Photo reporter Julia Leeb has been traveling to crisis areas for many years. She talks about forgotten conflicts, remedies against fear and what makes her different from her male colleagues
Ms. Leeb, unfortunately there is no shortage of war and crisis zones, where you work as a photo reporter. Where are you traveling to next?
I usually keep this to myself for security reasons. But in the current case I can say it: I think Armenia is particularly important, I’m currently preparing for it. But I wouldn’t announce it publicly if I were to travel to Somalia now, for example. There are kidnappings in other areas too – someone would only have to look at the flight lists.
Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan attacked the country in mid-September. After heavy fighting that left more than 200 dead, a ceasefire is currently in place. What draws you there?
Armenia is a democratic country that has just been attacked by a non-democratic country. Relatively little is reported about this and I wonder why that is. I am interested in conflicts that are not so prominent in the media. Connections can be seen, for example that in the shadow of the Ukraine war, which dominates the media, certain actors exploit the lack of attention for their own purposes.
Yes, we did a series (#Looking at it) about that in FR. But does that mean, by implication, that the Ukraine war doesn’t interest you as a reporter because there are already so many others?
Of course I am very interested in this war. It also determines our life, our everyday life and our direct future. But there are a lot of journalists on site, including international colleagues, who cover it very well. My work wouldn’t count for that.
Where have you been in the past weeks, months, years?
This is an endless list. But I can give you an interesting example. I have anticipated a political escalation with Russia before, although not on this scale. That’s why I traveled to Transnistria, the breakaway republic in Moldova that’s backed by Russia. I just went there, to the country that doesn’t officially exist. Suddenly you see tanks there, a border. They have their own President, their own money, their own license plates. They actually have everything a state needs – just no international recognition. In my perception, this frozen conflict was hardly reported. Transnistria is only interesting when Putin stretches out his hand. Otherwise it is neglected and probably therefore does not feel like it belongs. But when, if not now, is the right time to think about where Europe begins and where it ends? And of course we need to know what’s going on at Europe’s borders. You have to send people on site, and they can’t always live from hand to mouth. This is a plea for more support for freelance reporters in foreign journalism.
Arrived! In your work, it is very important for you to take a special look at women. Why?
For a long time I was very extreme, spent a lot of time in hardcore war zones, it was almost an obsession. I was in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran – there was no war at the time, but you noticed the very tense political situation. I was in Gaza, in Sudan, in South Sudan, in Congo – in many countries. It struck me that the main protagonist is always violence. Those who exercise the most violence have the greatest bargaining chip. But even in war there is another civilian side: a kind of everyday life, a force that keeps everything alive. Of course, these are very often women. Every conflict is different, but there are patterns that repeat themselves. In the areas where I was, it was always the case that women didn’t want the war, but they were its first victims.
Where for example?
For example in the Congo. Since rape is used strategically as a weapon of war, millions of women have been raped. Why are you doing this, why are you destroying her abdomen? Because women are of such great importance to society as a whole, especially in rural areas. They are mother, sister, wife, daughter, they keep life going. If you destroy these women in their femininity, you destroy the marriage, the family and eventually the entire community. The battered bodies of women are a message to the enemy. There are different degrees of this, but in the Congo it happened almost in camera and that’s why it became so brutal. This war, too, gets little media coverage, despite being the second deadliest conflict since World War II. We’re talking about more than five million dead people here.
How can reporting help?
Because the war hardly gets any attention, there is a kind of impunity for the perpetrators. That is why violence, especially against women, is spreading like a plague. Journalism means making light, showing what is. And some of these tormented women can forgive, despite what has happened to them. That impressed me deeply: I met women who were able to free themselves from the prison of the past through this act. They found the strength to help others as well. They understood that this is their only way to see the next generation grow up in peace and stability.
The women are at the center of the conflict, but they are also central when coexistence has to be rearranged.
I feel that way. But where do women sit at the negotiating table when it comes to peace? I have worked intensively on conflict research. If you look at the history books, it’s a string of violent excesses. We have turned our focus to violence.
So is it your view of women that sets you and your colleagues apart from male reporters?
Generalizations are always difficult. The men I met in the war zones were often very much about short-term combat. Women, on the other hand – my big role model was Anja Niedringhaus – stay with me longer. I don’t think there is anyone on the outside who understands Afghanistan like you do. She sticks with it when the bomb is dropped and lets us understand what that means, how people go in a different direction afterwards. To answer your question: My approach and that of women like Anja Niedringhaus is: stay tuned. Not just showing the war, but showing what war does to people.
Do male reporters behave differently in war?
In the war zones there are usually crass characters on the move, that’s what this job entails. And every act of war leaves psychological injuries in its wake, even if it is only observed. You can cover that for a short time, but sooner or later it gets everyone. It’s a big taboo, especially for free… (hesitates) war reporters – I don’t like that word. There are many people who can act very well on site. Fear and sadness are not punctual, they often come when you are back and not expecting it at all. Many men have trouble admitting this. It can happen that this emptiness then has to be filled again with adrenaline. This is a very dangerous moment. For some, it feels like suicide in installments.
That sounds scary. But what do you have against the word “war reporter”?
