Freelancing Overseas: Casting Off the Parachute
For American journalists, Jill Carroll's recent captivity
was a reminder of how dangerous overseas freelancing can be, especially
in a place as violent and unrelenting as Iraq. Watching the videos her
kidnappers made, you may have thanked God you didn't quit the last time
your editor sent you to cover a sewer board meeting. Maybe you were
right, after all, not to squander your savings on a ticket to someplace
hot and dusty where just describing what you see makes a story leap off
It pays to be honest with yourself about the dangers of covering war. Shortly after Carroll's release, New York Times
Baghdad bureau chief John Burns offered this summation of the perils of
an Iraq posting: "I tell every newly arrived reporter to face squarely
the fact that assignment in Iraq carries a potentially fatal risk, and
to heed the words of Robert Falcon Scott, the British polar explorer who was the last of his team to die on their epic return from the South Pole
in April 1912. 'We took risks, we knew we took them,' Captain Scott
wrote in one of his last diary entries before perishing in his tent.
'Things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for
Yet I hope that some will also view Carroll's
experience the opposite way: as an encouragement of the curiosity that
sends a young reporter to a place that isn't at war "to learn as much
about the region as possible before the fighting began." Most foreign
reporting concentrates on conflict, which is understandably important
to American readers, especially when U.S. troops are involved. But war,
with its inherent contrasts and dramatically high stakes, is not the
only frame for telling stories. Some of the best stories are quiet
ones, which you can only see if you're not pumped up on adrenaline and
straining your ears for mortar fire. There will always be war
reporting, but American readers in particular would be well-served by
more reporting on peace -- or what passes for peace -- in far corners
of the world.
Some of the best stories are the quiet ones, which you can only see if you're not pumped up on adrenaline and straining your ears for mortar fire.On Sept. 10, 2001, I flew to India for what I
thought would be six months of travel and writing. I had a little money
saved up, the e-mail address of a guy who worked for Voice of America and a lead on a place to stay in New Delhi. I knew no one. A day later, airplanes smashed into the World Trade Center,
and every news organization in the world developed a sudden, pressing
interest in the politics and culture of Afghanistan and South Asia. As
a freelancer, I couldn't have been luckier -- but I hadn't set out to
cover a war, and it would be nearly a year before I made my first trip
to Kabul. That I had almost no money and had never used a satellite phone
were only two reasons it might have been a bad idea to rush toward the
hottest part of the conflict. When my initial urge to sprint across the
border faded, I realized that I didn't want to be among the first into
Afghanistan, writing stories I didn't understand.
Below are some
tips for those considering freelancing abroad. Underlying them is an
argument for covering what other people aren't writing about, for being
aslant the big story rather than on top of it. How do you sell stories
like that? It's not as hard as you think.
1.) Do what scares you.
easier said than done, but it's possible to make going outside your
comfort zone a matter of discipline rather than an act of courage. If
the idea of moving to a strange place frightens you, that just might be
one more reason to try it. That's not to say that you should ignore
your instincts about physical danger; in risky situations, your
instincts are your best ally. But there is real power in confronting
your fear, and learning to distinguish between useful apprehension and
the anxiety that makes us doubt ourselves, even when success is just as
likely as failure.
2.) Anticipate poverty.
is just like any other business: it takes a while to pay off. You will
sell stories your first year, but you may not have your expenses
covered, and unless you're very lucky, you'll be hard-pressed to break
Before you go, build a nest egg and choose an
inexpensive base. If you want to be really secure, save enough money to
support yourself for a full year. For think tanks, embassies, easy
transport and many other resources, a third-world capital is a good
bet. Most such places have parallel economies, which means there's
always cheap stuff, it's just a matter of finding it.
3.) Be where others aren't.
a patch that puts you slightly off the big story: think Istanbul, not
Jerusalem; Beirut, not Baghdad. Pick a place that interests you -- not
just one that's newsy -- and once you're there, practice low-rise
reporting: Is there a story in the beggar on your doorstep, the economy
of the local vegetable market, the hospital where a religious sect
committed to nonviolence cares for the city's wounded birds? Does a
small encounter between a missionary and a slum-dweller say something
large about an international trend? Does the sign outside a doctor's
office hint at a change in national health care policy?
possible, skip the government press conference and head for the
village, where you don't need a fancy press card to get an interview.
The best stories take effort to get to, but they're well worth it.
4.) Learn your region.
yourself in the place you cover and listen for the big music note by
note -- in the stories people tell, what they eat, how they pray. Be
curious: talk to policy wonks, talk to shopkeepers, talk to the woman
who sweeps your floors. Appreciate the freedom of not having an editor
leaning over your shoulder: use it to teach yourself.
Read a lot, and not just the things you think you're supposed to read. In India, Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" taught me more about Partition than any history book, and in Kashmir, the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali
offered more clarity than a stack of government reports. Watch movies
and dance performances, read the newspapers. If you can, learn the
language. A lot of knowledge is ambient, and if you let it, it just
seeps into you.
5.) Write a sharp pitch.
do enough reporting before you pitch a story to know that it's solid.
Remember that editors are busy and don't want to see your notes: it's
your job to turn what you've found into an alluring (and tight)
synopsis that traces the narrative arc of your story and explains what
it means and why it's important and timely.
about following up, but don't hassle editors. If you don't hear back,
and it's a story you feel strongly about, write it and send it anyway.
I couldn't believe it when a foreign correspondent gave me this advice,
and I couldn't have been more surprised a few days later when I saw my
story on the paper's Web site. Write for yourself: tell the stories you
want to read. Chances are, others will agree with you.
6.) Be generous, not competitive.
goes around comes around. Of course, there are times when it's better
to keep information to yourself, but if you can tell another reporter
about a meeting or share a flight schedule, it'll come back to you a
hundredfold. Working overseas, you never know when you'll need help,
and helping others makes asking for help easier.
7.) Be determined; be patient.
freelancers -- and to some degree, all foreign correspondents -- live
between these behavioral poles. Believe in the story, talk your way
through the checkpoint, seek out the reclusive expert, find the
relatives of the murdered children. Don't give up on the story until
you get it. At the same time, don't be pushy. Listen until they believe
you're really listening, even if it takes hours. Swallow many cups of
tea. If you think something's going to happen, hang around all day
waiting for it, and if you're getting in the way, go away and come back
later. In many foreign cultures, events unfold slowly. Just being there
counts for a lot.
8.) When considering danger, ask tough questions.
is exciting, and standing on the sidelines can be excruciating. But
before you dive into a conflict, understand what you have to gain by
doing the story, and what you stand to lose. Do you have the equipment
and resources to do more than get in and out with a few quick
observations and a sexy dateline? How important -- and distinctive --
is the story you're going to tell? How dangerous is it, and what can
you do to protect yourself?
Remember that when you work with
translators and other staff in a conflict zone, you are responsible for
their safety. None of this should dissuade an informed, prepared
reporter from covering war. But if, on answering these questions
honestly, you find that you're eager to go because it seems cool and
glamorous and it'll be a great story to tell over beers back home, you
may want to reconsider.
Vanessa Gezari has been a
foreign and national correspondent at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times since
June 2004. She came to the Times after nearly three years freelancing
in New Delhi and Kabul, writing about politics, conflict and culture
for the Chicago Tribune, The (Baltimore) Sun, Slate and others. In
2004, she trained Afghan journalists with the Institute for War and
Peace Reporting. Before moving to South Asia, she was a one-year
resident at the Chicago Tribune and a general assignment and city hall
reporter at the Toledo (Ohio) Blade.