In war-torn Middle East, freelance journalists hunt for stories and sales

by Daniel Lombroso


Since the Arab Spring began five years ago, much of what the Western world knows about the Middle East has been produced by a new band of freelance journalists on the front lines of the world’s most dangerous conflicts. Travelling to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya without the backing of major media outlets, these young journalists have little formal training or resources required to safely cover stories in the region. On a good day, they earn $70 USD for a report from the front lines of the Syrian Civil War. For young journalists reporting from the Middle East, they weigh a hazardous lifestyle with the opportunity to write and witness history as it’s being made.

Jake Simkin, 34, was a commercial photographer in Australia before deciding to become a freelance war photographer a decade ago. Although he was earning a steady income shooting music videos and commercials, Simkin was uninspired by his comfortable life in Melbourne. After a brief stint photographing victims of the tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004, Simkin reassessed his career.

“I came back home and told my friends about the horrible things I had seen [after the tsunami],” Simkin explained. “I found that people in Australia were so consumed by material needs, [but] I became obsessed with the idea of wanting to know what it meant to live and experience all emotions in life.”

In 2008, Simkin booked a one-way ticket to Kabul, Afghanistan, and began his career as a freelance photojournalist in the midst of the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Speaking only a few words of the Persian language Dari, Simkin worked with fixers—translators knowledgeable of the local terrain—to help him find and cover stories.

“As a journalist, you are exposed to horrible things, but you try your best to create change. I look for hope in very difficult places. There are people who haven’t given up on life, even in Afghanistan. Their stories need to be told.”

Jake discusses his work in Melbourne, Australia for an upcoming documentary. Photo: Cassie De Colling

While many of the Western journalists were fearful of leaving the American compound at that time, Simkin rode his motorcycle all through Kabul and even into the tribal regions of the country in search of better stories. In a decade of work, Simkin has sold his photographs to the Associated Press, the Guardian, and The New York Times.

“As a journalist, you are exposed to horrible things, but you try your best to create change,” Simkin said. “I look for hope in very difficult places. There are people who haven’t given up on life, even in Afghanistan. Their stories need to be told.”

Throughout this experience, Simkin formed invaluable relationships that continue to resonate with him. One of Simkin’s earliest friends in Afghanistan was Nowab, a street kid he taught to skateboard.

“Nowab was [the journalists’] favourite,” Simkin recalled. “He was such a smart kid. He taught himself English.”

One day, Nowab spotted a suicide bomber near the American compound in Kabul. As Nowab tried to report the incident to the Afghan security forces, the bomber panicked and pulled the mechanism in his suicide vest. When Simkin received a phone call notifying him of the news, he realized just how integrated his life had become with his career.

“I felt a real sense of loss for a younger brother,” Simkin said. “Nowab, like Afghanistan, had become a part of me.”

In the years since Nowab’s death, Simkin has lost many other close friends and faced life-threatening situations himself. The ubiquity of death is perhaps the only predictable part of his job.

In Somalia last year, Simkin was riding in an ambulance when teenage Al-Shabab militants attacked the car with AK-47 rifles, killing the driver and the medic in the front passenger’s seat.

“I was knocked out cold and covered in blood,” Simkin recalled. “I only survived because the Al-Shabab fighters assumed I was dead.”

He paused for a moment.

“This job certainly isn’t for everyone.”

The foreign correspondent has always had a reputation for being a daredevil. In the earlier days of print media however, the risk of conflict-zone reporting came with a daily byline, a stable staff-writer position, and a steadily accumulating 401 K.

Today, the equation has fundamentally changed. With media outlets downsizing every year, the biggest newspapers are increasingly relying on freelancers who are cheaper to pay and require none of the traditional benefits promised to contract workers. Many argue that this hands-off relationship allows newspapers to receive the best reporting from the Middle East without covering any of the risk.

For freelancers trying to make a living, the competition is fierce. Since only a finite number of outlets are buying articles to begin with—most digital media organizations now simply aggregate existing reports—journalists are incentivized to take more dangerous risks in pursuit of stories that sell.

Over the past few years, Iraq and Syria have become perhaps the single most popular area for young freelance journalists to launch their careers. In this region, there are sometimes as many journalists as local militia fighters.

             Locations travelled — Allen: diamonds, Jake: markers

Two months ago, Simkin crossed the Turkish border into Kobani, Syria, to cover the battle between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Kurdish YPG, and Islamic State (IS). He had recently been expelled from a group supporting freelance journalists in the Middle East for his repeated entry into Syria, but had since established an amicable relationship with a Turkish intelligence official and was granted permission to re-enter the country.

Following a small unit from the FSA in Kobani, Simkin came under fire from IS militants and took refuge in one of the town’s bombed-out buildings. IS fighters emerged from a smoke plume moments later and shot the lead FSA commander metres from where Simkin was hiding. When the fighting ceased, Simkin emerged from the rubble and helped carry the wounded commander to the Turkish-Syrian border. After receiving medical attention in Turkey, he survived his wounds.

