Photo Clients

A Security Expert’s Advice for Dangerous Assignments

July 29, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Before they cover a potentially dangerous story, photographers need to assess their risks and prepare for contingencies. Eliot Stempf, who provides security advice for photojournalists and reporters working for BuzzFeed News, says having an emergency plan in place helps photographers do their jobs, and also helps their fixers, colleagues and the network of people back home who will be called on for help if something goes wrong. “You’re only as successful as your networks are strong,” Stempf says.

In our recent story on how BuzzFeed hires photographers, photo editor Kate Bubacz told PDN that when photographers pitch her stories that require travel to in dangerous areas, she has Stempf advise them on preparing a risk assessment and a plan for handling logistical and security issues. Stempf is part of the team that monitors BuzzFeed journalists working on risky assignments—covering demonstrations, natural disasters, crime or conflict.

Stempf recommends freelancers use the free resources offered by several journalism organizations, and also seek advice from colleagues who have been in the field. We asked Stempf how photojournalists should prepare before they head into a dangerous environment.

PDN: What does your role as security adviser entail on a day-to-day basis?
It includes working closely with BuzzFeed reporters to look at the stories they’re working on and trying to determine ways to mitigate the risks. That involves a lot of research, building up networks, risk assessment.

At any time, BuzzFeed has a number of reporters working in higher risk environments or working on higher risk stories. That requires maintaining vigilance about: Who are they meeting with, where are they staying, what’s their itinerary for their trip, do I have all the information I need if I have to respond?.

Coupled with that is training the staff, particularly around digital security, but also working with reporters on how to more safely cover demonstrations, determining logistics and access questions, so reporters can keep operating safely in trickier environments.

[Related: See also “What to Expect If You’re Injured on Assignment.”]

PDN: Do you have advice on how to do a good risk assessment?
First thing I’d advise is to look at some websites for freelancers. Rory Peck Trust, CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) and Frontline Freelance Register have great resources for reporters on how to produce a good risk assessment. You want to put in writing an overview of the social and political environment you’re looking at, what risks you’ll face there—not just the risks anyone would face but the risks you face there as a photojournalist—and what you will do to mitigate those risks.

Another aspect of the assessment is emergency planning: What is going to happen if something goes wrong?

PDN: Do you recommend planning for the worst-case scenario?
One of the important things to remember about the most serious emergencies—abduction, arrest, traumatic injury—is you’re not necessarily going to be able to get yourself out of those emergencies. That is where freelancers are particularly vulnerable. It falls to their network of family, friends and colleagues to try to manage the crisis. Part of the crisis planning is equipping those individuals with the necessary information so they’ll be able to respond.

When producing a risk assessment, I encourage journalists to think broadly. Don’t focus on the most dramatic thing that could go wrong. Also think about car accidents, crime, water-borne illness. In locations where there has been a natural disaster, there often isn’t the basic infrastructure to provide transportation and clean water. There’s often looting and crime.

When you have a clear understanding of the risk you might be facing, you can ask: Is this a story I want to do, and if so, what steps do I need to take to responsibly do this story? It’s about being conscious of the risks you’re taking and addressing them in a responsible way.

That brings us to security protocols.

PDN: Do you have recommended security protocols?
The first thing is to fill out a contact sheet, and provide your contact information, where you’re going, who you’re meeting, what’s their contact info, what’s your itinerary, what routes you are taking. Then make sure that document is with someone. It’s great if the document is with the person you’ll check in with.

PDN: Do you have a standard system for check-ins?
If it’s a risky environment, we do more frequent check-ins. A solid one is 9 AM and 9 PM daily.
More important than the frequency of the check-ins is establishing what’s going to happen if the person misses a check-in. They don’t call, and the person waiting for the check-in says, “Oh, their battery might be dead or they’ve forgotten.” Then [the journalist] will miss a number of check-ins, and nothing happens. That defeats the purpose of the check-in, which is to act as a trip wire.

The idea is that the closer together you place check-ins, [the smaller] the window before people on the outside say, “Where is she?” and start investigating. After two missed check-ins, I start actively trying to get hold of them. That’s where the contact sheet comes into play.

When you set up a check-in protocol, there are responsibilities on both sides. The reporter knows they have to put down what they’re doing and say, “I need to check in,” and the point person on the outside needs to be waiting for those check-ins, and have the readiness and confidence to act if the check-in is missed.

PDN: Is there any special gear you recommend photographers bring?
A medical kit you know how to use, and prescriptions you need.

Depending on the environment, you may need to consider body armor. I’d refer photographers to the websites I mentioned for recommendations. If you work in hostile environments a lot, you might want two sets of body armor—one for you, one for your fixer. I talk to reporters who say, “I’m not wearing body armor because my fixer’s not wearing it.” I say: Bring two sets.

For communications: Two phones, and a way to charge them. If you’re in an area with no communications, a satellite phone. I recommend reporters research the options.

For covering demonstrations: a respirator, shatterproof eyewear, a bump cap or helmet. Water, food, basic stuff. We run into situations where logistical problems turn into security problems.

PDN: Do you have advice on choosing drivers or fixers?
Fixers and drivers are extremely important not only for security but helping get the right story. It’s important to have a network that can assist you in finding a fixer who will work well with you. Regarding drivers, check their vehicle. Is it sufficient for the terrain, are the lights and windshield wipers working? In some places, a brand new rental car is not going to give you the profile you are looking for.

I encourage female journalists to get recommendations from other female colleagues. Male and female journalists can often have different experiences with fixers.

This raises one of the most important issues for freelancers. You need to be part of a community. You’re not going alone and you shouldn’t think of yourself as going alone. It’s essential to develop networks. That takes time.

In both the NGO and journalism communities alike, we care for each other. You need to know digital security not only for yourself but for your sources and your colleagues. You need to know medical training not only for yourself but in case your fixer, driver or colleague suffers an injury. You need to do emergency planning for your friends and family who will be working to get you out if something goes wrong.

The great reporters that I know became great reporters over years of hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight.  You need mentorship and community.

PDN: What about getting press credentials? Aren’t there situations where identifying yourself as a journalist might be riskier than going without press accreditation?
This goes back to risk planning. In a number of countries, working without accreditation can lead to arrest. In areas where there’s no governing authority that provides press accreditation, are access issues. Making sure that you have the support of individuals on the ground to be where you need to be can take a long time.

More and more, reporters are seen as either partisans or as pawns in the conflict. Access can no longer be presumed in many environments. That’s a big challenge for journalism worldwide and for photographers in particular because they can’t be low profile.

PDN: I once heard a photo editor praising an experienced photojournalist for his ability to be aware and present in chaotic moments. Is that instinct, or can it be learned?
I’ve had the opportunity to work with reporters who have a great ability to handle the concept of risk and to be able to look at a situation and say, “I’m at a higher level risk right now and I need to change how I act.” They have a fine-tuned ability to modulate their decisions.

It’s challenging for photographers. While taking the photos, you don’t want to lose sense of what’s going on around you. You need a basic level of mindfulness to pull back and assess the larger situation at hand.

That ability is developed partly through experience and in part through engagement with other people who have that experience.

Related Articles:
How BuzzFeed Finds and Assigns Photographers for Long-Term Photo Features

What to Expect If You’re Injured on Assignment

Low-Cost Insurance for Photojournalists Working Abroad