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The Technical Challenges of Photojournalism in a War Zone

A short documentary reveals what it’s like to work in Afghanistan

A photographer with Reuters, Finbarr O’Reilly, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province during 2011 (FINBARR O'REILLY/Reuters/Corbis)
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Photographs from war zones play a critical role informing the public about the human cost of conflict, but they come with tremendous costs. Photojournalists must confront harrowing sights, face kidnapping threats and risk their lives — all while shrinking media budgets have forced many to work as freelancers. It seems terrifying, but as one photojournalist, Lynsey Addario, says in the title of her memoir, "It's what I do." 

What is it like to work behind the lens in a war zone? The public rarely gets a glimpse of the danger that's involved. As photographer Teru Kuwayama writes for Gizmodo, "The daily mechanics of photographing in a 'war zone' don't have much to do with photography—mostly it's about getting from point A to point B without getting your head cut off, then finding a signal and an outlet."

A short documentary recently uncovered by PetaPixel emphasizes this idea. In a war zone, even routine tasks become challenging. The 14-minute documentary, which was shot by journalist Bill Gentile in Afghanistan in 2008, follows New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks as he demonstrates the way he transmits photos to the Times newsroom.

"It's pretty difficult working here, just the amount of dust on the equipment and also of course there's no electricity here, so keeping battery power up is always a challenge," Hicks says. After combing through his shots, he sends a dozen to the Times via satellite connection — but that task forces him outside, into the midday sun, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hicks transmitted those photos years before he, Addario and two others survived a kidnapping ordeal in Libya. He hadn't yet covered a deadly terrorist attack in a Nairobi mall, or won a Pulitzer prize for that work. Although getting an Internet connection may be easier today, and battery improvements can help devices charge faster, the risks haven't changed for photojournalists. When they venture into war zones, they put their lives on the line.

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