Her Story: Kate Holt on War Photojournalism
Kate Holt is an award-winning British photojournalist who captures war zones, news events, and humanitarian crises across Africa and the Middle East. During the war against Islamic extremism she has been embedded with US/UK soldiers in Afghanistan and African Union Troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, documenting the human cost of war and the toll on both military and civilian lives. She’s travelled to countless refugee camps and captured heart-breaking stories of survival. Her work often highlights the violence women are subject to every day; through her investigative work, she’s uncovered the trafficking of young girls from Eastern Europe into the UK, the raping of female refugees in Mogadishu by Somali soldiers, and the sexual abuse of young girls in the Congo by United Nations peacekeepers. Kate's hard-hitting photographs appear regularly across all the major British broadsheet newspapers, the BBC, global news agencies, and charity platforms such as Unicef, ActionAid and Médecins Sans Frontières and she has been nominated three times for the Amnesty Award for Humanitarian Reporting. Kate explains to Storytellhers how she balances empathy with emotional distance to safeguard her own sanity and offers an extraordinary insight into a profession that keeps us in the privileged west informed, engaged, and inspired into action.
My photographs tell stories of people who are vulnerable. I travel to places that most can’t get to and I think it’s really important for us to understand that there are people out there who aren’t as privileged as us. They see life from a different perspective and I want to expose that. I’ve noticed in the course of my 25-year career that there’s an increasing polarity in the world, between those who have and those who have not. It’s important to understand that, particularly in the face of migration and the big health challenges we’re seeing.
I had an eclectic upbringing that made me very aware of difference. I was born in Zimbabwe; my mother was a journalist and my father was a doctor, so difficult issues and environments were part of my psyche from a very early age. My mum used to read the news in Zimbabwe, and though we lead a comfortable life, she wanted me to know about the other world out there. Later, when we moved to Newfoundland, she would take me on stories in northern Canada concerned with the challenges that the Inuits faced. She made me aware of the crises that most people wouldn’t touch upon. I began to understand from her how to connect with people, and thought: ‘I can do this’.
I used to see a crisis and think ‘I want to go there’. I’d contact organizations and ask if they wanted photos. Now people contact me and we collectively come up with stories that we feel will have an impact. I worked in an orphanage in Romania when I was 18. My school in the UK sent money to Romania and I wanted to see the other side of the story. It was horrific: children beating their heads against the walls, being abused, dying of HIV. I was totally unprepared, but I wanted to do something different. To get beneath the idea that everything was ok.
I’m always looking to visually tell the story of where we are. It can be very complex with many layers and l look to cut through the good and the bad. I used to do portraiture primarily, with people looking at the camera. I think having the person look at us diminishes the distance between the viewer and the image.
I don’t look at my job as putting my life at risk. I know my way around these places, and I use my experience and connections well. I won’t put myself at risk because someone might have to rescue me and get killed in the process, and that’s incredibly selfish. Anyway, the power of the story is the back-story – you don’t have to go to the front line to find the woman who’s been displaced with her kids or the soldier who’s been injured or dying and leaving a family behind.
We’ve made huge mistakes with the war in Afghanistan. I made a choice to highlight both sides of the fence in my career, and it was particularly challenging to be embedded with the US and UK militaries. The soldiers believed they were making changes for good, but I saw the devastating effect on the civilians. Those in charge wanted to do good but failed to see the impact of their actions. Later, I was embedded with Ugandan and Burundian troops in Mogadishu, Somalia. It was shocking to see what these soldiers were given in comparison to the US/UK military – it was like stepping back 50 years. With limited food, water, and medical equipment, they were fighting Islamic Extremism with half the resources. 148 British soldiers died during the Afghanistan war. Over 200 African Union Forces were killed during one week I was in Somalia. Considering it was a proxy war on terrorism on behalf of the Americans and British, it was an example of neo-colonialism at its worst.
I don’t go to a war zone to do first aid; I go there to report on it. I’ve been in bomb blasts and my purpose is to take photos first and show what’s going on. I’ve always been clear in my mind: take photos then help. I understand that what I do is a job and I am totally ineffectual if I become too emotionally involved. That’s how I protect myself. Of course, I have empathy - if I didn’t it would show in my photos – but I can’t invest too much. These wars aren’t mine. They are somebody else’s life. I would be doing a disservice if I claimed that their suffering is my suffering – it’s not, and I struggle when other journalists claim as such. We go back to our own lives. I’ve put up boundaries and I know what they are and how far I will go in a situation. I have friends who suffer terrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but they don’t know if they are there to take photos or help. I know what my purpose is. You have to be clear about these things or you’ll end up very confused.
The photos that are hard to look at tell an important story. But I’ve seen gorgeous things too: in South Sudan kids making watchtowers, soldiers and UN cars out of mud, recreating the reality they see around them. It’s what kids do, and it’s sweet and innocent. I’ve also witnessed the extraordinary strength that mothers have when they are determined to look after their young.
I’ve developed an understanding of how the aid industry works. In 2004 and 2005, I uncovered a story about sexual exploitation by United Nations Peacekeepers in the Congo that led to Kofi Annan announcing a ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy towards sexual exploitation. The recent Oxfam allegations prove that little has changed. Charity workers are working where there is little protocol and they can get away with it. I believe there’s a huge need for relief work but there needs to be more regulation and accountability when things go wrong. What is the impact of the aid? How are people using it? Does it replace the desire for them to change themselves?
My partner is a diplomat and we’ve been together seven years. We have heated conversations about British foreign policy (or the lack thereof). I don’t have any children. I have a Kenyan street dog called Mog (after Mogadishu) that I rescued when he was three weeks old. I live in Wiltshire now – I used to live in Kenya, but it’s exhausting when you’re surrounded by it. Here I can switch off, potter around garden centres and other people’s gardens and feel safe. I am a trustee for both Team Rubicon UK, who re-purpose Veterans to do humanitarian relief, and the Royal Humane Society, who award people for bravery. I think it’s important to use my experiences in a positive way.
Kate is also the director and founder of Arete – a media and communications agency that specializes in humanitarian storytelling, media strategy, content production and training for NGO’s, UN bodies and foundations. www.aretestories.com