Alumni Profile: Nicole Tung (GSAS ’09)
May 20, 2022
Photojournalist Nicole Tung has documented conflicts and crises in Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Greece, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, and is currently covering the war in Ukraine.
“I think what keeps me motivated is that when you witness people going through these terrible conflicts, but also maintaining a sense of pride and hope—which is what I’m seeing here in Ukraine—and strength and unity, it’s very inspiring,” says Nicole Tung (GSAS ’09). Tung [she/her] is a photojournalist, who has built her career through striking, impactful images and powerful storytelling. Born in Hong Kong, Tung now primarily works in the Middle East and Asia, traveling to areas of conflict to document the lives of people—mainly civilians—who are often overlooked in stories about war.
Since graduating from NYU with a degree in history and journalism in 2009, Tung has worked in Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Greece, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, and is currently covering the war in Ukraine. She originally moved to the Middle East in 2011 to cover the Arab Spring, extensively covering the conflicts in Libya and Syria. Now based in Istanbul, Turkey, where she works as a freelancer for international publications and NGOs, she has documented the lives of Native American war veterans in the US, former child soldiers in the DR Congo, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the refugee crisis in Europe.
Tung has won multiple awards for her work, including the 2018 James Foley Award for Conflict Reporting, and her photography has been exhibited and published across the world. Despite the fast-changing and often dangerous nature of her work, she continues to produce compelling images to inspire awareness and change. We recently connected with Tung from her current post on the frontlines in Ukraine to learn more about her life and work:
How did you arrive at this moment in your career?
I’ve been covering foreign stories and international reporting photojournalism since 2011. When I graduated in 2009, I started to freelance for various publications in New York, but I knew that I wanted to work abroad. I also wanted to focus on the Middle East region because that was an area of interest for me specifically, so that’s what I’ve been covering for the last 11–12 years.
It started with the Arab Spring in early 2011, and then I started to do stories in other countries and in other regions of the world, including in Asia and Africa. When the conflict in Ukraine started, I was on an assignment for Harper’s Magazine. I’ve worked with Harper’s before in Lebanon, Iraq, and recently, Niger.
Of course the interest in the conflict in Ukraine was extremely intense, as it still is several months in. I traveled to Warsaw and took a train to Kyiv and started photographing over a period of six weeks while I was on this assignment for Harper’s Magazine. Shortly after I finished that assignment I started to work with the Washington Post.
I’ve always been freelance in my career, so that’s essentially how I arrived at this moment. It’s what I do. I photograph events and news, mostly centered around conflict in various places around the world.
What compels your dedication to documenting these crises?
A lot of the reason I feel compelled is because we need witnesses and we need documentation, not just for history’s sake, but also for the present moment. Especially with the 24-hour news and social media, it’s important that it remains at the forefront of people’s minds; that the suffering of people who go through these conflicts and these crises are recognized; that we don’t just let it fade into the background.
Places like Yemen, even Syria, that I’ve been covering for nearly 12 years, are often overlooked because it’s been going on for so long. There’s a fatigue, and that’s the worry about Ukraine as well, though I think the context here is very different. For me it’s also about gaining a better understanding of the geopolitical context in which all of this happens, with a focus on the most vulnerable people who suffer the most in these conflicts. There’s a responsibility that I have as a photographer and a photojournalist; I feel it’s necessary and important to be here because we can’t say that we didn’t know about it if it’s documented.
How do you decide where to go and what to cover?
It really depends. I had never worked in Eastern Europe before and I’d never really learned about Russia-Ukraine relations, so coming here was a blank page for me. I had to learn really quickly what the situation was, what context I was working in, and the brief version of the history of everything that’s happened in this region.
When I decided to come [to Ukraine], it was purely because it was this moment in time. This is the largest conflict on European territory since World War II, and it is a very significant event to cover.
I continue to cover places like Syria because I don’t want it to fade into the background. I go back to Syria multiple times each year because it’s important to still have a presence there for the foreign media. There are many local journalists who do an amazing job of covering their country and me going as an outsider also gives a different perspective; Having perspectives from Syrian journalists and foreign journalists, I think, is always a balance we should achieve. So I really decide where to go and what to cover based upon what I think is going to be the result of the coverage, and the reason behind it is often different from place to place.
How do you build trust with those you’re photographing?
It’s tricky, because sometimes I’m working in places where language is a barrier. I often work with what we call “fixers,” “translators,” or “producers,” but I think the best way to build trust with people is to be able to spend time with them. Often in a conflict situation, you don’t have that luxury, so it can be very difficult to build trust with people.
As a photographer you go into these situations and are privileged to witness these moments. A lot of the time, people who are there and going through very dark hours of their lives give you time to spend around them and to document what they’re going through. You have to be very sensitive and empathetic because that is how you build trust. We as journalists and photographers have a great responsibility to maintain people's dignity, and also share their stories in a respectful way—in the way that they perhaps wish to be represented.
How do you stay motivated to do the important work that you do despite the inherent dangers amidst the devastation and the difficulties that you witness?
Sometimes it’s very difficult to stay motivated, to be honest. The things that we witness and the things that happen make you realize what humans can do to each other and it can be downright depressing. I think what keeps me motivated is that when you witness people going through these terrible conflicts but also maintaining a sense of pride and hope—which is what I’m seeing here in Ukraine—and strength and unity, it’s very inspiring. It inspires me to continue because you realize there is a light at the end of the tunnel, despite all the darkness that surrounds it.
What are you most proud of in your career thus far and what’s one thing you still aspire to do short or long term?
I don’t have a really good answer for that because I think there’s still so much work to be done. I still aspire to be a witness, to continue doing the work that I do because I really love what I do and am passionate about it, despite the challenges and the risks that come with it. I think as a person and as a photographer I’m evolving. I’m trying to do work less on a daily basis and more on a project and thematic basis, to be more meditative about the images that I create so that there’s a bit more reflection in the pictures themselves.
What was your experience like at NYU and how did your NYU education contribute to how you approach your work?
My experience at NYU was very cosmopolitan. Being in New York afforded me opportunities to meet many journalists who visited NYU to do talks or readings, and I think that those events and opportunities were what really helped boost my motivation to become a journalist and a photojournalist. I had great professors in both the history and journalism departments who were always extremely supportive of the work that I wanted to do. I think back on that time, you know when I was 21 or 22 or even younger, how I must have come across as naive but also extremely motivated. I think that’s what really compelled the professors around me to be supportive in that way, and what compelled me to be a solid and empathetic photojournalist.