To The Frontline and Beyond. Portraits of Swedish War Correspondents

PART 3 | Niclas Hammarström & Magnus Falkehed

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. Parts 1 (Johan-Mathias Sommarström) and 2 (Terese Cristiansson) were published in The Perspective Magazine & Webzine, respectively. The interview with Niclas Hammarström & Magnus Falkehed concludes the series. 

“Syria… Well, I have been working as a photographer since I was 17 years old. And then I got older, and I had to do something else. I did it for like, 10 years—I was working at my father’s company business and did totally other stuff. And when I came back, I was older—and maybe wiser—and thought that I have to do something that really matters. Before that, when I was working [as a photojournalist], I was doing mainly sports. Syria was my first war,” Niclas Hammarström, an acclaimed Swedish photojournalist recognized and awarded in the 2012 and 2016 World Press Photo Contests, told The Perspective in December 2020. 

Today, Hammarström paints the picture of the pandemic through his work at Expressen, a nationwide evening newspaper. “I feel it’s my duty as a journalist to actually cover the coronavirus in Sweden. I can go anywhere in the world—but I want to be here now. […] This is my country,” Hammarström pointed out during our remote conversation. 

TP: Which crisis—or war—was most difficult for you? Or most important?

Niclas Hammarström (NH): It’s definitely Syria. Since what happened to us there—we were kidnapped in Syria—so of course, a big piece of my heart is still left there, and will always be in Syria.

Saying “we,” Hammarström alludes to his long-standing professional partnership with Magnus Falkehed—“Foreign correspondent for the Swedish press,” as he introduces himself in his Twitter bio. Over the years, Hammarström and Falkehed have forged a powerful journalistic duet that has recently been awarded the 2021 Nils Horner Prize for “their reports from both conflict zones and the front lines of the corona pandemic.” In 2013, the two came to international media attention after being captured by Syrian rebels in the city of Yabroud, from where they managed to release a report—“A Journey Into the Nightmare” (En resa rakt in i mardrömmen)—which was published only days after their freeing in early January 2014. The Perspective approached Magnus Falkehed for comment.

Magnus Falkehed (MF): I guess that Syria 2013/2014 stands out a bit on a personal level, as I was abducted and held hostage for some time. But Iraq, and the meetings with the children-survivors from ISIS or the girls being survivors from rape in Congo-DRC, as well as the boys child soldiers in the same place, was emotionally strong. You never get used to seeing children getting hurt.

Niclas Hammarström (left) and Magnus Falkehed (right). Yabrud, Syria. November 21, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Niclas Hammarström)

You went to Syria with Magnus Falkehed. Who else did you go with? Other interviewees mentioned fixers—did you also have one on the ground?

NH: Always when you go and travel abroad, you first contact a person on the ground—that can be a journalist, it can be a politician or a taxi driver. And then he automatically gets the name “fixer.” I mean—I could be a fixer in my country. So we contacted a fixer, we set up everything with that person, and then you work with him when you arrive in the country. Usually [the fixer] meets you at the airport—or border—or wherever you’re arriving. And then he’s the one that you put your life in his hands, he’s supposed to arrange most of the things that you want to do for that story. It was Magnus and me, the fixer. In Syria, we stayed with our fixer and her husband—he was a fighter. So, I guess, more Katiba [“Katiba is a small armed group. In Syria, the small groups talked about themselves as Katibas,” clarifies Hammarström].

How do you prepare for a journey into a war zone? 

NH: Now I’m contracted by a Swedish newspaper, Expressen—both Magnus and I are. We still work together a lot. We can do much—we can come up with our own ideas, and suggestions for stories. They give us a free hand—we do whatever we want to do. So we talk to the newspaper and if they say “go,” we contact people in the country and try to read as much as possible about the issue, the story—often you spend more time in front of the computer, searching, calling people, trying to get as much information as possible—than you do on the ground. That’s kind of hard to explain to my friends who are not working in this business at all. You’re only there for like, one week, but first, you spend three weeks, four weeks—maybe six months—before you can go there, before you get all the permissions. So, I spend a lot of time in the office.

What kind of training do you receive before you go into the field?

NH: I’ve been to a couple of courses, mainly doing medical training. And also with Magnus—the first time we went to a course at the Swedish military—we’ve been learning how to behave in war zones. And then, you prepare mentally by talking to these people before we go into the field. You get mentally prepared for it. Get stronger. Build up your mind and your physical strength.

During your missions, you approach extremely vulnerable people—some lost their families, some are fleeing the conflict zones. How do you approach them? I imagine it requires a great deal of thoughtfulness.

