When Your Office is a War Zone

Allekta Ilinca Hatu

When Your Office is a War Zone

Breaking news. Exclusive interviews. Live transmissions from elections, catastrophes and sports events. In television, what we see on the screen is only the tip of the iceberg. For the journalist creating the news, the unwrittenstory behind the screen is often as meaningful and impactful as the one being published. Kenneth Cuomo, product manager of Vimond IO, has been on both sides — as the cameraman himself, filming in the middle of the action and behind the camera too, editing video in a post-production environment.

14 hours for 2 minutes

During his career as a cameraman and editor at TV 2, Norway’s largest commercial television station, Kenneth and his team reported live from war zones and endangered areas. He filmed the catastrophic consequences of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, as well as the wars in Libya, Iraq, Israel, Gaza and Somalia. Over the years Kenneth´s stories have been seen by millions of viewers.

In news reporting, the deadline must be met. Kenneth filmed and edited news with the knowledge that there is no safe place in a war zone, that earthquake aftershocks do not care about your deadline and can hit you when you least expect it, like while sleeping or documenting a story.

“You learn a lot about yourself when you are under pressure. And it is rewarding to feel that you can manage all the stress and, at the same time, do your job.”

As expected, in those circumstances, there is no regular work schedule with fixed hours. For 2 minutes of news material, Kenneth worked together with his team for 14 hours in a “normal” work day — often with only a few hours of sleep in rough conditions. “Hopefully, your hotel is in a safe place,” he added.

News stories vs. personal journeys

There are untold events journalists witness that never end up in newsreels. Kenneth held himself together after seeing hundreds of kids without food, fearing for their lives, or filming mass graves of thousands of people. He laughed side by side with a non-English speaking Chinese driver wending their way through a dangerous area, right before the van was almost covered by an avalanche. In Brega, Libya, they hardly escaped the bullets pouring down from automatic gunfire. Humanity showed its face when victims of the devastating 8.0 magnitude earthquake in China approached his team and offered them food from the donations they had just received: “There is no news story there, but there were very nice moments in between all the other crazy things happening around. That is what you never see on television,“ says Kenneth

Kenneth and Pål worked on a story about the uprising in Libya against Khadaffi's mercenaries. While they filmed at the rebell check point, the government aircrafts appeared. Rebell responded with opening fire with anti-aircraft guns.

To help or not to help

For journalists creating stories from troubled areas, it can be a challenge to stay focused only on the news. “You want to help people, and you probably could help a few if you intervened directly. Still, the best way to make a bigger impact is simply to do your job as well as possible and then show it to the world. This way, the people who read the news will feel something, then, hopefully, do something”. After they reported from Haiti, a concert organized in Norway proved that mass media can make a difference and indeed have an impact: “A lot of money was collected for this cause”, said Kenneth. “Seeing that your work inspires people to help is very rewarding,” he added.

There are moments when empathy takes over and it´s simply impossible to ignore the suffering of the ones around you. You stop thinking of yourself as a professional, and you go back to being, before anything else, a person, a beating heart, driven by the urge of doing something without delay for the ones in need: “We once went home to our driver´s house because his mother was sick — she´d broken her foot in the earthquake. We gave her some medicine and painkillers and helped — if in a small way.”

Graves, priests and sugarcane

When working in the field, your emotions can be highly polarized. “After a week when you are tired and excited, your emotions go like a roller-coaster, a very small thing can make you very happy, then very sad”.

Kenneth explains:

“I remember one day very well. We were doing the news piece at a mass grave where 10,500 people were buried, many left out in the open. We started to film and the mood was dark. When heading back, we heard loud music and noise coming from a big crowd, so we headed that direction. There was a preacher on a stage with a band in front of hundreds of people crying, singing and holding hands. I jumped up on stage and started filming the people.”

Kenneth remembers all the stories that never ended up on air, the ones that are not officially part of the news journal, but have shaken up his inner world and are now with him for life. “In the same day, on the way back to the hotel, the sun was going down. We stopped by the road and bought sugarcane. We were singing, joking and eating sugarcane, while the sun was going down. That was a perfect day, an emotional day with all the highs and lows."