Tim Freccia Discusses Life in Conflict Zones: VICE Podcast 008

Tim Freccia Discusses Life in Conflict Zones: VICE Podcast 008

Reihan Salam. And this is the “Vice”
podcast. I’m joined today by Tim
Freccia, a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and
visual artist, who is currently working on a project
for “Vice” on young American expatriates in Africa. Tim, thanks very much
for joining me. TIM FRECCIA: Thanks
for having me. REIHAN SALAM: Tim, tell me about
the first time you ever held a camera. TIM FRECCIA: I guess I was
probably about six. I bought a camera with my pocket
money at a garage sale in Seattle. REIHAN SALAM: Now,
did you have any experience of cameras? Did you know this was something
you wanted to grab, that you wanted to
touch and use? TIM FRECCIA: I was somewhat
of a gear queer as a kid. I liked stuff. And I saw it at a garage sale
and wanted it and bought it. TIM FRECCIA: So just gadgets
and objects, you’d pull them apart. You’d try to figure
out how they work? TIM FRECCIA: Yes. REIHAN SALAM: Did that have
something to do with the family you grew up in? Was it a family of tinkerers,
people who wanted to get to the guts of things? TIM FRECCIA: Not really. My father was a bit
of a tinkerer, handyman, carpenter, hobbyist. But no, I think I was
probably unique. REIHAN SALAM: And you were
growing up in West Seattle, is that right? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah. REIHAN SALAM: So with the
camera, you got it when you were six. And how did you start using
it, those first few days, first few weeks? TIM FRECCIA: I guess I
ran film through it. That’s a long time ago. I don’t have that great
of a memory. But no, I didn’t come out as
a photographer at six. I wasn’t really a prodigy. REIHAN SALAM: So you
just used it. You just played with it. And then you left it behind. But you came back to it
at some later point. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, I wasn’t
really compelled to make pictures until I was
in my early 20s. REIHAN SALAM: So between then,
was there an interest, a larger interest,
in visual art? TIM FRECCIA: I grew up with a
big visual art influence. My father was a visualize
artist. He was a designer. And I had a lot of exposure
to visual art. So I guess I was sort
of steeped in it. And actually, my father had a
darkroom in the basement when I was a kid. So yeah, photography was
part of my growing up. I imagine he had a big
influence on me. REIHAN SALAM: You mentioned
this love of gadgets, as a kid. Did that stay with you? Or was that a passing phase? TIM FRECCIA: No, it’s
still with me. I love gear. I can tell you how I ended
up in photography. It really was kind of a fluke. I’d worked as a commercial
fisherman in Alaska for some years. REIHAN SALAM: When
did you start? TIM FRECCIA: Where or when? REIHAN SALAM: When,
how old were you? TIM FRECCIA: I was about 16. REIHAN SALAM: So your parents
weren’t thrilled, I assume, with the fact that you decided
to leave your studies behind. TIM FRECCIA: They weren’t
thrilled. But they were actually fairly
supportive, in a non-supportive way. They encouraged me to seek
my fortune and do what I wanted to do. So I didn’t really get a whole
lot of trouble out of them when I decided to go fishing. REIHAN SALAM: And did you leave
high school to do it? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, I think
I have an eighth grade education, if that. I slid the last few years
on English teachers. REIHAN SALAM: So what was going
on between 14 and 15? You were still around Seattle,
not yet ready to go to Alaska. But you were just making
your way in the world? TIM FRECCIA: Hanging around punk
rock shows, that was punk rock time and pre-grunge. REIHAN SALAM: I just wonder
what a typical day would be like. Because you can hang around at a
punk rock show at night, but then, I guess you sleep
during the day. TIM FRECCIA: Sleep during the
day or hang out at the Pike Place Market– the Pike Place Market was really
rough and dirty then. It was great. There were buskers. REIHAN SALAM: Would you play? Or would you just kind
of hang around? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, I grew up
with a whole generation of wankers that became rock
stars, you know. So all of my high school
buddies are rich rock stars now. REIHAN SALAM: So you know, it’s
interesting because you have all that unstructured
time. So I guess it kind of left you
thinking about, what are other possibilities. And then, being a commercial
fisherman just popped into your head. TIM FRECCIA: Well, no. And that was actually an
interesting time in Seattle, sort of pre-grunge,
before Microsoft. There was a big coffee culture,
coffeehouse culture. So everybody was being kind
of Bohemian in a way. So there was a lot of
goofy art going on. And then, as far as how I ended
up fishing, it was kind of a no-brainer. At that time, there was sort
of a gold rush in Alaska. The North Atlantic had been
fished out completely, of white fish and the
cod, pollock. And it was uncontrolled in
Alaska at that time. So everybody was rushing to
Alaska, huge amounts of money and adventure. And I grew up on the water and
cut grade school to sail. So I’m very comfortable
in boats. And it was big fun. REIHAN SALAM: So you arrive. You decide I’m going
to make my fortune. There are people who are eager
for hands, eager for labor. I’ll go here. Did it meet your expectations? Or did you think, good God, what
on Earth am I doing here? TIM FRECCIA: No, I loved it. I did. I think, my first trip, I was
flown out in a bush plane that was sort of duct-taped together,
a sea plane. We landed on the water in big
chop and got in a tender and went out to the boat. And I loved it. REIHAN SALAM: Did it
feel solitary? Or was there a lot
of camaraderie with the other fishermen? What was the texture? TIM FRECCIA: Pretty
good camaraderie. It was just hard work and long,
exhausting, extreme. You do 90 days out and fill the
hull and then transfer to bigger ships. REIHAN SALAM: So 90
days on the boat. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, operating
out of Dutch Harbor in the North Bering Sea. So we’d come back into Dutch
Harbor sometimes maybe after a month, spend two days, three
days drinking and fueling and that kind of thing, and
then go back out. For some reason, endurance has
been a big theme in my life. I’ve endured a lot. REIHAN SALAM: And you seem
to take pleasure in it. TIM FRECCIA: I don’t
think I do. I’ve been told this before,
that I must have some sick fascination or sick love
for suffering. But I don’t think I do. It’s just something
that I have. It’s like a skill set
that I’ve developed from an early age. REIHAN SALAM: I think you
clearly have more tolerance for it than other people. And so you may as well do the
things that rely on it. TIM FRECCIA: Exactly, I mean,
that’s how I made my living. It’s just enduring kind of
