Photojournalist Nicole Tung on working in areas of unrest and conflict: 'There’s a lot more attacks on the press now'

The Hong Kong-born American photojournalist's works are part of Leica’s “Her Lens, Her Narrative” exhibition at ION Art Gallery until 26 November.

Nicole Tung, freelance photojournalist for international publications and NGOs
Nicole Tung, freelance photojournalist for international publications and NGOs (Photo: Jay Chan for Yahoo Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Throughout human history, the world has almost always been in conflict, with the latest being Israel’s war on Hamas after the attack on 7 October.

It can be difficult for many of us to make sense of whatever is going on in the world right now, because we are neither geopolitical experts nor living firsthand in areas of conflict. This is where the works of people like Nicole Tung are instrumental in helping us to understand the world a little more.

Currently residing in Istanbul, Nicole Tung is a freelance photojournalist who has photographed in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and more in the last decade.

According to Nicole, she started her photography journey when she was 15 years old and growing up in Hong Kong.

That was also when 9/11 happened, and the shocking acts of terrorism caught on mainstream television influenced how she saw the world with the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When she was in her first year of university at New York University, she decided to take a trip to Bosnia. “It had already been 10 years since the war passed, and I met a lot of people there who were telling me their stories,” she said.

After her interactions with the people who lived through the Bosnian War, Nicole felt that “photography was the best vehicle to convey those stories”.

She was only 18 or 19 at that time, but the trip to Bosnia left an indelible mark, and Nicole started to really pursue photojournalism.

She subsequently ended up photographing the Arab Spring in 2011 in Egypt, before doing work in other places of unrest, most notably in Syria and Ukraine.

Nicole's works on display in Leica's exhibit Celebration of Photography at Ion Art Gallery, including a picture of a daughter and father in an underground bunker. (Photo: Jay Chan for Yahoo Singapore)
Nicole's works on display in Leica's exhibit Celebration of Photography at Ion Art Gallery, including a picture of a daughter and father in an underground bunker (Photo: Jay Chan for Yahoo Singapore)

When asked what was her one work that resonated with her the most, Nicole mentioned her picture of a girl and her father “who were in an underground bunker in eastern Ukraine on 31 December 2022”.

“They had been living in the bunker since February or March, so they’ve been there for many months because they were too afraid to live in their apartment because of the shelling”, Nicole explained.

It was almost the dawn of the new year, and “it was just this very intimate moment of a daughter with her father about to celebrate the new year, but the context of it is so powerful because they are still living in an underground bunker,” said Nicole.

For Nicole, that was a big testament to the resilience of the people in Ukraine, but “also how the most vulnerable are always the most affected in conflicts”.

Getting access to the people who are caught in the middle of conflicts is also difficult for Nicole, because most of the time, they do not want cameras around, and Nicole has to rely on her local colleagues.

Her local colleagues are “there to not just translate, but to really help me get access, explaining things to people, making sure they’re comfortable especially if it’s a very sensitive story”.

“A lot of the time, you just have to spend time with people because if you just walk into a place and you start taking pictures, it’s very invasive. Also, there are cultural differences. So yeah, it does take a bit of time, but usually they understand why you’re there,” Nicole added.

(Photo: Jay Chan for Yahoo Singapore)
(Photo: Jay Chan for Yahoo Singapore)

The risk of photojournalism in conflicts

Working in areas of unrest and conflicts can be extremely dangerous, and possibly even life-threatening, with the Committee to Protect Journalists saying at least 42 journalists and media workers have been killed on the ground in the most recent Israel-Hamas war.

These dangers are definitely something Nicole is aware of when she goes on her assignments.

“You can’t go into these situations and not feel scared or that your life is in danger. But I do my best to mitigate those risks,” Nicole explained, adding that she often works with a team, and her priority is “making sure that (her) team is safe”. She also has to constantly adapt to the situation on the ground.

For example, while she was in Ukraine, there was a lot of shelling.

“You never know where a missile might hit. So, you’re always calculating where you’re standing, how long you’re standing there for,” said Nicole.

“In Syria, it was similar but more gunfights, and also kidnapping is another risk there, So, everywhere you go, there's a different kind of risk.”

In addition to the dangers of collateral damage, Nicole has also observed a new type of risk for journalists now.

"The situation for media in general is degrading because there’s a lot more attacks on the press," she grimly noted.

Leica's Celebration of Photography at Ion Art Gallery. (Photo: Jay Chan for Yahoo Singapore)
Leica's Celebration of Photography at Ion Art Gallery. (Photo: Jay Chan for Yahoo Singapore)

Exhibit at ION Art Gallery

To find out more about Nicole Tung, some of her works are now on display in Leica’s Celebration of Photography “Her Lens, Her Narrative” exhibition held at ION Art Gallery from 18 to 26 November.

They are on display alongside works of other four female photographers, as Leica seeks to celebrate women in photography.

There are also a series of conversations and workshops conducted by various photographers (including Nicole Tung), and interested participants can sign up here.

Jay is a content creator who likes to hoard vintage photographic lenses.

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