©Shelly Kittleson
©Shelly Kittleson

Shelly Kittleson is a freelance journalist, originally from the US and currently based in Baghdad. She visited Syria for the first time in 2012, after starting her career in reporting in Afghanistan. Working in conflict zones as a freelancer means that Kittleson has to accept and plan for a certain amount of risk.

‘Unfortunately as a freelancer I can’t really afford a flak jacket a lot of the time,’ she said. ‘I try to borrow them, I rent them, if I can, I try to make sure I have some sort of protection but unfortunately that doesn’t always keep you safe.

‘The first time I got into Syria, I was nervous for a few days before, because sometimes they would let people across the border, sometimes they wouldn't,’ she said.

‘However, once you’re inside the country all of that disappears, and you focus on what you're doing and you feel it's so important to document what's going on.”

'It’s very difficult to talk about sometimes'

Interviewer: “How did you begin your career in photography?”

Shelly Kittleson: “Basically, at the same time as I began my career in journalism, which was in late 2010, I took off for Afghanistan and started writing and taking photos there.”

Interviewer: “I mean, why did you want to get into journalism and specifically journalism about conflict, I suppose.”

Shelly: “I'd have to say that that is due in part to National Geographic, let's say. My grandmother collected them. I'm from a very poor family in in the Midwest, in Wisconsin and I'm, yeah, no, it was it was basically that National Geographic, the, the desire to be a part of documenting history and some in some form and war does determine the course of history, so I wanted to be a part of that basically.”

Interviewer: “Why the focus on Afghanistan? Presumably, was that just uppermost and in the news agenda at the time when you left?”

Shelly: “It's, it's a long story, I actually had studied Russian. I, I left the US when I was 19 and initially cleaned houses and did a variety of jobs before eventually getting into various things. I, I taught English, I translated, then I started translating the news, which was getting close to where I wanted to be, and I was also studying Russian part time and I came up, I did want to go to a conflict zone, but I wanted to kind of go into it a bit slowly, you know, you do need to transition in some in some way and I do think that's important for photographers and journalists not to just, you know, jump in. So I went to Tashkent, then went down overland. Tashkent, the idea being that I could also practise my Russian and if I could get across the border then to see from there just to take it from there basically and that's what I did, and it worked out in the end. I got local transport alone and started filling a few stories from Kabul, went back to Italy because I had moved to Italy when I was 19 and then and then kept going and coming from Afghanistan. And then Syria I started in 2012, late 2012 was the first time I went into Syria, which is where I saw actual conflict for the first time. I mean, when we're speaking about Afghanistan I was never embedded with the troops, so at the most I would come to an area where an attack had happened or et cetera and I did a few radio documentaries, one of which was on legal reforms. I spoke to quite a few people who spoke to me about war and who continued to be affected in some way, but it wasn't full on conflict, no. No one was bombing you in Afghanistan.”

Interviewer: “OK, so when you did encounter conflict for the first time, did that, how did that experience stack up to how you might have imagined it?”

Shelley: “Honestly, the first time I got into Syria for a few days before I was a bit nervous, of course. And then it was a matter of not being sure exactly how I could get across the border, because sometimes they would let journalists in, sometimes they wouldn't. And I'm yeah, I know but once inside the country, I mean, all of that, the worries, the fears, et cetera, just disappear and you focus on what you're doing. And you, you do feel alive more than more than perhaps you do in other places, and you feel that it's so important to document certain things. I don't know, like cluster bombs. Now, I mean, I can have a lot of photographic evidence showing that they did use cluster bombs in Idlib in 2012, which of course, if I hadn't been there, I couldn't document it. In terms of the after effects though, I mean clearly, I was under bombing every day there. So, when you come out, you immediately want to, or at least I immediately, whenever a plane went overhead had thought about how I could hide or what, you know, I mean if they were to drop a bomb. It's just instinctually you, you look for a place to hide before you realise you know you're no longer in a war zone. So that did have that effect on me afterwards.”