horrific conditions and then coming back with
something good. REIHAN SALAM: So you’re
on this fishing vessel for 90 days. You’re up in this
landscape that– you had been camping
and what have you. But it’s obviously quite
different from gritty, 1970s Seattle, in a lot of ways. So is that something that
activated your visual sense, the quality of light, being in
these particular landscapes? Is that part of what– TIM FRECCIA: Probably, I mean,
I grew up in a really beautiful place with
beautiful light. Seattle is famous for rain
and that kind of thing. But I grew up on a beach,
watching the sunset across the water, with a whole alpine
mountain range silhouetted in front of me. The way that Washington state is
formed, there’s a peninsula and big mountains. So it was spectacular. It was epic. REIHAN SALAM: Did you
appreciate it? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah,
I really did. And I spent a lot of time
on the water as a kid. And so I think that had– yeah, I’ve always had a visual
sense, a fairly developed visual sense. And I think my father helped
develop that or helped encourage that in a
very organic way. It wasn’t like he sat me down
and told me that you’ve got to see things this way
or anything. But I was exposed to a lot
of visual art and music. REIHAN SALAM: So what was the
moment when a camera came back into your life? TIM FRECCIA: After fishing for
five years and losing a few friends along the way– it was
a very dangerous business– my younger brother went
up for his first trip. And his boat was out for a
couple of weeks or something. And I was on a watch on the
boat I was working on one night, talking on the radio. And somebody told me that
his boat had gone down. And at that time, I
mean there were– REIHAN SALAM: How old
was your brother? TIM FRECCIA: He was probably
18, I guess. At that time, there were a few
hundred boats and their crews would go down a year. And it was very unlikely that
the crew would be rescued, sort of to be assumed that
the crew would die. And so it took a few days to
find out if he was alive. And he was lucky. He and the rest of his crew
got into survival suits. And another boat was close
enough to be able to pick them up. And so that was kind of a little
bit of a wake up call. Then I got back from that trip
and was riding my motorcycle, got hit, and missed
that rotation. REIHAN SALAM: You were riding
back from Alaska to– TIM FRECCIA: No, I was just
in Seattle, riding my bike around town. And right before I was
ready to go back up again, I got hit. And that put me out of action
for six weeks or something. REIHAN SALAM: So you were
about 21 at this point. TIM FRECCIA: I was 20, 21,
something like that. And at that time, my father was
teaching at an art college in Seattle. And he suggested that I look
into something a little more sustainable. So I went down to the school
to check it out. And they said, what do
you want to study? And I said, I don’t know. What have you got? And we sort of toured around. And I liked the photography
department and the darkroom and chemicals. REIHAN SALAM: You’d grown
up around it too. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, and I said,
that looks like fun. And so I did it. And I was working as a
photographer within a week. I just went nuts on it
and sort of nonstop. REIHAN SALAM: How did
that come together? How did you find a
gig, when you– TIM FRECCIA: I just
started shooting. I did really well in school. So they would push
stuff towards me. I started working as a
fashion photographer. I started shooting video before
I got out of school. So by the time I had finished
school, I was working. Right after school, I went
straight back to Alaska and opened a commercial studio there
and started shooting for the pipeline company. This was right after the
Exxon Valdez oil spill. So it’s sort of like working
for the enemy. But their attitude was, money
is no object, just make us look good. And that was probably where I
stepped– actually, while I was in school, I was interested in covering conflict. And almost quit school
to go to– I can’t remember what was on
then, something in Central or South America. So I already started leaning
towards that. And going up to Alaska
was great fun. And it was exciting. I spent a year up there. And it was exciting, because it
helped develop some of my attitude towards photography. Because I had an unlimited
budget to do whatever I want, say if I want helicopters. REIHAN SALAM: And what were
you photographing? TIM FRECCIA: As long as it
made the oil company look good, so if I can get a caribou
silhouetted against the pipeline at sunset or
sea otters frolicking in front of a tanker– but it was a lot of fun, in
Alaska then and I think still. I had a huge project where I had
proposed that I drive the length the pipeline. So we flew up to Barrow, which
is like the top of the world, and kitted out a Suburban with
a bunch of 16 millimeter film and medium-format film and video
and drove the length of the pipeline and shot. REIHAN SALAM: One thing I find
interesting about this– and tell me if I’m wrong– it’s
that, when photographing a pipeline in these particular
landscapes, that are, in a way, desolate of a
human presence. Whereas, if you’re in a conflict
zone, part of it is the chaos of bodies
and other people. So I wonder. You say you were already
drawn to that. But what was the first thing
that took you out of that Alaskan landscape to
a conflict zone? TIM FRECCIA: It was chance. After that year in Alaska, I
ended up back in Seattle with my fiancee at the time. And she was from Kentucky. And she wanted to return
to Kentucky to finish university there. So I did that. And from there, I was invited
to Senegal, which is in a conflict zone. But from Senegal, I ventured
into Niger, Mali. And there was the beginning of
the Tuareg Uprising, which has sort of culminated in what’s
going on now in Northern Mali, which is complicated. It’s more than just jihadis. But that was my first
exposure to that. REIHAN SALAM: When you were
invited to Senegal, was it under the auspices of
some institution? TIM FRECCIA: It was the
government, the prime minister at the time– REIHAN SALAM: Had seen your work
photographing sea otters? TIM FRECCIA: No, not really. Actually, it was through a
friend, a friend who was a “LIFE” magazine photographer
in the Sahara. He made a career of it. And he was from Kentucky. And he was the cousin
of another friend. And we met somehow. REIHAN SALAM: That
Kentucky-Senegal connection is strong. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah. And he had and still has great
connections all over Africa. And even to this day, he
provides me with some of these connections. So at that time, I
was very young. But there was a conference put
on by the ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West
African States. And the theme was using the
media as an integration tool. So he was invited. REIHAN SALAM: Integration
