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Risk, Security and Storytelling

Risk, Security and Storytelling

​Five years ago this April my best friend, Tim Hetherington, died in Libya. The story is well known among war reporters; and, thanks to Tim’s wide appeal as a storyteller, the details of what happened on 20th April 2011 have reached a global audience.

A movie; a book; and dozens of magazine and newspaper articles have laid out what happened for all to see: a group of photographers set off to work on the frontline between rebels and government forces on Tripoli Street in the Libyan city of Misrata - at that time likely the most dangerous place on earth.

It’s eerily quiet. And then a mortar bomb falls.
Tim’s femoral artery is severed by shrapnel. His colleague Chris Hondras is killed by the blast; photographer Guy Martin is left severely injured. Tim is loaded into the back of a pick-up truck, and driven the ten minutes to a relatively well equipped hospital. When he arrives, the crash team work furiously to revive him. But no matter how hard you pump a dead man’s heart, you cannot bring him back. Tim had bled to death on the way.
Here’s something that’s not so well known: none of the journalists on Tripoli Street had a medical kit to hand that day, Tim included. Not only that, but the injured were the only ones who had any idea how to respond to a medical emergency. And so it was that Tim’s well-meaning, decent colleagues could only stand by impotently and watch him fade away.
Here’s something else you may not know: Tim’s injury was treatable. Stopping the bleeding and fixing a complex wound in the back of a pick-up truck? Extremely difficult. Slowing the bleeding enough to keep Tim’s heart beating until he reached the crash team? Entirely possible.
A small amount of kit and even just a day of training combined with the right attitude can help make sure that you, and your friends, colleagues – damn, even total strangers – have the best chance possible of surviving the worst.
But nothing comes of nothing.
Five years down the line, and I’m still angry – not with anyone in particular, but with everyone in my profession with the wrong attitude. That attitude is called ignorance. And it’s as potentially fatal as a lump of shrapnel.
I’m angry with people who think it will never happen to them; with people who’d rather carry an extra lens, or battery pack or laptop than a medical kit; with people who think that a risk assessment is just a box to tick or that getting insurance is a hassle. I’m angry with everyone in the industry who just can’t be bothered to take the extra hour, spend the extra dollar, or go the extra mile to ask “what could possibly go wrong?” - and then plan for it.

And it’s not just about the stuff that goes bang, either.

I’ve been in more firefights than I can remember. But I’ve never been shot. I have been almost fatally incapacitated by drinking a glass of dirty water though. Without the right kit to kill them amoebas can be just as deadly as bullets.

I’ve spent most of the last twenty years filming conflict. I’ve watched as frontline journalism has been transformed by technology and a tidal wave of brave, young, talented photographers, producers, writers, DoPs and reporters getting out there and getting their boots dirty so we can better understand conflict and hold to account those who prosecute it and profit from it.
What I want most of all is for the flesh and blood behind that talent, using that technology, to work as safely and productively as possible. Assignments in hostile environments are neither holidays nor fishing trips: they are serious endeavours that require meticulous planning and a professional attitude.

You might think that after so many high profile deaths, and with so many affordable training options available, proper planning for the freelancer would be a no brainer.
You’d be wrong.
Last year, while covering the end of the battle for Kobani, I was unfortunate enough to encounter several journalists who had neither medical training nor equipment; barely enough camera kit to keep filming; little or no cash; no insurance and no exit plan. I say unfortunate, because when I’m filming in a war zone it’s the person I’m standing next to in whose hands my own life might end up.
Or yours. 
Think about that for a moment.
Fortunately it’s as possible to prepare for the worst as it is easy to fall prey to poor planning.
That’s why on March 12th I’m going to reason, shout, beg, cajole and plead with my friends and colleagues – frankly anyone who will listen - to remind them that yes, the worst can happen to you - but you can also do something about it. With Matt Timblin, director of security at Human Rights Watch, I’m going to spend a couple of hours on my feet at the Barbican in London explaining how to plan a shoot in a hostile environment, what to do while you’re there, and what to do when you get back.
I can’t make you bullet proof. But I can help you to help yourself. All you really need is the right attitude. 

The Risk, Security and Storytelling Workshop takes place at 4pm on Saturday 12 March at the Barbican, London. It is organised by the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and presented in partnership with RPT. Tickets cost £25.00 including a drinks reception after the workshop.

Image: James Brabazon and Peter Oborne reporting from Baquba, Iraq, 2005.

James Brabazon is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in the UK, he has travelled to over 70 countries, investigating, filming, and directing in the world’s most hostile environments. He is the author of the international bestseller My Friend the Mercenary, a memoir recounting his experiences of the Liberian civil war and the Equatorial Guinea coup plot. He is currently the commissioning editor for the Foreign Film Fund, Channel 4 News. James first gained an international profile as the only journalist to film the Liberian LURD rebel group fighting to overthrow President Charles Taylor. James’s work has often involved filming close-quarter combat, for which he was awarded the IDA Courage Under Fire Award 2004 and the Rory Peck Trust Sony International Impact Award 2003. He is a Trustee of the Rory Peck Trust and provides camera, edit and risk assessment and security protocol awareness training for Channel 4’s Dispatches Investigative Journalism Trainee Scheme.


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