Ask a Pro: How to Shoot (and Not Get Shot) In a War Zone

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Ever wonder how war photographers survive out there? We've enlisted Teru Kuwayama—a photographer who has covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hotspots for Time, Newsweek and Outside—to explain the perils of working in a war zone.

Among military planners, there's an aphorism that states: "Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics."


The daily mechanics of photographing in a "war zone" don't have much to do with photography—mostly it's about getting from point A to point B without getting your head cut off, then finding a signal and an outlet.

I'm probably not the right person to be give advice on war photography, since I don't even count myself as a war photographer—but for one reason or another, I've spent the better part of the last decade in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I was a young photographer when these wars began—I'm not anymore, and from all indications, the "long war" is just getting started.


For what it's worth, here's some advice for first timers heading out to the badlands.

Wear Your Seat Belt
I get questions on a daily basis from journalists heading for Afghanistan—most of them are about body armor—but it's the traffic that's most likely to kill you. The stretch of Islamist insurgency that arcs from Southern Philippines to Somalia hasn't produced exceptional snipers, but it's home to some of the most lethal drivers on Earth. On my last trip to Pakistan, I flipped a car four times within 72 hours of arrival. My bulletproof vest is still wrapped in plastic somewhere in Islamabad.


Learn How To Say "Hello" and "Thank You" and To Count To Ten
Most tourists wouldn't go to France or Italy without packing a phrasebook, but a surprising number of photographers set off to Iraq or Afghanistan without learning how to make the most basic conversation. I recently found myself explaining to an "experienced war photographer" that Afghans don't speak Arabic.

Stop Looking For the "Front Line"—It's a Mirage
The awkwardly named "global war on terror" might be the undeclared World War III of the 21st century, but it doesn't play out like WWI and WWII, and counterinsurgency isn't done in trenches. In modern military parlance, the "battlefield" has been replaced by the "battlespace," an all-encompassing realm that includes not just the landscape, but also the "hearts and minds" of a "human terrain," and the airwaves and webspace across which an "information war" is being waged.


Equip Yourself With the Right Gear
War zone propeller-heads can talk endlessly about their toys, so here, in bullet points, are a few tips:

Avoid the faux-commando stuff - An entire paramilitary equipment industry has emerged, selling "special operator" products ranging from "tactical flashlights" to mercenary-chic cargo trousers. Private military contractors love this overpriced war-schwag, but since you are not a highly paid, heavily armed, former Navy SEAL, it's probably best that you avoid dressing up like one. When you're on the side of the road, getting shaken down for your money and/or your ID, you really don't want to pull it out of a camouflage passport holder that says "Operation Iraqi Freedom" all over it. (It won't make you especially popular in the airport in Paris or Dubai either).


Bring plastic (not your credit cards) - In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, you will encounter an unimaginable variety of dirt, dust, sand and, in the rare event of rain, mud that falls from the sky. These abrasive, corrosive, gear-choking forces are probably more destructive than any known insurgent militia, and they will eat you and your expensive toys alive. Zipties, ziplock bags, crazy glue and plastic packing tape will help you patch it together. Skip the army-navy outfitter, and go to Home Depot and the 99-cent store.

Pack your go bag - AKA, your grab bag, jump bag, snatch bag, bug-out bag, etc. Since you're out there looking for trouble, be prepared to find it. Your go bag is the essential kit, packed in advance, that you head for the door with when things get hectic. Beyond your go bag, keep an ultra-light bare-bones survival pack—and keep it strapped to your body. When things go bang, you may be semi-conscious, crawling out of a destroyed building or a wrecked vehicle, and even your go bag may go sideways. Military bases and hotels with foreign guests are natural magnets for missiles and explosives, so expecting to be blown out of bed is not necessarily an irrational thought. Similarly, you are exceptionally vulnerable when traveling by road, and in the event of an accident or an ambush that you are lucky enough to survive, you won't get a time-out to collect your stuff.


