Moments on the frontline: A photojournalist’s perspective
Picture a photojournalist, working in Iraq or on assignment across the trouble spots of the Middle East and it creates a very distinct mental impression. Travelling light and moving fast, chasing stories for newspapers, wire services or for his own agency, Sebastian Meyer lives that life.
A veteran of embeds with US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, with stints in Libya and Syria, he admits he began covering the Middle East almost by accident, but that hasn’t stopped him making his own contribution to the region’s future.
Photo courtesy of Sebastian Meyer. Ras Lanuf, Libya: Rebels duck for cover after a pro-Gaddafi jet bombs their position.
And by his own account, it’s not all action, or even all bad news. Sometimes what his agency, Metrography, based in Sulaimaniyah, needs most is reliable communications in order to file the kind of everyday stories – business news, sports, culture – that feed demand in print and online.
The reliability piece gets a little easier from this year as Meyer has been sponsored by Thuraya and The Rory Peck Trust with a Thuraya IP+ broadband satellite terminal. This small, light high performance unit will be going in the kit bag to give the Metrography team an edge on filing stories, whatever their location.
“My camera bag is getting bigger these days but the Thuraya terminal is tiny so it fits in,” he laughs. “I file regularly for Voice of America where I’m cameraman, producer and reporter in one. Now using the Thuraya I could do a live piece, which is something I haven’t been able to do before.”
Meyer got to where he is the long way around, studying in the US and Europe before being exposed to the work of legendary photo agency Magnum and having something of an epiphany. “I had never heard of Magnum or even of photojournalism but I had a light bulb moment. Suddenly I knew what I was going to do with rest of my life,” he says.
Further teaching was followed by intern stints at Magnum and work for agencies and local press in New York City and Manchester, England all of which he says “was honing my craft, but failing to find a way to get paid to travel round world taking pictures”.
That is until the father of a friend, making a documentary about the 1988 Al-Anfal genocide asked him to take photographs for a museum that he'd been commissioned to build in Northern Iraq. Meyer first visited the country in 2008 and decided to stay after going back in 2009, tempted by the booming economy and plenty of work. It was only when a colleague suggested starting a local agency that the last piece fell into place.
“Iraq is a country like and unlike any other. They have musicians and athletes, culture and social activities. You don’t have to deal with bombs and explosions though that happens too,” he explains. “Our idea was to start an agency that could train local photographers to do the kind of thing that all photographers know how to do.”
As a result, the international press is already turning to local journalists, photographers and film-makers to tell those stories. Meyer says the Metrography’s work has to stand on its own merits, not just because it is easier for the foreign press to use local freelancers.
Meyer meanwhile continues to pursue his passions, shooting more and more video, a function he says of personal preference and market demand. Bigger budgets and improved technology have seen plenty of photographers move to the medium but he enjoys the process of film-making and the narrative element of documentary too.
It also increases the demand for reliable communications, hence the Thuraya IP+. For while power and internet infrastructure exist in northern Iraq, their unreliability makes filing problematic.
“I’ve used satellite communications before and the freedom and reliability it brings is extremely useful,” he says. “It can make the difference between breaking a news story and missing it. Or it means you can take part in an interview and not worry about the power going out just when you are going on air!”
Thuraya’s asymmetric IP streaming capability means Meyer can also consider requests to do live pieces to camera or over audio without needing a studio. When time permits he plans a trip to southern Iraq to get Iraqi youngsters online with their western counterparts to share experiences.
As may be obvious already, Meyer does not fit the template of the buccaneering photojournalist, though he happily admits to being in ‘life and death’ incidents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya when he came ‘awfully close to getting hurt’.
Even so, he says the process can also be mundane. Around Benghazi in Libya, the manner of the fighting afforded a relative routine.
“Every morning a bunch of us would get up meet at a hotel for breakfast and see what the vibe was that day. Then we’d jump in a car and drive an hour and a half to the front line. The fighting normally kicked off around mid-day so we’d photograph that, then dusk came and it would die down and we’d get back in the car, drive home have dinner and go to bed.
“There’s a quote from the American Civil War that describes soldiering as 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror and that really is true,” he adds. “It was literally like commuting to work. As the story came and went from the front pages we’d ask ourselves every day, do I want to go to the front line and put myself at greater risk?”
Even so, he doesn’t make light of those risks nor of the suffering of those in Libya, Syria or his adopted home, where violence continues to scar the country. “It does mean you are telling an extremely important story and sometimes putting your life at risk as well as putting your family through hell. It’s a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously.”