Arete’s Stories: Working in hostile environments with photographer Karel Prinsloo & hostile environments trainer Lizzy Stileman MBE

Anything can be news but not everything is newsworthy. Journalism is a process in which a reporter uses verification and storytelling to make a subject newsworthy.

Creating a good story means finding and verifying important or interesting information and then presenting it in a way that engages the audience. Good stories are part of what makes journalism unique. For a journalist to truly achieve this, they need to be on the ground, ‘in the thick of it’, capturing the story first-hand.

The stories that too often go untold are taking place in dangerous and challenging environments, warzones, pandemics, dictatorships. It takes brave and trained individuals to capture these stories safely and transparently.

In the latest edition of Arete’s Stories, we talk to Arete photojournalist Karel Prinsloo about his personal experiences of working in dangerous environments and Lizzy Stileman, MBE ,about the role of hostile environment awareness training.

Karel Prinsloo

Karel Prinsloo is an award-winning photographer. He has covered conflicts and humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East and has been based in Nairobi for nearly a decade as the Associated Press’ Chief photographer for East Africa.

He also worked at the Associated Press’ base in London as a picture editor for Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Currently, he is a freelance photographer working for humanitarian organisations like UNICEF, WFP, GAVI, IFAW as well as for major international news media.

Karel has won numerous awards, including the South African Photographer Of The Year, second prize in the World Press Photo Awards in 2000 for his coverage of the devastating Mozambique floods and runner up in the CNN African Journalist of the year.

Karel has been published in all the world’s major publications, including the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek and Paris Match.

Your reputation precedes you, Karel! Thanks for talking with me today. Can you start by telling us a little about some of the challenging environments you have worked in over the years?

“Sure, so I started when I was young, with my first experience of working in a hostile or challenging environment coming in South Africa just after the end of apartheid. I was doing a lot of work in the townships, and there was a lot of unrest and lawlessness out there during the transition of power in the country in 1994.

Since then, I have covered two wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, been embedded with the US Military in Iraq and Afghanistan, captured the ongoing conflict in Israel, Gaza, and Palestine, violent unrest in Uganda, the farm invasions in Zimbabwe, and unrest in Somalia where, tragically, one of my colleagues from the BBC died.

From the Middle East to Europe, to Africa, you could say I have covered a fair amount of dangerous and hostile situations over the years; thankfully though, I work in relatively safer climates now….”

I can only imagine some of what you see and experience when working in these places. Is there any way to prepare yourself for this?

“Well, when working with any news agency, they will send you on hostile environment awareness training (HEAT) — I’ve been on a few.

Generally, you get training in first aid, a bit of situational awareness, how to recognise danger, how to read a crowd, that sort of thing. For me personally, I had been working in the field a long-time before these training courses became mandatory, so a lot of it was common-sense to me — but I can see how it can be helpful for somebody who has never been in this situation.

The biggest takeaway for me was the first aid training — and, unfortunately, I have had to use these skills since.

During the Kenyan presidential elections, we stumbled across a lot of people who had been quite seriously hurt. I believe the reason we are taught these skills is to help people, so regardless of whether it was my team or me, or a complete stranger, I will help.

There are those who might say to preserve journalistic integrity, you shouldn’t interfere, but I don’t believe in this observer ideology. I believe if you are in a situation to help someone, then you should, so long as it doesn’t endanger your life or that of your team. And that is what we did. We tried to help as many people as we could”.

Can you give us an insight into how you feel when working in these places?

“I started out as a photojournalist to show injustice in my own country, Namibia and my aim is always to try and shine a light on the injustices of the world, and I‘ve been doing that with my camera now for well over 30 years.

When I initially started out working in potentially hostile places, I was young, and I wasn’t particularly phased by much of what I saw. However, I find as you get older, you get more sensitive to working in these environments.

I have a family now, and when you see the atrocities that are being committed against, particularly, women and children. You can’t help but think, what if that was my wife or my daughter. This is hard to carry when it is so important to stay focused and aware of your surroundings.

As a result, in recent years, I have pivoted to work in the humanitarian sector rather than for the media. I am still required to work in ‘hostile environments, but the stories’ subject is very different.

I feel whether you are seeking to unearth and capture injustice or documenting the amazing work many of these NGOs are doing, you have to believe in it. This is key. I still believe in this work, and I wouldn’t do it otherwise. I genuinely believe we make a difference, and to make a difference in one person’s life is amazing, but to make a difference in many people’s lives is incredible; this feeling is something special”.

