Photographer and film maker Jacob Simkin

I’m Jake Simkin, 36, Australian, currently living in Istanbul covering the Syrian conflict and the war against ISIS. I basically was a commercial cinematographer and photographer till the tsunami came and I just went ‘Fuck it!’ sold all my stuff, and bought a ticket to Banda Aceh.

I came back briefly and saw my way of life could never be the same and so bought an Enfield 500 and rode around India, Bangladesh and Pakistan till I landed a job in Afghanistan for six years.

What first attracted you to covering conflict? Tell us how you got started and who helped you break in.

I was always into reading the newspapers and picking up pictures of what was happening in the world. I lived in Australia, so things seemed so far away. I looked at things that James Nachtwey was doing and I wanted to see things for myself and to understand the human condition in all its flaws. The Banda Aceh tsunami was more than just a humanitarian disaster, there had been a civil war been going for the last 20 years. Within my first few days I was exposed to war between GAM, the rebel faction and Indonesian government battles.

US Troops hold down a position against the Taliban in Helmand during operation Panther Claw in 2009. Barack Obama raised the amount of troops in the south to 40,000 to help clear the insurgency and assist the British army in Helmand. Two US soldiers were injured and one killed in this day in Marjah. © Jacob Simkin.

After Banda Aceh, I worked on a documentary on women’s issues around the world that ended in India. I took a chance and decided I wasn’t going home. I bought a secondhand Enfield motorbike and rode around doing work for NGOs and humanitarian organizations on issues in India and Pakistan. But I ended up being broke, I got ridden off the road, I broke my camera and my family needed me home. I got another chance working in Afghanistan on a television series called ‘Extreme Tourist Afghanistan.’

CRU Commando Hamidullah Zakir overlooks a location to attack the Taliban who have taking over a construction site, using it to fire rockets at the embassies in Kabul.© Jacob Simkin.

Afghanistan: I spent six years there, it was an amazing base to start as a photographer, there was a war going still with insurgents, but there was all this development work happening. I also began working doing other work such as teaching skateboarding and art classes at Skateistan, photography workshops, rock climbing and assisting in a basketball program for disabled at ICRC.

FSA unit Shams al Shamal assist the Kurdish units of the YPG against ISIS taking over Kobane (Ain al Arab). © Jacob Simkin.

Everyone needs a photographer or videographer, I had my own company called Development Pictures, and we helped out most of the journalists shooting video content for newspapers as times were changing and journalist needed to possible provide video as well with their reports.

Kabul soon became my base and through the contacts I was making I had jobs to go to all the time whether it be going to Somalia or DRC, there was always a need for a conflict photo/videographer.

The FSA group Nour De Zenky use a home made missile system called the Janahem missile, welding together metal to a gas canister. They fought this day against the Assad regime in the Science Facility, taking over the location in several days. © Jacob Simkin

What are the items you can’t survive without in the field?

Good boots, nothing is worse than having fucked feet. A good well-stocked first aid kit with pain killers when your feet and body have gone well beyond comfortable cause it will happen. Frontlining is not a 9-5 job, it is grueling hours and living in fairly awful environments.

Ahmed sells watermelons during the month of Ramadan in Shaar district of Aleppo. Aleppo’s markets are under constant threat of barrel bomb attacks by the regime. I returned back in 2015 to Syria during Ramandan, and the marketplace had been heavily bombarded and Ahmed had been wounded and killed. Aleppo, 2014. © Jacob Simkin

What makes your approach different to getting attention from editors?

I work equally well in either both photography or in video. I was pioneering shooting on the Canon 5d mk2 in the early years that the camera could shoot video as well.

I have a knack also of pushing myself into harder to reach places and shooting stories hard to get. I am passionate about what I shoot and where I go. If you are investing your own money and time as a freelancer you better be 110% out to tell that story.

YPG fighters move to a new hideout. © Jacob Simkin

Describe that item you carry around with you all the time and never use.

Often body armour. It sits a lot of the time in the car. Also I have a solar power charger but then again, always somehow I manage to find somehow to power my batteries.

Decorating the outpost, An FSA fighter from Nour De Zenky makes a space into a small home in the neighbourhood of Hanano. Hanano once had 400,000 civilians living in the area, now there are less than 4000. Aleppo 2014. © Jacob Simkin.

What media/news/feeds do you follow and why?

My main read is the Institute of the Study of War. I do keep up with Twitter and news feeds usually shared by friends on Facebook. The good thing about that is that you get worthwhile articles worth reading rather than usual dribble.

Riding around on a newly acquired SAA tank captured by Jasysh as Mujahdeen films for Vocativ in Syria 2014. © Jacob Simkin.

How do you measure risk and how do you protect yourself?

I measure risk all the time. I do take a lot of risks though, more so than anyone else I know. I listen a lot to of locals and other journalists, I talk to anyone to get information closer to the groundwork I am doing. Kidnapping is the main threat to my work and I have been a hard bastard to take down. I’ve been wounded several times but always manage to get out of the situation.

I have a fairly good knowledge of and am useful in first aid. Often I had to assist in medic work for armed groups I have been with. I also learnt martial arts and training in the SPEAR System of tactical training. Mostly, exposure to situations helps knowing when is the best way to live on another day.

Peshmerga fighters watch American air support hit targets against an ISIS location in Sinjar. Kurdistan, Iraq, 2015. © Jacob Simkin.

Describe your most rewarding career moment.

I spent a lot of time covering the war in Afghanistan especially the Panther Claw operation in Helmand from being with the troops to spending time with the civilians in the hospital in Kandahar. I met a boy who lost both his legs from a landmine who was happy to be alive despite the lost of limbs. Four years later I met him again, and he still had the positive attitude and was attending the disabled basketball program which I helped assist in the early years in Kabul.

A child says goodbye to me as she heads towards the hospital wards. The child had sustained burns from mortar fire during the battling of American soldiers and the Taliban in Helmand during Operation Panther Claw in 2009. © Jacob Simkin.

Tell us about your most recent assignment or work.

I am working on a more personal video piece called ‘There she goes, my beautiful world’ about the war in Syria; it has a focus from the lives of the civilians living in Aleppo, the Civil Defense responders called the White Helmets. It also focuses on life in the camps, specifically in Atmeh Camp and the foreign fighters fighting in Syria as part of Jasysh al Fateh movement to defeat Bashar Assad and the regime.

It is intensely difficult work operating in Syria but I am dedicated to Syria and the people there. I was born Muslim so it has helped a lot with access to the country.

Syria to me is my time and a war that is under reported. As much as it is difficult to get funding or represented to cover Syria, it is the forefront of human history worth telling. I believe our work as journalists and photographers is keeping a record of history. Why we as humans fight, struggle and live is important and nothing has been more important than the war in Syria globally

With so many factions, the birth of a new threat of ISIS has opened the situation all over the world. The battle against the Assad regime may well collapse in several years, but the battle against ISIS and restoring the Middle East will take several decades. I am hoping to be around for then.

Riding around on a newly acquired SAA tank captured by Jasysh as Mujahdeen films for Vocativ in Syria 2014. © Jacob Simkin.

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