Tell Me More: Photojournalist in the War Zones
Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, snd shed light on important topics of the day.
What’s it like to be a conflict photographer who travels the globe—often in harm’s way—to record the strife and turbulence of our times? In this episode, Tufts alumna Nichole Sobecki—an award-winning photographer and filmmaker based in Kenya—shares stories of her work.
From her experience in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, during the early hours of a terrorist siege that claimed seventy-one lives, to her chronicle of the effects of climate change in Somalia, Sobecki explains to Tufts’ Linda Curtin how she established a challenging and rewarding career in a field with no clear-cut career paths, what it’s like to face degradation and death as part of her job, and how she manages to find balance despite all the grim reality she’s faced to confront. Let’s listen in.
LINDA CURTIN: So we’re here today with Nichole Sobecki. She’s a Tufts graduate and a photojournalist who’s taken some time out today to speak with us. Thank you so much for being with us Nichole.
NICHOLE SOBECKI: Thrilled to be back. Thanks for having me.
CURTIN: So, Nichole, while at Tufts you were involved with the Institute for Global Leadership, or IGL. The mission of the IGL is to prepare critical thinkers for effective and ethical leadership addressing international and national issues across cultures. How did you engage with the IGL when you were here and what was the benefit of that to your overall academic experience at Tufts?
SOBECKI: I discovered the IGL my first semester at Tufts and it was incredibly formative for my entire time here in different ways. I was involved in their program Exposure, which is a student-led program focused on photojournalism, documentary studies, so that allowed me to really expand my preexisting passion for photography, connected me with VII Photo Agency, which I’m now part of. It gave me the opportunity to do workshops in Kosovo and Cambodia, and really grow my craft, which has been hugely impactful in the career that I’m in now.
I was also a part of their EPIIC program, which was just one of the best opportunities I’ve had in terms of just really exploring, deepening my own sense of curiosity, and really exploring a topic from multiple different perspectives. It always just felt incredibly intellectually rigorous and creative, and I learned a tremendous amount from that.
CURTIN: You also, while you were at Tufts, had an internship your freshman year I believe with the world renown war photographer James Nachtwey.
CURTIN: What was that experience like for you?
SOBECKI: It was incredible. I’d been really, really kind of blown away by James’ work since I was in high school, when I first discovered it at a small bookshop in the town I grew up in, and I picked up his book Inferno, which is this huge, really heavy black book. I just sat for hours poring through it. When the opportunity to apply to intern with him came up, I was really excited, and I wrote this very, very earnest letter explaining why he should choose me for this internship. The last line I had was, “And I make really good coffee.” I’m just going to cover all my bases.
And it was great. It was an opportunity to really see what the life and work of a photojournalist is, and I was working out of his studio in New York, so I would wake up at the crack of dawn and stay incredibly late and do pretty much whatever needed to be done in his studio at the time. Yeah, I learned a lot about the craft.
CURTIN: Do you think you knew during that experience that this was precisely what you wanted to do for your career?
SOBECKI: You know, I think from the first point that I really realized that this was a job, I thought that it was the job for me. It did feel very right early on, but then I did what a lot of us do, which is consider everything else in between before settling on the thing that I kind of had felt right about from the beginning.
CURTIN: And what other jobs did you consider?
SOBECKI: Oh, doctor, political scientist, artist, you know, bus driver.
CURTIN: You grew up in upstate New York. Obviously, as we said, you attended Tufts as an undergraduate. Then after graduation you moved to Turkey to take a role as a foreign correspondent for Global Post.
CURTIN: What was the transition like going from U.S. college student to foreign correspondent?
SOBECKI: I mean, I think the really interesting thing about this job is there really is no clear path, so I felt incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to get out there and just start doing it right away. I had had a little bit of experience interning at a newspaper in Lebanon while I was still a student at Tufts. I worked at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. So when I moved to Turkey, it felt very, very new, but there was enough grounding that I could kind of just begin to kind of wade my way into the water.
I felt lucky to have the support of Global Post in the sense that it’s quite rare, I think, to be able to go out there as a foreign correspondent and know at the very least I can pay my rent every month and I can have that independence to build up my career, and contacts, and skills within that environment.
CURTIN: You mentioned that there’s no real clear path in this career. How do you get started when there’s no path to follow?
