A palm tree stands ominously over a group of soldiers as they take cover against a pink wall of a rebel-held compound in the mountainous Andalusia region of southern Spain.
Shots ring out as the first soldier peeks his head around an entrance to the compound. A battle over natural resources and mineral rights has caused locals to take up small arms and fight against the Spanish government.
“Grenade!” yells the first government fighter as he pulls the pin to initiate the clearance of the compound. The rest of the three-man team is quickly through the door. The first room is soon cleared without incident.
I run behind them, trying to make a few frames before taking cover behind a pillar in the right of the room.
“Everybody good?” asks the first soldier as he prepares to enter the next room. He pulls a flashbang out, and yells just like the previous grenade. I put my head down against the pillar in front of me and take cover from the impending deafness, like I was taught earlier in the week. The team continues through the next room, quickly eliminating the rebels who fired upon them earlier.
It takes this team, along with another government unit, about twenty minutes to clear the rest of the compound. They pull the bodies of dead rebel fighters into the courtyard and collect their weapons. I, along with a group of fellow photographers, attempt to document the sheer number of rebel casualties caused in the quick and intense firefight.
However, in a few minutes those dead fighters will get up and walk out of the courtyard, unharmed.
The battle over natural resources is pure fiction. The guns fire plastic BB’s and the training grenades are virtually loud pyrotechnics; all part of an elaborate scenario for the 2015 Conflict Photography Workshop, a weeklong program that familiarizes photographers with working in hostile environments.
The workshop, in its third year, is led by photographers Jason Howe, Louie Palu, Andrew Stanbridge, and an advanced military trainer who requested to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work. Together they have a combined 40 years experience working in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
I joined the group of ten photographers who came from all across the world to learn from our instructors’ past experiences, with the goal of operating safely in hostile environments.
The workshop starts with four days of classroom training on topics including combat first aid, logistics and weapons. The last three days are spent in the field performing various rigorous scenarios that put the classroom instruction to the test. The scenarios are meant to be demanding and test the photographers both physically and mentally, getting as close to combat as you can get without being in true danger.
Completion of the course doesn’t qualify one to be a “war” photographer, but it does train essential skills that allow for safer operation in a hostile environment. This year alone, 60 journalists have been killed doing their jobs. The skills learned in this course could easily save somebody’s life in the future; home or abroad, on or off the battlefield.
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Andrew Renneisen is an American freelance documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New York, focusing on underreported social issues. Andrew’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Stern Magazine and Rolling Stone, among others.