meaning, integration of the society. TIM FRECCIA: Of the West
African states– how to use media, and at that
time, I was somewhat of an expert on low-power TV. I don’t know why I was. But I was, and how to set up a
broadcast unit in the bush for $5,000 or something. REIHAN SALAM: Is that
something you had done while in Alaska? TIM FRECCIA: No. I guess I should back up. Before West Africa, I was in
Haiti, for the rise and fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And that was my first exposure
to conflict. Yeah, it’s true. I was kind of old hand
with him in Africa. So I was invited to Senegal to
consult on this conference. And then, from there,
I traveled further east into the Sahara. And that was where I
sort of began this love affair with Africa. REIHAN SALAM: Tell me, when you
were in Haiti, I wonder about the other foreigners who
make a life there, who make their way there. Did you have any impressions
of them? Did you feel a kinship
with them? Or did you feel as though– I imagine many different things
will draw you to a place like that and a
climate like that. TIM FRECCIA: What’s interesting
about Haiti is that, at that time, there were
very few foreigners in Haiti. There was no foreign
aid really. I went down there and made
a film for USAID, on an agriculture school that they
had out in the southwest. And that was the only thing. And what is sort of striking to
me is, after that period, I really hadn’t been to Haiti. Or I hadn’t been to Haiti
at all, until the earthquake in 2010. And not only was I shocked by
the devastation, but I was shocked by the amount of white
people and the number of white people that were there. So my first time in Haiti over
a few years, ’89 to ’91, or something around there,
there were very few expatriates there. REIHAN SALAM: So Haiti is
obviously a striking contrast from where you had been before,
yet you embraced it. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, I loved it. When I arrived in Haiti, I
still remember the smell. I was enchanted by the smell. It was the smell of burning
bananas and shit. And I liked the heat and the
intensity of the Haitian people, which, I think,
would come back a lot later over my career. There’s something about
the Haitians. During that time, their first
democratically elected president came to power
in this landslide. And I remember watching a crowd
partying, celebrating over Aristide’s election. And then, a soldier
walked through. And they set him on fire,
just like that. So that was my first
exposure to that kind of human condition. REIHAN SALAM: Just
a lone soldier, walking through this– TIM FRECCIA: A crowd of
people celebrating– but there was something in that
moment or in that time in Haiti that really– REIHAN SALAM: Did they
turn on a dime? Did you sense a change of mood, right before it happened? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah. No, I didn’t. And I’ve experienced this in
other places since and maybe have a little bit more of an
idea of when that happens. But that fascinated me. And it still does, where humans
kind of hit what I call red line and can do anything. It’s sort of at the peak
of human existence. And so that concept
fascinated me. And Haiti was full of it. So I made multiple trips to
Haiti over the years. REIHAN SALAM: So just the idea
that this was a place that was on the knife edge of this kind
of chaos, a place that felt incredibly warm and convivial
and positive, but then, suddenly, always lurking beneath
the surface was this potential for violence. And you found that– is exciting the right word? TIM FRECCIA: I guess, compelling
or intriguing or– I mean, it’s something that
I’ve always been drawn to. REIHAN SALAM: Is that something
you had registered earlier in life? I mean, do you feel as though
you had grown up around, generally, pretty genteel,
placid people? Or was that something you sought
out, like in the punk era, just the idea of abandon
and the idea of that kind of a turn or change? TIM FRECCIA: Maybe. I definitely grew up in a
pretty quiet household. There was nothing intense
going on there. And it was pretty genteel. So I think yeah. In the punk scene and later
fishing, I was sort of looking for some kind of– I don’t want to say I’ve been
looking for violence, because it’s not something
I go looking for. But it’s something I’m somewhat
fascinated by. REIHAN SALAM: But it’s also
the extremes of human experience. Is that maybe what one
would think about? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah. And I don’t know. I don’t think there was any
particular experience in my childhood or something. It’s just some part
of my makeup. REIHAN SALAM: You describe
yourself as a documentary photographer. And I wonder when you had been
in Haiti and later when you were in West Africa that first
time, was part of the mission this idea of wanting other
people to see what was happening in these places
and the texture of life in these places? Or was that secondary? It was fundamentally about your
curiosity and that you do whatever you have to, to
make it viable, to make a living from it? TIM FRECCIA: I think, to be
honest, in the beginning, it was more about my own experience
in pursuing this human condition. Or I wanted to see more of the
world and see more people. REIHAN SALAM: Satisfying
your curiosity. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah. And I think, at some point,
I realized I could make a living at it. And so it became a little bit
more focused professionally. But I would never call myself a
photojournalist, because I’m not really. I’ve worked for all the
major print outlets at sometime or another. But my own personal
mission is to document the human condition. And like we were talking about
earlier, I think there’s something in my own experience
over the years, of being able to endure a lot of just
general discomfort. That is a specific skill set
that, along with the ability to make good pictures
and moving pictures, that has kept me alive. REIHAN SALAM: One thing I wonder
about is, in these environments– and you mentioned having been
in Haiti at an early enough time that you didn’t have swarms
of expatriates running around everywhere. This was something that was
very built-in at present. So you must have been extremely visible in these setting. Yet, you’re also working
to document something. And I wonder how you
feel about that. I mean, registering– do you feel as though your
presence changed the mood? Or how is it that you kind of
try to avoid that and how to blend in and be invisible? TIM FRECCIA: I’ve watched the
whole world change in the last couple of decades, as
far as expatriates. So in places like Haiti and in
Africa, there really weren’t any white people. The only Western people you run
across were missionaries, who were few and far between. And this has all changed a lot
