Qaddafi government was quite easy. So, I didn’t have to go on a military embed. I was still only telling one side of the story, but at least it was quite easy for many freelancers to go to the frontline quite easily.
And now it’s entirely different.
Yeah, I mean unfortunately, Libya wasn’t able to form any functioning government really after the war technically was over. It’s kind of just spiralled into chaos with different militia groups trying to control territory and resources.
On working in the media industry
You’ve made decisions differently in recent years, in choosing, for instance, not to go to the frontline. What are some examples of these different decisions that you make instead?
Yeah I think the most difficult thing, personally, in covering dangerous situations is, one, witnessing the suffering of others, but secondly also losing friends, many close friends. And so that gives you many reasons to stop and think, okay, is it worth it getting that one photo and put my life on the line, or should I take a step back and maybe rethink how I can photograph this particular story without putting myself at too much risk.
What are some of these examples?
Yeah I mean I think in the beginning when I was covering Libya, I was very gung-ho about covering the frontline, and I was really like, wow I’ve got to take pictures of guys firing their guns, it’s really exhilarating, but after a while you realise it’s kind of the same picture, and there’s a lot more to the story going on behind the scenes rather than the most obvious photo with the guy with the gun. And so I think it’s changed, and also as a photographer and as a person, I’ve matured a little bit, or I hope, in looking for different aspects of the story or something that’s related to conflict but not necessarily directly conflict, like, I started a project that I wish to continue, looking at child soldiers, the life after a militia group, trying to reintegrate into society again, etc.
How can war stories move forward, considering the media industry at present? You’ve described the job of a war photographer as “shouting in the dark.”
I mean look I still believe maybe naively that there is still a need for traditional journalism. I’m a little bit old-school in that sense, that I still love seeing printed matter, and reading long-form stories, and good in-depth reporting on issues. With social media, obviously it’s become quite difficult to always maintain the relevancy of a story when things change, and you also have citizens tweeting. There is just so much information and so many pictures, but I still believe in good photography and good reporting, and I believe that still informs the public if they want to read it about the situation rather than having rumours. And a lot of Twitter is rumours.
“I mean look I still believe maybe naively that there is still a need for traditional journalism. I’m a little bit old-school in that sense, that I still love seeing printed matter, and reading long-form stories, and good in-depth reporting on issues.”
Do you still see yourself working primarily as a photojournalist in the near future?
Yeah, for sure, in the near future, my role as a photojournalist is still holding. It’s tough, financially it’s very difficult. I had a pretty slow year until now. And also maybe in the future, I might go back to law school and or do something regarding human rights advocacy, for example. I’m not sure. But yeah, for the near future, I’m staying in photojournalism.
How have financial struggles of the industry impacted the way you carried out your work?
Well, as a freelancer, when you’re not on the staff of a major publication, especially when you’re doing dangerous assignments, freelancers end up cutting corners on safety. We don’t get enough to hire drivers for the day, we have to take a taxi because it’s cheaper, that’s how it impacts our work. We don’t get paid fairly or ever on time, and therefore we struggle to pay for insurance, pay for the right kind of hired help that we might need, and that can really be very detrimental to us in a war zone or an event of civil unrest.
Do you have insurance right now?
I have basic stuff, but when I was working in Syria I was taking out war insurance.
So there are calculations that have to be made on account of your safety, on a day-to-day basis.
I think working in Turkey has obviously become a lot riskier, and publications need to take that into account because anything can happen right now. Sometimes it’s hard because you’re negotiating with newspapers who work on very strict budgets, and when you say I need an extra 100 Euros in my day rate because I need to pay for insurance, many times they will try to find somebody else who will not ask for extra costs.
People might see your choices, such as going to the frontline and putting yourself at risk of physical danger, focusing on news coverage in an industry that hardly compensates, as irrational. What are your thoughts on that, and what keeps you going?
Sure, some people might see my choices as reckless or irrational – but I try and give some understanding of firstly what my job is, and why I love doing it despite its hardships. As a journalist I do feel some sense of responsibility for the stories I cover – that while I am there to witness, or document, I am also engaged in the topic matter – I think if I didn’t care much about what I photographed it would be difficult to motivate myself. Lastly, if we didn’t have journalists/photographers documenting social, political and conflict stories, I think collectively we would have a very narrow understanding of our world. It can sound grandiose, but I do believe that.
A lot, or perhaps all, of the work you put out tends to come through Western media. Have you felt the need to tailor your photographs or stories of such complex societies to suit the industry? If so, how?
I think with photography it’s a bit more difficult to tailor something to a specific audience, especially when it comes to photojournalism, because I’m meant to be documenting what’s going on in front of my camera. Even if I shoot something more conceptual, that is up to any audience to interpret how they wish – and that’s dependent on their outlook, etc.
What are some stories that you wish were being told?
A lot. Especially covering the Middle East I tend to see a lot of stories that, you know… I am part of this machine where we cover only the most dramatic, bad news. But I wish I had the time and the budget to cover a little bit more subtle things that are, on a societal level, quite important and give a better understanding of the country. For example, in Turkey there’s a very high rate of domestic violence, and violence against women that is on the rise. Also stories on women refugees who are now running households that traditionally was not their job, so there’s a lot of smaller stories that do deserve attention.
Do you have the time or resources to tell these stories?
The model for long-term projects has, for the last maybe ten years, been a lot of upfront expenses out of pocket. If a photographer wants to do a project, they end up having to pay a little bit first to do their own story, and if it’s successful, they’ll get it published and then perhaps that will get more funding, but that comes with a lot of luck and interest in the story. So, you know, I think there are resources out there, but sometimes it’s just your luck of a getting a grant or a fellowship to be able to pursue that story.