SOBECKI: Well, I mean I think that everyone I know in this field has done it differently, and that’s why I say there’s no path. But I learned this field through people who had been doing it for longer than me. I’ve been really incredibly lucky to have a number of mentors, and incredible colleagues and peers that have been a huge part of that journey. Gary Knight from VII Photo Agency, who I met when I was a student at Tufts through exposure was a huge influence and there was a number of other really important people along the way that helped shape that journey for me.
CURTIN: Is there anything you wish you had known before you started your career?
SOBECKI: I think that this is a job that you have to learn by being in the field, but it is also a balance between having enough belief in yourself that you will continue to do this work, even when it is really difficult—because it’s not an easy job—but also enough humility that you’re constantly learning from those around you who have more experience. I think the most profound way in which I’ve grown is by watching people who knew how to do this job a lot better than I did in the field, in their offices. There’s a real community of journalists wherever you go, and I learned so much from my friends and colleagues, so that was really important. I think you have to, yeah, just ride that fine line between enough confidence to not give up, but still really listening.
CURTIN: Can you give an example of something, a lesson you learned in the field that you’ve carried with you?
SOBECKI: Oh, I mean I learned new things every day. That’s why I love this work. But I just learned how to be a better human I think from the people whose stories I tell. I mean, it’s the most amazing gift to be able to go into peoples’ lives and spend time with them, and get to know their families, and their joys, and their heartbreaks. There’s no way that that can’t change you. It does, and I’m grateful for that.
CURTIN: You have lived in Nairobi, Kenya for seven years?
SOBECKI: Seven years.
CURTIN: On September 21, 2013 the Westgate Mall in Nairobi—not far from your home, I understand—came under a vicious attack by a gunman linked to Islam as Al-Shabab insurgents from Somalia. At least sixty-nine people were killed—men, women, and children—and many others wounded. You were the only video journalist inside the mall during the first few hours of the attack. How did it happen that you were there as the horrific events of that day unfolded?
SOBECKI: I was living about ten minutes from Westgate at the time, and we heard about the attack. I was working as the East Africa video coordinator for Agence France-Presse at the time, so I was monitoring it, talking with my editor. At first we thought it might just be a robbery. When it was clear it was more than that, I grabbed my flak jacket and helmet, and went down to the mall. Immediately it was clear that something really profound was happening.
People were kind of stumbling, and rushing away from the mall grabbing each other, just clutching onto strangers, the look of terror and grief in peoples’ faces was just immense. I tried to assess the situation, got near a security shack in one of the sort of outside corners of the mall, and I saw at that time that there were ambulances going up the ramp and into the mall. At that point we just had very little information but I thought, “Well, if the ambulances are getting up there we can get up there too,” and so I ran up the ramp and managed to get into the mall through one of the upper floor entrances.
CURTIN: I want to show you a photo right now. This is probably a rare moment when you are in front of the camera as opposed to behind it. It was taken during the attack at Westgate. Can you describe this photo for our listeners and explain what was happening at this moment?
SOBECKI: Sure. Yeah. This is a photo of me in the mall with an undercover police officer who was one among the first responders. This was at a point in the attack when the army had not gotten there. There had been no official response from the Kenyan government. That actually happened hours after the attack began, which was, to me, criminal. But there were a number of incredibly brave individuals who went in, people from private security, or private individuals who owned a gun and had some training, and they managed to rescue hundreds of people from the mall and their own volition.
Those were the people that I was going around the mall with. This is one of those individuals. Yeah, it was quite a moment. It was very, very surreal.
CURTIN: Can you just describe the image itself?
SOBECKI: Yeah. I am there in a flak jacket and a helmet holding my video camera next to a Kenyan man with a pistol. I believe we were outside one of the shops. I’m trying to recognize it. I look a little bit scared.
CURTIN: Well, you look like you’re, and I’m not surprised if you were scared, but you look like you’re saying something, or were you and this gentleman on the move at this point?
SOBECKI: I was probably in the mall for about an hour and a half. We were on the move for most of that time. It wasn’t the type of situation where you wanted to stay still. We now know a lot more in retrospect about what was happening at the time, but when we were there it was unclear whether there was a bomb in the mall, how many gunmen there were, what sort of weaponry they were using, whether there were hostages. It was just—you’re going in and operating off of a very limited amount of information.
