Getting your bearings in a new place as a freelance foreign correspondent

Journalist May Jeong talks to Democracy Now from Kabul, Afghanistan on February 1, 2018. (Screenshot from Democracy Now)

May Jeong only recently moved back to the U.S. after spending four years as a freelance foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. During that time, her reporting appeared in The Intercept, The New York Times, Harper’s and other publications. And it was recognized with a number of awards.

Even if you don’t plan to be a freelance correspondent in Afghanistan, we believe a lot of what May has to say about her early days there — and how she adjusted to her new home – can be instructive for journalists who plan to be freelancers abroad or even domestically.

If you are going to report in a hostile environment or a high-risk area, we strongly encourage you take precautions and get training. You can learn more about that here.

How did you prepare for your move to Afghanistan?

I must have read every single book that had ever been written about Afghanistan … I didn’t just read books for a mass audience, I tried to go to the original text or the academic work.

How did you find a place to live?

When I moved there, there were certain hotels you could stay. Even with houses, there are only a handful of houses that foreigners have lived in for years. You just need to talk to one person who has lived in Kabul and you’re good to go.

What kind of safety precautions did you take when you were reporting?

I [would] speak with reporters who have already been to the area, and if none have, then I will speak with security officers, local residents, [and others] to collect the latest on what road to take, at what time. I will often have on me the number of the malik [the village elder] in the area in case I need to call for help, and I will also inform others of my travel plans and will check in with them multiple times a day.

Once you got to Afghanistan, how did you get your bearings?

Afghanistan is a very codified society. Expats in a particular circle, and Afghans live in another. Therein lies the initial hurdle. But in terms of foreigners, expat communities are the same everywhere. You go to the same dinner parties and the same receptions, and a lot of people who’ve been covering Afghanistan, not just as reporters, but as aid workers or as scholars and academics and development workers, you hear them talk and learn from them.

At the same time, I had a lot of botched reporting trips to places….I was spending a lot of time with random Afghans thinking it would be a story, whether it was at public hospitals, public schools, universities. Wherever. The greatest thing about journalism is you have this incredible pretense to walk up to people and so I would say, “Hey I’m a reporter. Could I just observe you?”

I did a lot of that and none of those things made their way into articles, but it helped inform my understanding of the country.

How did you find your stories?

One of the first stories I pitched was about a dairy cooperative. I was over at a friend’s house and she had served this butter that was very good. And I asked her, where does this butter come from.

It turns out [the farmers] run a cooperative and they had received no foreign funding, which is very unusual for anything in Afghanistan.

Every other story came out in a similar fashion. It was either something very obvious — like the hospital is bombed … or you just come across things in your daily life. The best reporter is someone who’s alive to her own experiences.

How does the pitching process work, how do you get an assignment?

When I first started freelancing, I had no idea you had to send in an invoice….I had no understanding of how any of it worked. Had I actually known what this job entailed, I don’t even know if I’d be doing it still. [Related: How to get paid as a freelancer]

The dairy co-op story was an assignment. You still have to do so much work in advance before you can even get an assignment, which is a failing in the model. But I’ve gotten to a point where I will begrudgingly do it …. I still have to do a lot of the work in advance. So that’s a change that needs to be an industry wide reform, not something I can negotiate myself. I did many stories that never saw the light of day.

The story I’m working on now, I spent six months reporting, and one month thinking about it. During the course of this month, I’m meeting editors and talking to them over the phone and telling them this is what I’m working on. And they either show interest or they don’t. And you keep building the story. And at some point you put together a pitch and they circulate it [among their editors], and they decide yea or nay and if they say no, you go onto the next person.

The story can get spiked in the last minute, which has happened to me before. You can spend a year working on it and it could get killed. And that’s it. That’s the problem with freelancing, it’s terrible labor standards.

What’s hard or frustrating about being a freelance foreign correspondent, and what kinds of steps have you taken to ease that?

I have an incredible network of other women journalists who are all kind of my age, we are all at that precipice of our careers where we are OK, we’ve been doing it for 5-8 years, we’ve roughly figured out what we are doing, and we are getting to the next stage. There’s been a groundswell of support for each other that’s been really magic. And I don’t know if that’s existed in previous generations of women.

Reporters who share a certain sensibility about how the world should be… it’s helpful to be in touch with that community. Because when I talk about how there needs to be some structural change that needs to be brought to the industry, these are the people who are talking about it.

It is a fact that it would be unfathomable for me to be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t come from a certain socioeconomic background. If I was in a position that I had to financially support my parents … it would be impossible for me to be doing what I’m doing. I could spend months toiling away, and the payoff is uncertain.

Journalism is already a privilege in that people open up their lives to you and they tell you things that they wouldn’t tell other people. To be privy to that is a really dizzying experience in terms of gratitude. But I need to cop to the fact that I can’t be doing what I’m doing if I had more serious [things] I had to consider.

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Five days before he was killed, Shah Marai posted this selfie on Instagram. "Beautiful rose flowers in our garden," he wrote.
Five days before he was killed, Shah Marai posted this selfie on Instagram. “Beautiful rose flowers in our garden,” he wrote.

Twin bombings in Kabul on April 30th killed at least 25 people, including nine journalists. It was the deadliest single attack involving journalists in Afghanistan since at least 2002, and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, it was one of the deadliest ever worldwide.

Among the journalists who lost their lives was the chief photographer in Afghanistan for Agence France-Presse, Shah Marai, who had covered his war-torn homeland for 20 years.

May knew Shah and wrote this beautiful reflection on the struggle of dealing with death in Afghanistan and why she eventually left.