Allan Kaval, a 25-year-old journalist, was one of the many other people reporting on Kobani in those days of fighting between the FSA, the YPG, and IS. His story is typical of this new crop of freelancers covering the region. Originally from Paris, Kaval long studied the Kurdish issue, but only saw an opportunity to report on it professionally after the unrest began in Iraq and Syria. Today, he reports from Erbil, Iraq and sells the majority of his work to Le Monde in France. He has reported on some of the year’s biggest stories, including the humanitarian disaster of the Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar and the Kurdish front against IS, where he blends macro-level geopolitics in his coverage with personal stories of those affected on the ground.

My path crossed with Kaval’s one year ago at a government building in Southeastern Turkey just as his journalism career was taking off. I was shooting a documentary film on the dwindling Assyrian Christian community in Turkish Kurdistan and was waiting to interview the province’s Christian governor, Februniye Akyol: Kaval had just learned about the IS takeover of Mosul, and was hoping that a local Kurdish official would know where he could find a hole in the fence to cross into Iraq and cover the story.

Kaval and I spent a few restless hours together waiting for our respective interviews, and we quickly bonded over the dangers of Middle East reporting. As a student journalist and filmmaker graduating this spring, I held abstract fantasies about travelling to war-torn regions and reporting on the defining conflicts of our day. Still, Turkish Kurdistan, a comparatively safe part of the region, was the furthest I was willing to go in pursuit of a story. Surely, my nervous mother would not be too fond of me spending my evenings in bombed-out sections of Syria and Iraq.

Allan interviews a Sunni refugee at a camp near Khanaqin, Iraq. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

I ultimately split from Kaval to go talk to Akyol, but found his take on the craft incredibly insightful for aspiring journalists like myself. Kaval rebels against the characterization of the freelancer as an adventurer. Humble and introspective, he sees himself as a vital chronicler of history.

“People don’t choose war,” Kaval said. “They are only suffering the consequences of a war that has been decided by other people. The most important thing is to record these terrible stories, and through them, try to make sense of this bloodshed.”

Some of the most harrowing stories Kaval has covered have been on the border between Iraq and Iran, where Iranian-backed Shiite militias have ravaged Sunni villages. In one village, all of the residents fled an impending invasion by Shiite militia, but were unable to bring one of the town’s mentally ill citizens along with them. When the militia arrived to find a ghost town, they beheaded the lone handicapped man and kicked his head around as if it were a soccer ball.

“He was a mentally ill person,” Kaval lamented. “He couldn’t hurt anybody. He couldn’t even wash his body or eat for himself. It’s always the same horrible stories, every single day.”

For Kaval, the hardest part of being a freelancer is not the lack of a steady income or the daily dangers, but the difficulty of balancing a personal life with his professional duties.

“In the morning, I go meet people who have been kidnapped, abused, raped, and then return to my hotel and talk to my parents about the tiny problems they have at work, with family, or with the coffee machine,” Kaval said. “It’s surreal to, on the same day, inhabit two such different worlds.”

Jake, left, rides on a tank stolen from the Syrian regime by the FSA. Photo: Lindsey Snell

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg argued that journalists in the Middle East can no longer be assured of their safety.

“Extremists don’t need a middleman anymore,” Goldberg commented, with reference to the Jihadi groups’ use of social media to disseminate their messages. “Journalists have been replaced by YouTube.” In the past, “the transaction worked for both parties,” he explained. But now, journalists serve little purpose for extremists other than to be kidnapped for ransom or killed.

His cynical assessment is unfortunately proving to be correct. Last year, 61 journalists were killed in the field, among the highest numbers in history. Nearly half of those reporters are freelancers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. For reporters all over the region, this has been a soul-searching moment.

“Every journalist has thought to himself: If I take the wrong road, I could get kidnapped by [IS],” Kaval acknowledged. “It’s something that everyone keeps in mind every day when doing their work.”

Simkin agrees with Kaval that IS controlled areas are a no-go zone for journalists.

“[Reporting in] their territory is absolutely a death sentence,” Simkin says of the region controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “I am willing to go anywhere except for there, where the rate of failure is so high.”

Many of Simkin and Kaval’s contemporaries have been far less cautious. Earlier this year, Simkin was in a hotel in Turkey with Japanese journalist Kenji Goto the day before he left for IS-controlled Syria.

“I was one of the last people to see Kenji before he got captured,” Simkin said. “He never told anyone where he was going.”

On Jan. 30, 2015, Goto was beheaded by IS.

“If I knew he was going there, I would have convinced him that it was a bad, bad idea,” Simkin explained. “Still, I know it would have been hard to talk him out of it: He felt he had a duty to tell this story to the world.”

Contact Daniel at daniel [dot] lombroso [at] gmail.com or @daniellombroso