Seeing Through the Eyes of Photojournalist Nicole Tung

Nicole Tung by Chris McGrath

There are significant moments in history that we wouldn’t have access to if it weren’t for the bravery of photojournalists. The best in the field put their life on the line to keep the public informed. Beyond the news cycle, their work motivates us to have more empathy for those caught in conflict and chaos. In a world riddled with war and divide, their work is more important than ever.

In 2006, during her freshman year studying journalism at New York University, Nicole Tung decided to head to war-torn Bosnia. Her goal was to meet with local organizations that were working with widows whose loved ones had perished during the Bosnian genocide—a conflict that left over 8,000 civilians dead, mainly men and boys. After the trip, Tung thought she’d write a piece about her experience, but quickly learned that her pictures were more impactful. This led her to pursue photojournalism as a full-time career and turn her lens into a storytelling tool.

For the self-taught photographer, it’s always been crucial to maintain the integrity of the people she photographs and expose commonalities across different cultures. “I think it’s important to bridge the emotions that somebody might be feeling in one country and be able to connect them to somebody else looking at the pictures halfway across the world,” she says. “We have this common humanity and this common connection that we shouldn’t forget about. We have a responsibility to each other.”

This sense of human responsibility has put Tung in some particularly dangerous situations, where her life was at risk and where she lost colleagues and friends. “Syria has probably been the worst experience, in terms of running across alleyways to avoid sniper fire. I happened to photograph a lot of the aftermath of the bombings,” she discloses. “Sometimes, 5 to 25 different people were killed in one go. It was very emotional and very dramatic that I survived it. Trying to switch gears to taking pictures was very difficult,” she explains.

Despite the unpredictable nature of her profession, Tung doesn’t allow the anxiety to take over. Instead, fear is what motivates her. “Fear helps with keeping me in check. I don’t let it incapacitate me,” she says. “I know I have a job to do and that I have to be safe. If I’m [paralyzed by] fear, I can’t think clearly, or decide what to do next or how to get out of a bad situation.”

Here, the veteran photojournalist describes the touching stories behind some of her most recent work.

Children of the Peacock Angel

Sinuni, Iraq, August 29, 2016

“This is Northern Iraq; these women are from a religious minority called Yazidis. They were very isolated before ISIS came in. It was a very uplifting story that was originally shot for Vogue. It was about how these Yazidis women were taking back their dignity, and taking control of their lives and their bodies by being trained militarily. You can tell this woman (second from the right, Khatoon Khider) is the boss lady. She was a very famous Yazidi singer before ISIS took control of Sinjar. Since then, she’s become this battalion commander and had refused to sing until all her people were free and there is justice for them.”

Season of Migration

Lesbos, Greece, December 8, 2015

“These are Syrian women who had just arrived on rubber boats from the Greek island of Lesbos. This was the end of 2015—the peak time for refugees coming into Europe. Once they got off the boat, a lot of the NGOS (Non-Governmental Organizations) that were working on the beaches would hand them these emergency blankets. Everyone was stunned that they had made it to Greece without tipping over in the sea. It was very cold at that time, and a lot of people were very expressive and started crying, but some were very hysterical and wondering what was going to happen next. They didn’t know where they actually were and didn’t realize that Turkey was so close to Greece, and how far Germany was from Greece. They were having a very reflective moment where they were amazed that they had made it.”

Georgian Dancers at the Çidir Golden Horse Festival

Çıldır Lake, Eastern Turkey, February 4, 2017

“It was minus 14 degrees Celsius, in far Eastern Turkey, on the border with Georgia. There was a horse sports festival going on at the beginning of this year, around January. At this massive lake, the Turkish church would have activities like archery. They would have Georgian Turkish dancers come and perform for the audience. They were really good dancers, and very young, who were preparing to perform. It was a very interesting moment before they started dancing.”

Whirling Dervishes of Konya

Konya, Turkey, April 1, 2017

“These whirling dervishes are members of the Mevlevi Order of Su sm, and they perform this dance, or worship, called the Sema as a way to be closer to God. The Mevlevi Order of Sufism was founded by religious scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, more famously known as Rumi. He lived most of his life in Konya and is buried there. For me, this was a really exhilarating experience, seeing one aspect of worship that is both spiritual and visually quite amazing. Of course, it certainly differs a bit from my other images of conflict, but I think that’s the most exciting part of being a photojournalist: being able to wander between different stories and cultures.”

Road To Mosul

Qayyarah, Iraq, November 10, 2016

“This is in a town in Mosul called Qayyarah, which I left in August 2016 just before the Mosul offences were started by the Iraqi government, kicking out ISIS. When ISIS was retreating, they would set fire to oil wells in this town. Mosul had a lot of open oil wells that were very lucrative to ISIS at the time—they set everything on fire. These wells were still burning four months later. Most of the civilians chose to stay. It created this environmental disaster where the civilians were breathing in all this bad air and pollutants from the oil. The sheep—from the family of sheepherders who stayed—have black fleece from the particles of the oil in the air. The girl was trying to gather all the sheep when I took this picture. You can see the soot on her face. More kids were outside playing too.”

Road to Mosul

Hassan Shami Camp for Internally Displaced Persons, Northern Iraq, November 7, 2016

“This is at the end of last year when the offensive for Mosul was still going on. As the Iraqi forces dug deeper, they tried to root out ISIS. A lot of the civilians were kept in the city to prevent them from fleeting, while others managed to escape. These two brothers and their families were separated; they hadn’t seen each other for about two weeks and neither had any idea if the other was still alive. When the brother on the left side had just arrived to this camp, the other was frantically looking on all the buses to see if he had arrived. He heard that people were coming from the neighbourhood where his brother was from. He was looking for him, and when he finally found him, he came over and kissed him through the fence. They were finally reunited. Even though it was for a short period of time, there was so much uncertainty.”