I am Tracey Shelton, an award-winning multimedia war correspondent who has spent the last year working inside Syria, living with civilians, rebels and "terrorist" leaders. (I survived and captured a deadly tank blast that went to the front page la...
Hi Reddit! Tracey Shelton here! I'm an Australian reporter who spent the last year inside Syria.
My video and photos capturing a tank blast that killed three rebel fighters on the frontlines in Aleppo made the front page of Reddit in September. Thank you!
Before Syria, I covered the conflict in Libya, where I procured the exclusive video of Muammar Gaddafi's capture.
Here I am, Australian journalist: http://i.imgur.com/a33tDMV.jpg
Ask me anything!
EDIT: Thanks everyone for your questions and comments. Sorry I didn't get to all your questions. i did my best but I have to get back to work on other things. I'll be back in Syria shortly. If you want to follow me on twitter here is the link. https://twitter.com/tracey_shelton Cheers, Tracey
There are so many. It really is an emotional roller coaster. You have extreme highs and lows all the time. One time that comes to mind happened when I was covering an air raid in Aleppo that killed an entire extended family. After 6 hours volunteer rescuers were still pulling the bodies of children from the rubble - and then they found a 1-year-old baby boy, Hussein, alive and unscathed. He was found cradled in his mothers arms. She died saving him. Here's the video if you want to see it. Another was the birth of a baby in a rain storm one night while I was staying with a family in Jabal al Zawia. That was really incredible to be a part of. We all thought the baby wouldn't make it and maybe the mother as well. Seeing the family hold that baby later was really moving. This is an article I wrote about the birth
What would you say have been your most important skills, both on a day-to-day basis and in terms of getting where you are now?
Do you try to separate yourself from what's going on around you in a conflict area, in order to document it as dispassionately as possible? Have you ever intervened in something?
- Aside from the obvious ability to work a camera and write a news story, I would say it's being able to immerse myself in a new culture or atmosphere and interact with people on a personal level to better understand them and what they are going through.
- For me I think if I separated myself emotionally from what is going on I couldn't convey the situation to people the way I aim to. I can't explain how it feels to live amid conflict if I don't feel it at least to some extent. I don't fly in and out of the area that I am covering. I live there and it becomes my home and the local people become my friends. It is necessary to keep enough distance to not form opinions or take sides but I don't think this should affect your humanity. As far as intervening, I have on occasion helped people that were injured when there was no one else more qualified.
Along those lines, what are the techniques you use to immerse yourself in new cultures, and express your desire to tell their story?
Do you think the mere presence of the camera helps in this process?
Wherever I am, or whoever they are, I pretty much treat everyone the same. I've learnt not to form preconceived ideas as they are so often wrong. I naturally have a deep interest in other people - and the more different they are to me and what I'm used to the more interesting I find them. The camera doesn't really come into it until later. I like to get to know people on a more casual basis first.
With so many terrible things you witness first hand, how are you able to cope psychologically? Any techniques in particular that you use, or is it more of just having a "given" mind set when you go into such situations?
I think when tragedy is unexpected it is much harder to deal with. I see families in Libya having a harder time now dealing with the death of a sick relative than they did with the death of several family members on the frontline during the revolution. When you are mentally prepared to deal with death it is still horrific but the shock factor is somewhat removed. For me, I have lost many friends and seen people I was close to or admired killed, like Libyan rebel commanders Ali Alobedi and Abdolfattah Albosaify, and Free Syrian Army fighter Humza Fattalah, and others injured or kidnapped - like my colleague James Foley. That's never easy but knowing why you are out there and believing fully in the importance of what you are doing helps in dealing with the loss and to keep going.
How did you get into this field? Like what was the first big project/story you worked on?
I started photography at Santa's Kingdom in Dublin. Worked my way into photojournalism and began writing when I got my first freelance photographer gig in Cambodia. My first written piece was on the exploitative industry of "Orphanage Tourism". It got a big response in Cambodia and I hope raised a lot of awareness.
