Life As A Young Female Photojournalist In The Middle East

Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
Iraqis flee from an Islamic State-held village across the Tigris to an Iraqi army-controlled village during the operation to take back Mosul from the Islamic State. October 29, 2016.
Last week, The New York Times published an article highlighting the experiences of women in photojournalism. Coinciding with the launch of a new online database of female photojournalists called "Women Photograph", the article drew attention to the fact that there are still very few women working on assignment for major international news agencies, despite the number of women studying on photojournalism programmes (in the US, it’s a majority, by the way).

It’s no secret that photojournalism is a competitive industry, and the history of women within it traces a decidedly short timeline (The New York Times hired its first female photographer in 1973) but what are the particular gender disparities that linger today, and why are women still not hired in the same way as men? A proposed confidence gap between men and women, assumed strains on personal life, and the threat of sexual harassment are just some of the issues mentioned.

After watching her portfolio of work unfold over the past two years, Refinery29 invited Andrea DiCenzo, a young American photojournalist reporting on the Middle East, to discuss what it’s like to carve out a place as a woman in the world of photojournalism today.

“I have been based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, since the end of 2015”, DiCenzo tells us. She had been out to Kurdistan on two separate reporting trips earlier that year before deciding to make the move. It was a combination of interest, practicality, and the right resources at the right time, she explains. “I had a great reporting colleague named Jonathan Brown who came on the first two reporting trips with me,” she says. “Splitting resources, costs and commissions between the two of us gave us the leeway to work with an array of different communities – Turkman, Yazidi, Arab, Christian and Kurds, of course. We bounced all around the Kurdistan region – from the Yazidi homelands of Sinjar in the north to the site of Saddam’s gas massacre in Halabja in the south. The more experience I had with the place and the people here, the more I wanted to learn.”
Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
A young Yazidi girl looks back at the camera on a rooftop overlooking the destroyed city of Sinjar, Iraq. Her family is one of a handful who have moved back to the city after it was recaptured from the Islamic State in November 2015. May 13, 2016.
Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
Members of the Yazidi militia, the Ezidxan Protection Force, more commonly known as HPE, place their flag on top of a human pyramid during a celebratory exercise in Sinjar, Iraq. The militia was formed in response to the genocide carried out by the Islamic State when they overran Sinjar in 2014, targeting the ethno-religious minority. May 14, 2016.
Prior to this, DiCenzo studied photography at the London College of Communication, and touches upon the mixture of assistant gigs, editorial and commercial work she undertook before finding her feet in photojournalism. “I had a good friend who was a journalist out in Jerusalem and she convinced me to go and check it out. After tagging along on one of her assignments, I was completely hooked. Photojournalism resonated with me in a strong way right from the start and I knew that telling stories was what I wanted to do.”

One of the first humanitarian issues DiCenzo ever documented was the Syrian refugees in Turkey, in the town of Kilis, along the Turkish-Syrian border. “It was more like a press tour of MPs that went down to assess the humanitarian fallout and to build a football stadium for the children in the camp. It was very organised. The Turkish state was hosting us and our safety, as well as their image, was of the utmost importance”, she remembers. Another of her first experiences was working in Israel and Palestine, covering the 2014 Gaza conflict. “It was my first war coverage. It was really intense, but I stayed off front lines because I didn’t feel like I had the experience to justify the risks involved. I spent a lot of time photographing wounded civilians in hospitals and funerals. It was heavy work since Gaza is so densely populated and there were over 2,000 civilian deaths.”

DiCenzo is very aware that she is still in a minority of women working in conflict zones. We discuss the photojournalist Lynsey Addario and her revelations about the extreme sexism she faces from male colleagues who think she’s not going to be able to “handle it”. DiCenzo says that she has also experienced sexism from male contemporaries (“I don’t think there’s a woman working in photography who hasn’t”) and understands that there will always be those few who remain judgemental and undermine the decisions women make in conflict zones. She hints at a particular instance of a photographer she looked up to telling her, in no uncertain terms, to “stick to women’s magazines” instead of pursuing working for a wire service.
Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
Smoke plumes into the air from torched oil wells in Qayyarah, Iraq, as seen in Makhmour some 20 kilometres east. Anticipating their defeat, Islamic State fighters set alight the fire wells in an attempt to impede US-led coalition air strikes. The massive fires burned for more than two months before Iraqi forces finally ejected the jihadists. October 8, 2016.
Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
Displaced woman and children get out of an Iraqi armoured vehicle once they arrive at a Peshmerga screening checkpoint near Makhmour, Iraq. When possible, the Iraqi army transports families to the screening point where they then wait for Kurdish forces to approve their transportation to UN camps set up inside Kurdish-controlled territory. July 16, 2016
However, DiCenzo wants it to be known that this is not typical of her experience. “I have worked with incredibly respectful, smart, brave men and women. If I start to feel uncomfortable, I know that this has never been some sort of professionally negative quality unique to me. I’ve worked on front-line offensives with male photographers with much more experience than I have, who asked for and respected my input in assessing our next moves. There’s a teamwork quality that develops which I think is very important. The majority of editors I have worked with are male and I don’t believe gender has been a deterrent in those relationships, at all.”

