Students interview War Photographer Nicole Tung

 
Nicole Tung, war photographer

Nicole Tung, war photographer

 
The students skyped with Ms. Tung

The students skyped with Ms. Tung

 

Nicole Tung is a young and already very accomplished photojournalist who works primarily in the Middle East and Asia. She has covered many stories in a multitude of places, including Libya, Syria, and Turkey. In 2016, alongside Janine di Giovanni she covered a piece for Vogue about the Yazidi women, entitled “How Yazidi Women Are Fighting Back Against ISIS.” We interviewed her in the fall of 2017 to ask what she had seen and heard during her time with the Yazidis.

 
Photo courtesy Nicole Tung  Suad was forcibly married to an ISIS fighter. She escaped with her two children but her husband is one of the many Yazidis missing. Many Yazidi women cover their face in pictures for fear of being recognized.

Photo courtesy Nicole Tung

Suad was forcibly married to an ISIS fighter. She escaped with her two children but her husband is one of the many Yazidis missing. Many Yazidi women cover their face in pictures for fear of being recognized.

 

 

Students: How did you first come in contact with the Yazidis?

 

Tung: I found this tiny little news article on a local website, I think, about a battalion of Yazidi women who were now being trained to do patrols and protect their areas from ISIS if ISIS ever attacked. And I thought that was really interesting because it was like looking at a totally different way of how we obviously saw the Yazidis and the Yazidi women, especially being enslaved and raped, and I thought that was a really good way of telling a different side of the same story. So, I reached out to what we call a “fixer” -- Journalists work with fixers who are basically the translators; they set up all the meetings in the countries that we work in, and especially because if I don’t speak the language, they are there to assist, and help us with the interviews and such. So, I worked with a fixer, and my colleague, Janine, who wrote the piece. We pitched it to Vogue Magazine, who really liked the idea, and they sent us an assignment, and what we did was we got into contact with this battalion, and we spent a few days with them while they were doing some training, and interviewed them, and also did interviews with people who were helping to actually rescue women who had been captured by ISIS. We also tried to do a little about their culture; we went to Lalish, which is the holy site, in Northern Iraq. And so we tried to explore different aspects of the story, but I wanted to kind of show a different side, and it’s very unusual for Yazidi women to be joining a military group, because as you may know, they were a very closed off community before 2014, when ISIS attacked. So, I mean it is a sad story, but it is also a way for...A positive spin on it is that they are being opened up a little bit to other communities and other prospects for their futures.

 
The Force of the Sun Ladies is a battalion of Yazidi women who have sworn to defend their people after Kurdish forces failed to protect them in 2014 leading to the massacre.

The Force of the Sun Ladies is a battalion of Yazidi women who have sworn to defend their people after Kurdish forces failed to protect them in 2014 leading to the massacre.

 

Students: How did you first come in contact with the Yazidis?

Tung: I found this tiny little news article on a local website, I think, about a battalion of Yazidi women who were now being trained to do patrols and protect their areas from ISIS if ISIS ever attacked. And I thought that was really interesting because it was like looking at a totally different way of how we obviously saw the Yazidis and the Yazidi women, especially being enslaved and raped, and I thought that was a really good way of telling a different side of the same story. So, I reached out to what we call a “fixer” -- Journalists work with fixers who are basically the translators; they set up all the meetings in the countries that we work in, and especially because if I don’t speak the language, they are there to assist, and help us with the interviews and such. So, I worked with a fixer, and my colleague, Janine, who wrote the piece. We pitched it to Vogue Magazine, who really liked the idea, and they sent us an assignment, and what we did was we got into contact with this battalion, and we spent a few days with them while they were doing some training, and interviewed them, and also did interviews with people who were helping to actually rescue women who had been captured by ISIS. We also tried to do a little about their culture; we went to Lalish, which is the holy site, in Northern Iraq. And so we tried to explore different aspects of the story, but I wanted to kind of show a different side, and it’s very unusual for Yazidi women to be joining a military group, because as you may know, they’re a very very closed off community before 2014, when ISIS attacked. So, I mean it is a sad story, but it is also a way for...A positive spin on it is that they are being opened up a little bit to other communities and other prospects for their futures.

Students: What did you see on the terrain there? Anything that stuck out to you?

Tung: We were in Northern Iraq for about a week, and I think what really stuck out to me was the resilience of the women. Some of the women who joined the battalion had actually been enslaved before, and they were freed, and they were like, “you know I really want to do something.” Some were like “It’s for revenge, for my brothers and sisters who were killed.” It was for them a way to feel useful again, feel like they had a validation, in a way. And so, that was very interesting to me. The commander of the battalion, she used to be a very famous Yazidi singer, but she stopped singing after 2014, after the massacre, and she decided that she wouldn’t sing again until she said all her people were free. So it was a very powerful and poignant story to do, because they had been through a lot, and they mostly came from impoverished communities, but they wanted to find a way to retain their identity through their religion, and they were mostly living in displaced persons camps, so very resilient people.