CURTIN: Do you remember what you were feeling? Can you describe your feelings at this moment?
SOBECKI: I feel like when I have been in really high intensity conflict situations, you’re in some ways operating on two levels. One is the sort of very normal human response, which is you feel afraid, all of your senses are very heightened. I have really intense memories of the music that was playing in the mall, because the typical mall music with the sort of soft pop that’s supposed to be very relaxing, it just felt completely out of place in the situation we were in so that was very strange.
But then on the other hand you need to do your job, and you need to make sure that by being there you’re not putting yourself in any greater risk than you need to be, and even perhaps more importantly you’re not putting anyone that you’re with in greater risk, so you need to be highly, highly functioning as well, so thinking about your surroundings, what might happen next, how you would respond, and making sure that you’re creating something of value there, that if you are taking the risk to be in that situation you’re going to come out of that with a documentation of that event that can create change, that can tell that story in a way that’s honest.
CURTIN: In preparing for our discussion I came across a quote by world renowned war photographer James Nachtwey, with whom you had an internship freshman year. He says, and I quote, “Every minute I was there I wanted to flee. I did not want to see this. Would I cut and run, or would I deal with the responsibility of being there with a camera?” So, in viewing your footage from the Westgate Mall attack, it’s clear that you saw people who had been brutally murdered.
You witnessed people trapped and in fear for their lives and the lives of their children. What guides you during the moments when you’re in harm’s way, or what keeps you from cutting and running?
SOBECKI: I mean, I think that I try to make that decision before I go in. There’s a lot of things that I haven’t covered that I’m glad that others have, that I think are valuable, but weren’t the right fit for me, or I didn’t think that I could add value to that situation. That’s a big part of the equation, I think—can you add value? In this case, this was my home. You know, I’m not Kenyan, but I’ve lived in Nairobi for more of my adult life than anywhere else. I love the city. I love the people there, and this felt very personal to me, so it was really not a question for me. It felt like I needed to be there, and I needed to cover this. Yeah, that one was actually quite easy.
CURTIN: What’s an example of one that you decided, “I can’t contribute to this?”
SOBECKI: Oh, I mean there’s far more of those. I would say when it comes to moments like Westgate, or war, or conflict, it’s something that increasingly I try to be very thoughtful about when I go in. I was recently in eastern DRC for National Geographic covering the Ebola outbreak there. That felt important to me, again because it was a place that I know. I’ve been going on and off to eastern DRC since 2006. It was a conflict and a public health epidemic that I think has been vastly under covered.
I felt in that situation that I could contribute something, and I could try to get the story out, help people understand what was happening. This was the largest Ebola outbreak in DRC’s history. It’s the second largest in the history of the world. I think while there has been some coverage it’s been quite minimal, and the amount of funding that’s been given to this situation is vastly less than what they need.
That felt important, but there’s countless other situations that I’ve looked at and said. “You know what—there’s great people there who know the story better than I do, who are telling it sensitively and thoughtfully. And that feels important, but I don’t need to go.”
CURTIN: I want to talk a little bit about storytelling, the idea of storytelling. So, you once said, and I’m going to quote you, that for you the work you do is, quote, It’s about caring about storytelling and trying to do our best to understand this complicated, messy world we’re all in. And I think we can do that better if we have more diverse voices telling the stories. Can you talk a little bit about this importance of diversity of voices?
SOBECKI: Absolutely. I mean, to me it’s something that I think we can all relate to, which is that we carry our identity with us wherever we go, and a part of that is gender, race, religion, sexual identity, the economic situation that you grew up in or live in now. There’s so many different parts that make us who we are and that shape the way that we see the world. And as storytellers we all carry that with us as well, and it shapes the way that we see stories, that we share them, the stories that we choose to tell.
If we are only being told stories from the perspective of a very narrow segment of people, which throughout history has primarily been white men, we are all being underserved, because we are all lacking this sort of—well, there’s just many stories that aren’t being told, and the stories that are being told are being told from one perspective. That’s not to say that there’s a lot of not incredibly talented, sensitive group of photographers that have been telling powerful stories for a long time, but I think one of the things that feels really vital that is beginning to happen more now is the opening up of space within photography and journalism for a far more diverse set of voices.
