How do your recent trips to war zones compare with earlier trips?

My first trip was in 1999, and I went in the summer to Kosovo. I had just finished an internship at Newsday and I was in my mid-20s. I was just starting to get into photography in a serious way, I didn’t know anybody, and I wasn’t affiliated with any news organization. I basically just made my way there and spent about a month traveling through Kosovo taking pictures but really not knowing what I was doing. I completely self-financed the whole trip and I didn’t sell a single picture afterwards. You might call it an exercise done to see if this was what I really wanted to do or not. When I returned to New York after that trip I was offered a staff job at Newsday. They really gave me a lot of chances to travel soon after I was hired. After 9/11, all I was doing was covering the wars.

What did you learn as you continued to visit war zones?

The hardest part about this job is figuring out where to be and when to be there. A lot of it is pure luck and a lot of it is trying to trust your instincts, which takes time and experience. You also have to have a very open approach and personality, particularly when you are traveling in places where there is a conflict going on. And another important thing is to try to be as informed as possible. You have to be super careful just by being informed and knowing what you’re getting into. And with every assignment you have to try to get some experience and apply it to the next conflict you go to.

Dealing with people, you have to be very dignified in your approach, for example, by not jumping in front of people in an unsettling way. Especially when you’re dealing with death, it’s a sensitive subject matter and you have to approach it that way.

I’ve definitely made mistakes in the past; you want to make sure you remember those so you don’t make the same mistakes twice. I’ve learned from very experienced colleagues, too. Early on in Afghanistan, back in 2001, there were several incidences when everything was chaotic. A couple of times myself and some colleagues ended up in places that probably weren’t the safest. If you do this long enough, you will eventually find yourself in a bad situation, unfortunately.

Did you read the stories on WikiLeaks stories that went with your photographs?

I’ve read some, but a colleague of mine at the New York Times, João Silva, was severely wounded in Afghanistan on Saturday and I’ve been just dealing with that—not reading the papers very much, to be honest with you. João is a good friend of mine and a colleague. The people in this business are devastated about what happened with João; it’s very unfortunate. It’s part of war, but it’s a very, very sad feeling and we’re all trying to deal with it at the moment.

Is it hard when you work in places that are so dangerous and so different from day-to-day life here, to come back?

It can take a while to find your way back into normalcy. And when bad things happen, like what happened to João this weekend, you reflect more on what you do. It’s not easy, and a lot of people have different ways to manage this change of pace and this change of environment. I think it’s important to have a life outside of what you do, to have friends and to have family, a support network around you to make it smoother and easier.

Does an incident like João’s make you reconsider your line of work?

I don’t know that reconsider is the right word; it’s more of a reality check. People who do what we do or spend enough time working on these subjects have a passion for what we do. We think it’s important. But when something like this happens there are many questions that go through your mind. You try to reconcile that sense of loyalty to a story—the reason you got into the business in the first place. You have to keep focused and continue to do your job. I still feel strongly that it’s very important to have independent journalism, especially from conflict zones.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.