Santa's Kingdom to Syrian war correspondent--that's a pretty astounding progression.
Did you have writing experience prior to that?
I left school when I was 15 but my teachers had been telling me I was going to be a writer. I never thought about it again until I began photojournalism and my first editor at the Phnom Penh Post taught me how to put together a news story so I very much learnt on the job.
Is orphanage tourism what I think it is, and if so, why?
An article about it. The article by Tracey Shelton and Sam Rith is behind a paywall, but that will give you the gist of it. For a tl;dr: Tourists want to do something good for the orphans, but often this is self-serving and not actually in the kids best interests.
Thanks for answering this for me. I forgot Sam Rith worked on that one with me. That brings back some memories. He is an amazing reporter and one of my favourite people!
How much contact have you had with regime forces, and what's the nature of the contact? Do journalists working in Syria generally avoid them?
I have applied for Syrian visas and would love to cover the government side as well but so far no luck. When you enter via the rebel territory you are entering the country illegally so to encounter government troops you would be arrested and technically the arrest would be justified. To make sure my coverage is more balanced I work to find civilians who support the government. This is one example if you are interested
Thank you for doing this AMA! We're big fans of GlobalPost and appreciate high quality int'l coverage provided by esteemed journalists such as yourself.
Our organization hosts int'l visitors through the U.S. State Department for professional exchanges that are successful on the concept of citizen diplomacy and authentic exchanges of information between professional peers.
Have many Syrians with whom you've worked traveled to the U.S., and if so, how do they differentiate between the government and the people? If unsatisfied with US Gov official responses--and actions--do they think Americans are generally indifferent to the events over there?
I don't know too many that have been to the States but in general most do feel Americans, and the rest of the world, are indifferent to their suffering. It's hard for local families to understand the complications surrounding the choice of international governments not to intervention.
Are you frequently in personal danger? What precautions do you take to protect yourself?
Of course there are a lot of risks in what I do. Knowing how to read the situation on a battlefield and working out quickly who knows the situation best so you can follow their lead is important. On the frontline I will look for what cover is available and monitor the direction of incoming fire. In general blending in with the locals as best you can reduces the attention you might draw as a foreigner. The best advice is to build a network of people you trust on the ground and check in with them - and my editor Pete here at GlobalPost - regularly so if anything does go wrong I have a network ready to step in quickly.
What do you miss the most that you can't get while working in the frontline?
"I come from a land down under" sorry, everytime I hear or see vegemite, men at work take over my brain. Followup, what's it taste like if anything?
It's tastes awesome! There is no substitute.
What equipment did you use to capture those photos of the tank blast?
I have an old second hand 7D with a 24-105mm Canon lenses that I bought about 10 years ago. Quite beat up but it works. I was shooting at the widest angle.
Could you feel the blast?
Yes of course. I was right next to it. I was covered in debris and dust and had to run back to escape the worst of it.
What sort of power do you see radical Islamic groups gathering during the chaos of the civil war?
The more radical Islamic groups are well organised and therefore very effective fighters. Because of this - and growing disunity and corruption among the more secular groups - they are gathering more support as the revolution goes on. They have a lot of supporters in the rural villages that are traditionally more conservative, but not so much in the bigger cities like Aleppo where the youth in particular want to see a secular government replace the Assad regime.
Can you elaborate on why the fighting between the Kurds and rebels is never covered in our news? For example, the BBC labels them as an "minority population" to avoid the issue.
Based on what you have experienced, do you think there is hope for Syria reaching peace?
Sadly, not for a very long time.
If you could give a new journalist advice on what not to do in this profession, what would it be?
I think it's really important to always make sure that what you are covering is authentic, especially in a war zone. The last thing you want is for a rebel group to put on a "theatre show" for you. That not only has journalistic issues but shooting randomly, even on a frontline, could endanger them, bystanders and you.
Say you had a time machine and could go back and cover any conflict in history, what would it be and why?
I think I would embed with Genghis Khan.