Though a female photographer needs to be careful not to be pigeonholed for only photographing women’s issues (a regular occurrence for women photographers battling to get big news stories), there is a certain advantage to being a female photojournalist: it can mean access to communities – especially communities of women – that a man may not be able to get so easily. “Being a woman helps you have access to women in Iraq in a way that I sometimes take for granted,” DiCenzo continues. “I was working in Tel Kaif, a village north of Mosul after it was retaken from the Islamic State. We went into a home for an interview and the male reporter I was with commented about it being the first time he interviewed women and men together since the Mosul operation began.”

On the subject of women, we ask DiCenzo what she can tell us about the specific experience of Iraqi women living in war zones, to which she responds: “There’s a lot of assumptions made about them.” First of all, she says, Iraq isn’t “one big war zone. Erbil is actually a very safe city. There are women politicians, doctors, nurses, lawyers, TV reporters, and fixers. There are women fighting for greater women’s rights, and women who run underground shelters for women who suffer domestic abuses. The war with ISIS might overshadow these things, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t working to fix other issues.”
Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
A woman holds her child as she walks along the road in nearly 50 degrees Celsius heat to flee the fighting in her village in the Nineveh plains between the Islamic State and Iraqi Army. August 8, 2016.
“Moreover, the women directly impacted by war are still a challenge to represent. Reuters did a great piece on children being born under the Islamic State, which means they’re born without any papers. Getting them registered into the Iraqi state will be a big issue. I feel like most women want to talk about their experiences. They want their voices heard, but the population is still very scared to speak openly. It’s a volatile and fluid situation. People need to feel truly safe and secure, and we haven’t quite made it there.”

Iraq, DiCenzo says, is home to very patriarchal societies and, given that she spends most of her time photographing the predominantly male armed forces, two things often happen to her. “I will typically have a few ‘temporary brothers’ looking after me – these are soldiers that have decided to take it upon themselves to make sure I’m ok. I also get asked for selfies all the time,” she says. “You know things are settled down when fighters start asking for your photo again.”

DiCenzo believes that the most important personal traits for a photojournalist are calmness, smartness, patience and dedication. When asked, she says that there should never be any pressure to be without fear. “You need your fear,” she stresses. “No one should be nonchalant when working in a war zone. Even if the day and the situation seem calm, a mortar can go off and change that in an instant. I prefer to work with people that take these risks very seriously.”

Knowing the risks, staying alert, and keeping focused, there is nothing that DiCenzo would rather be doing. This is critical work and there are messages she hopes to spread with the images she takes and shares with the world. “I have worked a lot with the fighting forces in Iraq who are battling against the Islamic State,” she says. “I have witnessed soldiers being shot and killed. Iraqis, with the help of the coalition forces, are giving their lives to fight this intense war against jihadist militants that the whole world is rightfully terrified of. I hope that my images will confront people with the realities of what’s happening and encourage them to think about how Iraqi society is shouldering the brunt of the impact and the damage that is being carried out.”
Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
A woman holding her newborn baby pleads with Iraqi medics at a frontline casualty clinic in Mosul, Iraq. November 28, 2016
Photographed Courtesy Of Andrea DiCenzo.
A family flees on foot from ongoing fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic State militants south of Qayyarah, Iraq. August 8, 2016.
DiCenzo is keen to express that while conditions on and around the front line in Iraq are increasingly dangerous and heartbreaking, she has been privy to some of the more touching, human moments that have unfolded along the way. A particular story that stays in her mind is that of a little boy who was reunited with his family in Iraq. The family – Yazidis – fled their home in Sinjar in August 2014 when ISIS overran the town, but some of them didn’t make it. The women and children were separated and sold to jihadist militants, and some of the men remain missing. The family members that did escape resettled in the Kurdish region, and bought back two of the daughters from ISIS through a network of smugglers. When it came to the little boy, DiCenzo remembers, she got tipped off by one of the smugglers and happened to be in the right place to join their convoy. “The little boy didn’t seem scared or overwhelmed at all. He was all smiles and excited. We drove for about two hours to get to the family’s house. We got permission to photograph as press from the family before we arrived. It was incredible. As soon as the boy stepped out of the car, everyone was crying: the grandmother, the sisters that had previously been captives, the little boy himself. A woman fainted. I cried. The boy’s mother was still being held by ISIS, so it was a very bittersweet moment.”

When we spoke to DiCenzo, she told us of the building atmosphere in Iraq as the country prepares for the next steps in an intense military campaign to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. “The east side of the city has been liberated and the forces are now getting ready to cross the Tigris river into western Mosul, which is considered to be the more difficult part of the campaign. It’s been an intense past few months for Iraqis”, she says. For now, DiCenzo tells us, she plans to stay in Iraq “at least until the Mosul offensive is finished.”

To see more of Andrea’s work visit her website and follow her on Instagram @andreadicenzo