in the last couple of decades. And especially in the last
decade, there’s been an explosion of expatriates. And so in the past and still,
the way I’ve worked is a lot more slowly than people in the
same business, who are selling to the same outlets, work now. People parachute in, straight
into a situation, shoot for a couple of days, and
then book out. And also, I started
before digital. So film was an entirely
different process. REIHAN SALAM: Incredibly
painstaking– TIM FRECCIA: Yes. It’s just a lot slower. So everything was
a lot slower. I would go spend weeks getting
into a place, spend a month there, weeks getting out. If I shot something that was
kind of breaking news, I’d develop the film in the bathroom
or something and put it in a bag and send it out
and not see it for months. And with digital, now, I’m
shooting video of a battle one day and filing it that evening
over satellite. So not only has the business
changed, but also– to get back to what
you were asking– there’s a lot more
people around. And that’s changed my experience
drastically. I used to be the only guy. I’d stick out. But also, that would force me
into a position where I had to really connect with people and
establish trust and a rapport and that kind of thing. Now, people in conflict
and crisis are accustomed to the press. REIHAN SALAM: There’s
a narrative. There’s a script, that
such people show up in a time like this. Whereas, there hadn’t been
in the same way before. TIM FRECCIA: To sort of make the
point, I was in Goma, in Eastern Congo in November,
for the second time, on my birthday. Four years later it just
happened to be my birthday. And there was the same rebel
group under a different name who’d laid siege to the city. And I was photographing the
civilian population as they were fleeing. And I saw a woman run by me,
that I had photographed four years to the day before. She saw me. I saw her. That was kind of a big moment
for me, to realize that I’d come full circle. REIHAN SALAM: I wonder,
is there a sense of survivor’s guilt? Or is there a sense that
I’m an observer, and this is my work? I wonder. Obviously, this is someone you,
I assume, saw in passing. But what is your sense as you
shuttle back and forth? You’re in a place like this. You are present. And I imagine your work demands
that you look very closely at the scenes unfolding
before you. And then you leave. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah. I’ve been asked this
question before. And the answer I gave one time
was, there’s a switch. I have to switch off normal
human reaction to stuff that you would normally throw up or
cry or run away or whatever. You just, it’s like
a light switch. You just turn it off and work. Because you can’t work if
you’re throwing up. REIHAN SALAM: Is that a
manifestation of that capacity for endurance you described
before? TIM FRECCIA: Yes, but
also along with that comes this sort of– yeah, there’s a survivor’s
guilt, for sure. And I struggled with that
for a few years. I think I’ve got a
handle on it now. But there’s all kinds
of survivor’s guilt. My colleagues have
been killed. I’ve watched people die. So there definitely is a certain
amount of guilt there. But that’s got to be processed
in some way. And I’ve spent the last
year or so, two, kind of processing that. So to kind of bring this
together, it’s gone from me as a young man seeking experience
and seeking to connect with people to more of a– I feel a sense of responsibility
to document so that the world can see
what’s going on. REIHAN SALAM: I wonder about
continuities and discontinuities. So some of what you’re talking
about, when you discussed Haiti earlier on, you were
talking about these breaks in the mood, in the scene, and just
kind of how things turn from one thing to another. And you’ve also been, throughout
your career, in very different landscapes and
very different places. And I wonder if, over time,
you’ve come to see more continuities. That is, are there ways in which
you see some of what you’ve seen in Haiti and Congo
in other landscapes? Like, when you navigate New
York, do you think this is just one kind of landscape. It’s entirely different. And then, this is
a conflict zone. Or when you see any chaos and
anger, in a flash, someone yelling at someone on the
street, and I just wonder about that. Do you see there’s this
shared human type? And sometimes things
turn to violence. Sometimes they don’t. And it’s always present. Or do you think of it more
as a radical break? Once I get off the plane at
JFK, this is a safe zone. It’s totally different. It’s totally foreign from the
things I see and experience in other places. TIM FRECCIA: I think
there are common threads throughout humanity. People have the capability
to become violent or evil in some way. But there is a big difference. I mean, I don’t feel– I’m not worried about somebody
jumping out of a dumpster with an RPG here. REIHAN SALAM: Perhaps,
you should be. TIM FRECCIA: It’s possible. But no, there’s a
big disconnect. There’s also a culture shock. There’s everything shock,
existence shock, just like having running water and
electricity and food that’s safe to eat, that
kind of thing. That’s a big shock. REIHAN SALAM: You’ve been
living overseas for the last 25 years. TIM FRECCIA: More
or less, yeah. REIHAN SALAM: Where have you
been primarily based? Has it mainly been in Africa? TIM FRECCIA: No, not really. I was based in Germany
for about 10 years. But I spent most of
my time in Africa. I’ve spent the bulk of time,
I would say, in Africa, in places where there’s no water. There’s no food. There’s no electricity. There’s no roads. So I’m still in a
little bit of– I’ve been here for a couple of
months and based here for a couple of months now, which
is exciting for me. Because it’s great to have
all these things, water, electricity, internet,
food, TV. I’ve made more way more TV than
I’ve watched in my life. And it’s really mind blowing
to watch TV. REIHAN SALAM: What do you
find yourself watching? TIM FRECCIA: I’ve
been watching– I don’t know if we can just
go right for a brand here. But I’ve just about watched all
of “Breaking Bad,” love it, but also a bunch of crap. It is surreal to me. REIHAN SALAM: It’s kind of like
binging to some degree. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah. REIHAN SALAM: So right now,
you’re working on a project in which you’re tracing young
Americans who are living and working in Africa. And I wonder, having made these
leaps yourself, having gone to the Alaskan
wilderness at 16– but of course, these are kids
in a different generation– what are the things
you see in them? Are there shared qualities? Do you recognize some
of yourself in them? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, I think there
is this great American– part of the American DNA is to
solve problems, can-do, fix-it kind of stuff. And the whole concept
