South Sudan, being a Reuters Stringer & Zanzibar Chest
Spent the last month up in Kenya and a brief 2 week stint covering the terrible events passing in South Sudan. I’ve been back a week now in Cape Town and still haven’t blogged – I’ve been busy to the max but to be honest for many reasons, I have been putting off writing this blog.
Part of it is the obvious – that I don’t like sitting on my own in front of countless gruesome images and wanton destruction and editing for hours. But I’m used to that in a lot of ways and it’s not really that – it’s more that since going to Mogadishu in 2011, I have not ventured into a conflict zone and have blogged countless times about how news photog doesn’t work as a business model and touched upon the personal cost it has taken upon me in the past. To explain away why I have gone back to it couldn’t simply be explained away by the fact I felt I could do a decent job of it in South Sudan. A lot of what I would say would be personal and uncomfortable for me to say on a blog too.
But I decided to just sit down and free-write and see what came out. I have been re-reading parts of Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley recently – a book which had a huge influence on the type of photography I wanted to do and the area of the world I wanted to do it in when I first started out over a decade ago (even though I ended up doing more commercial work when I finally got to Nairobi). The book covers a lot what transpired with the EA Reuters news-desk in Nairobi in the 90’s. I read it too cos while in South Sudan with Reuters I met the son of one of the great Reuters photogs mentioned extensively in the book who died on 12th July 1993 during a botched UN attempt to capture or kill General Aidid and which was a forerunner to the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident later that year in Mogadishu. I had one of the best convos with him that I’ve had with a fellow journo one alcohol-fuelled night of typical journo mayhem at the Logali House (where most journos stay in Juba). I’ll come back to that all later.
Firstly, I went up to Kenya to try and begin to re-connnect with some of my old commercial contacts I have there. I had worked extensively with ad agencies and large companies directly on ad campaigns in Nairobi in the past (at 1 point around 2006/7 1 in 3 billboards in Nairobi were mine) and have been considering going back there and spending large parts of the year in Nai to also pursue such work. I think the potential is def there to start up again – I even managed to meet up with a large company I loved working with back in the day and am busy with a creative brief for them for a large new ad campaign covering all of East Africa that may take me back to Nai within weeks. One can but try & hope.
But my main reason for going back was to go into South Sudan and cover the terrible civil war that has broken out there. I went with Polaris Images but also hooked up again with the Reuters photo desk once in Nairobi with whom I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of years since trying to cover Mogadishu.
I went cos I believed I had good potential contacts there to be able to do a good story – albeit many I hadn’t spoken to in years. Not only the NGO’s and UN contacts – but a few high level SPLA and rebel contacts, including Riek Machar himself (one day I might write about the crazy and surreal dinner at the Bhandini at the InterCon in Nai I had with him circa 2006, a contact and a man who simply and ominously introduced himself as a ‘Consultant from Virginia’).
But the reality once in South Sudan was that on the ground – access was hard and limited. Getting an exclusive with the rebels for example could only be done from Nairobi (smthg which Goran Tomasevic – Chief Photographer in Nairobi impressively managed to get the exclusive for Reuters).
I was expecting this before going though. All the media coverage coming out of South Sudan up to mid-Jan had been scant and well away from any frontline fighting (expect for the BBC’s Alastair Leithead’s excellent reporting of the SPLA being ambushed on approach to try and re-capture rebel-held Bor). It meant that either there were tight restrictions on the media or getting to the right place was hard… it turned out both were true. I have blogged many times how such conflict photog in Africa is being killed by tight access restrictions more akin to a major event such as the World Cup or a Justin Bieber concert than a war zone. It is also our fault as journos in that we act too much in unison as a press pack – to easily herded around by those who mean to control the access we get.
With my failure to get to an active frontline in Mogadishu suddenly fresh in my mind, unable to negotiate the Kafkaesque web of clearances required there, I was determined not to be undone again. I decided it would be best to stay in a hotel close to the pilots who made the dangerous trips to all the places us journos were desperate to get to rather than with the press pack at Logali House and try and get access – as well as any info from them on conditions on the ground – that way (alcohol-fuelled nights with them were fun too must say). I managed to get clearance with the SPLA to stay with the army at their barracks and was able to embed for 3 days and nights in Bor under General Malwal’s Command – also second in charge in the SPLA – and was granted access to the frontline at Mathiang and witness some of the fighting – albeit remote – via BM and Cartouche rockets – first hand. I never got to see the offensives the rebels were undertaking against SPLA positions as they were all at night or ealy dawn (and are therefore harder to confirm – although the countless bodies of rebel soldiers strewn in no mans land the following days was strong evidence of it). This all after the ceasefire between the 2 sides had been signed of course.