NH: It depends where you are in the world. Different countries have different customs, they see death in different ways. I try to treat people as I want to be treated. You have to feel the moment just by looking at the person, in that person’s eyes. Eyes can say a lot about them, how he or she feels right now. I try to be respectful—I am respectful. Towards everybody I need. Of course, sometimes you cross the line, and then you have to try to repair it. I don’t always ask if I can take a picture. I try to blend in.

That’s interesting. Previously, I interviewed the reporters—you are the first photojournalist I’m talking to.

NH: There is actually a big difference. A journalist, a reporter, can be in the background, but I have to go—I have to come up to you and talk to you, say something, pick up my camera and take a picture of you. It’s a very sensitive moment. Maybe you are grieving, you’re sad, you’re scared—or maybe I’m the first person who comes up to you and puts a hand on your shoulder. Says something nice. Before I take my picture—or after. A reporter can always be in the background and I have to be…

In the spotlight.

NH: Exactly.

Niclas Hammarström reporting from Niger, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Falkehed)

Do you have opinions on the conflicts you cover? 

NH: When you go to a war zone, you have to choose a side—whether you want to do it or not. Because then the side you’re going to is the only site that they [the groups controlling the territory] are letting you visit. You want to go to the other side, but that’s impossible because you don’t get permission to do that—they won’t have you there. […] I never show that I have chosen a side. Once I’m there, I do my work and I try to be as objective as possible.

MF: Some people claim that you can be completely independent from either side in a weaponed conflict. That is crap. You always depend on one side or one faction, often even logistically, or to not get killed. That said: at the end of the day, when you sit down at your keyboard you can be honest in your reporting. That’s slightly different.

Is there anything you would not include in your reports—or pictures? Niclas, I imagine this question is especially relevant for photojournalists. Is there anything you wouldn’t capture? Magnus—is there anything you would not describe?

NH: No, there’s nothing I wouldn’t take a picture of—unless someone says, “Don’t take my picture.” If it’s a super important issue that I feel like the world has to see—then I take this picture. And then I take the consequences. But I don’t take pictures of like, body parts—or something like that—if it’s not necessary to do it. So, the answer is no. I would take pictures of anything if I think it’s important.

MF: No.

Niclas, You said there is nothing you wouldn’t take a picture of—unless the person asks you not to. Magnus—you also said “no.” What do you think is more important: showing the world the atrocities of war or protecting one’s dignity? 

NH: Of course I will take pictures of a person if I think it’s a very important picture, even if the person doesn’t want me to do that. 

MF: I don’t see it as two contradictory aspects. Some juries commented on our different stories recently and they stressed the fact that we were always treating people in extremely difficult situations with a lot of respect. And yes: we try, at least! Dignity is about who you are and how you cope with it, not about what is happening to you.

Some say, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Do you think media—to some extent—triggers that mindset, or does it simply respond to what their audience wants to see?

NH: No, I don’t feel that my way of reporting triggers [the audience].

MF: No. On the contrary, I think we all as readers think it is more fascinating to see how things are, especially when we get challenged or surprised in our views of the world.

Anyone can snap and tweet a picture within minutes. Do you think citizen journalism will reduce the need for foreign correspondents?

NH: Today, when all the media houses are struggling to get their finances working, it’s more important than ever that they send journalists to cover conflicts. I think that readers like you and me are also more demanding. We want to read [news] from sources other than Facebook or Twitter. I think that there will always be a future for quality journalism.

MF: No. Not as long as people want to know what it is really about. And not just see three guys on a tank, yelling “Allah[u] Akbar,” doing a V-sign with the fingers.

Magnus Falkehed reporting from Syria, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Falkehed)

Krzysztof Miller, a Polish press photographer said that “You might happen to be a war correspondent, but you are not one at all times.” How do you see yourself?

NH: I don’t call myself a war journalist.

MF: I fully agree with him and I dislike the term ”war correspondent.” It feels very 20th century and doesn’t correspond to the world of 2020. On my business card and on my contract it is written ”foreign correspondent,” but I define myself as “reporter.” Reporter is a very noble title in my eyes.

Do you feel like your realities at work and at home are conflicting with each other?

NH: I think that was harder a couple of years ago, when I was new to the business again, after my break, but now I have learned that I have to focus on the work when I’m working. And when I leave the work—I have to leave it. But that’s easier said than done. When I come back and look at the pictures I took a couple of years ago, [it turns out] I have totally forgotten about the trip and the people I met. And then when I see the pictures again, it strikes me in a really emotional way. But I try not to think too much about it. I have a nice home, I have a family, kids, wife. For me, it’s really important to have that life to come back to and feel loved.

MF: Of course. And that is both challenging and a privilege.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Agnieszka Gryz

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