of frontier. So when I was at that age,
Alaska was the last frontier. It still is, in a way. But it’s not in the same
way that it was when I was that age. So the general concept with the
show that I’m working on now is you have young
frontiersmen, in a sketchy economy. And they have an opportunity to
overcome the obstacles and put up with the discomfort of
operating in some of these wild environments
and get rich. So there’s something really
American about that. It didn’t seem that way that
at first, I think. You wouldn’t think of Africa
as the last frontier. But there is something like that
going on in Africa right now that I’ve been watching. And it’s sort of refreshing in
a way, because I’ve seen a whole lot of other people flow
into poverty-stricken areas over the last say decade. There’s been an explosion in
relief and development. Like I said, 20 or 30 years ago,
the only people you would see doing relief or development
were missionaries, who’d give up everything they
owned and go off to help the poor people. Now, you’ve got these armies
of multiple masters-bearing university graduates, who have
degrees in International Development. And they’re all making
six-figure salaries right out of school. And that changes everything. It changes local economies. It changes how people
view Western people. So to get back to these young
frontiersmen, it’s refreshing in a way to see guys go out
there and actually get dirty and come under fire and have to
haggle their way and hustle their way around, as opposed
to these legions, armies of what I call do-gooders, that
are living on UN bases, completely isolated in
a little bubble. They don’t get out. They’re not allowed to go out. REIHAN SALAM: Do you notice
any systematic differences between those you refer to
as the do-gooders and the frontiersmen? Do the frontiersmen tend to come
from a certain kind of background? TIM FRECCIA: I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s
the case. These guys that I just profiled
were raised in sort of a fringey way. One of them was home-schooled. They’re all Seventh-day
Adventists. But none of them seem to
be that hard core. But yeah, I think they were
raised in this sort of semi-survivalist way. And all three of the guys that
I profile in this piece I’m working on right now have got
that kind of outdoorsy thing. But I also watched them– one of them, it was his first
experience in Africa. And I watched him go from being
kind of cocky hillbilly to breaking down and then
actually reemerging as an African, this white African. It was fun to watch. REIHAN SALAM: One thing I find
fascinating is that, when you’re talking about the
do-gooder universe, a lot of it is people who had been good
students and people who had flourished in institutions. And this is kind of a capstone,
social enterprise, development work. This is just a way to be, for
people who’ve been on a routine path. Whereas, this other frontiersmen
thing you’re describing seems to be people
who were not on that path, who don’t identify with that path. And so one interesting question
is, when you talk about that as a kind of American
story, I wonder if that’s just not nearly as
central an American story as it once was. I wonder if we have the
capacity for that. TIM FRECCIA: I think it’s
the romantic concept. That’s why I like this story. It’s more of what I would like
to think America is about. REIHAN SALAM: As opposed to what
we’re like in practice. TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, and the
do-gooders are not– I have a personal opinion that
it’s a viable career choice. So if you’re at that age when
you’re going to go to university, and you have the
option to study Business Administration or Law or
Medicine or whatever and go and climb a corporate ladder,
as opposed to study International Studies,
Development. You get out of school. You get a nice job with an NGO
or the UN, easy money. [SPEAKING FRENCH] No problems, completely
isolated, but you’re going to interesting places and doing
good and sort of relieving some of the Western
Christian guilt. This is a whole separate topic,
a whole separate story. But I don’t really believe that
there’s that much good being done, as opposed to these
guys that I’m following around, who are actually doing
a lot of good on the ground, just in their day-to-day
hustle. They’ve got to deal
with local people. REIHAN SALAM: Do you think it’s
something that builds mutual respect? Because one thesis is the idea
that the development world– and I don’t know if this
is necessarily fair. But the idea is that there’s a
kind of implicit imperialism or paternalism about it, the
idea that you guys aren’t living the right way. We’re going to create these
institutions for you. And it obviously comes from a
fundamentally benign place. But it is this idea that, we
have this knowledge we’ll bring to you. Whereas, it seems that the
frontiersmen thing is partly, we’re learning how
you operate. We are meeting the needs
that you have. And we’re obligated. We are at your mercy,
in a way. TIM FRECCIA: Absolutely, I
think there’s something incredibly arrogant about
the development world. There’s this, we know better
kind of thing. And there’s huge discussions
about this. And I’ve gotten into huge
discussions about it. It’s not really my business. But I do have an opinion
about it. I’ve seen far less good done
than damage, in my own experience. And I’ve been around this these
people for the last few decades, everywhere. And by far, the majority of what
I’ve seen has been less good and more bad. But then you take these
characters, who like I say, are forced to really interact
with people and are somewhat at their mercy. They have to learn how to
navigate, socially and logistically. There’s no Russian helicopter
that’s going to fly them out, if something goes wrong. If something breaks, they’ve
got to fix it themselves. They’ve got to make
a deal with a guy. There’s a few scenes in this
that are pretty funny, when the guys resort to what
they call [SWAHILI] in Swahili, which is bush mechanics, shade-tree mechanics. REIHAN SALAM: How did
you get started? How did you find this
particular story? TIM FRECCIA: There’s a character
that I’ve known for some years, that I
met in Nairobi. And he’d been operating in South
Sudan for a few years, in a low-level way. REIHAN SALAM: How did you
first encounter him? TIM FRECCIA: We met at
a bar somewhere. REIHAN SALAM: That’s where
most great things begin. TIM FRECCIA: And I watched
him over the years. He actually ended up living
in my house at one point. He was down and out. And I was away a lot. But I’ve stayed friends
with him. And I’ve watched him develop as
this sort of businessman in East Africa over
the last years. So I had just come out of a
series of injuries and was just in Eastern Congo and in
the mountains of Ethiopia. Basically, I was looking to take
a little bit of a break or take it easy. And my friend told me he had