Being embedded for 3 days, took a lot out of me personally – the SPLA soldiers – many of whom were from Bor itself and fighting to liberate their home town and villages rather than for any higher purpose – gave me a tour of their now destroyed town – where the slaughtered and decomposing bodies of civilians – and especially of women and children – many of whom had been killed when the rebels re-took the town for around 2 weeks in early Jan – still lay uncollected. The soldiers showed no emotion but many of the younger ones especially, drank heavily at night I’m sure to rid themselves of the horrors of what they had seen by day. General Malwal himself, while always having a calm, approachable yet slightly menacing air about him also seemed tormented – he himself is from Bor. One night one of his female relatives asked to go through my pics on my laptop. It was only when she got to a picture of a covered decomposing body that I realised that she was looking to see if she could determine whether her own mother had been killed in the clashes. She was only able to recognise that it was her by the blue sandals lying next to the body.
Upon returning to Juba, I made a half-hearted attempt to get up to Bentiu – a town that apparently had been all but wiped off the map during the civil war and where there were rumours that further fighting was taking or about to take place. But by the last few days, my heart wasn’t in it – it sounds lazy – but to be honest – when I do this kind of photography I have to be fully committed or else it actually starts to become dangerous. A fellow journo and I tried to hitch a plane ride up to Bentiu – and we found one for the following day – but on the runway at the airport the Commander there threatened to arrest us for security breach (we were running around a damn runway trying to hitch rides as if the planes were cars so kind of understandable!)– that was it for me. I hadn’t been sure about going but this was a final straw of sorts – luck was def waning! I had had a relatively successful trip – I had done a large feature on IDP’s (Internally Displaced Person) at the UNMISS airport base for Polaris Images. Doing a portrait series using a simple studio light and softbox (similar to what I had undertaken in Mogadishu) but this time asking each IDP to bring their most cherished possession with which they fled their homes with. And I had gotten an exclusive of sorts from the frontline pics (and footage) for Reuters at Mathiang.
I jumped on the first plane and headed back to Nai and that was my 2 weeks in South Sudan.
Was it worth it? Financially of course not – SS is damn expensive (given everything is in short supply) and stringer fees barely covered what I spent – so why do it?
I could give the classic professional answer that I did it cos it is a great way to get your name out there. But I’d be lying though. I hardly – and have not since – looked at where my pics might have been published. And seeing as I’m trying to slowly (but hopefully surely!) move into book, gallery and other such more long-term photography projects, it doesn’t do too much career-wise in that respect esp anymore (try showing this type of work at Fotofest portfolio reviews at Lens Culture in Paris or Palm Springs at the PDN Annual and see where you get!).
I do this type of photography because it is what I got into photography in the first place to do. To work in East Africa for news wires – and – because of one book – Reuters in particular.
In re-reading the book, I laughed when Aidan Hartley recounted how the agency needed to find another stringer for Mogadishu quickly at the time:
What was needed ideally ‘…was a hungry Caucasian freelancer who aspired to nothing in the world so much as to cover bang-bang stories like Mogadishu without expecting to get paid anything more than pocket money for it.’
Yep – that sounds like what I was doing.. It all seems a bit naive, to risk quite a bit at times for so little.
In talking to the son of one of the Reuters photogs who died in Moggie, he went into the agency to see for himself what it is all about and what his dad had worked and died for. He recounted the day – when at 9 years of age – he learnt of his father’s death and after all this time – you could see it was still raw for him in a lot of ways.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like. And to think now, when you can see the general state of news and media as a whole – ever in a declining cycle – and when so many people seem to have switched off long ago from this type of reporting and work – the same question comes round again –
Is it worth it?
I don’t know – I can only answer the question for myself and I have come to realise in recent times – after so many years of doubt – that the answer is still yes.
I gave up long ago caring whether other people were interested or not. The region is one that I call home more than any other on earth and have always personally followed the terrible conflicts and wars that plague it with extra depth and interest. It is what fundamentally drove me to go back to South Sudan to be honest. That and the notion that I could make a decent job of it.
Just as a quick footnote – on a personal level, it is not just that my son (and for that matter my ex-wife with whom I remain v.close) that is Kenyan. My dad was born in Gedaref and grew up in Khartoum. And my grandmother is from Gondar in Northern Ethiopia. I’ll never forget when I did my long drive from UK to Kenya when I first came to the Continent I passed through Khartoum. A man grabbed me on the street and said ‘you must be Philipas’s son’. He had never met me – and had last seen my father decades before – but he knew exactly who I was. It turned out to be an old school friend of my dad’s and the owner of the famous Acropole Hotel there (where most journos like to stay and frequent). I was shown some great hospitality for some long dead friendship… I know there is always a friend not far away even in the most hostile places in the region and because of that have less fear than I should were I to be in a place I considered completely foreign doing this type of work.
I remember around 2004, a photographer with close links to Panos Pictures told me there was an opening to go to Iraq and cover the war there and that he had mentioned me and I should go for it. It took me 5 seconds to say no. It was considered a strange decision by my peers back then. But for me, it was always East Africa I wanted to be based in.
While I hope that my other types of photography and soon filming will dominate my work. I will always see it as a badge of honour – some would say misplaced and naive – to do this type of work. But the pics I bring back – however hard some are – and while most people these days look or simply walk away (esp here in news-averse Cape Town!) – they always fill me with a sense of smthg achieved. You don’t need re-numeration or people’s appraisal for that. Though of course would be nice to be paid more in general for it…never know – might take it up full time if it was!