Journalist and filmmaker Robert Young Pelton just visited the growing conflict in South Sudan, creating an entire Vice issue in the process. Here's how he came back alive.
58-year old Pelton is a former ad executive turned war correspondent who's made a career out of visiting the front lines of conflicts. Back then, he collaborated with Steve Jobs to promote the launch of the original Macintosh, but now he's been kidnapped by the United Self Defense Force of Colombia, survived an assassination attempt by Islamic terrorists in Uganda and rescued American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh from Afghanistan's Northern Alliance.
For his latest project, he traveled to South Sudan with a former Lost Boy, coming back with a story so good, Vice Magazine decided to devote an entire issue to it; the first time a single issue of the magazine has been devoted to a single topic and written by a single person. We talked to him about surviving and working in remote war zones.
A typical day in the office for RYP.
IW: You're flying to Africa to sleep in the bush amidst a tribal war. What do you wear?
RYP: The same thing I always wear. Black cotton golf shirt, heavy cotton pants, wool socks and Viborg Boots. For bathing, the chiseled locals just better get used to seeing my junk and my flabby ass. I strip down to my boxers and keep one pair dry and one pair wet.
IW: Other than getting shot, what are the biggest dangers you face?
RYP: Statistically, getting shot in an African bush war is not that much of a danger, even during pitched assaults. Car crashes, shrapnel, getting sick, kidnapped or just being waylaid by desperate fighters are all much higher risk. It's not like other wars, where snipers and artillery do the most damage.
IW: Drinking out of those rivers looks like a spectacularly bad idea. How do you ensure clean water?
RYP: I use an old South African mercenary canteen with a built-in silver iodide ceramic filter. And, I have a good internal medicine doctor.
IW: You're covering a war that's remote, with little access to electricity and the Internet. What computers, cameras and other gadgets do you take with you and how do you keep them running?
RYP: I take notes and write my stories on a iPad Mini. If and when I get Internet, it sends my notes to my server. I used to use a Blackberry because of its ability to swap out batteries. Now, I have to bring an Apple charger, but I like the iPad Mini because I can type with both thumbs and take photos. It would be nice if someone were to make a decent damn personal keyboard like the old Psion, complete with a sat burst upload for text files. I could also use a little sat texter that doubles as a GPS with topo maps.
"Dinner in Africa is typically free." — RYP
IW: What's your favorite bushmeat recipe?
RYP: Salt, Crystal hot sauce and a good charcoal fire. Make sure you grab a haunch before you get stuck with the leftovers.
IW: Bullets are flying on screen. How do you avoid getting shot?
RYP: Bullets don't bother me. SCUDs and fuel/air bombs do. You learn to work under fire; you are gonna die at some point.
IW: You're almost 60 years old. How do you stay comfortable sleeping in these shitty places?
RYP: Thankfully, I have the mind of a 10 year old and the body of a 19 year old; I sleep like a baby and can go days without food or sleep. I wake up at 4:30am and go to bed at 10pm. My grandmother is 100 years old and still going, I guess I'm just blessed with good genes.
When you are young, you don't know enough to really get your head around the history and complexities. When you're my age, you can actually explain the history of the country to the locals. I was in South Sudan with the rebels in 1996 and they found my sense of déjà vu and global perspective fascinating. Most of my conversations are two way, not just a list of questions I want a rebel leader to answer. Often, they learn from me and we become friends.
Production vehicle, South Sudan style.
IW: How you keep your expensive cameras and other equipment safe from theft and damage?
RYP: You don't. They turn to very expensive crap in the dirt, mud and shit. As for theft, I have a very strange habit of spreading my stuff around. It's so easy to steal that I am sure most thieves believe it's a trap. I'm not a fan of electronic equipment in the bush, but that's the way it is these days. You carry a lot of gear not related to story telling. Long gone are the days of my Leica and a dozen rolls of film.
IW: Shit goes wrong, you're separated from your group, lose contact with the outside world and you're in a war zone. What's your back up plan?
RYP: When does shit go right on my travels? That actually sounds like a normal outing for me. Chaos, Plan B is the norm. I enjoy it.
Leader of the prophetic White Army, Gathoth Gatkuoth.
IW: Fixed blade, folder, Swiss Army Knife or multitool?
RYP: I carry four DPx HEST Originals to give as gifts and two DPx Gear HEST folders and DangerTags to use. Sometimes, a small scissor multitool. Honestly, I've given all my stuff away on each trip. On this recent trip, rebel leader Riek Machar became the proud owner of a new HEST folder.
I don't carry cash, because it makes things very expensive. A simple boat ride can cost $1,200 if you offer cash. Instead, the locals all want smart phones now. They may not have to wait for days to get on the Internet, but when they do, they'll spend hours just sitting on Facebook.
IW: How do you justify creating art during a war?
RYP: My goal is never to simply cover a war, but to engage people to think about conflict. I stay away from good guy/bad guy scenarios or moral discussions. The human condition includes war, savagery, looting rape and violence. The more we understand that is inside all of us, the better we can control that very human condition.
Photos: ©2014 Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia, all rights reserved.
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