“You see this paradox,” Stillman says, “where there’s this greater reliance on freelancers but fewer and fewer protections for them out in the field in very scary situations.” Journalists don’t just need to learn how to protect themselves—they also need to be mindful of the safety of their sources, colleagues, fixers, and, increasingly, their data. Then there’s the problem of coming home with no support network. “When you go into these traumatizing situations, and you don’t always have an editor you’re processing things with or a newsroom to go back to, that can be an isolating experience when you go home,” Stillman says. “That’s something I’ve seen with other people,” especially combat photographers.
There are a few upsides to being a freelancer, though. After her first trip, she went back with the help of a fellowship from NYU. Being a free agent was, for Stillman, “a way of pursuing this story I was really passionate about but other outlets might not be willing to support up front.” She’s talking about a feature she reported about human trafficking on US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, which ended up being her first story in The New Yorker. It would have been a long shot to sell that piece up front, on just a pitch.
I agree with Draper, who wrote in ELLE that these stories are “worth reporting on, even at great risk.” And yeah, Lindhout ended up with a sweet book deal and an avalanche of media attention. But such an ordeal is really, really not worth it. The bottom line, says Greenwell, is that “living in a warzone with institutional support is incredibly difficult. You should not even consider doing it without institutional support without an exceeding amount of preparation. Bravado is not a virtue in warzones.”