Throughout his career, photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie has worked in fourteen different conflict zones around the world. In 2013 he was kidnapped while reporting in Syria and did not know if he would make it out alive. After some time away from the battlefield to cover everything from Donald Trump’s campaign to men who love sex dolls, Alpeyrie returned to the front lines in Iraq last week. He spoke with Narratively about what keeps drawing him back to the most dangerous places on Earth. (Note: This story includes some graphic images.)
What makes you want to work in conflict zones?
I decided to become a photojournalist not because of photography, but rather to become part of important historical moments. Photography allows me to get close to the moments that define what it is to be human. I have spent many years searching for answers to the question of why humans can inflict so much pain in order to attain certain goals.
Have you always been drawn to war zones?
War was definitely a calling for me. One needs to experience war in order to fully understand what it means and how it feels. After my first time in a conflict zone, in Armenia in 2004, I knew this was for me. I loved it right away. The chance to be part of history while living on the edge of life and death was a perfect combination. I felt closer to all the men in my family who have fought in wars of the past.
What are your most memorable moments from working in the field?
If you are looking for action and combat, Syria is never disappointing. I remember a day following rebel snipers on the front lines near the town of Yabrud, shooting as government forces nearby were shelling the town on a daily basis. Being on the actual front lines is not only very dangerous, but also exhilarating. It is the epitome of what a war photographer is looking for, the ultimate goal.
You were kidnapped in Syria several years ago. Were you scared to go back to a war zone?
The very moment the kidnapping happened was like a dream; everything was in slow motion. It almost feels like this is not really happening to you; it has to be a mistake and everything will sort itself out. That experience was life changing, and installed a certain amount of constant fear inside me when it comes to covering wars. I told my family that I would not return to Syria, as I was very lucky once and I would not tempt the Devil in that part of the world. I even considered stopping covering war altogether. I stayed away from Middle East conflicts for a few years, but I couldn’t stay away forever. This time, I was ready. I did not want to miss this riveting, dangerous show.
What did it feel like stepping off the plane in Iraq?
I am always nervous at first. I knew this was a dangerous assignment. I always know any trip like this could be my last. But once inside the war zone on the front lines, this fear goes away.
What does it feel like to photograph moments of intense violence and death?
Over the years I have seen many dead. Nepal was my first time in 2005, when Maoist rebels executed a local man for spying for the government. I never feel it as much as you might expect. I was actually quite removed from it, as the photographer inside me took over.
In the age of non-stop news notifications and widespread unrest, do you worry that people have become desensitized to imagery like this?
Photojournalism has been dying for years now. Technology and people’s short attention span have not helped. The rapidity of this brave new world has created a new type of humans who only feel emotions through constant feeds and updates. People do not have links on a deeper level, and many in the Western world have forgotten the true meaning of suffering. People would rather bury their heads in the sand rather than face the coming storm in which this world has embarked itself into.
Can our profession survive such changes, while the money value of our work keeps going down? That is going to be the real challenge for us. Many in my profession give up and move on to something else. I am one of the lucky ones who can still make a living from it, though it has become harder and harder.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a movie about my captivity in Syria, as well as a book – the first part deals with various war stories, and the second part is political prediction, about when and how Europe will once again become a war zone.