Risks in capturing the real stories of conflict

Saumava Mitra // Special to Western News

Saumava Mitra, a Media Studies PhD student at Western, is working on a project about the difficulty an on-the-ground journalist may have in translating a local story for an external, international audience. He recently visited Afghanistan and talked to photojournalists who are not only trying to reconcile this professional conflict, but are also working under a looming threat of Taliban insurgents who don’t approve of images or individuals working with external, especially Western, organizations.

When he worked for the Associated Press (AP), as a journalist at the outlet’s New Delhi bureau in India, Saumava Mitra got a call for a story – there was a riot underway.

Riots in India generally mean one thing, explained the Media Studies PhD student at Western. It’s essentially code for a bloody religious clash.

“When we got to the (scene), it was something different entirely. I was on the phone with someone (from AP) in London (U.K.), asking me, ‘What’s going on?’ and I was trying to explain that this particular riot was not religious,” Mitra said.

It was then he realized the potential for difficulty an on-the-ground journalist may have in translating a local story for an external, international audience.

“The story was something else, but this particular person (in London) had a real difficulty understanding that because they are used to news of riots being for religious reasons.”
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Saumava Mitra

Saumava MitraRisks in capturing the real stories of conflict

How do on-the-ground journalists negotiate between the external demand that is put on them and what they see with their own eyes, and understand as happening, in their home country? This question became the inspiration for Mitra’s doctoral work.

“Suddenly you’re supposed to make sense of (what’s happening), like a tour guide, to someone who doesn’t know anything about your country. So I wanted to capture these stories, the stories of people who are stuck in between places,” Mitra explained.

His work took him to Afghanistan last fall, where Mitra spoke with local photojournalists who are employed by external news outlets.

These were individuals who not only have to reconcile the gap between employer expectations and first-hand cultural understanding of a story, Mitra noted, they also face threats from Taliban insurgents who are opposed to both images and western news organizations.

A photojournalist in Afghanistan is a rare thing to begin with. When the Taliban was in power, up until the early 2000s, a ban on photography was imposed, Mitra explained. Up until recently, photographs, and related news, coming out of Afghanistan, were not produced by locals.

“Here is a society where the obviousness of the photograph isn’t as obvious. It’s something people are still getting used to,” he said.

While in Kabul, Mitra spoke to 20 photojournalists who lived marginal lives, who previously worked for foreign news outlets. Aside from a looming threat from the Taliban, lack of copyright protection meant their photos were often poached and used without attribution or compensation. These were people who were at risk and struggling to make a living doing their jobs, Mitra said.

“They struggled to get the training and equipment that you and I could easily get, and they became photojournalists at a moment when you could say almost nobody in Afghanistan (was taking photos).”

“I thought their story has to be heard just because their position is so unique.”

Right now, Mitra is working in Tanzania and isn’t yet prepared to tell the full story. He hasn’t had the opportunity to sift through all of the material he gathered in Afghanistan and, because of that, he is hesitant to draw conclusions of how these individuals reconcile professional and cultural conflicts and how they negotiate their position as ‘local’ journalists who have to report ‘globally,’ he said.

In any case, he is thankful for the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan, where the implications of this conflict are somewhat incomparable.

His next step is to conduct a study comparing visual reportage by Afghan and non-Afghan photojournalists with the goal of seeing whether the cultural mindsets of Afghani photojournalists are reflected in the images they produce, or if professional rigors and international news-frames dictate their image choice to the extent that their own cultural understanding of their subject plays no part.

“In short,” Mitra said, “Do their editors sitting in London or New York call the shots after all, or are they able to tell stories of their own places?”