Can a photograph stop war?

Photojournalist Nicole Tung has witnessed and captured some of the defining events of the war in Syria. But in a world where people swipe through dozens of images every day, can a photograph still make a difference?

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Syrians evacuate an injured man amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following an air strike on the neighbourhood of Al Qatarji, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (File)

Updated Sep 21, 2016

A napalm bomb does not kill instantly. It is more of an incendiary device designed to trigger a firestorm, with its gelling agent sticking to a victim's skin until it peels off.

That feeling of excruciating pain and helplessness was captured by photographer Nick Ut in an image that came to define the Vietnam War.  

The photograph, known as 'Napalm girl', showed a 9-year-old girl flailing her arms in agony as a napalm strike destroyed her village and seared her back. The picture, taken on June 8, 1972, would shock the world and, as many believe, hasten the end of the war six months later.

Forty-three years later, on September 2, the world would pause once again, albeit momentarily, as images of the lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey, circulated.  

The boy, his brother and their mother drowned while attempting to reach the Greek islands.

The picture of Alan would put a spotlight on the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. It would also force debate over border controls around the world and mobilise support for refugees.

The war that started in Syria in 2011 is ongoing, and a part of the global sentiment is now staunchly against refugees. In the digital age, perceptions change in seconds and the world has consumed millions of images since Nilufer Demir's haunting image of Alan.

A man reacts after a bomb explosion in Aleppo’s  Al Fardous district. [Reuters] 

So the first question I pose to photojournalist Nicole Tung is just that: In the world of augmented reality and an unending stream of data, do photographs still resonate? Can they still stop wars?

"Bluntly, I don’t think images of war can stop a conflict. I think they have the ability to inch some on-the-ground changes, but usually those are minimal changes, or they can help change policy for the better," Tung, who has covered the brutal war in Syria along with the uprising in Libya, tells TRT World.

At 28, Tung is already a veteran in that she has witnessed and captured some of the most defining events of the modern era. From the sense of ever-present danger on the streets of Aleppo to the feeling of almost being there amid the crumbling structures of Sirte, her photographs maintain the detachment of classic war photography.

And that's what the role of a photojournalist is, when I ask her yet again whether her craft can still maintain a place in a world of instaphotos and citizen journalists.

"Citizen journalists tend to look at the small-scale issues whilst photojournalists must give a situation context, and as much as possible, objectivity. Many citizen journalists tend to veer towards activism - this is not the job of a photojournalist," says Tung, whose cites the master of black and white photography Josef Koudelka and Alex Majoli as inspirations.

Tung, a multi-award winner, spent a year and half in Syria from early 2012 to mid 2013, a period which saw some of the most intense fighting after pro-democracy protests in 2011 plunged the country into all-out civil war.

A Syrian man walks past destroyed buildings in Aleppo’s Bab al Hadid neighbourhood. [AFP]

There was very little foreign coverage of the events after the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Homs and having "little coverage meant little balance in the reporting and even less understanding in the international community" as to what the situation was like on the ground.

But what pushed her to go deeper into Syria at a time when the international press was mostly exiting? Tung was just 25, and the Committee to Protect Journalists would go on to rank the country the most dangerous for journalists.

"Yes, I was 25 when I first went in to Syria. I had already gained a lot of experience working in Libya, and I felt that it was important to cover this story - in a way, I felt I had a responsibility to do so.

"I think that each time you go into a new place, or especially a dangerous one, you are testing yourself a bit. I had already seen what war did to families and communities in Libya; going in to Syria was not because I wanted an adventure so to speak. I hoped that the images I shot would reveal what was happening to the most vulnerable people within the population because civilians were bearing the brunt of an increasingly brutal conflict."

The American photographer, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, initially experienced the legendary hospitality of the Syrians as civilians and fighters both welcomed the international community with the hopes that their struggle would find a bigger stage. But soon, as her images demonstrate, the people would become resigned to their fate.

But amidst the mostly gray atmosphere, there were moments which Tung witnessed which would appear from another era in Syria. The people maintained their sense of humour and loved to sing and dance unprompted, she recalls.

Those moments have been few and far between for the people there, and when I ask Tung what image from her work in Syria would she want the world to see the most, it is understandably a sad one.

A boy carries two children as he evacuates them from a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo. [Reuters] 

"I can’t really pinpoint one; perhaps the one of a 15-year-old boy called Hatem being carried down the rubble of what was his home only minutes before a fighter jet bombed it."

"He was still half alive and groaning when I took the picture. When I saw him at the secret field hospital 15 minutes later, he was dead. That’s the sad reality of what Syrians go through every day. Bombs don’t discriminate."

The toll of war

Almost all of Tung's photographs have passed editorial screening at The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and several other international newspapers and magazines she has freelanced for. Those which have been held back have been deemed "too graphic".

Amid the scenes of horror though, she not always been a 'witness'. She has in some instances also put down the camera and provided first aid to the injured and briefly worked in the capacity of a consultant for the International Organization for Migration “when the migration crisis reached epic proportions”.

"We're humans after all."

There has been a personal toll as well, losing many colleagues in the field, including field partner James Foley, in the conflicts.

She's currently based in Istanbul, Turkey, the gateway to Europe, as she says, for the millions of refugees landing in Greece. It also gives her access to Africa, another continent experiencing mass migration events.

Wrecked boats and thousands of life jackets used by refugees and migrants during their journey across the Aegean Sea lie in a dump in Mithimna, Greece. [AFP]

According to Tung, rescue/aid efforts in most cases have been hampered by red tape “imposed by the organisations themselves”.

Tung, who is featured in a new Netflix documentary on photojournalists in war zones, says she learns a lot from what she photographs, the people she meets and the stories she explores.

She was on the ground documenting the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the event which came to be symbolised by images of ordinary people lying down in front of tanks in defiance.

"I didn’t photograph that tank picture, but many other thoughts did run through my mind as I photographed around Ankara. I covered a lot of funerals of police and servicemen who died during the night of July 15.

To me, everyone has a family; grief is the same no matter where or how it happens."

The stories keep unravelling for Tung, and she is learning and coping, along the way.

"I certainly learn a lot from what I photograph, the people I meet and the stories I explore. Of course it’s impossible to not carry that into your life going forward but if it’s a particularly harrowing memory, I try to process it, and let it go."

Author: Taimur Sikander Mirza