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Frontline Freelance Photography: A risk worth taking?

In December 2016 I travelled to Iraq for the first time. My goal was to spend some time photographing the military operation to liberate the city of Mosul and the surrounding areas from ISIS control, and the humanitarian crisis of civilians fleeing the fighting.

It was my first venture into the world of conflict photography, and since returning home to Wales I’m often asked about my motive for going. Why did I risk my life to take pictures of a war that’s already widely covered in the news by hundreds of experienced staff reporters and photographers? It’s a fair and important question, but not an easy one to answer.

No news outlet or photo agency sent me to Iraq, and no one covered my expenses to be there. In fact I made very little money from the first two weeks I spent in the country. As a freelancer and a rookie, my photographs didn’t appear on the pages of any major newspapers. It’s all but impossible to compete with the speed and direct lines of communication of wire photographers, and the work I produced went almost unnoticed. Still, the decision to go to Iraq was one of the most important I’ve ever made.

An Iraqi soldier stands at a checkpoint near the frontline outside the village of Haj Ali on December 7, 2016.

My journey into photojournalism started a year ago when I traveled to the ‘jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, France. It was a turning point for me that reinforced in my mind the importance of photography in capturing people’s attention and highlighting the human cost of global conflicts. I wanted to share the stories of the people I met in the camp using my photos together with their words.

After spending some time in refugee camps across Europe I felt compelled to try to understand more about the violence and trauma that’s driving so many families to flee for their lives while embarking on life-threatening journeys to reach the safety of European shores.

My intention in Iraq initially was to spend time in the camps that have been set up to provide emergency shelter for the increasing number of internally displaced people fleeing ISIS. However, after hearing stories from journalists and photographers coming back from the frontline I was drawn to get closer to Mosul. A couple of days later I was in a car with a fixer and two other photographers on our way to join the Iraqi Army and Popular Mobilisation Units on the frontline in a village south of Mosul.

After a hair-raising drive through the desert on unpaved roads lined with improvised explosive devices we arrived in a small village called Ganus Al Ulya. I immediately felt reassured when we were greeted by friendly, smiling soldiers who insisted on sharing their food with us. Afterwards we were directed towards an abandoned house where Iraqi troops were taking aim at IS positions inside the village. As we climbed onto the roof of the house bullets fired by an IS sniper hit the wall just a few feet from us.

It was an intense and surreal experience being so close to the fighting, and a challenge to suppress the instinct to hide or move away from the danger. I had to remind myself to focus on capturing compelling images and making sure my camera settings were right, which helped me feel more focused and relaxed. As we drove away from the frontline we were all buzzing with adrenaline and overwhelmed with relief that none of us were hurt.

Although it was brief, the experience gave me a powerful insight into frontline photography and the enormous risks involved. It raised a lot of questions in my mind about why I, like many journalists, am drawn to do this kind of work and whether the value of the outcome is greater than the risks.

One of the things that really surprised me was the number of freelancers working in Iraq. Unlike staff reporters, freelancers don’t receive a salary – we only get paid if and when our work is published. It’s a constant struggle to find a unique story and a publication to commission it. You could argue that that encourages freelancers to take greater risks in order to get a story that staff reporters might be prohibited from doing for security or liability reasons. Staffers don’t have to worry about the expenses involved in meeting their security needs and paying for fixers etc. I, on the other hand, spent a lot of time negotiating fees with fixers (without whom covering the conflict here would be impossible) who charge anything from $200-$800 per day, and had to rely on fellow freelancers to lend me personal protective gear.

So why do we do it? My theory is that, for freelancers and staff reporters alike, gathering news is much more than just a job. It can’t be about the money – many of us, myself included, would probably make more money working in McDonald’s. But being here in Iraq, witnessing something historic, something that affects millions of people, that influences politics on a global stage, is something extraordinary that few people get to see first hand and share to the world outside.

It’s certainly not a job that suits everyone, and I’m not entirely sure yet if I really have what it takes to be a successful war photographer, but I certainly have a lot of respect for those who are dedicated, determined and brave enough to do it.

Below are some of my photos from my brief experience working close to the frontline in the fight against IS. For more photos from Iraq, click here.

Under a veil of black smoke from the nearby burning oil wells, an Iraqi Army tank and a coalition helicopter are seen on the outskirts of Qayyarah, south of Mosul, on December 7, 2016.

An Iraqi soldier takes aim at IS positions in the village of Ganus Al Ulya, south of Mosul, on December 7, 2016.

Iraqi soldiers stand guard at a military outpost in the village of Haj Ali, south of Mosul, Iraq, on December 7, 2016. As the battle to recapture the IS stronghold of Mosul progresses, Iraqi forces and paramilitary militias consolidate their gains and prepare for further advances towards the city. Toxic black smoke from the burning oil wells in the nearby town of Qayyarah, set ablaze by retreating IS militants, fills the sky.

Iraqi troops take cover from IS sniper fire inside an abandoned house on the front line in the village of Ganus Al Ulya, south of Mosul, on December 7, 2016.

Iraqi soldiers and local militia fighters take cover form ISIS sniper fire inside one of the first liberated houses in the village of Ganus Al Ulya, south of Mosul, on December 7, 2016.