Photojournalism alumnus Gavin John (JA’13) knew he wanted to work in conflict zones taking pictures and telling stories long before he ever graduated.
“My mom asked me a while back, ‘when is that moment when you’ll realize you’ve made it?’ I told her it would be me putting on my flak jacket and helmet for the first time,” says John. “That happened in 2015 when I was in Iraq. I choked up and remember thinking, ‘you did it. Now go to work.’”
After graduating, John hit the ground running. He contacted conflict journalists who advised him to start in disaster areas before heading to the frontlines. He covered Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 as a Sun Media photographer. It was one of the strongest and deadliest tropical storms ever recorded — killing at least 6,300 people in the country.
A year later, he traveled to North Korea. John had been curious about the country for a while, and finally received approval from the government to visit. Traveling to the country made the perils of his job real — journalists are not welcome in North Korea.
“On the last day, they called my bluff,” said John. “I was interrogated for 20 minutes by the North Koreans. It was terrifying.”
John had to hand over his external hard drive and memory cards in order to avoid incarceration.
With these experiences under his belt, John went to Washington, D.C. to take training courses in Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid. He completed the program in 2014, making him ready for the frontlines. In 2015, John travelled to Iraq as a freelance photographer to document the Kurdish Peshmerga troops, who are still fighting ISIS in the region today. John was stationed on the frontline, south of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
“It was unsettling to see the ISIS flag for the first time,” says John. “In those situations, when you’re dealing with imminent threats, you have to know your camera like it’s an extension of your body.”
A year later, John dove into a new challenge — surviving the perilous -50 degree Celsius weather of Canada’s north. He traveled to Resolute, Nunavut to photograph Operation NUNALIVUT — a sovereignty operation conducted annually in the north. The 2016 operation provided an opportunity for the Canadian, American and Danish armed forces to exchange information on how to operate in extreme conditions.
“I went through a battery an hour. Within seconds of shooting outside, there was ice on my viewfinder,” says John. “I had to shoot blind, and hope for a good shot.”
While it may seem adventurous, John knows the risks of being a conflict journalist.
“I have to say goodbye every time I leave for a warzone,” he says. “You have to be clear in your reason to do this work. For me, it’s about telling the stories I feel need to be told.”
This fall, John enters the University of Calgary’s International Relations degree program, part of his long-term plan to become involved in politics.
“Just watch me. I’m only getting started, and I’m so excited.”
Written by Casey Knoll (JA ’13)