To The Frontline and Beyond. Portraits of Swedish War Correspondents
PART 2: Terese Cristiansson
In a new interview series, The Perspective sat down with four Swedish foreign correspondents to discuss the contrasting realities of peace and conflict, and their own thoughts on the clashes they cover. Part 1 (Johan-Mathias Sommarström) was published in The Perspective Magazine Issue 1/2021, while Part 3 (Niclas Hammarström & Magnus Falkehed) will continue in The Perspective Webzine later this spring.
“I just moved back to Sweden now. 10 months, almost a year ago,” Terese Cristiansson, Foreign News Correspondent at TV4 Sweden, tells The Perspective in December 2020. “It’s supposed to be temporary. But because of the pandemic, it’s been difficult to move out again with a family. So, we’re still here,” Cristiansson says.
Despite that, she remains “in-between trips.” At the time of our talk, she prepared to go to Iraq to cover the violent protests that swept across the Kurdish region. It is hardly the first conflict that Cristiansson has covered over the years. Initially a criminal reporter at Expressen, Cristiansson switched to foreign correspondence early on. “I resigned and became a freelancer instead. And then I started to travel,” Cristiansson says. “Then at some point, Expressen wanted to have a stringer contract with me. And I said, ‘Yes. If you give me four war trips a year.’ So they agreed to that.”
“For quite many years, I’ve worked on a stringer contract for Expressen, and I lived in Afghanistan for three years. Then I moved to Kenya, I lived there for almost two years and did a lot of conflict reporting on the African continent. And not only. I’m not only a war correspondent,” notes Cristiansson, swiftly moving onto the same question The Perspective asked Johan-Mathias Sommarström some weeks earlier.
TP: Krzysztof Miller, a Polish press photographer said once that “You might happen to be a war correspondent, but you are not one at all times.” How do you perceive yourself?
TC: I think what he means with that—and many people have said similar things—is that, when you go out for work, you are there as a cameraman or as a reporter, but, of course, you are also human. And you have to be human. Otherwise, I think, you would lose yourself and you lose your capability of doing a good job. You need to feel like a human to understand which stories are important to tell. And also, if I would say I was a war correspondent—because yes, I do a lot to conflict—people would immediately start to think that I do only frontline, that I sort of “run on adrenaline.” I know, from my colleagues, this is not true. Adrenaline is such a small part of their work in the field. But it comes with a lot of assumptions when you say that. We could also be called peace journalists. We are going there because we are hoping for peace. We are reporting with hope to become a little part of the puzzle that creates some sort of stability or at least preserves knowledge about areas that are quite often undercovered.
It’s a difficult question because I love my job. It’s the best job you can have, in my view. And I do cover a lot of conflicts. But it’s so much more than the conflict. For me, the most interesting part is what the conflict does in the grey zone. The small letters, not so much the frontline, the boom, and the bang thing. It’s more like, “What is it? What does it mean to live in a conflict? What does it do to the people?” I’m a bit uncomfortable naming myself a war correspondent. It’s so much more than that. You see it as yourself, of course, you also see those areas through a mother’s eye. I feel more like a foreign correspondent.
You mentioned that people often assume adrenaline is the driving factor for foreign correspondents. What drives you?
Of course, adrenaline is necessary. It makes you aware and awake, gives you this 360-degree perspective that you sometimes need in dangerous situations. But I’m driven by much more. I’m not necessarily saying “this is better”—it’s something I’m being careful about. But I’m much more driven by empathy kicks. You hear those stories, often very touching, and you feel that they need to be told. But you have to be careful with that because that also gives you some sort of rush. You have to be careful, so you’re not looking for worse and worse stories. At some point, it’s so terrible that it’s not telling the wider story anymore. It’s just telling one person’s story—and you can find terrible individual stories all over the world—also in Sweden and Poland. You still have to sort of pull yourself back and ask, “Okay, is this terrible, because it’s happening here? Because of the general situation? Or is it happening because this person was super unlucky?”
Empathy kicks are definitely something that I’m sort of driven by. When you say you’re working in conflict zones, people very often say, “Oh, you’re so brave. Are you not scared?” That’s the most common question. And the thing is that a war or a conflict is often very geographically centralized. There can be an armed conflict on one street, and on the next street, there is nothing. It’s not dangerous as soon as you leave the airport in Stockholm. People are scared, and people should be scared of war. But of course, it’s not like that all the time. There is so much more that you see and feel. I was discussing it with another colleague the other day, “Why do we do this?” And then, the simple answer to that question between me and him was, “How can we not do it?” When you have the possibility to go and report, you cannot not do it. It’s impossible to say no. But sometimes you do get a no from an editor because of the budget or production, or because there are other stories they think are more important. That’s actually the worst— emotionally—when you are not allowed or are not capable of telling the story.
