Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, AB’03, shoots from the front lines.
When it happens, says photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, AB’03, you don’t really believe it.
When armed militants pull you out of your 4x4 at a roadside checkpoint in Syria, force you to your knees, and put a gun next to your head, “you think, it’s just a mistake, and you’re going to be OK,” he says. “But no, it’s not a mistake.”
It was April 29, 2013, and Alpeyrie, then a staff photographer for Polaris Images, was on his third trip to Syria to cover the war. He’d spent the past decade photographing dangerous conflicts around the world, embedding himself with soldiers and rebel fighters and sending images to global news agencies. That day he was leaving one group of opposition fighters and traveling to a different front nearer Damascus; he believes one of his two fixers, locals he had hired to get him around safely, led him into a trap.
Alpeyrie was held for a total of 81 days. He spent the first three weeks blindfolded and handcuffed in a house surrounded by heavy shelling. At one point men with knives tried to get him to confess to being in the CIA; at another, a young guard wanted to execute him for using the bathroom without permission and had to be called off by the other guards.
To get through it, Alpeyrie did his best to push thoughts of friends and family from his mind, and sought to humanize himself to the militants. In a second house, he was given more freedom, and used it to help prepare meals and improve his Arabic. After mentioning to a guard that he had been a competitive swimmer in high school, Alpeyrie spent a surreal afternoon in an old concrete pool behind the house teaching the militants’ leader to swim. He held the warlord, clad in Hawaiian swim trunks, in his arms like a baby while armed guards looked on.
Alpeyrie was released two days later, on July 18, 2013. A wealthy businessman had been in contact with various rebel groups, looking to ransom two other abducted journalists; he paid for Alpeyrie’s release and got him out of Syria. It was luck that the businessman found him, Alpeyrie says, and luck that the militants were just in it for the money.
He arrived safely in Paris on July 24. Coming back, “you feel kind of normal, but [the experience] never really leaves you,” says Alpeyrie. “You’re a mess, you collapse. … It took me many months after to be okay.”
But following those months he was back at work, and back on the front lines. For Alpeyrie, war photojournalism is something that “stays with you when you try to push it to the side completely … you don’t want to stop.” Since 2013 he has covered conflicts in places including Armenia and Ukraine. After being injured in a firefight in Ukraine in 2015, he returned for a two-week stint in 2016 to take photos in the no-man’s land between territories held by the Ukrainian government and by Russian-backed separatists. “I know my limits,” he says, “but I go fairly far.” He won’t be returning to Syria—to go back there after all that happened “would mean there’s something wrong with me.”
Alpeyrie says he inherited his adventurous spirit from his mother, but that it was the men in his family who fueled his interest in war. When he was growing up in France, his father read him The Last of the Mohicans and Jack London. He had relatives who fought in almost every major European conflict over the past century, from World War I to the Algerian War, and who regaled him with tales of heroism and valor.
The books and family lore compounded; the Alpeyrie family “has always been involved in romanticizing what war is,” he says. And when you’re raised like that, “you decide to actually go and find out for yourself what it’s like.”
Alpeyrie began his photography career as an undergraduate working for Chicago newspapers, and soon after graduation began photographing wars in east and central Africa as a freelancer. “They were dangerous, expensive trips” that didn’t always pay off immediately, but they helped him build his portfolio. Some of his 2003 photographs from the Congo were picked up by Getty Images; he became a contributor for the image distribution service the next year.
Alpeyrie has since photographed conflicts in places like Kenya, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Libya, and his work has been published by Newsweek, Time magazine, and the BBC. From 2009 to 2015 he was a staff photographer for Polaris Images while continuing to freelance for other outlets. More recently he has been photographing more outside of war zones, covering income inequality in New York City and the dwindling Jewish community in Cuba. In the fall of 2016 he was mostly reporting on the US presidential campaign; he guessed right, he says, and chose an assignment that put him inside Trump Tower on election night.
Now 38, with an eye toward one day starting a family, he’s thinking about slowing down. “I’ve escaped death multiple times, and I think you have to step back at some point and move on to something else.” Alpeyrie speaks regularly at conferences on global politics and is finishing up a book of portraits of World War II veterans from every country involved in the conflict. Another book, about his life and career thus far, will be published in the fall, followed by a movie that focuses on his time as a hostage in Syria. Alpeyrie was involved with the script writing, and will be on set to help with accuracy and details.
Alpeyrie doesn’t see himself as an artist (his photography skills are a by-product, not a goal, of his work) or, as some photojournalists he knows, an advocate for the people he photographs. His childhood fascination with war grew into an interest in history; he studied medieval history at UChicago, and hundreds of history books, many from his time at the College, fill his current home in the Bronx. Through photojournalism, Alpeyrie wants to document the wars, revolutions, and societal change that are reshaping the world—to capture history as it happens, “or at least grab a little bit and be a part of it.”