RUG employee photographs the Middle East

My other life in the conflict zone

How did a RUG communications project leader end up ankle-deep in mud in Northern Iraq, snapping pictures of unidentified bodies and undetonated explosives? Courtney Schellekens moonlights as a conflict zone photojournalist when she isn’t sitting behind her desk in Groningen.
By Megan Embry

Courtney moved here from Boston back in 2009 when her then-partner was offered a research position at the RUG. The decision to leave everything behind – friends, family, a job she loved, all of her possessions – was a hard one. But still, she says, ‘I had this really romantic notion of life in Europe: if I wanted to, I could go anywhere. In that respect, I haven’t been disappointed.’

To be sure, Courtney’s life has wandered into unexpected, sometimes dangerous, and often exciting places. For the last two years, the project leader for the Communications, Career and Society department at the Faculty of Arts has worked as a volunteer photojournalist and translation editor for the Palestine News Network (PNN). Her freelancing work takes her all over. She has covered the funeral of a ten-year-old boy killed for throwing a rock at a soldier in the West Bank; she has talked her way into restricted areas to record the destruction of a post-war environment in western Mosul.

‘Standing ankle-deep in mud staring down a mortar probably isn’t everyone’s dream come true, but it’s my dream come true’, Courtney laughs. People are often surprised to hear what she does in her spare time, but she doesn’t think it’s all that strange. For her, everything comes down to the one consistent thread running through her whole unlikely life: the urge to connect with other people.

‘It’s all communications’

Whether she is working for a communications team at the university, capturing the Middle East with her camera, or introducing herself to a stranger in a café, Courtney says meaningful connection is always the goal. ‘It’s all communications work.’

In 2016, she met a guy at a café in East Jerusalem. It didn’t take long to learn that he was a photojournalist who had worked for National Geographic and the UN. The two geeked out over their mutual love of photography. The new connection would prove serendipitous. He later invited her to a UN event where she made the networking connections that would eventually lead her to the PNN.

Not long after that day in the café, another old connection called her up from Germany. He was working for a charitable organization trying to raise funds for the Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem. He needed a photographer to capture the conditions of the pediatric unit, which was in desperate need of repair. Would she go?

‘Are you kidding me?’ she recalls saying. ‘Yes!’

Courtney says that trip to Beirut started everything. ‘There was no infrastructure at the hospital. From what we could tell, Hamas was running it from the inside. There was a single NICU bed. The conditions were really just deplorable. I met this little boy’, she holds up her phone, showing me an unfocused photo of what appears to be a very sick two-year-old boy sitting in a dirty hospital chair. ‘I heard he died shortly after. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about that room he had to die in.’

See it, fix it

She believes that capturing the realities of daily life in war-torn areas might inspire the kind of altruism that can help. And she has some reason to be hopeful. When she showed her then-six-year-old son pictures from the hospital, he asked, ‘do those kids have any toys?’ and promptly mailed a box of his own toys to the hospital. It was a small thing, she says, but it was something.

So when the opportunity presented itself to put her camera to use again for the PNN, she jumped. ‘For me, the work is about telling the stories of human suffering that we otherwise wouldn’t see. Because when we see a specific instance of human suffering, we want to fix it.’

Here are some of her favourite images that she has taken in the last few years, when she wasn’t behind her desk at the RUG.


Refugee compound

Courtney took this picture on that first fateful trip Beirut back in 2017. She and her colleague were also tasked with reporting on the condition in the Shatila refugee camp. ‘This woman was floating down the hallway like a ghost, and I just happened to catch her.’

Protest day

This image is also from 2017. ‘That is a youth from the Aida refugee camp’, Courtney recalls. ‘That was on a Friday; he was going to join in a protest. The protestors throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers – you can see the slingshot in his hand. Sometimes the soldiers shoot back with guns.’

Courtney snapped the picture from the gateway of the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem. ‘That weekend, Donald Trump was visiting Jerusalem. They rerouted at the last minute to come to Bethlehem because Melania wanted to see the manger. That whole part of the West Bank shut down.’

Isis house

This image was taken in a home formerly occupied by ISIS soldiers in the Old City in western Mosul. Courtney says these pictures show the scale of the destruction post-offensive.

‘Imagine: you want to go and rebuild your home, but you can’t even get through the mud. It’s six inches deep. Only SUVs can get through it. You’re poor; you have no vehicle. There are so many obstacles to prevent you from getting in. And if you do get in, there are live explosives everywhere. Where do you even start?’

Hurry up and get out

This is the Al Nuri mosque, viewed from the same house. ‘This mosque is significant because it’s where the caliphate was declared in 2014. This is where it all started; this is where ISIS was made official.’

‘I didn’t stop to plan this shot. I was mostly focused on getting out of that house. We had just found unexploded mortars on the roof. A mortar would not only kills us, it would take down the whole building. So this was me just trying to get the hell out of there.’

Security guards

This picture was also taken in West Mosul. ‘I wanted to go into a restricted area that was never cleaned up after the offensive. The area has a high concentration of human remains, trace amounts of uranium, undetonated explosives. It’s a dangerous place to go into’, she says. ‘I knew I was in the right place because of the smell.’

The security guards were there to keep people out. She convinced them to let her in with fifty bucks and a smile. ‘They could have reported us, but they didn’t. My fixer says I have wasta – which basically means that I’m persuasive in Arabic.’

Resilient women

But when Courtney talks about her trips to the Middle East, she doesn’t linger for long on the danger or the destruction. She speaks instead of the beauty, resilience, hospitality, and shared humanity she always finds there. This photo is from April 2019, outside the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. ‘I took that because it was beautiful’, she says, simply.

‘It’s cozy. It’s Friday prayers and these women are hanging out together in little groups everywhere, in the shadow of a mosque that has been the scene of so many raids and terrible moments. But people persevere. That’s what I see – that’s what I wanted to communicate.’



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