Which crisis or war was most emotionally difficult for you? Or maybe most important?
Emotionally, the most difficult one—and now I’m talking about deeper emotional feelings, not the one I care for most or I’m most curious about—has been the ISIS conflict. I was there when they took Mosul and Sinjar and I followed these Yazidi women—many of them for months and years, their families, their struggles. I was reporting over and over again about the atrocities that ISIS did [In August 2014, the Yazidis became victims of genocide by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. And then all of a sudden, they take over Baqubah. The caliphate falls. And now we are reporting about ISIS fighters who are stuck in Syria, and all of a sudden, you’re actually sitting eye to eye with them. And also among them, there is a grey zone and different stories, and each of them is individual. And the children, of course, who are stuck in the camps are just victims of the situation, of their parents, and of the ignorance of the rest of the world. Emotionally, this is very difficult, because you first face the terror and the evilness of ISIS, and then you’re sitting eye to eye with some of them. And in yourself, you have a conflict. It was easier when you just hated them.
Actually, you touched upon the question I was going to ask next. You said that your job is to cover all the sides of the conflict. And I was wondering, do you have opinions on the wars that you cover? Is objective coverage even possible? Should it be strived for?
I think you can actually separate these two things. You can have your own opinion. And my opinion is always that human rights and civilians should be protected. Then, it’s still my job to take all the sides. Because what you learn after many years in conflict zones—I’ve been covering conflicts since 2006—is that there is no such thing as black and white, evil and good. For someone, a victim can also be the devil. Or the opposite. The interesting part of the job is to try to understand this. Let’s say, Afghanistan: how can some people support the Taliban, while others have these terrible stories of how they have been treated and terrorized by them. I don’t want to agree with either side. It’s just interesting to hear how people can choose and try to understand the difference, the cultural context. How I worked in the field, to think about it and reflect on it—is one thing. Then, it’s another thing to report what you’re doing, which is, of course, much shorter than your actual experience. On TV, we’re talking two to three minutes. You go for a week, you do three, maybe four stories. Out of one week, you have six minutes, maybe seven, eight recorded.
I do think it’s very important that we try to keep objectivity, especially because we have others who don’t—which is social media activists. And I’m not talking about people who do local journalism. Social media is developing a much more opinion-driven [narrative] and I’m scared of that a bit. I don’t always have an opinion. And I definitely want to be able to change my opinion. You sit with one person, and you think you understood something. And then, the next day, you sit with someone completely different and you understand a completely different angle of the story. But what if you already put something out there? It’s not really our job to have opinions about conflicts. It’s just to report what’s actually happening. We are eyewitnesses. We are not just reporting—our job is to investigate if the stories we hear are true. I think we all have opinions. You don’t go and see people getting killed and not have an opinion. That would be completely unhuman—to feel nothing about the people who bomb another person, another civilian. But you can control your opinions. It’s your emotions you cannot control. The emotions you just have to live with. And opinions you have to be professional about.
Another thing that you’ve mentioned was citizen journalism and social media. I was wondering—because today, anyone can snap and tweet a picture—has citizen journalism decreased demand for foreign correspondents?
What is our real sort of competitor—and I’m all positive about that—is local journalism that in many countries starts to improve. People begin to understand that activism is not journalism. But I feel like there are more and more local journalists who are getting better and better. And this is fantastic. I’ve been involved in an organization in Jordan that’s helping correspondents from the whole MENA area to do digging and investigative pieces, called ARIJ [Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism]. And it’s just amazing to see how all these people are doing fantastic work.
Once they have the tools and opportunities—the outlets that we have might be less needed. Now often stories are not told, because no one there can tell them—so we do it. But at some point, when their own journalistic groups can do it, then of course our need will be limited to the Swedish perspective. “How does this affect us?” “Is Sweden involved here or there?” We’re not there yet, though. There are still many countries where you meet journalists or fixers—as we call local producers—who say, “I cannot do it, it’s too dangerous.” “No, God, we will go to prison” or “My family will have a problem forever.” So I do it. Because I can do it. But the goal is still that they can do their own reporting at some point.
You have also mentioned fixers—they are the people who guide you in the field, is that correct?
They are your “magic person.” When you work for a long time in the same areas, you work with the same people—so they also become close to you. You put your life in their hands. They are my security, the people you trust with everything.
Is there anything you would not depict or describe in your stories?