Have there ever been moments where you have feared for your life while capturing these stories?

“Yeah many times. I can vividly remember the time when I was in Goma in the DRC. The rebels were advancing into Goma. I was standing with my colleagues, a photographer and a videographer, in front of the UN building on the road. All of a sudden a number of armed Congolese Government soldiers abducted us to flee from the advancing rebels, forcing us into our own vehicle.

We tried to reason with them, but the more we spoke, the angrier they got. They were speaking Swahili, which one of my colleagues understood. I remember looking over at him, and he was as white as a ghost.

All of a sudden, they came around a corner, stopped the car, got out, and ran.

It turns out they ran as there was a rebel checkpoint ahead. After speaking with my colleague, I found out that they were talking about how they intended to rape our female colleague and then kill us all. We got very lucky this day.

Unbelievably, this wasn’t the worst experience of my career. I was in the DRC again in 2001, this time for the funeral of the assassinated President, Laurent-Desire Kabila. I was amongst many people, and I could sense the mood was changing.

I was struck with a rock, and it was at this moment I realised that the sentiment of anger and outrage of this large group of people was being directed at me. There was a belief that foreigners had killed their President, and I became a target. Rocks started flying in my direction.

Nothing scares me more in this world than an angry mob. I’ve seen what a mob can do; I’ve been on the receiving end.

This happened to me prior to any of these training courses that are commonplace nowadays, and it was the only education on reading a crowd that I ever needed. Since then, I have been far more trusting of my gut instinct.

You don’t know how you will react when someone shoots at you until someone shoots at you! You can either continue working or not, and you won’t know this as a photojournalist until you have worked in a hostile environment and experienced it”.

It seems these experiences happened relatively early in your career, and it is remarkable that you could carry on after this. How were you able to continue? What makes all this worth it?

“For me, it is knowing that my work actually helps people. It is seeing it help. When I worked for the media, sometimes your work can lead to immediate and life-changing responses for people. After all, you are capturing first-hand accounts from places, particularly back then, that nobody else would be documenting.

One story that sticks in my mind was from 2003 when we were cut off from civilisation in a town called Bunia in the DRC. Atrocities were happening all around us, we were able to get some of these stories out to the media, and two weeks later, the French military landed, and it stopped overnight. There is huge satisfaction in knowing you made a difference by getting these stories out.

Today, I get to better peoples lives with my work in the NGO sector and my photography with Arete — we have helped raise millions of dollars for various organisations that have been used to make a better life for so many. That is the satisfaction I get now”.

Lizzy Stileman MBE

Lizzy is the Director of EJS Disaster Management and veteran of the British Army, serving for 20 years. Since then, Lizzy has gone on to complete a Masters in Disaster Management, volunteers for British NGO RE:ACT, where she has completed eight international deployments and remains an active member of the British Army Reservists.

Lizzy, can you tell us a little about the role of HEAT in preparing for work in hostile environments?

“The purpose of HEAT or hostile environment awareness training is two-fold really. The first aspect is security, and the second is remote first aid. As facilitators, it is our job to give people the best opportunity to not get in a position where they are under threat. The course is there as a thought-provoking tool.

We aim to prepare people of all walks of life, providing them with a toolkit that enables them to handle both the mental and physical stress of hostile environments. It is understanding how to read a situation and, if necessary, how to get away with your team safely.

Many of the scenarios explored in HEAT are things the vast majority of us would likely never encounter, such as kidnappings, carjacking, being caught up in a riot, illegal checkpoints or an active shooter.

It is more than just a set of instructions on what to do if that were to happen. It is about self-care, interpersonal skills, how to negotiate and help your team members if they are struggling. Your mind is your most powerful tool in a hostile environment, and it is essential that it is working efficiently.

The first aid aspect is focussed on what we call remote first aid, how to help someone when you are in the middle of nowhere, with very limited supplies. How to apply a tourniquet, how to do CPR, how to treat a gunshot wound. With no communications, how do you create a temporary stretcher, and how do you stay safe while doing it? In these scenarios, there is no 999, no ambulances.

Visiting hostile environments, even for a short period of time, is a dangerous but essential aspect for many sectors, such as those that work with NGOs and the Press; and HEAT has become a key element of preparing for this travel”.

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