Shelly Kittleson is a freelance writer and photojournalist specialising in the coverage of the Middle East and Afghanistan. The US-born journalist has worked for RAI, creating two five-part radio documentaries in Afghanistan and more for the Italian state broadcaster and has also provided freelance coverage of Syria and Iraq to many other US and international media outlets.
Raised in rural Wisconsin, she has made several trips inside opposition-held parts of Syria, while in Iraq she embedded with the peshmerga, in addition to reporting from Baghdad.
How has being a war journalist changed you?
SHELLY KITTLESON: I don’t really like the name “war journalist.” That said, clearly, being in war zones has changed me a lot. Hopefully for the better. I’ve learnt quite a lot. It’s difficult without going into long stories about exactly how.
How has it changed me? It’s clearly given me a purpose in life, to a certain extent. It has also given me nightmares at times. That’s normal. The first time I went into an active war zone [in Syria], I’d been in Afghanistan prior to that, and seeing the conditions of the post-conflict areas, or areas which were likely to see conflict, and which later did, but at that particular time, it was peaceful. This in some way prepared me for Syria, when I went in in late 2012 and bombs were dropping.
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Whenever you heard a plane or a helicopter overhead it meant only one thing, and that was that the regime was sending an aircraft to bomb you. So you got used to looking for a place to hide, even though it didn’t really make much sense because you knew from experience that obviously a bomb, if it’s a barrel bomb, hits a building and it goes down if you’re under it, you get crushed. So there’s really no place to hide. But a natural reaction is then to immediately look for somewhere to hide, and so then, even when you come out, you continue to do that for weeks at a time. And also fireworks now, I can’t stand. On New Year’s Eve I always have to find somewhere that I do not have to listen to them.
What do you do when you’re in the field to relax and to stay sane?
SK: I think I’m just so interested in doing as much as I can when I’m there. I tend to go into active war zones for short periods of time. So perhaps that isn’t so necessary. And most of the bad things, let’s say, will come afterwards. When you’re there, you’re focused on trying to interview. I’m trying to observe [and] I’m trying to get photos. You don’t really have to relax so much. Your body is in such a state and if you are a journalist, I think that, if you’ve chosen this profession, it’s just something that comes naturally to do as much as you can while you’re there. And when you come out is the problem, at times, to relax and so forth.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve witnessed in journalism throughout your career?
SK: Granted, I started writing in late 2010, and basically started calling myself a journalist in 2011, so it hasn’t been that long; but I have noticed that the pay rate for freelancers has just gone down so much that so many freelancers are leaving the field. Others can only continue doing what they’re doing because they have parents who provide them with a house; that have some other source of income, let’s put it that way. It’s become very much, or it is becoming very much, a profession which is open only to rich kids, which I find to be extremely problematic, especially because I come from a family that survived on food stamps when I was growing up in rural Wisconsin. So that’s something that I do think definitely needs to change, especially because when I then go into the field, if you haven’t had that experience of being stuck somewhere, of suffering certain things you can’t really understand at a certain level, I feel, or you look at it differently. I see them [those who I interview] as people — I don’t see them as victims. So I think it’s extremely important that we have journalists from different income levels. And that is disappearing right now.