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The Reel Truth

Witness to War: Yousur Al-Hlou's Insights from Ukraine and Gaza

Exploring the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking.

Michael Werner

May 3rd, 2024
Witness to War: Yousur Al-Hlou's Insights from Ukraine and Gaza

Welcome back to The Reel Truth, our dedicated space for exploring the intersection of video journalism and documentary filmmaking through in-depth conversations with leading practitioners in the field.

In this edition, we're excited to feature Yousur Al-Hlou, a senior video journalist at The New York Times who has built a career reporting on international breaking news and investigations. Her work has taken her to conflict zones around the world, where she combines traditional field reporting, visual evidence gathering, and original cinematography to shed light on critical stories. Yousur's reporting from Ukraine has been recognized with a George Polk Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award, and the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

In this candid conversation, Yousur takes us behind the scenes of her reporting process, sharing insights on how she navigates the challenges and risks of working in conflict zones, builds trust with sources, and manages the emotional toll of covering trauma and suffering. She also reflects on the privilege and responsibility that come with amplifying the voices of those living through conflict, and the importance of maintaining perspective and mental well-being in the face of adversity.

Join us as we dive into Yousur's experiences on the frontlines of international reporting and explore the craft and ethics of bringing these critical stories to light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Yousur Al-Hlou. Photo credit: Earl Wilson
Yousur filming in Ukraine. Photo credit: Masha Froliak

Michael Werner: Yousur, welcome to The Reel Truth. It's an honor to have you join us and share your experiences covering conflict zones around the world. To start things off, I’m curious, how do you personally decide what level of risk is acceptable for getting the story when working in conflict zones like Ukraine?

Yousur Al-Hlou: It's layered because I work for the institution and not just myself. On an individual level, I feel that I'm now experienced enough in my career to be comfortable to deploy to conflict zones. Obviously, each conflict zone will have a unique set of circumstances that dictate what kind of assignment you can do.

In general, while I do make trips to the frontline, I don't do daily work on the frontline. We have photographers, like Tyler Hicks, who will do weeks-long embeds on the contact line or the frontline. For the kind of work I do, I often need to take visits to locations that are quite risky, but for the most part, I'm away from the direct point of action.

With the help of your military and government sources, and local staff, you tend to know which areas are designated as safe zones for journalists, even if they're just a couple hundred yards or a few kilometers away from the fighting. So you start to pick up on that as a reporter and you learn where you can spend a significant amount of time to do the reporting you need.

And then there's the security advisors that you're often paired with, and they're going to have their own set of rules and circumstances in which you can work. They basically work and live with you right. So the night before you go out, you come up with a plan or you pitch your plan, they take a look at it, they calculate the risk factor. And so a lot of the decisions you make are in tandem with what the security advisors find permissible, or within a reasonable amount of risk.

In regards to access, the only time I can recall that we were told very explicitly we couldn't film was when the Ukrainian reconnaissance team came to pick up the Russian soldier that was treated at the military makeshift hospital we were working in. And frankly, I think that had more to do with the staff’s security. The doctors and medics felt that their security and their ability to work in that hospital could be at risk if the reconnaissance team questioned our work. So that was the one and only time we were asked to stop filming.

Yousur filming in a bunker in Ukraine. Photo credit: Masha Froliak

MW: Building trust with sources in conflict zones can be challenging. How did you navigate this while working on a recent story about a field hospital in Ukraine?

YA: It was really difficult because by the first anniversary of the invasion, the Ukrainian military had become more reluctant to allow press in certain parts of the front line. So it had become a lot more difficult to do military embeds. We decided as a team that something we hadn't yet seen were any pieces that spent much time in the field hospitals or with injured soldiers.

My colleague Masha Froliak and I heard that there was this field hospital near Lyman. We started to ask around about who the local commanders were in that area, because they would have to give us permission. We actually sought permission at the highest level first and we were denied. Then we started from the ground up, meeting with local commanders to introduce ourselves.

One commander told us it would be impossible to spend time in the field hospital, so we were kind of rejected. We tried a different route and decided to just show up at the hospital. And while the staff was friendly, everyone told us we would not be allowed in. But we felt that if we just hung out there without the cameras that maybe someone would be nice enough to let us in. We hung out there for a couple of hours just talking to people. They all declined speaking on the record but we said, no problem, we're just here to learn more about what your work is like.

Eventually we convinced them to give us the name and number of the director of the hospital. He met with us and personally didn't have a problem, but he had to go up the chain of command for approvals. Somehow his willingness to vouch for us as reporters worked. Once we were given the green light, we just built that trust. But it was a lot of relationship building and finding different ways in.

Masha Froliak with staff. Photo credit: Yousur Al-Hlou
I have a skill set that I developed, so if I can use it to elevate some of the voices of people who are living through incredibly tragic situations, then I'm happy and really lucky to use that skill set for that purpose.
—Yousur Al-Hlou

MW: Ukraine is just one of the conflicts you’ve covered. Most recently you’ve been reporting on Gaza. What are some unique challenges of reporting on the conflict in Gaza compared to Ukraine?

YA: One thing is the communication barrier. In October or November, when I was actively reporting from Cairo on Gaza, the way I was conducting most of my interviews was through voice memos on WhatsApp. I would send my questions to the person in Gaza, they would receive it when their phone happened to catch a connection, and I would get their response when their phone connected again. That could sometimes take days, literally.

