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Hotspot report

On the War Front: Up Close and Personal

Worldwide, 18/05/2018 by Céline Neuenschwander

When he’s not teaching, Alex Kühni goes to war. As a war journalist he documents the conflicts that take place in this world. His goal is to raise the awareness of people living in the West. In order to do this, he often risks his life. Kühni won this year's Swiss Press Photo Award in the abroad category. This is an interview that hovers between the classroom and the war front

As a war journalist, you’re right on the front and you’ve had a first-hand view of the wars in Iraq and Ukraine, just to name a few. How did that happen?

I got into it coincidentally during my trip to North Korea. That was in 2011, while I was traveling through the country as a tourist, and the photos were deleted from my camera just before departure. I then tried to smuggle the photos out of the country and acquired a taste for it. As a photographer, I try to access hard-to-visit places and draw attention to the conflicts. This is my part in heightening people’s awareness. What’s more, being involved in historically relevant events has become somewhat addictive for me. I spontaneously decided to go to Ukraine during the Maidan Uprising and then visited the Gaza Strip and Iraq.


How do you prepare yourself for these kinds of trips?

I work as a freelancer and choose my own stories. Once I’ve decided on a specific conflict, then the local contacts are the most important thing. On certain online forums you can contact so-called “fixers”. These are local people who are knowledgeable, can translate and provide me with access to the combat area. Good fixers are not easy to find and it takes a lot of time. There are cases in which war journalists were sold by their fixers to enemy troops. That’s why it’s essential to carefully vet local contacts.

Photo: Alex Kühni

How are things in terms of personal safety while on the ground? Have there been situations in which you were in danger?

Yes, many times! The most dangerous is urban war, which means that the combat zones have moved into the city, making things quite confusing. I experienced this situation in Mosul. There were a lot of IEDs that were not recognizable as such at first glance. Even a light switch could be a disguised explosive that blows up as soon as the switch is pressed. There were times I found myself in mortar fire or that our vehicle was mistaken for enemy troops by opposition forces.

But it’s important to remember that I went into all these missions voluntarily. I can call it off at any time and head back to Switzerland. The people living there cannot escape their fate, however.

During my missions I also protect myself with a bulletproof helmet and a protective vest with the press inscription. On top of that, I carry a first-aid kit with me and know how to treat bullet wounds.

Photo: Alex Kühni

During your missions, you see things that most of us will never see. How do these experiences change you?

Generally speaking, I know what to expect once I’m on the ground. I’ve learned to deal with combat imagery and it no longer bothers me. Initially, it was difficult to deal with the death and dying, but my missions have taught me how to manage it more objectively and with less emotion. In that sense, the missions have changed me. Nonetheless, there are always situations where I am pushed to my limits. For example, when children are involved or when you experience the misery and despair of a family. That still affects me a lot.


How do the people on the front, or the parties involved in the conflict, react when they see you and your camera?

The reactions are usually quite positive. The people in these emergency situations want their story to be told, because international coverage initiates the support of the aid organizations. Sometimes very interesting discussions emerge with the civilian population. This happened in Mosul, a strongly Sunni city with no tourism, whose inhabitants were quite curious. So, you smoke a cigarette together and talk about everyday things. Such experiences lend a humane aspect to the whole war situation.


What happens to the pictures after your mission?

During the mission I document the events. Although there are always moments when you put the camera aside and support the paramedics and treat people for example. Once I get home, I filter out the images and show them to the editor of a magazine. When choosing the images, you need to be tactful ; you don’t want to sugarcoat anything but you have to respect certain limits. As soon as the story comes together, I sell it to one or more media outlets.


What would you ultimately like to achieve with your pictures?

Most people in Switzerland are unaware of what a privileged life they have.

Even if I’m only able to reach a few people in the industrialized West and make them see what a privileged situation they’re in and create an understanding for people in war-torn countries, then I’m happy. I am convinced that media coverage is essential to get help and end the misery. I can and want to contribute something towards this. And if all of this is an illusion and my pictures do nothing, at least I know I was there and was able to help the injured.


Can you give us an idea of where your next mission will be?

I’m going to Bangladesh next. I’d like to cover a story on the Rohingya Crisis. Next year I’m going to take a long break and I plan to travel for seven months. Ideally, I’d like to be stationed as a correspondent in a conflict zone. Location and situation are still open.

Photo: Alex Kühni
Photo: Alex Kühni

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