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War photographer opens up about captivity in Syria
(NEW YORK) — Jonathan Alpeyrie was on his third trip to war-torn Syria in April 2013, when he became one of the first Western journalists to be abducted while covering the crisis.
The French-born war photographer was on his way to cover clashes between Syrian army troops and the rebels when he was pulled out of his Jeep, handcuffed and taken hostage by Syrian rebels.
Alpeyrie, 38, has covered 13 wars in more than 35 countries including Iraq, Ukraine and Venezuela. He spoke to ABC News’ “Nightline” about covering wars around the world, being captured in Syria and his career-defining images.
A Syrian rebel is looking of a window during government shelling on their position.
During his 81 days of captivity, Alpeyrie spent his time imitating the behavior of his kidnappers as a survival tactic.
“When you are a captive, [everyday life] is an uphill struggle where every morning you wake up and you are being reminded that you’re in that situation,” he said. “You’re at a very low point.”
Praying and cooking with his torturers helped him connect with them and, he said, some of them even took pity on him.
“You behave differently depending on the people you’re spending time with,” he said. “With the younger ones, I spent a lot of time manipulating them in order to get different things — from extra food to going to the bathroom one extra time.”
Finally, a powerful businessman who was close to the Bashar al-Assad regime paid his ransom, a whopping $500,000, in exchange for removing his name from an American and European Union list of Assad loyalists whose assets were frozen and who were not allowed to travel abroad. The businessman’s name returned to the list when Alpeyrie walked free.
It took a few months for him to recover from the post-traumatic stress of the life-changing experience and become active and responsive to people. The best fix came, Alpeyrie said, when Ukraine plunged into war in 2014.
“It was like a salvation because I needed to go back to war,” he said. “That was for me a very, very soothing experience.”
Growing up in a family of veterans, who had fought in the two World Wars as well as in Indochina, influenced Alpeyrie’s career path greatly. The other motivator, he said, was a quest to be at the frontlines of history.
Alpeyrie got his big break covering the conflict in East Africa, where he took the iconic picture of a female fighter in Kenya that he calls a “very interesting version of feminism.”
In stark contrast to a pool of men, the fighter, part of the Oromo Liberation Front rebel group Alpeyrie had embedded with, was photographed as she crossed the Kenyan border.
The woman had been assigned to him for a month to cook, do laundry and take care of him. But, he said, “these women were known to be hardcore fighters.”
Spending his 20s in the Horn of Africa instead of the then-big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was a conscious choice, Alpeyrie said, “to set your mark, to separate yourself from the herd and then go back within the herd, which is what happened.”
Looking back at some of his career-defining photographs, Alpeyrie said he is more interested in capturing the everyday routines of soldiers.
“As a photographer, it’s interesting to not only show people getting killed or fighting, it’s also interesting to see more regular stuff, every day shows more humanity of these guys,” he said.
When the Syrian crisis was not on the international media’s radar, Alpeyrie was there, capturing the daily cycle of lives being interrupted by shelling and people dying, followed by community funerals.
“It’s a tough war,” he said. “And, they were quite nice to have me there to show basically the rest of the world that regular people were being killed on a daily basis.”
Alpeyrie believes that he is able to continue working in war zones after witnessing years of pain, suffering and death because of his ability to separate work from emotions. He said that he finds being in the thick of action quite exciting.
“Most of the guys who do what we do actually feel the same way,” he said.
Three days before he was kidnapped, Alpeyrie took a picture of a Free Syrian Army rebel while his unit of nearly five or six men were being sniped at by government forces. He estimated that none of those men had survived.
Despite his success, Alpeyrie said that it has never been harder to be a war photographer especially because the money that media outlets are willing to pay for photographers has declined. He also cautioned young, budding conflict photographers that there’s no romanticism in facing bullets. Many sacrifices have to be made.
“You have to behave a bit like a monk,” he said.
Alpeyrie said it is not his job to judge either side while covering a conflict.
“You’re just there to report,” he said.
Having witnessed numerous deaths — Alpeyrie said tank shells had killed people he knew and had spent time with on assignment — he believes the lens provides a shield from the destruction.
“There is a sense of protection by hiding yourself behind a camera because you know you aren’t really being involved in the war,” he said. “And, you can go and leave as you wish, usually.”
Alpeyrie’s book “The Shattered Lens: A War Photographer’s True Story of Captivity and Survival in Syria” is now available.
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