Angst

I can, to a quite amazing degree, dream up worst case scenarios. I imagine being caught up in the cattle wars, being mistaken for being a spy and arrested, lost in the hostile deserts, caught in the crossfire of politics in this embattled country. I think about bribing soldiers with a bottle of whiskey and imagine the deterioration as they polishing it off while I’m still in custody. I ponder the possibility of being caught up in things that are, in fact, much different than they appear. It is this mentality that keeps my impulses at bay and makes me wonder if I’m different than my contemporaries.

In the fall of 2008, I was fortunate to meet and befriend Peter van Agtmael, a world-renowned war photographer. I met Pete in northern Uganda, a former war zone that, by the time we arrived, was quite and relatively stable. During our time together in Uganda, he showed me photos for an upcoming book, 2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die, which was released in fall 2009. The book showcases two years of coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan during which he embedded with US soldiers. It is tour de force of violence, angst, danger, confusion and disillusionment.

Although Pete and I have discussed his experiences at length, I still wonder if he shares some of my imaginative angst about danger. He seems to run headlong into situations of extreme risk. He explains that these wars are monumental experiences for those of our generation and that his seemingly innate fascination with war drives him into positions of great peril. While I share his sentiments, I somehow feel that I have a higher, more selfish threshold of self-preservation.

I consider this as I prepare to embark on a trip to Jonglei, southern Sudan’s most violent and underdeveloped state. In 2009, an estimated 2,500 people were killed here, most of whom died in Jonglei. The fighting, while erratic, continues in 2010. It is largely related to cattle, the currency of pastoralist tribes in the region. Cattle raiding is common among and between tribes and is often accompanied by extreme violence. The killing is unapologetic and targets men, women and children. The raids become circular, with revenge attacks ensuing months after initial bouts.

I am traveling to Jonglei with Mary Boyoi, a 28-year-old musician-turned-politician. While much of her music is political, this is her first foray into Sudanese party politics. She hails from the Murle tribe, a minority group from Jonglei state known for it’s aggressive possession and theft of cattle and, at times, people. She’s running for a parliamentary seat in upcoming April elections on behalf of the South Sudan Democratic Forum, a party outside of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. I’ve decided to join her for a week of campaigning in Jonglei.

My mind has been racing about the trip since I agreed to join her. I’ve consulted with people widely about the potential risks. I’ve done all I can to prepare myself, both mentally and logistically. From a generous friend, I borrowed a satellite phone. I’ve got food, snake bite kits, water purification tablets and escape money. I’ve run down the list of possible scenarios; arrest, harassment, ambushes, car trouble, communal violence and many, many more. I have, however, come up with a rationalization that will allow me to board the car in a few hours time.

I wonder, at times, if I’m alone in my concerns. I watch the journalists and photographers in Helmand, Anbar and elsewhere and wonder how they feel about being there. Do they worry? People talk of adrenaline junkies as though you’ll know one when you meet one. In my experiences in Gaza, Somalia and Sudan, I’ve yet to encounter someone who fits the bill.

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Pete

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by stories. Through much of my life, I satisfied this interest with the study of history. The topics of war, uprising, social movements and sexuality defined my course of historical study and generated a deep curiosity in the modern aspects of these issues. While the past enthralls me, my interest in creating modern primary documents ultimately won out. Since 2005, I have worked to document the individual consequences of war, poverty and social unrest. Through a combination of photography, text, and audio recordings, I hope to illustrate broader issues through individual stories. I aim to create images and material that demand consideration for the lives of those depicted. I believe that intimate, sensitive photographs leave indelible marks on the conscience and actively oppose the sterilization of human suffering.

4 thoughts on “Angst”

  1. Go for it, Pete, and have a great mind-bending and eye-opening (and safe) time. Can’t wait to hear about it after.

  2. Fear of danger and instinct for self-preservation are two useful tools that a photojournalist, like yourself, has on their side to help you apply the theoretical preparedness you’ve been visualizing in your head. I envy your presence in Southern Sudan during this election period. I was in the region last year at this time and was hoping to return for the elections, but alas, it will not happen. but I will be back in 2010 and certainly for the referendum. In the meantime, I will visit Southern Sudan through your blog posts and photos. So keep up the posts and feed us more photos whenever possible. Please! I am in touch with local journalists in the South and am preparing a video interview series for my blog that I invite you to visit.

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