What about your work in the Congo, on child soldiers?
I’ve been applying for funding for that for some time now, but it’s been pretty tough to get any support for it, because I suppose it’s not a very sexy story, so I haven’t been able to get a grant for it yet.
So are you self-funding your trips there?
The Congo is really expensive to work in, so I can’t even really make a self-funded trip there; I have to apply for a grant or the interest of a publication to send me back.
Do these long-term stories fulfill a different side of your identity as a photographer?
Sure, you know, I like covering a lot of different aspects in photojournalism and photography because it’s just a different window. I don’t always want to have to cover breaking news, because it’s quite tiring. Or I don’t always want to have to cover like, you know, really sad stories because it can be very mentally taxing. So I also try to do culture or travel stories just to keep a balance because I think that’s really important especially when you are doing very difficult or dangerous stories.
On her personal identity
You went back to Hong Kong last year to cover the Umbrella Revolution. What was returning like?
Yeah I think it was pretty strange going back to Hong Kong, and having grown up there, and I think understanding in some ways the struggle of people, and also the threats of the overbearing control of China et cetera, and it was the first time I understood the sentiment of people there in a place that I’ve covered. It was also affecting me personally, in the sense that I wanted this Umbrella protest to succeed, at the same time I had to try to remain objective a little bit, but it was really exhilarating to see that and very exciting, because I never imagined the generation after me would have, I suppose, the courage to rise up like that.
What about your connection to Hong Kong?
I’ve been away for a long time now, so in a way I don’t feel as connected as I did obviously when I was 18 years old when I left, and I’ve lived in a lot of different places since, but it’s where my family is, what my roots are, so whenever I go back, I realize how much I’ve missed it.
Where do you find your sense of belonging, or are you happy to fit into any society?
I’d like to think I can happily fit into any situation or culture or society, but unfortunately that’s generally not up to me. It’s how accepting the society is of me. For example, I spent some time in Egypt during the revolution there, and it was just very difficult because I stood out so much and I was harassed a lot and whatever, but living in Turkey so far, and knock on wood, I haven’t had too many problems, because they see a lot of tourists, they see a lot of Asians, they’re used to different cultures. So I feel quite comfortable living in Turkey. Obviously there are barriers, because I don’t speak the language, and I don’t look Turkish at all. People on a general level are very accepting and quite nice. It just really depends, like I’m happy to be anywhere, but it’s really up to the people around me as well.
“But you can never really be disconnected from a situation because our presence as the media does impact something, and also what we witness, psychologically can be quite impacting on us as well.”
What is it like for you to re-enter society that does not engage directly with conflict? For example, when you travel to screen or showcase your work in Europe or in the States, or when you return to Hong Kong?
Most of the time I am in a place of relative calm and safety, but after covering a difficult or dangerous assignment, coming back to a ‘normal’ place can be a bit of a shock sometimes. You feel like being isolated for a few days first, decompressing a little, and then it hits you that your ‘normal’ life is a good thing and that you can’t really take it for granted. I love travelling, so going anywhere else and seeing something new is something I get excited about.
What do you think is the impact of your work on your life? Ed Kashi wrote an article that was published on TIME Lightbox about the consequences of a photojournalist’s life. He talks about the element of constantly disappearing in a moment, of taking on a fly-on-the-wall approach to everything in his life. He questions who is without a camera, without the constrained environment of documenting. Can you identify with that?
That article really got to the heart of, sometimes, the impact it has on photographers where you’re trying to blend in or diminish yourself, in order to remain what we call a fly on the wall, try to be invisible and in some ways disconnected from a situation. But you can never really be disconnected from a situation because our presence as the media does impact something, and also what we witness, psychologically can be quite impacting on us as well. But we try to not to address that issue too much, but I suppose the way we see it is that it detracts from the actual subject we’re reporting on, so we create some distance between it. But obviously we’re people as well, so we do go through ups and downs and a lot of reporters get PTSD from reporting on a lot of trauma and such.
Do you think you’ve experienced that – PTSD?
I think PTSD manifests in very different ways in different people. Sometimes people are more prone to self-medication like alcoholism or drugs. I didn’t really do that. I had a different process of dealing with it. My brain and physiology have different ways of processing it. Obviously I’ve had issues with the things I’ve seen, but we all have different ways of dealing with it, and different thresholds.
Have you wondered what your life would have looked like if you didn’t start documenting war?
I think the options I was looking at in university was either to join the UN or go into some humanitarian organization. I couldn’t imagine actually doing an office job, it’s just not really my nature. So if I was doing something like that I would be quite unhappy. And as difficult as freelance photojournalism can be, in terms of finances, getting assignments, the competition with other freelancers, I don’t think I would give it up just yet for a nine-to-five job. It’s just different people, different work behaviours, desires.
It’s always been my goal to be involved somehow in international relations, or something to do with history or humanitarian aid or advocacy, and definitely photography allows me to access those avenues in different ways.
For more information on Nicole, please visit her website at http://www.nicoletung.com.
Interview by Charmaine Poh.
Born and raised in Singapore, Charmaine Poh is a photographer and writer whose work explores social and contemporary issues of identity and place. She graduated from Tufts University with a B.A. in International Relations in 2013. Under the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice, she completed documentary photography stories in Boston, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and has been published internationally. Her series, Learning to Leave, won the 2014 Noise Singapore Award. More from Charmaine on: http://charmainepoh.com