I find the term so uncomfortable. Others are really at war, but as a “war reporter” you can get in and out. i feel bad about it This is probably the guilt of the survivors.
Julia Leeb is a freelance photo reporter. She comes from Munich and has been on the road for more than eleven years. Her travels have taken her to around 80 countries, including many war zones. She wrote the book “North Korea: Anonymous Country” about her time in North Korea, which was published in 2014. Her new book, written before the war in Ukraine, is called “Humanity in Times of Fear” (Suhrkamp).
Julia Leeb also works with virtual reality , with 360-degree formats. These completely depict the environment in which their photos were taken. She wants to give up her “interpretation sovereignty”. sha
You can find the FR series #Looking at FR.de/im Schatten.
As a woman, do you feel that you have easier access to the people you photograph than your male colleagues?
That depends on where you are. I am aware that in many countries it is a great privilege if you are from abroad, if you are white and have rights. But that can play against you just as well. That one becomes a kidnapping victim, for example, or that one is attacked precisely because of it. One advantage for me is that in the Arab world I can usually be with both women and men, men often can’t. This allows me to get to know different perspectives. Another advantage is that sometimes I’m not taken so seriously. Then people are much more honest, they talk straight to the heart.
Are you sometimes told that as a woman you have no place in war?
That happens all the time. But I’ve also had a lot of positive experiences. One is often very dependent on the locals, the great hospitality, especially in poor Muslim regions, is incredibly impressive.
What do you do against the fear that surely also accompanies you on your travels? Your colleague Anja Niedringhaus, whom you have already mentioned, was killed in an attack in Afghanistan in 2014. How present is the danger?
Her death hit me because I thought there was no one who knew better than her. That shows the vulnerability: no matter how long you do it – you are never safe. That was really a tragedy, because it also showed the Afghan side in a very memorable way. And the perpetrator said he wanted to avenge the deaths of relatives who were killed in a NATO attack. It shows the whole tragedy of war that these two people fell victim to something that has nothing to do with them. This senselessness with which life is destroyed drives one to despair. There is always a moment when a development takes on a life of its own and more and more uninvolved people are drawn in. One sorrow attaches itself to the other. At some point it doesn’t matter who started it – the killing just has to stop. It’s no longer about who was right, but about not losing yourself as a person. The worst moment is when people no longer recognize anyone in their counterpart.
To come back to your fear – what are your remedies for it? Do you repress such thoughts when you travel?
Before I go anywhere, I read as few messages as possible. Otherwise you’re so scared. Because I work freelance and am not as well organized as others, I always have a lot to do, I have to find out where to stay, how to get there, and who will finance it. I have so many problems that I can’t really think about the situation I’ve put myself in. Then it’s just about getting through. When it’s no longer possible and I notice that I’m getting scared, I start doing arithmetic problems. Mental arithmetic is distracting.
How did you get into the profession of “war reporter” – I use the term consciously now? What excites you about it?
As journalists, we probably have that in common: we want to understand, recognize and uncover connections. It’s a natural impulse. The world is more connected than ever, yet you only ever see those who are in the light, who are online, who are on the news. But the others are still there, and they also have something to do with our personal destiny. How can you not care?
You want to look behind the scenes – but you could also do that much more comfortably and less dangerously than in the job you have chosen.
If the Wall were only going to fall now, you would certainly go there too. These are historic moments. I am interested in societies in transition. I lived in Egypt. Of course I’m interested if there’s a revolution and for the first time in thousands of years a – in quotation marks – pharaoh is to be overthrown by the people. Of course I want to be there, that’s world history. I think it’s important to look closely.
And there must be people who are there for it.
Yes, as many as possible, because only then does this mosaic exist. Because I, too, only deliver a miniature reality. Completeness is incredibly important, especially in war reporting. Based on the information from the place of events, decisions are often made that concern us directly.
Are there any experiences that you particularly remember?
It is very unpleasant to be physically attacked. You feel a great helplessness because you are physically inferior. But it’s also interesting how mental strength can grow in such a moment if you’re lucky. This is a gift.
what happened to you
I was in Egypt for the one year anniversary of the revolution and I was abducted there. It was a very long fight. Of course you don’t want that. You can see how quickly everything can change within a few seconds. Just now you’re still thinking, what am I going to do the day after tomorrow, and then it’s all about surviving. I was supposed to be killed on another mission, which is of course something very drastic. A moment that will change your life forever. On the other hand, I was very impressed by encounters with people who had also experienced terrible things and then surpassed themselves. Those are the healing moments. So many people are just unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there is always a future. There is always a way to make things happen, no matter how dire the situation. I have dozens of examples of this and I want us to be able to learn from these people.
That is the power that lies in hope.
Hope is just a word. But I’ve been in a couple of situations where I had no hope at all, and that’s the worst thing there is. Because you kind of died alive. It’s mostly the women who do something, for example, who give lessons in a destroyed village. Just that moment, being in a certain place at a certain time, where you meet other people, where there is a bit of a future… Just don’t give up believing in what is human, that means so much. A glimmer of hope can keep you alive.
Interview: Sabine Hamacher