Thanks for speaking to students at Columbia on Wednesday! You mentioned your working style is to live in the place you are reporting from and building your world and networks around the events. I think a lot of journalists finish with a story and move on, often ceasing contact with sources or the subject. Can you talk about how you navigate those attachments when you are so invested in a place and its people? Are you able to stay in touch, follow up etc or does the new context take over?
I still have a lot of close friends and a surrogate family back in Libya and close friends in Iraq (yeah, that includes you Harem). You develop many work relationships but sometimes you find real friends and that lasts long after the job ends.
What was going through your mind when you were capturing that shot?
Honestly, when danger strikes you can only afford to concentrate on what you are doing. After the moment is finished then you get a chance to wonder what happened behind the smoke and who survived. It all happens so fast that you have no way of knowing the outcome until the smoke clears. You search your mind for any memory of who was standing where. You look around searching the faces, trying to work out who is missing. That is a sickening feeling.
What are the rebels fighting for, and how sectarian is the conflict? Also, what are the government troops fighting for? What's motivating all this conflict?
The reasons are mixed. There are hundreds of rebel groups and they all have their own agendas. Some want a Sunni Islamic government, others a secular government. Some fight for personal gain, power or recognition. Government troops is harder to answer as I haven't yet had the chance to spend any time getting to know them. I assume their reasons are also mixed. Some believe the current regime is best for Syria. Others fear what might follow a rebel win. Minorities and Alawites may feel the Assad government can protect them from Sunni radicals. Some fear losing power and status or facing the repercussions of their involvement in the fighting.
What drew you to conflict and war reporting?
It was a gradual process. I was always passionate about trying to understand the things in this world that are most difficult to comprehend. As I moved deeper into covering difficult situations I found that I could always stay calm and think clearly despite the danger. I also found I was kind of good at giving enough of my time and myself to really understand how conflict affects those involved from fighters and civilians to medics and aid workers. Being able to convey that understanding to others is a privilege and a huge responsibility.
In the history of photo-journalism what is the one photo you most wish you had taken yourself?
Tough question but a good one. I'll have a think about it.
- What's your favorite camera that you always have with you, even when not on the job?
- What do you think is good about Syria?
- I only have one camera, a beat up old 7D, that is with me 24/7. I'm like a turtle, my life is in my camera bag and comes with me everywhere. Although thanks to two awesome Columbia graduates who decided I needed to upgrade while I am here in New York and began this campaign it seems I might be heading back home to Syria with a whole new kit next week.
- I'm not really sure what you mean but the Syrian people are amazing. They are welcoming, hospitable and resilient.
Compared with revolutions/ coups in Egypt, Libya, and the Central African Republic, the attempt to overthrow Al-Assad doesn't seem to be working very well. Do you get the impression that is a because of the strength of the regime, or a function of the fractious nature of the FSA?
I think it's both. The regime has some major backers in Iran and Russia and therefore a strong weapons flow. The opposition, as you said, is extremely divided and seemingly unable to unite even against a common enemy.
Actually, the Syrian Arab Army is strong army since before the war. It's not like the Russians and Iranian provided it with weapons recently. This is an ideological army structured to protect the regime.
Yes, you are right. That's an important point.
After seeing what you have, do you have hope in a. The continued truth, support and relevance of correspondent/investigative journalism and b. The ability for humanity to not kill itself?
Covering these conflicts I have realised how important investigative journalism is and I don't think it will ever lose its relevance or importance. As for humanity I don't think we will ever see a world free of war. The desire for power and dominance for many people is too strong.
Being labelled a terrorist may or may not mean you are one. That's not my call to make. I'll leave that one to the politicians.
I have read in some right wing news media (Infowars) that the "rebels", which I believe are Syrian civilians engaged in civil war, are actually mercenaries sent from outside syrias borders (some argue bankrolled by the US).
Are they just Syrians rebelling? or is there more?
The far majority are Syrian. They are a mix of civilians and military defectors. Among them are a small percentage of foreign fighters. Almost all are Muslim and the majority join the Islamic groups fighting a jihad to establish an Islamic government.
