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What To Expect If You’re Injured on Assignment

By Jay Mallin


© Harald Henden
American troops from the 3 ID,  2 Brigade take control over the central parade ground in Baghdad, April 2003.


[Editor's Note: This article was researched and written in March, weeks before the April 20 rocket attack in Misrata, Libya, which killed two photojournalists and also wounded two others. The injured were not on assignment. Thanks to help from many colleagues, the injured were evacuated and are now recovering; however, we believe the questions this article raises remain relevant.  ]
When Bangkok-based photographer Philip Blenkinsop returned home after having a bomb blow up a few feet in front of him while photographing in southern Thailand for Time Asia, he got a lesson in the sort of assistance and protection freelancers on assignment can expect from their clients.

“I had a lovely bouquet of flowers waiting for me when I got home,” remembers Blenkinsop. “And I was offered an extra day rate.”

To be fair, Blenkinsop, who had won recognition for his previous work for Time, says he did not ask his editors for any special consideration after the blast, and initial reports indicated his injuries were not serious.  But the effects of the 2007 incident left him unable to work for about eight months. Of the flowers and the extra money, he says,  “It felt a little like after carrying someone’s bags for 10 kilometers through the streets of Paris or New York, they’d tipped you a dollar, you know?”

With multiple wars, revolutions and a possible nuclear disaster, 2011 is shaping up as an unusually dangerous year for journalists. At least three photographers died in conflicts in the first three months of the year, while others suffered permanent injuries and hazards like kidnapping.  Also on the minds of many is Joao Silva, recovering from a mine explosion that took both his legs in Afghanistan.

Incidents like Silva’s might be expected to spark discussions among photojournalists and their photo editors.  Instead, many photographers and clients are treating the “what if’s” of a photographer injured or killed in the same way they always have— with silence.

“I don’t know how many years I’ve been working for different magazines [and] I’ve never seen anything in any contract that says anything about what happens if I get shot or killed or get my legs broken,” says Teru Kuwayama, who was injured in a car crash in Pakistan in 2009 that saw the driver killed and another photographer injured.

As for the clients, when contacted by PDN they were uniformly unwilling to talk. Editors and spokespeople either declined to speak for publication or were simply unreachable.
“We don’t discuss personnel matters,” said Daniel Kile, executive director of public relations for Time.

“They just don’t like me talking about it,” explained an editor at another publication.

At The New York Times, which has been praised for hiring long-time freelancer Silva as a staffer after he lost both his legs below the knees to a landmine, an editor was similarly reluctant to say anything.

Photographers themselves seem split between those who’ve never addressed the issue at all, and those who trust in a combination of passed-on lore (“use a platinum American Express card to qualify for free medevac”), half-remembered precedents (an anecdote that photojournalist Tim Page successfully sued Time magazine following his Vietnam-era brain injury), and faith in the compassion and camaraderie of their photo editors.

“[Photographers] assume—especially with publications that they have good relationships with—you make this assumption that they are going to take care of you if something happens,” says Ron Haviv, a photographer with VII Photo Agency who has covered conflicts around the world.  “But I don’t think anyone knows in the end what will happen when you start getting people outside our circle involved, like lawyers and corporate people.”

Haviv has it right there, says one editor who was willing to discuss the subject, thanks to having moved on to a job in academia.  Tom Kennedy, Alexia Foundation Chair Professor for Documentary Photography at Syracuse, has worked as director of photography for National Geographic and editor for Washingtonpost.com.  

“I don’t know that there is an industry standard,” Kennedy says. “I think it’s very much company by company, and I think it is somewhat contingent obviously on what company practice is as dictated by lawyers.” Corporate lawyers may overrule photo editors who want to do what they can for colleagues.

“My experience is that the legal department and to some extent HR [human resources] tend to drive the contractual arrangements that an organization settles on,” Kennedy says.  “Most organizations that I am familiar with that are working with freelancers regard them as independent contractors who are responsible for their own insurance, their own well-being.”

That was different at Geographic, he says, where contracts specified that the magazine did take on some of the risks. And conversations with photographers and editors who spoke off the record showed that in some cases, with some publications, magazines do take precautions like buying insurance for photographers being sent into unusually dangerous areas. But it’s often not discussed, and it’s not standard practice.

