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Nicole Tung’s cat was not pleased.
It was a Thursday evening in October, and the celebrated freelance photojournalist was packing for a sojourn to another faraway place. While Tung, who is based in Istanbul, talked with The Lily about her work, her pet made himself known through the phone line.
“Sorry,” she said. “It is like the witching hour for my cat.”
This writer wondered aloud: Could he feel that she was leaving?
“Yeah. He actually does,” Tung replied. “It’s very depressing.”
More depressing: Many of the scenes that populate Tung’s work life. Photographing conflict abroad in countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya, she’s witnessed atrocities foreign to many Americans. Like the aftermath of airstrikes. Like dead children.
But it isn’t all gruesome. Alongside pain, there’s grace, too.
“People’s houses have been completely flattened,” Tung said, and yet, “they have the will to keep surviving and hoping that tomorrow could be better.”
Tung, 32, is an American citizen who was born and raised in Hong Kong and attended college at New York University. After graduating in 2009, she remained in the city, freelancing for news publications. But she had no desire to stay put.
So in 2011, with no prior preparation, no assignment and no knowledge of Arabic, she flew abroad to cover the Arab Spring in Egypt.
“I just decided that it was the right time to go and I wouldn’t be able to wait for anybody to send me. Nobody did send me. I went by myself to Cairo,” said Tung.
She covered Egyptian protests, and, later, celebrations, when then-President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Shortly after, she said, she crossed over to Libya, “without really much of a plan.”
Was she afraid?
“No,” she says, without pause. Then she gives credit where credit’s due.
“I was capable, but I was also very lucky to meet veteran journalists who went to Libya at the same time,” she said. “And they sort of were always looking out for me, took me under their wing.”
Given Tung’s line of work, the matter of safety is significant. All journalists in conflict zones must proceed with caution. While her assignments often land her in countries with heightened risks for women, she said she’s not aware of taking extra preventive steps tied to gender.
When abroad, she follows precautions familiar to most women, regardless of location. She tries not to walk around alone at night, and, when possible, sidesteps being the sole woman in a room brimming with men. But “sometimes those situations really are unavoidable.”
Other dangers are less obvious, but equally real — like the psychological toll.
When reflecting on some of the most haunting photos she’s captured, Tung recalled an image of rebel fighters in Libya.
“There’s a photograph of these rebel fighters peering into the back of a pickup truck trying to identify dead rebels who were killed near the front line or on the front line, and the faces, their expressions looking at these bodies, was really striking to me because it was the first time they’d experienced this.”
Another Tung photo, taken in Syria, depicted an entire family killed by a bombing — “eight people, from one family, and there were really young kids,” she said.
“I remember going to the field hospital afterwards. They covered the bodies that were all next to each other, from one family, with these blue tarps. And you could see the adults and then you could see the very little tarps with kids’ feet sticking out.”
“You come home and have witnessed particularly difficult situations,” Tung said. “And as a freelancer you can’t necessarily afford to have a therapist so you don’t know — especially when you’re beginning — you don’t really know how to process those feelings, those thoughts and the trauma.”
Tung’s been asked if she suffers from PTSD. She says she can’t self-diagnose with any certainty, but she believes she’s had manifestations.
“For a period of time, I had very weird dreams. Sometimes I dreamed about the things that I’d seen. Sometimes dead bodies. But those largely stopped pretty quickly,” she said.
Physical manifestations followed. She’d get hives. Occasionally, she still does.
There’s a massive mismatch between the value of Tung’s work and the pay.
She said sometimes people think, “Oh, you do this really incredibly dangerous job, but you don’t earn any money really. Why do you continue doing it?”
What propels her, she said, is “one of those invisible drives that journalists — and especially freelance journalists — doing this have.”
Freelancers are paid per assignment, so their earnings can vary. While salaried journalists receive a fixed amount of money each pay period, freelancers may have a lucrative month or two, followed by a less-profitable stretch — steady income isn’t guaranteed. And as many news organizations face financial straits, the money available to hire freelancers often shrinks.
In addition to the skimpy compensation, there are logistical headaches. One of the biggest myths about being a freelance conflict journalist?
“That we’re well supported in what we do,” Tung said.
She’s on the hook for arranging her housing and skirting risks when she goes out on assignments.
“I have to do all this on my own without a security adviser,” she said, while on “a very tight budget.”
There’s also a notable gender imbalance in photojournalism — men have long outnumbered women.
The 2018 State of News Photography survey, conducted by the World Press Photo Foundation and the University of Stirling, included responses from 5,202 photographers from more than 100 countries between 2015 and 2018.
“We have commented in previous reports about the gender disparity within professional photography globally,” the report states. “This year, a slightly higher proportion of women participated in the survey.” In 2018, 18 percent of respondents were women; that’s 3 percent higher than the number of women who responded in 2015. That said, the respondents “remain overwhelmingly male, as they have for all four years of the study.”
This year, nearly 68 percent of women respondents (126 photographers) said they face discrimination in their work as photojournalists.
“Women photographers participating in our study felt that the biggest obstacles to their own and other women’s success were sexism in the industry and industry stereotypes and practices,” the report states.
And yet, Tung can’t walk away. In part because she’s angry. She’s frustrated that people are growing fatigued with stories of war and news of refugees.
“It’s one of the things that keeps me going, because I feel like people are caring less and less,” she said.
Will she photograph conflict forever?