The second challenge is just being able to report on the ground. In 2014, there were pauses in the conflict where journalists could enter into Gaza. In 2018, during the Great March of Return protests, there were limitations on entry and exit but you could always go in and out to cover that.

In 2021, during the 11-day war, the Israeli government banned entry into Gaza for journalists. But on the day after, they eventually opened the Erez border crossing so that journalists could enter.

But at this point in time, you cannot access Gaza yourself as a journalist. The Israeli Supreme Court affirmed the military's decision to ban journalists from entering independently. The fact that we as journalists can't independently report from Gaza is a huge difference from the last several cycles of violence. Palestinians in Gaza and colleagues across the industry, but outside of Gaza, have done incredible reporting despite the challenges. But those challenges are underreported because we're just trying to get the work out. Maybe we should have more conversations around them.

Yousur filming near Lyman, Ukraine. Photo credit: Masha Froliak
When you report in conflict zones for so long, sometimes it's difficult to recognize the toll an assignment might have on you, considering all the privileges we have. It's hard to reconcile the horrific things you see with the luxuries you have back home. For me, it's about perspective. I'm allowed to hold my feelings and experiences, but I'm also putting them in the larger context of the world.
—Yousur Al-Hlou

MW: As someone who does a lot of conflict reporting, how do you personally go about managing your mental health and supporting your team's wellbeing, both on site and after an assignment?

YA: This is such an important question. The New York Times has resources for reporters coming home after working abroad in difficult conflict zones. There are check-ins, and sometimes mental health support is mandated. The environment I work in is extremely supportive. Having a job at this moment is a privilege, and working in an environment where those conversations are encouraged is also an incredible privilege.

But I think with staff on the ground in Ukraine, we should all do a better job of being aware of the effects of the daily grind on their mental health. Sometimes that just means remembering to ask, “How are you doing? Do you need anything?”

Sometimes you have a reporting goal and such a limited amount of time that you just need to go, go, go. But I think if you check in at the right time and place, people appreciate that. With my colleague Masha Froliak, we've been working together for two years, so it's natural that when one of us needs a break, we just say it.

I think when you report in conflict zones for so long, sometimes it's difficult to recognize the toll an assignment might have on you, considering all the privileges we have. It's hard to reconcile the horrific things you see with the luxuries you have back home. For me, it's about perspective. I'm allowed to hold my feelings and experiences, but I'm also putting them in the larger context of the world.

Masha Froliak takes a lunch break in Ukraine. Photo credit: Yousur Al-Hlou

MW: What motivates you to continue doing this emotionally taxing work in conflict zones?

YA: Curiosity, and recognizing the privilege I have. I have a skill set that I developed, so if I can use it to elevate some of the voices of people who are living through incredibly tragic situations, then I'm happy and really lucky to use that skill set for that purpose.

If this work can be considered an act of service in some way, I'm happy to frame it that way. But I also recognize it's reciprocal - people who open up their homes and hearts to me are giving an act of service in return by helping us understand their world better.

I also have family in Syria who have been going through war for the last decade. I think because of my own personal and familial experiences, I've always felt lucky that I don't live in places experiencing active conflict. Even if I experience a version of what they're going through, when I come home, I have the resources I need. That helps put things in perspective.

MW: What advice would you give to journalists who aspire to do more reporting from conflict zones?

YA: Let editors know you're interested in doing conflict reporting. Express a desire, an appetite, a willingness to be in those environments, especially when it's breaking news. Once you're there, be okay with having to do the daily news grind. At the same time, think about how to keep yourself in this environment, build sources and your team, and extend your reporting to do work that is impactful in a different way.

Also, be prepared with the technology and equipment you need for the local environment. Bring extra sets of flak jackets and helmets for your local staff. Have conversations about safety at the same time that you're having conversations about story.

You're never going to know your tolerance for risk until you experience it. Take small trips, do some internal reflection, talk to your team. You'll realize very quickly what your tolerance threshold is and you'll adjust your assignments based on that. You have to figure it out sometimes in the moment, in the field. You'll always have to take a calculated risk but your calculations will change over time with exposure and experience.

Yousur filming near Lyman, Ukraine. Photo credit: Masha Froliak

MW: Before we go, there’s one last thing we like to ask all our guests – What's the best piece of advice you've received in your career or otherwise?

YA: Good question. In 2014, I was a fellow with the AP in the Jerusalem bureau. My editor at the time, Josef Federman, forced me to work in places that were challenging and uncomfortable so I could hone my skills to be a balanced journalist no matter who I was interviewing. I often was sent to press conferences where I was the only journalist wearing a headscarf. It can feel intimidating but it's part of the job. Joe recognized that would be a learning experience and that it was my job to report on the conflict from different perspectives. He encouraged me to build trust with sources in all kinds of environments.

Years later, at a hotel in Erbil, I was visibly upset because access for a sensitive story had fallen through and we were forced to wait at the border. A freelance photographer for the Times, who was also there, reminded me that so much of covering conflict is out of your control. And that if you're constantly upset by it, you're going to exhaust so much mental energy. He reminded me to focus instead on what I have control over and the reporting itself, despite the challenges. And that slowing down can produce better results sometimes. Those two pieces of advice are at the forefront of my mind when I work in the field. They help temper my out-the-door instincts.

MW: Thank you Yousur for sharing your experiences and insights. This has been an illuminating conversation.

YA: Thank you, it's been a pleasure. I'm glad I could provide some perspective on this work.

Have an idea for a Reel Truth guest? Send Michael a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.

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