In a world plagued with wars and suffering, all many of us can do is to watch the tragedy unfold from afar while praying for our brothers and sisters around the world. But Harry Fear takes it one step further by placing himself at the heart of these tragedies. As a correspondent and filmmaker, he most notably covered the Israel-Gaza conflict – bringing the tragedy of Gaza to the world’s attention. More recently, he ventured into public speaking and has delivered three TEDx talks.
Armed with a wealth of experience and knowledge, there’s no doubt that this British Muslim revert is breaking barriers around the world! Read on to find out more about his inspiring story 👇
1. Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am a 28-year-old British journalist and film-maker. I work as a documentary correspondent for RT, based in London. I am best known for my coverage of the Gaza Strip and the so-called European refugee crisis. I am all about discovering people’s stories and new places. I have been blessed to have travelled to 33 countries and all those experiences have helped me grow in different ways.
Privately, I found Islam a few years ago in the UK. It has become the most important thing in my life. It has the answer to all my most important questions of the mind and heart.
2. What inspired you to be a broadcast journalist?
As a teen I always thought that being a mass communicator would be meaningful, but becoming a broadcast journalist never specifically came onto my radar of ambitions until I was 24. I enjoy broadcasting and trying to bring impactful reports to audiences. My belief is that people matter and real stories matter. The world is full of wrongs that can and should be straightened out, and so long as we are not understanding the wrong and problemitizing properly, we will not be able to make social change. So there is work to do.
Journalism serves stories, which serves people. In some stories, simple hard facts – which are building blocks for reporters – can speak volumes for themselves: take, for example, the starkly-contrasting civilian death tolls of Israelis versus Palestinians killed in recent military confrontations. Sometimes, they are 1:200.
These days, I’ve segwayed from news reporting into longer-form, documentary storytelling, which is a return to my roots, because I self-shot my first hour-long documentary on-location in South Africa when I was 21, learning as I went along.
3. At the start of your career, what made you decide to go to Palestine?
As a teenager I read John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time; within it is coverage of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, to use the legal term. I was profoundly affected by the passages that described the systemic oppression and the wanton violence and racist subjugation.
After volunteering briefly for an Israeli human rights organisation, I ended up connecting with many people my own age in Gaza. A year later and I was encouraged by them to go to Gaza, making the most of then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s new Egypt–Gaza border policy in 2012. Getting into Gaza had become safer and doable – even as a non-accredited reporter. Simply, I wanted to see the situation for myself, offer solidarity, and do what I could do to tell the story – which, above all, is a story of collective punishment of a whole population.
4. What has been the most challenging moment you’ve encountered while on the job?
I can immediately tell you the most spiritually hard moment I’ve had on the job. During the summer 2014 war in Gaza, I was reporting from a hospital that was caring for many of those kids who had been caught up in Israel’s strike on a United Nations school compound at the height of the hostilities. Kids bombed in what should have been the safest place. I saw the injured and the desperation of their parents, including their desperation to get the outside world to feel their pain and MAKE THIS STOP NOW.
Ward after ward of injured kids, crying in pain, with horrific injuries. And this was, I recall, during only the second week of the 51-day war. The suffering cannot be exaggerated. I was fatigued after working non-stop with little time to process, and somehow something inside me shut down: it’s like my heart gave up on being strong enough to witness what I saw without caving in.
To answer your question at another level, in terms of a practically-challenging moment: I have been interrupted several times on live TV. Once, violent protesters graffitied our camera, as I was live from Paris, cutting off the image as I was talking. Another time, I had drunk football hooligans shouting expletives at me, trolling my live broadcast, trying to shut me down because they did not like what I was saying.
On the far less dramatic side, the kinds of technical problems you encounter doing live broadcasts can be bizarre. I have many a funny outtake video! What do you do if your earpiece goes dead half-way through a news presenter asking you a question live on TV? Or, more bizarrely: what do you do when you realise that what the presenter hears from you in his ear is live but on a 30-second delay?
5. As a broadcast journalist, how do you keep an emotional detachment from the scenes you witness while reporting?
Just as any person in life wants neither to be too sensitive or insufficiently sensitive to anything, the same applies to the journalist as he or she witnesses terrible things.
If you allow yourself to be too emotional and too expressive, you could end up disabling yourself with grief – then you are of no use to anyone. Yet if you completely turn off the emotions inside of you, you lose your humanity – then, you could actually do more harm than good in storytelling in a way that, inhumanely, you could normalise people’s suffering for your audience. So, as always, the answer is balance.