We still have so far to go. We’re not nearly where we need to be, but I’m really glad to see that space beginning to open up.
CURTIN: What’s your dream assignment?
SOBECKI: I don’t know what my dream assignment would be, but I can tell you one of the ways in which I try to choose what I work on is really just the things that feel most important to me to communicate, or also just most important to me as a person. For me, for a long time that’s been the environment, and the way in which it’s changing. I worked for two years with my reporting partner Laura Heaton on a project called “A Climate for Conflict,” where we explored the ways in which climate change and environmental degradation were transforming Somalia.
That was certainly one of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever done in the sense that it really for me drew out strands of a story that I had been covering for a long time. I had been going to Somalia since 2011, but I had covered it in a much more traditional way, which was very newsy, very coming in briefly, coming out. It’s an expensive and difficult place to work. That’s how most people have to cover it.
The opportunity to go deeper, to try to understand the environmental context in which this insecurity was taking place and how it was actually driving migration conflict over scarcity of resources, piracy, was really a privilege.
CURTIN: What’s the next step in the story for you?
SOBECKI: I would like to continue to explore this theme in other parts of the world. I think part of why we decided to focus on the relationship between the environment and security is because it’s a way of bringing home the impact of climate change and environmental degradation, the way in which our world is being transformed with a sense of immediacy. You know, Somalia might feel very far away for a lot of people listening to this, but the reality is that the impacts in terms of migration and insecurity affect all of us, and it’s something that we need to care about collectively and act on collectively.
CURTIN: We know that you travel, that you’re meeting interesting people, and putting together amazing stories, but what are the other elements of your job that most people wouldn’t expect or don’t think about?
SOBECKI: You know a lot of the job is planning. I’m a phenomenal travel agent. A lot of it’s research. Then it’s really going into the field and adapting to what you find. I think to do this job well, you want to do a lot of preparation, but then you have to stay completely open to what actually you discover on the ground. So it’s really just being very flexible and adaptive, and trying to make sure that you are not bringing your own preconceived ideas of what a place will be like in with you, that you’re really keeping your eyes open, and your ears open, and trying to reflect the stories that people share with you as honestly as you can.
CURTIN: What’s your least favorite part of your job?
SOBECKI: You know, the travel is probably the part that I love and hate the most. I love exploring new places. The people I meet in my travels have probably shaped me more than anything else in my life, but you know, we all sort of are constantly trying to seek a little bit more balance, so I also crave being at home, cooking, being with my dogs, my partner.
CURTIN: How do you find balance in your life?
SOBECKI: I think that’s a great question, and I think it’s a question that isn’t addressed enough in this field. You know this is a very hard job to have any sort of balance in, and I think that because of that, and because of the traumatic and very challenging situations that we often find ourselves in, issues like depression, PTSD, lack of care, just general mental health are a big problem in this field.
It’s a problem people don’t talk about enough, and so something that I try to do for myself is to really keep that as a priority, to make sure that even if my life isn’t well balanced, it’s balanced enough that I feel healthy, and to constantly be thinking about ways in which I can take care of myself.
I travel with my yoga mat, and I try to eat really healthy and exercise, and make sure that when I feel like I need a break that I take it. You know, I talk to people about my experiences. You know, I try to spend time with people I love, and just generally make sure that I don’t ignore my own health for the sake of the story, because that might be a short-term solution, but in the long-term, it’s just going to cause me to burn out.
CURTIN: Do you find it hard to relate to people who haven’t had the experiences you’ve had?
SOBECKI: I don’t find it that challenging. I mean, I’m really grateful to have a peer group that I can have that very—they’ve been there, I’ve been there. We get it. There’s less that maybe has to be explained, but one of the things that I really love about this job is you’re just constantly meeting and talking with different people, and so I don’t find it that different to come home as to do my job in the field in the sense that you’re talking with people. That’s something I really enjoy, and trying to kind of build those connections and learn from one another.
The same thing that I try to bring when I’m working, which is to kind of respect the fact that I’m not the one teaching anyone anything here. I’m the one learning. I think that attitude makes life sort of profoundly more interesting.
CURTIN: Well, it was great talking to you Nichole. Thank you so much for being here.
SOBECKI: Thank you so much for having me.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on this series. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller. This episode was edited by Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well!