Interviewer: “How did you manage to get in? I would like to ask and then secondly, yeah, how developed were your sort of networks and contacts when you when you got there?”

Shelley: “The first time I went in it was with someone, a Syrian who was a friend of a Syrian I had met in Egypt because when I was reporting in Egypt, I also got in contact with the distant community there. A number of people who've been tortured. One incident was a Syrian who was in his early 20s and he we, we, we. Met at this, this cafe or whatever, and then he wanted to take me home to show me his scars. He had scars all across the back were burning water have been poured over him. He had been a law student. And so anyway, yeah, I, I knew these people, they put me in contact with some people who were going in and working with the setting up of civil administration councils in, in those times. And so that was basically my, my way in was with them was this time round. Then I subsequently found different people to go in with, which I thought was useful. I mean, if you always go in with the same fixer, the same person. You don't get to see as broad a picture of the fighting itself.”

Interviewer: “How do you go about working with fixers and other people when you're in country, how do how do you select your, the people you work with?”

Shelley: “As a freelancer, quite a lot is determined by my, let's say, inability to pay much. You cannot use the same fixers as, as, as the large television stations do, because once some of them get used to a certain amount of daily, they just won't work for less. And that holds true in all conflict zones. Syria, of course, there were quite a few media activists who were willing to help as much as they could to get you in to help put you in contact with, with rebel groups and so forth sometimes to translate, of course you still pay but yes, you, you don't pay as much as you would for example now in Mosul, but you've got quite a few Kurdish fixers who have been working with the Peshmerga who were taking, you know, a sixth of what they're taking now for giving people to Mosul and, and quite a few journalists are finding it very, very difficult to cover the fight specifically because of that.

Now Syria, you had a different situation because of course these people, this was their revolution, they, they call it a revolution. So, they believed in it. So quite a few would try to help you as much as they could.”

Interviewer: “You mentioned going in with various different groups of people to try and get as much of a view of the different perspectives. I mean, how do you balance out, obviously there's a lot of agendas and I mean how, how do you deal with that aspect of your work?”

Shelley: “In terms of as the photographer, I mean there's not that much that you really have to have to balance. I mean the, the images there as journalists, clearly a different story. You verify facts on the ground, which is very important. I, I don't believe in the journalists who are writing only from border areas or from Beirut, for example, I find that problematic. If you're only in contact with media inside and don't actually go in to see that's definitely problematic. However, as of March of 2015, we have no longer been allowed by the Turkish authorities to cross the border at Baba Salam, which was the main cross which was actually the only crossing for quite some time where they would allow us to go legally. They would stamp us in and stamp us out because on the other side of the border there was an office run by well in late 2014, it was the Islamic Front, which was a coalition of rebel forces that had fairly good control of territory in the Aleppo province. Now, if there was a different story, was more dangerous. Even those of us who would go in through this border crossing and then go to Idlib. I mean, I remember having to in 2012, I didn't even wear a headscarf in Idlib, no problem whatsoever with the exception of once in a Civil Administration Council meeting since it was being held in the basement of a mosque. In that case I had to wear headscarf, but otherwise no, it was no problem. As of 2013 I already had to wear a headscarf, as of 2014, early 2014, through certain checkpoints I already had to wear a niqab to get through and then when I got to Jaylakah for example in the Latakia region mountains because I, I had to go in clearly and cross Aleppo province in the province, so forth. Yeah, no, I, certain checkpoints you did have to wear a niqab and then I was in that time travelling with the defected officer who could get me across, but it would be problematic for him as much as for me because there was this conflict between the various groups.”

Interviewer: “You said that as a photographer, you don't think that you. Yeah, the images there. I'm sure that, that is, that is very true in in your work, but I feel like there's a possibility for images to be miss or recontextualized or utilised in problematic ways, I mean.”