this big convoy coming up. And I decided to ride along
and see what happened. So I didn’t really
expect anything. I just thought there
would be some interesting material there. And along the way, this concept
became clear, that these guys– he had two other young American
guys with him. And I became interested
in this whole frontiersman mentality. And watching these guys develop,
especially his two colleagues, develop along the
way and start to become African in a way, in dealing
with the logistics of this seven-country trip. REIHAN SALAM: How did he
find his colleagues? TIM FRECCIA: They all grew up
in the same sort of fringey church background. So their parents all
knew each other. Ian, my main character, my
friend, has been operating in East Africa for six
or seven years. And the other main character
came straight in from the hills of Tennessee. REIHAN SALAM: When
you’re out there, you’re living and working. You mentioned having
been in Nairobi. What is it that draws
you to some people rather than others? You meet this guy in a bar. And I’m sure, kind of a dime a
dozen, plenty of expatriates around right now. What was it about this
particular guy that struck as worth keeping an eye on? I think somehow what draws
me to people is their ability to– I always ask myself, would I
travel with this person. Would I want to get stuck out in
the bush with this person? And that’s true. That’s sort of the standard
by which I judge people. It’s not like how much money
they make or smart they are or how many books they read. It’s more like could I survive
with this person in the bush. And so in this case, Ian struck
me as a survivor. REIHAN SALAM: What are the
telltale signs of someone you’d want to travel with? TIM FRECCIA: I think a lot of
it’s got to do with social ability, because I’m not talking
about trekking across a wasteland or something. A lot of it’s about how
to navigate socially. So I guess what caught my
attention with Ian was he’s a natural hustler. But he’s a natural hustler
and an American. But in this African context,
I found that intriguing. REIHAN SALAM: And did it the
other two that he was traveling with– did some of that hustling
ability rub off on them? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, I
watched them learn along the way and adapt. REIHAN SALAM: How did
you pick it up? TIM FRECCIA: Just by being. REIHAN SALAM: You didn’t
have it as a 16-year-old, I imagine. Was it something that you
developed while in Haiti? Or is it something that you
developed while making your way in your work? TIM FRECCIA: I think I developed
that at an early age at home in Seattle, just
skipping school, hanging around punk rockers and dodgy
people– dope dealers and street people. I learned some of that
along the way. So when presented with this
kind of obstacles, social obstacles, elsewhere, it
sort of came naturally. REIHAN SALAM: Is part of that
about being a little cynical about other people or
appreciating their motivations? TIM FRECCIA: Absolutely, yeah. I mean there’s a great
amount of cynicism. But also, I think I’ve got a
pretty good sense of humor, which is key. It’s gotten me out of a lot of
situations where I probably would’ve ended up dead, or
other people would have. REIHAN SALAM: Do you have
a favorite example? TIM FRECCIA: Not really. It happens all the time. I’ve had to kind of laugh my way
out of some really dodgy situations. When we were shooting the “Vice
Guide to Congo,” we had made a mini mutiny by these
motorbike taxi guys. And we had just come out of the
bush, this big death march through the jungle. And it was a Friday evening. So the whole village
was drunk. And we had a potential
riot on our hands. We were able to kind of joke
our way through it. REIHAN SALAM: Is Ian
a pretty funny guy? Is that part of his talent? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, definitely. He’s got an ability. Also, he’s picked up a
little Swahili along the way, so he can– One of the things that
I try to learn in every local language– the first thing I try to learn
to say is, I’m not stupid, because it makes people laugh. And it’s a good thing to
get out there early. REIHAN SALAM: Although, it’s
got to be interesting, if that’s the only thing
you know how to say. [INAUDIBLE]. TIM FRECCIA: It easily
opens up like a dialogue, in some way. REIHAN SALAM: This series that
you produced, profiling these young American entrepreneurs in
Africa, you were definitely in South Sudan. But where else did you travel
in the course of shooting the series? TIM FRECCIA: Well, for that
show, it’s not a series yet. But for this show, one of the
characters, who I watched develop over some years, moves
a convoy of vehicles from South Africa to South Sudan. So we crossed seven countries
on that trip. REIHAN SALAM: And had you
been in all of them prior to this journey? Or were some of them
new to you? TIM FRECCIA: No, I’d been in
all of those countries. REIHAN SALAM: Was there
anything particularly affecting about this particular
trip, in terms of the contrasts, in terms of
what you had seen before? TIM FRECCIA: Well, yeah, in a
way, it was a big departure for me, because I’ve spent most
of my time working in conflict or crisis areas. And there was no conflict or
crisis at all, other than just day-to-day life of these guys
moving a convoy of vehicles. REIHAN SALAM: It’s also
incredible, the amount of resources that multinationals
are throwing into Sub-Saharan Africa right now. Certainly, Kenya has become an
enormous hub of technological development. Ethiopia, you have agriculture
and, obviously, a commodities boom across the region. And I wonder, have you seen
that change the texture of life in the last five,
six years? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, absolutely. Again, a lot of this is
tied into development. People become aid-dependent. Whole economies have been– I spent some time in
Liberia last year. And it’s just mind-blowing
to see the rents. Just what you pay for rent is
crazy, because it’s 10 times what you would pay
here, let’s say. but it’s because this has
been established, that the UN will pay this. And therefore, the NGOs
will pay this. So local economies are
completely screwed up. REIHAN SALAM: Fascinating– so
are there any cases where you’ve seen real development
that seems to be kind of leading to real uplift
for the population? Or do you generally see
it as a shell game? TIM FRECCIA: No, I think that
there are good things. I’ve seen good things happen. I’ve seen people do good
things that help. But I think, overall, generally
speaking, the industry itself is very arrogant
and very detached or disconnected from what you would
think the concept is. But a lot of this has to do
with, I think, things that are far more complex than I’m
able to understand. We have a failing
economy here. It’s much easier to send