Also, for the journalist, it is essential to not only communicate powerfully and clearly, but to feel and experience deeply, to bring humanity and meaning to the stories we tell. But that can all become too much if we do not care for ourselves. As with any issue of the heart, self-awareness and self-care is important; so having the time to process and decompress is essential to being a healthy storyteller of hard-breaking stories.
I have always tried to pump humanity into my films and reports, to connect to people’s minds and hearts: to show emotion, to touch as much as possible, to story-tell with impact. That is real ‘communication’ with an audience, from which change can happen. So presenting both hard facts and hard-to-watch emotions, means richer minds and softened hearts.
6. Which country is Number One on your travel bucket list?
I have still yet to see Andalusia. An Islamic heritage tour of Granada and Cordoba is next on my list, but I will have to carbon-offset the air miles. I have little idea of what to expect in terms of vibe; my heart and eyes are wide open.
7. What are your top 3 favourite countries to visit and why?
Egypt. I have drunk from the Nile, as they say. I have a great fondness for Egypt. It has become like a second home for me. I am not alone in finding Egyptians second-to-none in their friendliness and openness. There is a nuanced but profound difference between: the kind of hospitality that makes you feel like you are at home, and the kind of hospitality that makes you feel (actually) at home. And Egyptians give you the latter. Egypt is an enormous country and offers all sorts of spots to explore. I recommend an Islamic heritage city break in Cairo and try to find peace in the chaos; or enjoy a beach holiday in the south Sinai. Just do not talk politics while you are there.
Malaysia. If I had to choose a food to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Malaysian cuisine. Yum, yum, chilli, yum. I have a soft spot for the Malaysian people and the Islamic culture that is embodied there. The island of Langkawi is something of a paradise holiday spot and is frequented by honeymooners. There are clean mosques everywhere. If you get a local SIM, you might spend too much time on your phone because the mobile internet is super fast!
Sweden. Of the European countries I have been to, Sweden stole my heart for the civility and friendliness of its people. I found that Sweden is the kind of European country where people do actually strike up conversations in an elevator and it does not pass as awkward – which is a big novelty for a Brit. One boutique hotel I once stayed at in the southern city of Malmo was one of the cutest hotels I have ever seen.
8. What has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had while travelling?
In travel for work, my most rewarding experience was going to Gaza in winter 2012 and being able to make a journalistic contribution to raising the alarm on Israel’s military operation that November. It turned out that I was able to reach quite an audience all over the world and was able to engage and touch folks into connecting with the suffering of Gaza at that time.
In travel for leisure, my most rewarding experience was taking a couple of months for sabbatical in spring–summer 2017 in Egypt. Since I first visited Cairo when I was in my early 20’s, I’ve felt attached to the place, its vibe and its Islamic heritage. The sabbatical in Egypt allowed for spiritual growth for me in ways that I could not have expected or hoped for. From the moments finding stillness in mosques, to fasting in incredible heat, to climbing Mount Sinai, to praying in a quaint mosque by the sea with a palm tree growing from inside out through its roof, the experience added up to change me in ways that matter.
9. Do you have any advice for youths who’d like to start their journalist career but aren’t sure where to begin?
Journalism can be a wonderful career and can offer rich fulfilment and travel experiences. But the media is a tough industry and recruitment is not always meritocratic. My main advice is to make yourself stand out by finding or creating your own niche and developing it– be that a niche of a particular style of story-telling of a particular story or a very particular medium. Is there a story you really care about (or an angle) that others don’t really cover? Is there a written or visual storytelling style that you love that is unusual? Is there an up-and-coming technology that you’re into that you can use for story-telling? Finding a niche need not be a cold calculation or worrisome: simply follow your intrigue and passion until you find a niche that works. Believe in yourself.
Secondly, developing a wide skill set is of utmost importance. Give yourself additional edge. Get out there and get your hands dirty experimenting with different technologies, mediums and styles. Don’t be shy.
Thirdly, avoid over romanticising the power or product of media and journalism, because it is an imperfect industry, full of imperfect people, trying imperfectly to tell stories. I put emphasis on this because it is better to critically understand the imperfections of the industry before rushing into it with rose-tinted spectacles and too high hopes. I recommend delving into the works of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Media Lens as primers for getting that critical awareness of contemporary journalism.
My final piece of (sober) advice is this: that I think it is worth considering having a backup career plan, given how competitive the industry is. Most obviously, in terms of career development segways, there are revolving doors between the media and PR, politics and NGOs, which can offer obvious backups.
10. Fill in the blank: My hope for the world is that…
My hope for the world is that we can find greater peace; from within, shining outward, and touching others.
Note: All pictures are taken from Harry Fear’s Facebook page.