Shelley: “Oh definitely the captions will do quite a bit of that though. I mean I've seen incidents in which for example people who had nothing to do with ISIS have been, a caption of a photo was quite infamously among the journalist community at least they, they in the YPG held territory they were taking someone who had nothing to do with ISIS, and in the caption of the photo that because the way he told the person this ones from ISIS, they put down that they're taking a prisoner who was from the Islamic State, but people who knew him said absolutely not. So clearly the captions once again, words, though, are what generally determine whether you are being fair. Balanced in Syria you could basically either go with the opposition groups or with the regime. I, after going in to see the opposition territories would be considered a terrorist by the regime most likely unless I went through some sort of an intermediary who could vouch for me and so forth with the regime. Anyone who's there is considered a terrorist in the opposition territories. Photographer, a journalist, whatever by the regime. So, in terms of balance, I mean you, you write what's on the ground, you verify information and you try to get as much in terms of facts as you can out. I, I would imagine it's more just a matter of  being honest, not so much of balancing. Of course, if there are facts, if something is happening in regime territory and we know that, and we know that that is why that is affecting the opposition held territories, we do need to put that in articles.”

Interviewer: “Has it, has it changed at all? You know the terms of the conflict in Syria throughout the time you've been covering it?”

Shelley: “There were periods in which it seemed that, yeah, clearly the two sides would have to negotiate when the opposition groups were winning, let's say in certain areas and then it was possible that, you know, the regime would be made to, to negotiate with them in some form. And then of course when countries intervened militarily, I mean there was some foreign intervention, of course, from the very beginning, there was always foreign funding of both the regime and opposition groups, but actual, you know when, when Russia stepped in and started carrying out air strikes, of course, that changed the game quite a lot. And there have been foreign militias from the very beginning. Of course within the opposition groups there that and foreign fighters but there have been complete, obviously foreign militias on the regime side. This has all changed the dynamics clearly. So yes, there have been so many different developments throughout. It’s a very interesting conflict, extremely complex though, and very difficult to talk about sometimes in all of its different facets.

But, but yeah, one thing I have noticed though is that people tend to treat this war as almost a sort of football match. I mean, in terms of the general public, you're either on one side or the other and, and they don't really want to discuss it as what it really is or they wanted in the initial period, we heard a lot of comparisons with Afghanistan. This is the second Afghanistan foreign fighters being sent in and so forth and I think these comparisons are extremely detrimental and, and finally, even here, now that I'm in Iraq, many Iraqis think that Syria is something that it isn't. And I have Syrians that I have been in contact with for years who think Iraq is something that it's not. I mean, they're so close to each other but, but they're very, very different situations. We don't, we don't focus on that enough, I think.”

Interviewer: “So how would you characterise the conflict there? When you say it's, it's not a football match, which obviously it isn't. But what, where do you think sort of the nexus of the complication is that people aren't really understanding maybe in the west?”

Shelley: “So very many different things really. I mean, they don't have any idea of the history of the country. Clearly, they see a President in power who's educated abroad, who wears a suit and so forth. So, it is really the image that we have become a society which deals much more in images now than, than in words we don't read as much, and I think that that has affected it quite a lot. We're not used to dealing with complexity as much I think, and I think that that has hurt our humanity and our ability to reason.”

Interviewer: “Some of those images you sent a couple of images that you very kindly sent through. I was hoping that you might be able to talk me through one of them if it has any particular significance to you and how you might tell me about how that came about or that particular image?”

