There are those incredible stories which makes us stop for a little while and break off from our daily routines. Such a talk was held on Thursday evening in the Frontline Club, moderated by Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson from Reuters. Her guests were Lenka Klicperová, a journalist and photographer, and Jarmila Štuková, a photographer and filmmaker. Their works covers issues of war, women’s inequality, poverty, and other social problems. During the talk the photojournalists spoke about their experiences and the challenges they’d faced while covering conflicts in the Middle-East. Focusing on Syria and Iraq they illustrated the stories with recent photographs of the daily lives of civilians and militias.
Klicperová’s and Štuková’s collaboration started in 2010 and since then their journey has led them to front lines, refugee camps and warzones. It is essential to have ‘good diplomatic skills, reliable contacts and a good interpreter’ – Lenka said – as it can prevent kidnapping or even worse. Their preparation involves hiring the so-called ‘fixers’ who are up-to-date with the local situation, and have reliable sources in the current state. As Lenka and Jarmila are freelancers it’s a challenge to organise the missions, but over the years they’ve built up a strong network they can rely on. They outlined how difficult it is to get permission to enter war zones, which sometimes they have waited days to enter. As correspondents, their aim’s to try to remain neutral as possible and to show both sides of the war. This is no easy task, as both sides want to be presented in a positive way. It’s also hard to filter out misleading propaganda, and to get authentic information. They can’t, they say, really predict what to expect: in some cases the media isn’t a reliable source, and occasionally they’ve found situations quite different from what they’ve seen in the news.
As female journalists, they’re particularly interested in women’s issues. In the Iraqi city of Erbil they met Christian Yazidi refuges, mostly widows and children. It’s hard to get access to these communities, and in the Muslim culture it’s a real challenge to live alone, without a man. Girls and women are often abused, or taken as sex slaves. In cultures with widespread prejudices against women, Lenka and Jarmila too have to face preconceptions, often told they can’t handle the situations they’re going into. But there are advantages as well – their empathy and compassion makes interviewees drop their guards, overcome their reticence (or shame) and prove more willing to share their stories.
On the Bashiqa frontline in 2015 Lenka and Jarmila found stories of young brave volunteers holding their positions. Without military qualifications or proper weapons, boys were shaking in fear over battles from which they had no chance of escape. Yet they were cheered up by the presence of these ladies: not having seen women for months, they even abandoned their positions, risking everyone’s lives. This was dangerous for all of them, made everyone’s job harder, and was really uncomfortable for the journalists. They had to learn how to be strict and, when necessary, to say no.
The journeys are mentally and physically demanding. The unbearable heat during the day and the cold at night, the burden of heavy helmet, backpack and photographic equipment requires you to be in peak condition. Yet the work’s largely worthwhile: it helps Lenka and Jarmila process the traumas, and the intense experiences gained on their assignments. They’re also actively involved of helping those people in need by organising different projects and charities.
However, many stories remain untold, including those whose consequences are yet to be seen by the rest of the world. In Mosul, one of the epicentres of the military operations against Islamic State, the Iraqis, after 2 years of fighting, took back the city. The last IS militias to surrender set fire to oil wells, causing an ecological crisis. In July 2016 Baghdad suffered one of the largest terrorist attacks of the decade. Over 200 were killed and hundreds injured. Lenka and Jarmila faced issues of hunger and poor hygiene, families living in decimated buildings, sometimes even on the front line. They find it crucial to raise awareness of the problems in the Middle-East, already affecting the whole world. ‘You have to know what you want to show,’ said Jarmila. ‘You have to take pictures to show the consequences.’
Not Far from the Black Flag was part of the ongoing programme of talks, lectures, panels and screenings at London’s Frontline Club.