A look at my general kit:
passports x2
sim cards -af, pak, india, thuraya,usa
2 x mini waterproof case - credit cards, cigarettes, etc
ziplock bag - currency - af, pak, indian, euro, pounds sterling,
dollars canadian, USD, UAE dirhams
IDs - press cards, military embed badges, etc
med pack + personal hygiene
batteries - AAA, AA, 123
power strip/surge protector - universal/multi port for regional power plugs
steel cable/TSA locks X5
AC/DC car power transformer - cig port to US power socket.
box o' electronic shit - chargers, adaptors, usb cables, etc
zip ties, ziplock bags, packing tape, contractor grade heavy duty garbage bags
protective cases with camera memory cards
mini-pelican case with 3x 500GB external harddrives
2x headlamps w/red gel

I keep my shooting gear in a big Pelicase:
2x Holga
2x Widelux
2x Leica (M6, M8.2)
1x Canon G10
3x batteries for G10 and M8.2
2x charging units for G10 and M8.2
light meter
audio recorder
gps navigator
folding stereo headphones
mini screwdriver set
2x multi-tool (large with wire cutters, small w/scissors)
2x mobile phone (US + overseas)
film + memory cards + video tapes


Plus I carry...
body armor (level 4 stand-alone rifle plates, carrier harness + kevlar helmet)
boots, trainers, local sandals
ultra light sleeping bag + bivy sack + all purpose dhoti/sheet
waterproof river-rafting bag
survival blanket/camping tarp
compression straps, rope/cable
clothing - western + local

Embedding Has Both Perks and Consequences
For better, and for worse, the military has provided training wheels for rookies. On the upside, embedding takes care of the serious logistical challenges of transportation, shelter, security and food and water. There's not a lot of bed-and-breakfasts to be found in Fallujah or Kandahar, so that's not a small consideration. On the downside, embedded reporters operate on a very short leash with ever-increasing restrictions from their military handlers. Independent reporting is critical for getting an accurate view from these places, but it's dangerous, difficult, expensive, and it's being done less and less by the international press. Embedding provides a particular but extremely limited view of the battlespace. You can spend an entire deployment embedded with the US Marines in Diyala or Helmand, but don't fool yourself that you know anything about Iraq or Afghanistan—what you've seen is the inside of an armored bubble.


Get In Shape Before Deploying
If you're going to hang out with the war jocks, get in shape. No one expects you qualify for Special Forces school, but if you're an overweight chain-smoker, you're not going to inspire a lot of confidence in the infantry unit you want to tag along with, and you're likely to get left back at base (for your own good, and theirs). I'm 5'6", 140 lbs, and 38 years old, which means I should probably be behind a desk somewhere, but somehow ended up living in mountains and deserts with soldiers and marines who are literally twice my size, and half my age—while I'm hauling a backpack that's more than 50% of my body weight. Those are unsympathetic mathematics that destroy knees, spines and ankles. Do whatever you can to rebuild your most basic equipment—running, lifting, swimming, wall-climbing, yoga, whatever—just do it, and don't wait till the week before you ship out.


Fixers: The Tour Guides of War Reporting
Sometimes they're local journalists, sometimes they're taxi drivers or doctors who speak English and know how to get things done. If they were American or European, they'd have more glamorous titles like "field producers" or "media consultants." But in Iraq and Afghanistan, they do journalism's heavy lifting for a $100 a day, and they're left back in the shit when their clients are telling war stories back at home. Respect them, their knowledge, and the risk they face to make your work possible—but don't trust them blindly. Some of them are shady, and all of them are winging it, just like you are. I avoid fixers because so many of the ones I've worked with are dead now.

Don't Follow the Pack
For most of the last eight years, Afghanistan was the "Forgotten War", and Iraq was the "Central Front". The US government has now reversed gears, and the US media is now falling over itself to relocate all the balls it dropped. As mainstream journalists are beginning to grapple with the complexity of Afghanistan-plus-Pakistan, special operations are quietly moving on to the Horn of Africa. Try to think outside the extremely cramped box—by the time it's "news," it's pretty old.


Read. Think. Ask questions - and triple check before you start believing.
Some suggested reading:

Descent into Chaos - Ahmed Rashid
The Gamble - Tom Ricks
29 Articles - David Kilcullen
War and Anti-War - Alvin and Heidi Toffler
The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell - John Crawford


Five years ago, while I was working in Iraq, I teamed up with my brother, a web developer, to launch a web-based data-sharing network of people who do inadvisable things in sketchy places. When you have a bizarre question that no travel agent can answer, try our site, Someone out there will have advice for you—heed it at your own peril.

Teru Kuwayama has made more than 15 trips to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, traveling both independently, and as an embedded reporter with US and NATO military forces, as well as Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian armed forces. In 2009 he received the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor award for his work in Pakistan, and a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.


He is a 2009-2010 Knight Fellow at Stanford University, a contributor to Time, Newsweek and Outside magazines, and a contract photographer for Central Asia Institute, a non-profit organization that builds schools for children in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He is also the co-founder of, a web-based network of media, military, and aid and development personnel, and the curator of, a traveling exhibition of photographs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


A special thanks goes out to Teru. Immediately after sending Gizmodo this piece, Teru returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan.