What It's Like to Be a Freelance War Photographer
Australia's Luke Cody explains how he manages fear in some of the world's most intense conflict zones.
All photos by Luke Cody
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.
Luke Cody chases crises as they unfold around the globe. Born in Melbourne, he now travels the Middle East, North Africa, and Ukraine, photographing the bare-knuckle tragedies that arise from war.
The first time I saw Luke's photos on Instagram, it felt like he'd somehow captured the personal terror of violence. He'd provided a slice of life from those on the street: the working class rioters in Caracas, the homeless victims in Mosul, and the displaced families of Gaza. In short, he'd made the chaos of political upheaval feel intimate.
I asked Luke if he'd sit down and explain his process. He said yes, and we talked about the motivations of a freelance war photographer, and the reckless nature of his job.
VICE: Your job sounds frightening, Luke. What’s the scariest thing that has ever happened to you?
Luke Cody: It was the day of the plebiscite [in Venezuela] and I spent the day taking photographs at a voting station in Chacao, an opposition stronghold. Late in the afternoon I decided to go to Altamira with another photographer, Kathiana Cardona. We jumped in her car and drove a couple of blocks before we were forced to stop at a makeshift roadblock. A grey Toyota pickup pulled up behind us and two men got out and approached us from each side. One of them asked Kathiana to stop the engine and get out of the car. When the other tried opening my door I yelled at Kathiana to drive. She put her foot down but only got a short distance before hitting more traffic. Convinced they were after me, I got out of the car and ran. I hid between parked cars and messaged a friend who came to get me shortly after. I arrived home to hear that another journalist had been kidnapped and badly beaten that same day before being released. Later I found out it was members of SEBIN, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, who had tried to get us out of the car.
Have you had any other close calls?
I’ve had a number of close calls which could’ve easily become horror stories. In Iraq, I was shot at and had a mortar round land ten feet away. In Cairo, I managed to talk my way out of a situation involving a mob of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who thought I was an American spy and, on a separate occasion, I narrowly avoided being detained by the Egyptian military. I’ve been lucky.
How do you manage fear when you’re caught in the moment. Where do you draw the line between work and safety?
In a handful of situations in the past I’ve told myself what I’m doing is just a game. It’s effective in the moment, but comes at a cost later when you reassess things.
Managing fear is a precarious balancing act. There are benefits to the heightened awareness elicited by fear but the release of adrenaline can affect your judgement. I just try to take a break after sustained periods of shooting intense scenes, just to reset.
What drew you to Caracas? These photos really capture the urgency.
I saw video footage from the protests and I was struck by the brutality of the response by the National Guard. Growing up in Melbourne and spending 14 years living in London, for the most part, people were allowed to protest freely. What I saw in those horrific images of protesters being driven over by armored police vehicles were people whose basic freedoms were being stripped away.
Also, I'd just been in Iraq, which was flooded with photographers. I knew Venezuela was a no-go zone for most foreign press so it would be a good opportunity to work in an environment with less competition, albeit with more risks.
At what point did you decide to chase conflict zones?
I had a fairly volatile upbringing and moved around a lot as a kid. In my teenage years, I recall watching "60 Minutes" coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which triggered a curiosity in the duality of our nature. When I moved to London in 2003, my first solo trip was to Israel. I hired a car and drove around the country, documenting my journey with a video camera, interviewing people I came into contact with, hoping to learn more about a conflict many believed dated back to the Bible. These experiences sowed the seeds for me to pursue a career as a conflict photographer.
How did this convince you to get amongst it as a freelancer?
In June 2013, while between jobs, I saw footage on social media of protesters being beaten by heavy-handed riot police in Taksim Square, Istanbul. I got in touch with a friend who lived close to the protest site and booked a flight. Covering the Gezi Park protests was my first experience as a freelancer and although I got a sense for what the job entailed, I still didn’t know how I would handle working in more intense conditions.
One month later I traveled to Egypt to cover the demonstrations following the imprisonment of the Muslim Brotherhood leader, President Mohamed Morsi. The situation was way more volatile than Turkey and I couldn’t afford to hire a fixer, which greatly increased the risk. Walking through the sprawling Muslim Brotherhood encampment outside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque each day, surrounded by heavily armed Egyptian military, I learned how to use my camera to break through language and cultural barriers and create a rapport with people. When tensions boiled over during marches I found the process of looking through the viewfinder, taking pictures, created a sense of detachment from the scene, providing a way of protecting myself from the chaos.
The three weeks I spent in Cairo were defining. Making it out in one piece, with published work in the Guardian and the New Yorker gave me affirmation that I could do this job.
The decision to go to Iraq must have been a heavy one. What led up to that?
I had planned to spend the whole of last year covering conflicts, working towards establishing myself as a freelancer. Then Mosul was in the news, so it seemed like a good opportunity. The risk assessment was disconcerting, particularly reading about the large number of casualties to sniper fire and IEDs; and the high frequency of PTSD symptoms reported amongst journalists covering the first phase of the operation. I had colleagues whom I reached out to for advice trying to convince me not to go. As tough as this was to swallow at the time, it was these considerations and the blunt advice from friends that helped fully prepare me for the trip to Iraq.
What did you learn about the situation in Iraq?
One of the most telling things was how many tribes had militias or “popular mobilization units” protecting their territories, fighting ISIS alongside the Iraqi army. For the month I was there I stayed in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Each day we would make a 50 mile drive west to Mosul, passing through 30 checkpoints or more. They were controlled by Kurds, various Christian and Shia militias, as well as the Iraqi army. The journey showed how fragmented the country is and how a power vacuum could so easily result in war.
Every trip I make I have my preconceptions challenged in some way—it’s a part of why I love doing this work. Before I went to Iraq I had an idea in my head of what an ISIS fighter looked like, based on their own propaganda and images I’d seen in the mainstream media. I expected to see highly trained, well-armed soldiers, but the first ISIS fighters I saw were scared teenagers who had just been detained, wearing tracksuits and sandals, with hoods covering their heads.
Were there any stories on the ground that struck you as particularly horrific?
In my first week in Mosul I accompanied the Kurdistan 24-News team as they edged closer to a frontline position. We saw a lone man walking towards us along a road filled with debris. At first there was concern he could be a suicide bomber. After a brief exchange at distance we found the man was out looking for medicine for his dying wife. He wept as he explained his situation to the Kurdistan 24-news correspondent which caused her to also break down, cutting the interview short. The distress in his voice and overwhelming sense of hopelessness prompted me to put down my camera. Maybe this doesn’t come across as particularly horrific and might even sound commonplace in war, but it becomes more shocking when you realize how many other people are caught in similar or worse circumstances.
Why do you think humans engage in conflict?
Throughout the course of human history, people have lived in tribes that have fought over land, resources, and conflicting ideologies. The same battles continue to be fought today. Violence and conflict are embedded in our cultures and have become an intrinsic part of our nature. “War stories” and religious texts provide a source of inspiration: Their surrounding narratives of heroism and good versus evil galvanize groups and encourage the next generation of young men eager to prove their manhood or religious devotion.
What drives you to keep sharing these stories?
When I see minority groups and the marginalized fighting for their freedom and their lives—people who deserve to have their stories told—that keeps me going. I’m driven by the idea that my photography can trigger viewers’ compassion, helping to raise awareness and spark debate on issues affecting large numbers of people who shouldn’t be ignored.
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