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'Russian roulette': A Photojournalist Spells Out The Risks Of Reporting In Syria

Following the deaths Wednesday of two more journalists in Syria, veteran French war photographer Patrick Chauvel offers an inside look at the perils - and appeal - of covering the Arab Spring uprisings. In Syria, he says, the protesters "are like

Journalist Marie Colvin was killed Feb. 22 while reporting in Syria (YouTube)
Journalist Marie Colvin was killed Feb. 22 while reporting in Syria (YouTube)
Delphine Roucaute

PARIS -- Two journalists died on Wednesday, February 22, in Syria, during continuing government attacks on the district of Baba Amr in the rebel stronghold of Homs. One of them, Rémi Ochlik, a Frenchman, was killed at the media center which had been under rocket attack since early morning. He is the seventh journalist to have been killed in Syria since the conflict began. Patrick Chauvel, a veteran photojournalist and war correspondent with 40 years of experience, has been covering the Arab revolutions. In March 2011, he was in Libya at the same time as Ochlik. He talks about the risks of photojournalism and the successive stages of violence in the conflicts since January 2011.

Le Monde: Why have so many young photographers been covering the Arab revolutions since they started?
Patrick Chauvel
: Everything began with Tunisia – it doesn't cost a lot to travel to North Africa from Europe, so many young people had enough savings to pay their way on their own. They didn't need a press card, or to be known; any photojournalist could decide to cover events. Unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, you didn't have to show your credentials. In Libya, the rebels were completely disorganized, and it was a real opportunity for young professionals to get exposure. It was similar in Yugoslavia, where new talent also distinguished itself.

There were probably some 50 of us in Libya. I liked seeing all these young people coming in. Sure, they were full of themselves – hungry, fired up by the adventure. But it was great to see them tackle the job. They asked a lot of questions about the nature of the work itself. But they also questioned whether the Libyan cause was just, if France was right to intervene militarily. They wanted to know if -- particularly as independent journalists -- there was any future in photojournalism in terms of earning a living, what with the development of the Internet. They were good people.

But you also had the ones who showed up completely unprepared, with a lack of awareness due to their young age, no idea about things like first aid in case of injury, with poor survival reflexes. When bullets are flying in all directions, trying to hide behind a car is like trying to hide behind a sheet of paper. The only option is to run.

How is Syria different from the other Arab conflicts?
Up until Syria, it was war, but the conflicts weren't very violent. In Syria on the other hand the conflicts are intense. In Tunisia, only one photographer -- a 32-year-old Frenchman named Lucas Mebrouk Dolega – was killed. Egypt was dangerous. If you ended up alone with the police they'd grab you, take you into a side street, and beat you up. There were some terrible stories, like the two journalists Caroline Sinz and Mona Eltahawy who were sexually assaulted right in the middle of the crowds. But there was never any question of summary executions.

In Libya, it was a war with some dangerous moments. There were mortar projectiles with completely random trajectories. Five journalists were killed. In Syria the level of violence goes up a notch. Syrian authorities don't want images of what's going on getting out, so they have no hesitation about arresting journalists, torturing them or executing them.

Under what conditions do journalists work under, particularly in Syria?
Getting into Syria is not easy. You have to crawl under barbed wire at a border patrolled by snipers, then yomp for miles on a motorcycle or on horseback – like that New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid did, the one who died of an asthma attack just recently. Then it's cold, and there's nothing, not even electricity, which complicates things further still if you want to send photographs. So you have to find whatever way you can to get them across the border, the way you did back in the days when we still used film. On top of that, the Syrian army really doesn't want you to be there. In January, when Gilles Jacquier was killed, a lot of people got cold feet.

And then there's the question of money. I remember when I left for Libya, I managed to get two different papers to give me 1,800 euros. But I had to shell out 1,700 euros for a taxi to drive me 18 hours to get to the combat zone, and then I only had 100 euros to live on. Fortunately, journalists in field situations like that help each other out. If somebody has the money to pay for a car and driver, for example, they'll take the others along.

But you work alone. On the front line, you try to be on your own so your pictures aren't the same as the others. You're there to work. It's only when you get back to the hotel that there's time for jokes or discussion. I remember once a young journalist came to see me and he asked how to stay safe in this job. "Stay in Paris," I told him.

And despite everything, you still feel like going on?
Yes. This isn't actually a job -- it's a way of life. When I see what the Syrians are going through now, I just want one thing and that's to go to Syria and tell their story. They're like people drowning, calling for help. Not to go would almost be like not coming to the help of an endangered person.

The death of these journalists Rémi Ochlik and Marie Colvin is very sad. Rémi was sincere, a young man with a whole future ahead of him. But both of them died doing their jobs, nobody made a mistake. When you're in an armed conflict with civilians, it's Russian roulette. The crucial thing is continuing to send journalists to Syria so that they can go on telling the story.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - YouTube

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