people offshore to make six-figure salaries
and bring it home. REIHAN SALAM: Tim, I want
to talk to you about the economics of your business
in particular. So having been a documentary
photographer, you described this era of having
worked for an enormous global oil company. And they were just letting you
do absolutely anything you wanted to do and then having
moved into what I’m sure is the fabulously lucrative world
of taking photographs in conflict zones. But how has it changed? Because you have one era in
which you are painstakingly working with film. And now, you have digital
cameras and what have you in Africa, a million people
swarming these places and documenting. How has it changed? TIM FRECCIA: In every
way possible, but one of the things– I’m moving back towards film. I’m shooting way more film now,
than I did over the last years, because I miss the
elegance and simplicity of it. When I started out, five rolls
was like a big budget. So you’re talking a couple
of hundred frames was like a big day. And now, you have what
people call the spray and pray mentality. And to be honest, I don’t
spray and pray. But I’ll routinely shoot 1,000
or 2,000 images in a day. And then, there’s all the
editing and post-processing and filing. So it’s become much
more complicated. And it pays a whole lot less. There’s definitely
no money in it. But then, somehow, I’ve had
survived in this business, I think, because I’m
not a journalist. Wire photographers don’t
make anything. There’s no way to
survive on that. REIHAN SALAM: What leads
them to do it? TIM FRECCIA: I think probably
the same things that led me to do this type of work. But I’ve always managed to sort
of maneuver, I guess, more as a feature
photographer. But there are a lot of young– there’s a flood of new
photojournalists that are making $100 a day, which you
can’t afford to live on in Africa anymore. There was a time when you could
live with on that kind of money in Africa. But you can’t. Nairobi is one of the most
expensive cities in the world now. REIHAN SALAM: So have you always
been recognized as a visual artist? Or is this something that
has happened as your career has developed? TIM FRECCIA: No, I just two
years ago declared myself as an artist, having never
done that before. And that happened in a pretty
exciting and fast way. A gallery agreed to take me
on and then took a show of seven-foot prints of negatives
from South Sudan to the Armory Show here in New York, two years
ago and again this year, and to Chicago as well. So that was sort of a big
bang out of the gate. REIHAN SALAM: What is it about
those particular photographs that you think made them
somehow more durable or somehow a different kind of
an object than documentary photography? TIM FRECCIA: They
are documentary. I hung a white sheet under a
mango tree in a village in South Sudan. But I think what’s compelling
about those images in particular are, there’s
a suspension of time. It’s got to do with the people
as well, that I photograph in that series. They’re looking at the viewer. And the viewer is looking
at the subject. And there’s this kind of moment
where there’s no fear. There’s curiosity
on both sides. Over the last few decades, I’ve
photographed a lot more people in pretty bad situations,
either dead or soon to be dead. And somehow, I’ve gotten
accustomed to connecting with my subjects, based
on that concept. And with this fine art debut– which I don’t know if I’m going
to become a portraitist or anything, but there’s
something nice about– there’s a great tension in these
photographs, between the viewer and the subject. But it’s safe. Nobody is going to get hurt. Nobody is going to die. It’s all about curiosity. And so for those particular
photographs, that’s what’s interesting to me. I’m working on another series
right now, that’s actually going to be part of the “Vice”
photo issue, that I’m very excited about. I’m collaborating with another
visual artist whose with the same gallery I’m with, whose
work is very dark and surreal. And he, in a sense, is going
to exorcise my demons. He’s taking some of the images
that have haunted me over the years, and that he finds
compelling, and reworking them, in a way, to sort of
exorcise the demons. I’m excited about
this project. REIHAN SALAM: So as you go
forward, you’re working on a variety of visual art projects
and what have you. But what are some of the other
things that you’d hope to do, to satisfy your curiosity? Are there other mountains you
haven’t climbed, other things you want to see, other things
that you want to pursue? TIM FRECCIA: Yeah, there are. Well, I guess there’s nothing
in particular that I want to do right now that
I haven’t done. But there’s some things that I
have done that I would like to do more of. For example, I’d like to go back
to shooting more film. I’m, right now, trying to work
on some longer projects that aren’t so run and gun. This last piece, like I said,
was a little departure, in that I spent two months on the
road with these guys, which is a long time. But that’s going back more to
where I came from, where I’d spend a month on a project,
not a week. TIM FRECCIA: You discussed
earlier on your capacity for endurance. And I wonder, are you
starting to find the limits of that capacity? Have you been stretching them? Have you been testing
them at all? TIM FRECCIA: Yes, I’m
getting older. It’s true. REIHAN SALAM: How does it
change the way you work? TIM FRECCIA: Well, I mean I just
crashed a motorcycle in South Africa a few months ago. And I broke like everything. So that’s sort of changed the
way I work, in that I couldn’t walk for two months. But I think yeah. I guess I’m not quite as eager
to go on a death march as I used to be. But I’m still not really– I feel pretty much the same. And I guess, conversely, I can’t
picture myself puttering around the gardening and getting
old and having hobbies and stuff like that. I’m really kind of surprised
to be alive. And I’m at an interesting
turning point in my life where I didn’t expect to be alive this
long. so now I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do
with the rest of my time. REIHAN SALAM: When did you
think that you were going to die young? Was this just a background
expectation that you had? Is that it? TIM FRECCIA: It wasn’t
some big expectation. It was just sort of– I guess, a better of looking
at it is, I never thought about what it would
be like to be old. I just never pictured that. And I still can’t really
picture that. But to go back to where
we started here, my father just died. And I watched him get really
old, over some years. And he had a long battle
with Parkinson’s. And that was horrible to watch,
because he was such a dynamic and larger than
life character. I can’t see myself getting
old like that. So I don’t know. REIHAN SALAM: Well, thanks
very much, Tim. It was really good
talking to you. TIM FRECCIA: Thanks
for having me.

