​How To Shoot A Documentary In A War Zone

Tim Freccia just returned from shooting Saving South Sudan, where he worked in one of the bloodiest conflicts on earth. Here's how he got the work done, even under threat of Ugandan gunships.

Tim's covered crisis and conflict around the world — Haiti, Libya, Congo, Somalia, Kashmir and more — for outlets including Vice, Al Jazeera, the BBC, Der Spiegel, TIME and many others, in both photo and video. He's been doing it since 1989 too and hasn't died yet, so we figured he must know a thing or two about working in war zones.

IW: You're sticking a camera in someone's face while they're sticking a gun in yours. How do you avoid being shot?

TF: I've been covering conflict for nearly three decades. This doesn't mean just grabbing a camera and parachuting into a war zone. I spend a lot of time getting to know my subjects. This means living with them, establishing rapport, trust, mutual camaraderie or fear, whatever. By the time a guy is sticking a gun in my face, I've likely gotten to know him pretty well and evidently know how to talk him into not waving that gun at me.

At the end of this last trip, I actually told a gun-waving kid that if he pointed it at me again, I'd beat him with it and stick it up his ass.

Conflict is dangerous. The biggest risk is being hit by something from relatively far away. A lot of younger shooters and journalists believe that their concern for the victims of conflict will somehow make them bulletproof. It may sound macho, but it's really not: after bonding with me, my subjects really don't want to fuck with me too much.

IW: What do you shoot on?

​How To Shoot A Documentary In A War Zone

TF: I shot all of Saving South Sudan on a Canon 5D Mk3 system and the interviews on an AtomOS 10bit ProRes video recorder. The Canons have full-frame sensors, produce excellent video and are a solid stills platform. I've shot stills and motion pictures together, throughout my entire career; since film. The lenses are sharp — 24mm 1.4, 16-35mm 2.8, 24-70mm 2.8 and a 70-200mm 2.8 — they're built for the environments I work in and they are affordable enough to lose to weather, dirt, destruction and/or theft.

The Ninja recorder is fantastic — it records to hard disk, so there aren't many time limits. It too is rugged and is cheap enough to replace.

I've calculated over the years that a Macbook Pro has an average lifespan of 18 months when used in these conditions. Mine got stepped on by a rebel on this trip and the screen cracked; I'm writing to you on it with that cracked screen and it's pretty much reached its 18 month limit, so I'll be replacing it soon.

I also carry a SatPhone, a Thuraya SatSleeve that lets me do all that important Facebooking and Tweeting from the bush and a satellite modem — a device that allows me to transmit video and images. Other essentials are body armor, a field trauma kit (tourniquet, quickclot, bandage, sutures etc), a couple fake Rolexes to use for bribes, a water purifier, a solid knife, a multitool, compass, instant coffee, DEET, antibiotics, painkillers and cigarettes. Robert became known as "King Rat" on this trip because he always had the last pack of smokes.

IW: How do you transport all that around a war zone while remaining mobile? What do you do about power?

TF: I've been humping a lot of gear around for a lot of years. I've always shot motion pictures and stills, beginning with film, then heavy beta-cams, always with stills cameras hanging off my neck. The newer digital systems are a godsend — I can shoot broadcast quality (cinema, even) motion pictures on the same system I shoot stills with, so that lightens the load a lot. No film to lug, much less develop or find a way to send out. I worked with the original "portable" satellite systems — two heavy briefcases with batteries, etc — all for a whopping 12kbs bandwidth. My BGAN modem now is about the size of a book.

As far as power goes, I carry as many batteries as I can and consider it a primary issue — as important as water. I go through a variety of sometimes MacGyver-ish solutions to top up the batteries. I have to find a generator or truck motor, convince the owner to let me use it, and purchase the fuel at war prices — $20-40 a gallon on this last trip.

IW: Can you insure all that equipment? And, if you do, will they actually pay out?

TF: I don't insure it because really, who'd cover it? The cost of cover would exceed my general overhead. Thankfully, the equipment is cheap enough to replace once it's reached the end of its service life. I have a great Ukranian woman in New York who does miracle repairs on my gear at a fraction of what it would cost to send back to the manufacturer.

IW: Do you go into the trips with an idea of the story you want to tell ahead of time or document what happens around you?

TF: I go after a story with as much an understanding of it as I can. Invariably, the situation changes on the ground and I do my best to document that, adding to the story or creating a new one if necessary.

The process entails a lot of research in advance, spending as much time as I can with my subjects and trying to immerse myself as completely as I can. This usually involves a lot of discomfort, illness, injury and trauma.

​How To Shoot A Documentary In A War Zone

Tim (left) with RYP.

IW: How'd you get linked up with Robert Young Pelton and what's it like working with him?

TF: I've been in contact with RYP since he was booted off a Facebook group page — The Vulture Club — dedicated to the expat journo and aid worker community. I watched an exchanged with him and the group's founder who, to be honest, had become a bit of a fascist. When Robert got banned, I thought, "Hey, this guy is the granddaddy of this stuff, a treasure trove of experience and probably the most valuable source of information for people who are heading into dangerous places." I picked a fight with the admin, got booted and, the next day, founded the New Vulture Club and pretty much the whole population, including RYP defected over. http://indefinitelywild.gizmodo.com/robert-young-p...

Robert and I struck up an online friendship and dialogue and started conspiring. We agreed we should get in on a project together and I started flogging the idea to Rocco at Vice. When South Sudan lit off in December, I started hounding Rocco and Robert got Machot in line. We knew we had something big and set off to do it. We didn't know Vice would run so big on this, and we were busy working on this as a chapter in a much bigger story. Stay tuned for that.

Travelling and working with Robert was quite easy and I enjoyed it immensely. He's an old hand and it was refreshing to spend some time in the field with someone who has a sense of humor, while still being intensely focused on the subject.

Now, there's an interesting thread lighting up on Twitter as to whether my portraits of the White Army, "somehow glamourize and legitimize their violence." My position is that portraits are simply pictures. The viewer will see what they want to see and interpret them in the way they want to.

IW: At any point, did you fear for your life?

TF: Again, I don't want to sound macho, but I haven't feared for my life in a long time. I think it may have to do with knowing the warning signs. On this trip, the only time I got a bad feeling was right after the White Army had sacked Malakal. There was the possibility of Ugandan gunships coming in and catching them all grouped together and that made me a little nervous.

IW: How'd you piss off Machot so bad?

TF: I think he was pissed to begin with. We had a daily fight, I think it had to do with his feeling uncomfortable. He really is stuck between worlds. At one point, I realized I had spent much more of my life in his native Africa than he had. He got us into a series of shitty and shittier deals and I spoke up a few times. I think he looked at me as a person to pin his frustration on. He became increasingly frustrated that I was documenting the whole thing. To be fair, he went off on Robert as much, if not more than me.

IW: What stays on the edit room floor?

TF: Mostly the stuff that Western audiences don't want to see. The real snuff stuff, the unpalatable gore. It's a strange thing to say, but there is palatable and unpalatable gore when it comes to the audience.

​How To Shoot A Documentary In A War Zone

IW: Is being there as gut wrenching as it looks?

TF: To do this work, it's necessary to separate yourself from the subject matter. It's normal human nature to cry, throw up and run away from images like this. If a photographer does that, the images won't be captured.

For me, the easiest way I can describe it is like a light switch. I turn it off, then work. At some point, that switch has to come back on in order to have a normal life and family. I feel obligated to document what I see because I'm able to.

"Life and Death," Tim's exhibition of the White Army portraits opens at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Chelsea, New York on July 10.

Photos: Tim Freccia/Vice, all rights reserved.

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