News Deeply: What are the advantages – and disadvantages – of being a woman covering Syria?
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Janine Di Giovanni: I think there are some advantages to being a woman and not working with a television crew because you can operate by yourself and that’s how I’ve always worked. From the time of the Bosnian war, it was much easier for me to put on a scarf (although you didn’t need one in Bosnia) and be discreet, blend with people and get on a bus and go somewhere.
The best reporting I’ve read from Syria is from people who are operating alone. And it’s scarier and more difficult and logistically hard, but you can just blend in. I’m working on a documentary now, and it’s really hard doing that as opposed to doing print, because there’s no way you can be invisible.
Anytime, whether working in Gaza or Syria or Pakistan, the best way to talk to people is to get inside their lives, to spend time with them. These things are time consuming. People on daily and hourly deadlines need to get a scoop, and they need to get an angle, and I have a great luxury, which is that I don’t work like that anymore. I used to be at the Times of London, and I had a daily story to file by 4 p.m. British time. Now I work on more long-term projects. You can spend two hours over a cup of tea and keep coming back over and over again. Only there’s not as much of a market for that kind of journalism as there used to be.
The way of the future might be completely digital. Everyone has to find their own individual path. It depends on the more time you spend with [interviewees on the ground] and the freer you are to drift around, rather than staying in a pack. The Times wants to know what the Telegraph is covering and the Guardian is following, and if someone else gets a scoop they get in trouble.
You have to be respectful of the local culture. There’s terrible sexual abuse going on with women [reporters] now, and it’s really shocking. But it’s been going on for a while, it’s nothing new. When Lara Logan was attacked, it got a lot of publicity because she’s on TV and beautiful and it was horrific. All women going into the world have to be very respectful of what to wear. When you work with the Free Syrian Army, a lot of those guys are religious guys, and you have to show that respect.
It’s a very sexist business. We’ve made huge progress, but it’s still very macho. I remember being in Aleppo and looking around, and it was all guys. It’s very much a guy’s club. Especially for women photojournalists. To be a camerawoman is an incredibly difficult job now.
Anyone going into a critical zone needs to be aware of what’s happening. For women [covering Syria], there are pluses and minuses. The pluses are that often women are very good listeners, and this may be a sexist thing, but we’re quite good at sitting back and letting soldiers or commanders talk. A lot of people on the ground would rather speak to women. I work a lot on hospitals and I talk to soldiers who are very badly injured and they either think I am their mother, their sister or their friend from school, and they’re very comfortable. Or they refuse to speak to you.
I have a son. I don’t take the same kind of risks now since I had him. And when I’m away I miss him. And it’s very different for men [reporting from war zones]. People argue with me about this, but fathers have a different relationship to their children than mothers. I mean, we give birth.
As women reporters, we can cover ourselves up, go into a hospital. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone unnoticed and slipped through cordons and snuck onto a boat or slipped away somewhere. Getting through checkpoints has been easier as a woman. In Syria I work with female interpreters, and you can move through checkpoints easier than if you have Western guys in the car.
I’m someone that doesn’t really hide my emotions, and I think that’s healthy. There’s times I excuse myself and cry. I had a meltdown in December in Aleppo in a hospital emergency room when a baby died in front of us. The parents couldn’t get to the hospital. He had a respiratory infection he could have been saved from in any other part of the world that wasn’t a war zone. To see the doctor desperately trying to save this infant and the life go out of his body … I went into a side room because I didn’t want his mother to see me crying. I so remember having a 15-day-old son who was premature and fragile. Had he been born not in France but [wartime] Aleppo, he would not have survived.
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