Shelley: “Yeah, 23 one with two little girls, which yeah, they were crossing to get some aid from another side of the city and they were going alone but they, of course, were covered because it was just safer for them. But they were going alone, they had no, they had no parents. Another one was just fighting one well known square in Aleppo. The other one with the little boys perhaps I could speak a little bit more about that. That was in, I’m trying to remember the area. It's, it's in the old city of Aleppo, and it was in early days in January of 2015, I believe it was maybe the 2nd of January, I think because I was there for New Year’s Eve except for that particular period. And on that street, I just came across this, this barrel bombing that had happened the previous night, that the boys are looking at the, the remains of a school and part of a mosque had been damaged and a house and all the rubble, which was basically blocking the road. I had been there the night before, a few houses down to speak to some of the media activists, and then I went back the next morning because one had offered to translate with, to speak to a fighter another person. So, I went back the next morning and didn't even realise that this because barrel bombs are so frequent. They were, obviously now the regime has taken that area and it is all of the people that were there, all of the inhabitants original inhabitants of that area, have since been moved to Idlib, which they are now basically an IDP camps that are under bombs again. In any case in that time in the old city. Yes, I went there and those, there there had been a barrel bomb just after midnight the night before. It luckily didn't kill all that many people, but there had been a woman who had maybe I think she had about six children and she was pregnant with another one and she had gone out into the street with her sister to wait for her husband to find a car because she was going to labour. And when the barrel bomb hit it, I mean the rubble, she was, her body was still under the rubble when we went the next morning, her body and that of her sister because but they were the only ones killed luckily. But yeah, I met some good children. I photographed the children and so forth, and women in mourning as well. But yeah, that's the story of the picture is that the, the little boys, were, they came out, I believe, in bikes. Yeah, one of the ones was he’s on a bike and they're just looking at the street because I hadn't seen it yet. I mean, it's their neighbourhood just to see the latest change to the landscape, the urban landscape. But while I was there, another plane was heard overhead, which I have some other photos of children looking up, some starting to run and things because obviously a plane overhead could mean only one thing more bombs. The regime was there for that.”

Interviewer: “A kind of a distillation of that moment, of which that, as you say, they've discovered something and then they're under threat and all happening at once.”

Shelley: “Yeah, it was just such a daily occurrence, barrel bombs. So, they would go and, and see what, what had changed, find out who, who had died. I published a lot in the Middle East with AL Monitor. In that particular time period I was working a lot for IPS, but I mean working a lot for that meant going in, getting the story, coming out and then selling the, the photos and the story, which of course though is very, very problematic because sometimes you would end up spending more than you would make, unfortunately as a freelancer and that also when you were exposed to so much risk. Syria was a problem also for that in that from 2013 on when you had that spate of kidnappings and afterwards many, many journalists that ended up getting killed, including one who I knew, one who I was, actually the last foreign journalist to, to speak to because we were at that media office just across the border. Kenji Goto the Japanese journalist. We went in on the same day at, the 24th, I believe 2014. And then he ended up getting into ISIS territory, trusting people he should not have and being beheaded. But in any case, after 2013, many publications just stopped accepting work from freelancers, which meant that so much did not end up getting published, and so we've sort of shot ourselves in the foot with that, I think, because even though it was bad going in with no protection and nobody saying yes or no before you went in, so nobody had any sort of liability. It's worse when you actually do this, come out and then can't publish some of it, you know. And that's once again, as I said, are both the policy decisions and for the historical record we're losing out on so much there. So, the initial, you know, advocacy for freelancers which is what they said that this was, you know, I mean to help freelancers get better working conditions and that, you know, to tell publications that they shouldn't send freelancers in or accept work freelancers if they wouldn't send their staff in. OK, fine but in the end, this just meant that not they didn't send their staff and they didn't accept work for freelancers. So, all they were getting were people writing from border areas, which really isn't reporting.”

Interviewer: “Some other people I've spoken to sort of identified that there's the rising tide of citizen journalism, or what you might call the media activists who are putting this, the footage from them is turning up on, you know, on the 10 o’clock news and things like this. Do you think that that has impacted on that decision to use fewer freelancers in conflict zones as well cheaper?”

Shelley: “Definitely. It's cheaper. Yeah, I think that many of these guys have done an incredible job. They're very, very dedicated, of course they are partial, obviously. Perhaps with photography, it's not as much of an issue as with, you know, the written word and reporting. All the same, I mean the they're they're they're very useful and I do think that many media organisations did end up exploiting them quite a lot. But that said, they're exploiting freelancers. It's the world of journalism has changed a lot, and unfortunately this has come at the same time as such an important war, Syria. Change for the worse.”

Interviewer: “Do you think that big media organisations do actually have a responsibility to freelancers. As you were saying, to actually employ them rather than seek to protect them by refusing to accept their work?”

Shelley: “Yes, they do have a responsibility to, to pay decent rates and to at least look at the work and not just to say we have a policy of not accepting work from Syria because it's too dangerous. But isn't that what conflict reporting is?”

Interviewer: “And just one last, on that note. How do you go about balancing the elements of personal risks that are involved in your work with your kind of responsibility to your yourself and your family to, to stay alive, basically?”

Shelley: “I'm well, I don't really have a family much, so that's no no, that's that's fine. But I mean, and that has definite advantages in my line of work in terms of I have nobody who's going to, I mean, I don't have children, I don't have a husband. I don't have all of these people around who could be, you know very worried about me or negatively affected if something happened to me.

In terms of risk assessment and so forth, of course, I do think I've built up my instincts quite a lot, which is very, very useful. Both initially in Afghanistan and then in Syria, and I'm always very careful about who I go into these areas with. I mean, that's the major thing. I think really I mean know the person you're feel comfortable with, the person you're going with. I always bring a medical kit with me. I did hostile environment training in 2014 and did a refresher last year. So, you know, basic first aid and I'm able to do if unfortunately as a freelancer, I really can't afford a flak jacket a lot of times I can borrow, I rent them if I can. I, I try to make sure that I have some sort of protection that doesn't always protect you either. So, yeah, you, you try to do what you can, but then you say, you know, the work is also important.”

Opposition-held Aleppo, January 2015 ©Shelly Kittleson
Opposition-held Aleppo, January 2015 ©Shelly Kittleson

One of the most striking images captured by Kittleson during her time in Syria shows two young boys in a street in Aleppo, looking at the damage caused by a barrel bomb that had fallen near their house.

‘That was taken in January 2015, I was in Aleppo for New Year,’ she said. ‘The boys are looking at the remains of a school, a mosque and a house. I had been visiting the street the night before and had come back in the morning, I hadn’t realised the bomb had even landed as bombings were so frequent at the time.

‘Luckily, relatively few people were killed, but unfortunately a pregnant woman and her sister who had been waiting in the street for a car to taken them to hospital, they had died. Their bodies were still under the rubble when we arrived. I think the pregnant woman had six other children. The boys were there examining this new change to the landscape that the bomb had caused.’

Opposition-held Aleppo, late 2014 ©Shelly Kittleson
Opposition-held Aleppo, late 2014 ©Shelly Kittleson

The changing nature of the conflict was reflected in the different arrangements Kittleson had to make while travelling around Syria during the course of the time she spent there.

“In 2012, I didn't have to wear a headscarf in Idlib, I had no problems except once when I went to a meeting in the basement of a mosque,” she said.

‘By 2013 I already to wear a headscarf and as of 2014 to get through certain checkpoints I had to wear a niqab.

‘However as of March 2015 we've not been allowed by the Turkish authorities to cross legally at the border by Bab al-Salam which was the main crossing for quite some time, where they would stamp us in and stamp us out.

Opposition-held Aleppo, January 2015 ©Shelly Kittleson
Opposition-held Aleppo, January 2015 ©Shelly Kittleson

Having experienced the conflict first hand, Kittleson says that international response to the events unfolding in Syria often fails to take into the complexity involved.

‘It’s very difficult to talk about sometimes in all its different facets,’ she said. ‘Once thing I have noticed is that people tend to treat this war like a football match almost, you're either on one side or another, and they don't really want to discuss it as what it really is.

‘People don't have any idea of the history of the country, they see a president in power who has been educated abroad and wears a suit and so forth, it's a particular image.

‘We have become a society that deals much more in images than words, we don't read so much and I think that has affected it quite a lot, we're not used to dealing with complexity as much and I think that has hurt our humanity let's say, and our ability to reason.’

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