You have to make sure that the report is not hurting the people you are reporting about. But otherwise, I don’t think there is anything I couldn’t report about. As a Swedish reporter, I have the luxury to actually quit. I lived in Turkey for a long time. And, you know, they have the biggest prison in the world for journalists. But I was never scared of that, for the simple reason that I can leave. They could deport me, but it wouldn’t be much worse than that. If you’re in Iran—another country that is not at war, but is in a different type of conflict—you have to be careful because you have a minder—someone from the government following you, your reporting, everything you do. They follow you everywhere and you cannot choose [them]. And on top of that, you have to pay for it. Sometimes they also translate for you—of course, then you have to do double translation after you leave the country. Then, you have to be careful about the people you meet—the minder knows that you’re meeting them. You always have to think about their security or the potential risks that your reporting can do. I would love to say, “I will report about anything. I’m fearless.” But it’s not true. I have to consider the security of the people I interview or meet—just randomly meet on the street, you know? Countries like these are difficult. It’s not the front line and the shooting that is most dangerous. It is the governmental risks: prisons, oppression against the freedom of speech.
One last question. This will be about the realities that clash—or at least I imagine that they clash. The ones at home and the ones from the field. How do you cope with that? How do you prepare?
When I started to do this, I was single, and for quite many years, I could fly around the world like I was taking a bus to another part of Stockholm. The word was so small, and I could just do whatever I wanted. Now when I have a family, it’s completely different. You have to—and you want to—consider the rest of the family’s well being as well. I have a video from a great photojournalist—his name is Paul Hanson. The filming was on our way to Mosul during the ISIS combat. I’m sitting in this car, with a bulletproof vest on, and I’m talking to Olivia, my daughter. She’s two at the time, and she just stopped using a diaper. I’m like, “Did you poop? That’s great! You went to the toilet today!” That’s how it is: you are thrown in and out of those worlds—and even more when you have kids.
When I feel it’s difficult, I just take a little bit of time for myself, sit down. At TV4 and also Dagens Nyheter or Expressen, they do a lot of [counseling]. If you want help, support, talk, or just whatever—that is not an issue, they will be happy to help you with that. Each person will find their way to deal with this. And for me, it’s just taking a moment for myself.
Sometimes when you come home, especially to Sweden—it is easier, I think, when you’re living in the region—but in Sweden, you can feel a bit angry because people live in this bubble where everything’s perfect and fine. And you can feel like “Oh come on, just be a bit grateful.” But quite quickly, just days—hours maybe, you’re thrown back into that, and you accept that people have their own [problems]. And they’re not smaller or bigger. They can be more urgent—and in war zones, the problems are more urgent. I don’t know if that’s an answer to your question.
The most difficult for me has always been not to be there, but to leave. Because you feel you’re abandoning the people or the conflict. I mean, you have such a tiny part, if even any part, in helping those people, but you still feel—that’s just an emotional feeling, I’m not saying it’s rational—that you are leaving. Leaving is difficult. And again, as I said before, emotionally, when someone says, “No, not this story, we have no space for it tonight,” or “You cannot go there,” that can really break your heart. Because you’ve made a whole life around telling those stories from really difficult areas, their absolute injustice. And then someone says, “Ah, something else is more important.” And it’s just like… like a black hole. But you just have to get up [and go] there again. A media boss told me once that correspondents need to have a lot of self-confidence. In yourself, but also in your story. I’m 100% sure that the story I want to tell is the best. I don’t need to ask any boss if this is the story. And you need to have that confidence because otherwise, you will be so… crushed. I never doubt that my story is the best.
Is this something you develop over time? Or have you always had this kind of internal compass? Something that tells you which stories are the ones you want to tell?
That is this empathy kick I talked about. That has always been there, I think. I saw that you interviewed JoMa [Johan-Mathias Sommarström] and Magnus [Falkehed], and I will say that they are probably driven by more or less the same thing. But then of course, over the years you develop experience and knowledge about which stories are important. For me, it was good that it took a while to become a foreign journalist. When you start to work as a journalist, you say, “I work as a journalist.” Over the years, you become a journalist. It is quite difficult, to get that confidence—first as a journalist, and then as a foreign correspondent, and then as a war correspondent in the field, directly. When I went out to do conflicts, I already was a journalist—no doubt in that. I knew that job. I really liked that I was actually a little bit older, I’d done quite some years as a journalist before I went out. But if you study, for example, Arabic in Cairo, then you also come with a different experience—you will probably see different things. So it’s individual. I often get this question from younger students, especially women, “How to become a foreign correspondent.” And it’s so difficult because there is no actual course or exam for this. It’s something you become specialized in. You need to be very, very driven. No one will give you that job. You have to decide that you want that job.
I was wondering if there’s anything you would like to say—perhaps something I omitted in my questions?
I think what is important to understand when we talk about war correspondence—and I want to underline it—is that it’s not necessarily the wars with bullets that are the most dangerous—it’s actually the political wars, where governments are really trying to oppress freedom of speech. This is dangerous for journalists, and it’s dangerous for democracy, of course. And it’s very tricky to work in that environment, it’s much more difficult than to work on the frontline. It’s less direct, and you don’t know where the threat is. It’s like a pandemic. You don’t know if you can catch it, because you don’t know exactly where the limits are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.