What is something from the frontlines you wish everyone in the world would know but doesn't get enough exposure in the world press?
I guess the biggest thing is that people fighting on a frontline are just people. From the outside it is easy to dehumanise them under group titles like rebels, soldiers, loyalists, but in reality whatever side you are on these groups are made up of ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
When you win an award do you become obligated to precede your occupation with 'award-winning' or do you just want everyone to know?
That was my editor Pete Gelling who put that in there so blame him.
I think the label "terrorist" is thrown around a lot for political means so I did investigate this quite thoroughly in Syria which you can view here if you are interested
Hi there Tracey. Much respect for your work.
How do you feel when leaving a conflict like that in Syria? When being with the people there for some time I'd suggest it's quite a difficult feeling to know you'll come home to a safe and comfortable place, while they still suffer? Do you usually stay in any kind of contact with some of the people you met?
I haven't left Syria yet (I'm only in the States for the Polk Awards and RISC training but I'll be back in a few days). I don't have a home base outside of my work. I make the place I am covering my home so I never have that feeling of coming home to a safe place. It was really tough to leave Libya at the end of the revolution. I felt like there was so much I was leaving untold but at the same time Syria was important too. I always try to stay in touch with all of the close friends I make wherever I am. Syria will be the same when I leave.
As a foreign female journalist in Syria - what limitations or exclusions did you have to deal with (that male counterparts wouldn't have been faced with?)
What did you learn personally about the Syrian culture that you think is important for others in the world to understand?
What other international conflicts would you want to cover in this manner? What's next on your plate?
Culturally I do need to modify my dress and behaviour to be accepted and respected but I also gain access to a whole world that male reporters can't access. For example my last piece on women living through conflict developed from spending time staying with local families and getting to know the wives of these fighters. You couldn't do that as a man. As whats next, I'm not sure. I'll be covering Syria for a long time I think.
Hi Tracey, thank you for you hard work and dedication. Two questions.
How has the Syrian revolution been affected by the Arab Spring and their social media based means of organization?
Being a female journalist working in Syria must have been extremely dangerous. Besides the military action taking place, did you find yourself in potentially violent situations?
- Youtube plays a big part in Syria. A lot of activists uploading videos on both sides of the conflict. Facebook and twitter also.
- As a female you do need to conform to local customs but I find as long as I respect their beliefs I am treated really well and shown respect. I haven't had any added danger as a female yet but I do avoid certain situations and act on instinct if i get a bad vibe from some men.
Can you elaborate a little bit on the deaths of the 3 people by the tank? Was the tank in front of them, or behind them? How did they not see it? Thanks for doing the AMA
She explains it in detail here
I tried to ask this question of the lady doing an AMA for al jazeera yesterday, but didn't really get a straight answer. How strong do you think the Salafist elements are in the rebellion? Do you foresee them taking over the government of Syria should the rebellion end favorably for the rebels?
I don't think they will take over the government as Syria is predominately moderate Islam rather than extreme, but they are very effective fighters and their popularity is growing and will continue to do so for as long as the revolution drags on so it is a possibility.
Did you ever meet Austin Tice in Syria? Have you ever been in a situation where you thought you would end up captured like him?
No, I never did meet him. I haven't been in that situation in Syria but I escaped a kidnapping attempt in Libya once.
Thanks for answering! That's nuts, did you have a plan if something like that ever happened to you? Also, how did you escape the kidnapping attempt in Libya?
I got my hands free from the bedsheets they tied me up in and jumped from the balcony.
Being a journalist, is it really difficult to keep yourself and your personal feelings separate from the issues presented to you? I can only imagine how different covering something like the Syrian insurgency would be from doing reporting on something mundane, but how often do you feel yourself becoming emotionally involved?
It's important to keep feeling - as a reporter and as a human being. The key is to not let those feelings turn into a bias for any group or side.
Of all the things you've experienced, what was the most touching moment during your reporting in Syria? And how do you deal with the emotional aftermath of covering such a gruesome and heart wrenching conflict?
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