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War photographer: Staying safe is part of job

By Alice Bishop


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ARLINGTON, Va. — War correspondents' main objective always should be to uphold their responsibility to their audience and their employer, says photographer Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.

"If you get yourself hurt or get yourself in a situation where you can't get your photos out, you're not doing your job," she said at a Newseum Inside Media program on Aug. 12.

At the same time, it's important to give the most accurate and fair description of events to readers and viewers who do not have firsthand knowledge.

Fremson photographed the U.S. occupation of Haiti, NATO's occupation of Bosnia and Kosovo and the conflict in the Middle East for the Associated Press. For months, she didn't look at her photos from Bosnia because the devastation was so overwhelming that she didn't feel she had captured the full scope of the story.

Throughout her assignments, she sought out daily situations — doing laundry, feeding the kids — that occur regardless of war. "The biggest thing I've learned is that no matter where you go in the world, no matter who you talk to and who you see, we are all alike," she said.

Before setting out to cover American troops in Haiti, Fremson had no formal safety training. "But you learn as you go," she said. "If you have common sense and street smarts and ask questions of people who have been there before you, that's a big help."

Fremson did not feel she was targeted as a journalist in Haiti. But in Israel, where she was based from 1998 to 2000, she always wore a bright red hockey helmet during riots to distinguish herself.

The helmet was particularly useful when there was smoke from percussion grenades or tear gas. "Israeli soldiers are good shots and you want them to know you are a journalist and you're not somebody who's throwing stones," she said.

Today, the situation for journalists covering the violence in the Middle East has changed for the worse. Fremson says they wear bulletproof vests all the time and when the shooting starts, "it's so chaotic they just turn and walk away because it's too dangerous."

Fremson admits the story in the Middle East is so complicated that sometimes journalists make assumptions. For example, recently, The New York Times ran a photo out of Israel identifying a young Jewish scholar from the United States as a Palestinian. There was such an uproar over the mistake that the Times re-ran the photo with a 500-word story explaining the error.

While technology has made Fremson's job easier, it also has a down side. "I can go into the field with a satellite phone, laptop computer and cameras and get my photos out, but so can you," she said. Fremson cautioned readers not to get news from a single source but from several and to find out as much as possible about the source.

Asked how she has changed since becoming a photojournalist, Fremson says, "I'm much more aware of what's going on around me and much more accepting and forgiving of people."


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Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01

Israeli soldier beats Egyptian journalists; government apologizes, disciplines him
Incident at West Bank roadblock puts cameraman in hospital.  08.14.01

Press-advocacy groups criticize Israel for anti-press violence
IPI, RSF issue separate reports saying Israelis have been sluggish in investigating attacks on journalists, including two fatalities, in Israeli-occupied territories.  07.30.01