Students: Do you think that the girls...Do you think that all of them will be able to make it through the situation they were in? Was there anything you saw that might be worrisome, like they might need a little more help?

Tung: You mean, like psychological help?

Students: Yes

Tung: Right. I actually went to the Yazda center, in Dohuk and did meet a lot of, or some women there who had just been freed or were freed, and they had gone to Germany for support, for therapy, and others who hadn’t yet gone to Germany, but were waiting to go. And at Yazda, there were drawings all over the walls that some of the women had made, and what was very striking to me was that some of the volunteers in the center would say that when the women first arrived, all of their self-esteem was just gone, completely. They felt ugly, they felt like their life had no meaning anymore, but slowly, after sharing their stories and being in a familiar community of other women who had been through the same thing, they felt more empowered, and they started to feel like themselves again. And you can see the evolution in the drawings that they were making. So those types of support, psychological support, but also medical care, all of that is really important for people who have just come out of captivity, and long-term psychological support too, because trauma is so different in different people. And many of the women had very different experiences. Some were repeatedly raped and others were married and raped by the same men, in the marriage. And some had children, others didn’t. And so it’s all different levels of trauma that are treated in very specific ways, and I think that’s very important to consider going forward for the Yazidi women.

Students: We’re trying to brainstorm…Other than funds and raising awareness, are they any things that the students here can do?

Tung: I mean a lot of women who were freed, and then have to live in the camps, I think boredom is probably one of the worst things they face in the camps, where they’re trying to overcome the trauma that they experienced, but having nothing to do in a refugee camp is horrible. And I think that actually Yazda is doing a few things. They actually bus them into the centers to have therapy, but it's never enough. They don’t have enough funding to always give them transportation, or also activities inside the camps that the women can do themselves like art, or knitting, and usually the funding for those materials are very low, and so very very little things that can be incredibly meaningful to them, to give them something to do and for them to feel like they’re staying active and busy. I mean it’s a very vague idea, but that’s something that might be worth channeling into, through Yazda.

Students: That’s great. That confirms what Yazda told us. They want more funds to send them to do some cooking in the centers or take them to Lalish. One last thing for our young students here in the U.S. who are thinking about their own lives and careers, and you seem to have a really interesting background. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself. I know you grew up in Hong Kong, and you’re American, and you went to New York for school. It’s a bit unusual, right? Especially for a woman to do what you’re doing. What motivated you, how did you get to where you are today?

Tung: Seeing as you’re all women in the room...I think it was the want or the need to challenge the traditional notions that this job was only for men. And also being a woman, especially in a very conservative, male-dominated part of the world, being able to access fifty percent of the other side of the population was a huge motivation for me because I often think that when we look at journalistic stories, news, or photographs, they’re often taken from the perspectives of a man, and if we want to have equality in the world, if we want to have a good sense of proper storytelling, we have to see it from both male and female perspectives. And being a female, a woman, is really advantageous because a lot of women who have endured trauma, etcetera, will only allow another woman to be in the room, to speak with them, or to photograph them. So I have that advantage, and I think it’s such an important advantage to have and to utilize. So different motivations, but I’m also very interested in the Middle East and the complexity of the culture, and not just war, but, you know, how people live their daily lives. It’s very much the same as in America. And I hope that those images, even though they are in very different situations as what people are living in, in the US, can connect a little bit, through our common shared values or emotions.

Students: There’s just a couple of wrap-up questions. One is: Is there someone else you recommend that we interview as far as the topic of the Yazidis is concerned? Or is there somebody that can help us spread the news of our campaign that you feel we could get in touch with?

Tung: Well, actually there’s another journalist who just wrote a book. It’s called With Ashes on Their Faces. It’s about the Yazidis, the Yazidis girls who were enslaved, and she’s a friend of mine, so I can pass on her contact to you, if you’d like. She spent several years actually in Northern Iraq, documenting, and also spent a lot of time writing this book, so she might be worth speaking to. If it was easy to get you on the phone with somebody in Iraq, I would try. Have you spoken to Yazda in Northern Iraq?

Students: Yes, we’re in touch with them. Our main contact was Matthew Barber, who was the managing director, but he’s back in the US now. And now Silvia Zunnino is now in charge, and we’re in contact with her. And Matthew has been incredible helpful, he’s really directed us, and he’s given us a ton of background. So yes, we are in touch with Yazda.

Tung: Great! I know of the journalists who writes about it. Another journalist, she’s British, her name is Christina Lamb. And she’s also written a lot about the Yazidi plight. So Cathy Otten was the one who wrote... I’ll send the names over to you, and maybe they’re worth getting in touch with as well because they’re writers so they also have a different take than photographers.

Students: Thank you very much.

Tung: You’re welcome, and good luck! And I’m really really glad that you’re doing this for Yazda, because I know for sure that they, the women, can use all of the support they can get. So, it’s great!

Nicole Tung’s Website: http://www.nicoletung.com/

 

Lina Smith