Veteran photojournalists say there has been an evolution in the industry’s approach to the problem since Operation Desert Storm in 1990. In the Nineties, the Balkan wars and Chechnya coincided with a decision by magazines to turn from assignments and day-rates to space guarantees. With a guarantee, a magazine pays the photographer a minimum fee (expenses are typically not included) in exchange for a first look at the photographers’ pictures. Many photographers believe the move from assignments to the more arm’s length guarantee arrangements made it easier for publications to cut loose freelancers in trouble.   

That doesn’t mean they always were cut loose—photographers say there have been many cases where magazine publishing companies have helped photographers, even those who were not on assignment.  At the same time, others on assignment found such assistance was not granted. (The local drivers and translators news organizations rely on in dangerous areas are typically paid by the day; provisions are rarely made in the event they are injured or killed in the line of work.)

Some photographers signed on for combat-zone training offered by former Special Air Service-types in Britain. A benefit of that training was it allowed them to qualify for specialized war-zone insurance at rates photographers could afford—Haviv remembers paying about $1,600 annually for coverage good in most countries.

He has since turned to insurance through Reporters Without Borders (http://en.rsf.org/), which starts at 1.4 Euros a day and increases depending on the country and the benefits desired: medical, evacuation, dismemberment, death.

Haviv believes the costs of such insurance should automatically be part of the conversation between editors and photographers, and added to the invoice like the costs of fixers and hotel rooms. In workshops he teaches for aspiring photojournalists, Haviv tells students: “You just have to make sure you are taking care of yourself in every way possible.  You can’t really rely on a corporation, even though you are friends with the editor you are working with.”

How well that message gets out to photographers in the field is questionable.  During the uprising in Tahrir Square and the intervention in Libya, for instance, the editor who asked not be quoted said he was flooded with e-mails like one he forwarded:  “Dear [name of editor not even filled in], I will be in Libya from the 1st of April. I’ll be moving to the frontline from the East. If you have any interest, requests or ideas, feel free to let me know.”

He wonders how to respond: “Do I say, ‘Yes, I want to see your stuff!  Fantastic!  Exclusive material for us!  And I don’t want to hear from you tomorrow—especially if you get hurt’?”

For a different model of how to handle the situation, American editors and photographers could look to  European countries. Photographer Harald Henden covers armed conflicts for the Norwegian newspaper VG. Henden, reached on his way back into Libya, says the practice in Norway today was shaped by a 2008 attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul in which war correspondent Carsten Thomassen was injured.

“I found him a few minutes later and we basically worked very hard to keep him alive for like two hours before we were able to have him evacuated,” remembers Henden.  Thomassen went into shock and died a short time later at a military hospital. Henden says that brought major changes to how Scandinavian publications handle war coverage.

“After this, no Norwegian publication sends someone to war zones without some kind of security and first-aid training,” he says.  In addition, “anybody who goes into that kind of area for my newspaper [or others in the region] would be fully covered by a special war-zone insurance [paid for by the paper]. The editors take the responsibility of sending personnel into these kinds of areas much more seriously now,” and at VG, they normally refuse to send freelancers at all.

Henden and others like him have an additional safety net. In Norway and similar countries, if an injured photographer can just make it back to his or her home country, all medical expenses are covered by national healthcare.

Turning away work by freelancers—or at least uninsured free-
lancers—might be too draconian a solution for the American market.  But ending the general silence on the subject of “when things go sideways”—as one photographer termed it—might be possible.

Peter van Agtmael, a Magnum photographer who was beaten in Tahrir Square this year while on assignment for the Wall Street Journal, says he never discussed the possibility of anything like that with his editor before rushing to Egypt. “The subject, ‘Hey, in case something happens, where does your responsibility lie,’ it didn’t come up.”  After he was attacked, the paper quickly said it would take care of getting him out of the country and any medical bills, he says. But van Agtmael added, “I should look at the contract itself.

“I’ve always thought of it as an implied social compact, but I really don’t know.  I’ve been lax, and relying on the good will of large media conglomerates to take care of this.”

 To the Editor:
I just read Jay Mallin's "What To Expect If You're Injured on Assignment." National Geographic magazine does support our photographers with medical/evacuation insurance while on all our assignments. In war zones this is especially true. We wouldn't think about putting any of our photographers in harm's way without it. I was disappointed that your reporter didn't give us a call. Next time don't hesitate to phone in regards to NGM.
 
--Kurt Mutchler

National Geographic magazine

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