A lesson from the Egyptian Revolution – you can never be too prepared in a conflict zone

Mohamed Hossam Eldinm and Nasser Nuri, photographer colleagues in Egypt sent me some photos that they took of me in Tahrir during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. It’s rare that you get to see so many photos of yourself in action, and also unique because I remember this particular moment so clearly.

photo credit/Nasser Nuri
photo credit/Nasser Nuri

That day, I had walked to Tahrir Square with Mubarak supporters thinking at some point they would stop before they entered the square, since it was full of soldiers and anti-government protesters. But the soldiers just let them enter without hesitation and before I knew it, I was smack in the middle of two angry crowds facing off. Mubarak versus anti-Mubarak Egyptians pushing each other back and forth. My feet were almost lifted off the ground in the sway, and I realized at that point that I had gotten too close, and that I didn’t have an exit strategy.

photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin
photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin

This was one of the few times in my career I thought ‘well, I can’t leave so I have to just keep shooting’. As the tension came to a head, I put my camera on full program mode, and the focus to fully automatic and just held my finger on the shutter. And then as they clashed, I fell to the ground and another photographer fell on top of me.

 

photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin
photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin
photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin
photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin

You can see in a cropped close up of Mohamed’s photos my eyes are almost closed and I’m pointing my camera upwards as I am pushed downwards.

photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin
photo credit/Mohamed Hossam Eldin

It was a defining moment for me during the revolution because it reminded me that I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen – I thought I had a grasp on working in Egypt, having lived there for years, but I didn’t. I needed to take more precautions.

I was lucky that day that the men with the sticks jumped over me, and I got a photo out of it.

photo credit/Tara Todras-Whitehill for the Associated Press
photo credit/Tara Todras-Whitehill for the Associated Press

Mohamed refreshed my memory of these events, when  he was kind enough to send me some pictures from that day. Seeing myself in the middle of that scrum, and then reading news of injured colleagues, it’s a sober reminder of how quickly a situation can change, and go badly downhill. It’s part of what happens, but it doesn’t make it easier to deal with. What I do know is that we need to be as prepared as possible, and if you do find yourself in those situations, to know you can trust in your judgement and your colleagues around you to help guide you to safety.

For resources for freelancers going into conflict zones please check out these links:

Rory Peck resources for freelancers is full of important documents like ‘creating your communications plan’ and ‘risk assessment’.

Also, if you apply to be part of the Frontline Freelancer Register, you can have access to links on their resources page and also they can help you find out where you can rent or use flax jackets and helmets around the world.

Be as prepared as you can and stay safe.

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.

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