82 thoughts on “Tim Freccia Discusses Life in Conflict Zones: VICE Podcast 008

  1. This is really sub par for vice. I believe I talk for everyone when I say that we have come to expect a different point of view from Vice, no the regular, non-provocative, irrelevant questions. I hope this trend does not continue.

  2. he actually gets better as he goes along, the beggining is enough to get everyone else distracted though

  3. I didnt thought you re gay, I just thought that you re an aggressive son of a bitch, who is very interested in gay sexuality.

  4. Vice you picked the Wong guy to do the interview the gay is literally sneaking out of every pour of his body lolz I'm preety sure the guy getting interviewed thinks the same look at his face dudes like today is just not my day lolz

  5. Not to be disrespectful but erm, why is Salam interviewing for Vice now? The fact is that hes been on the reaaaaal stupid side of some arguments. There are a number of clips of him on Bill Mahers Overtime that highlight my point. Also the other interviewer comes across far more relaxed and natural.

  6. Oh and btw to anyone who is highlighting his sexual preference its a fucking irrelevant issue! So again i clarify my dislike for him as the interviewer it is because of the stance he has taken on political issues as a conservative and the fact i find him abit over the top. I really liked Eddy Moretti he comes across how i feel interviewers should, not overly attached to anything but simply hang back and ask the questions that should be asked. I feel Salam comes across intense and not relaxing.

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  8. Hey everybody? fuck you how's that for a fucking comment? why do people care what other people comment on YouTube? vice should cover that cause obviously too many fucking people seem to care bout what people that they might possibly never meet a bit too much middle fingers to you and yours 😀

  9. Im not a socially awkward person at all. I would completely agree with darkism that this interview comes off abit awkward. I dont think Reihan was suited for this interview. Moretti has a calmer temperament and i think doesnt come across as intense although intense isnt the best word to use. I mean every time Reihan laughs i find it almost invasive. Its loud and seems oddly placed at times. So again I would have to agree the podcast does come across awkward.

  10. I find the interviewer asked all the right questions, and in response the interviewee was more than responsive to most of the great questions being asked, I think this interview was a wonderful experience for all, in a way I felt that Tim found this interview kind of cathartic in a sense, and he definitely became more comfortable as the interview progressed… Great Viewing IMO

  11. "Gear Queer" ? Is "Gear Hog" not politically correct any more ? What about "Hog Queers" or "Queer Hogs" ?

  12. The interviewer was so fucking bad are you kidding me? He asked the most amateur/pop/interviewer questions and interrupted Freccia in crucial points!

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  14. Someone who quit high school at 16 to tread the great world and seek his fortune, spend a few years in an underground culture environment where he can get some drug and sex experiences to have "fancy youth" memories, and finally end as a known journalist or any good job…

    Surely another time. Today, if you drop high school, it's to become a gangster and you need a five-years college degree to hope to get a full time well paid job.

  15. "…did you know this is something you wanted to grab, that you wanted to touch, and use?"
    "I was kind of a somewhat of a gear queer"


  16. I'll work for free and interview anyone and do research better than Reihan Salam. Tell me where to be and I will buy a ticket.

  17. Reihan Salam has totally grown on me….. Some people hating on him here but he does bring out the key stuff in the people and conversations. Weird n subtle….though it helps when you interview legends like Tim Freccia ….f&$king fact!

  18. Being heterosexual, I don't really understand the need for all of the 'queer" language, "come out" as a photographer at six, etc, why does this political crap and innuendo have to be injected into a discussion that has nothing to do with sexuality? It's really a turn-off for me as a heterosexual, and I think even heterosexual sexual innuendo on topics that have nothing to do with sex would seem irritating and unprofessional.

  19. This guy is seriously one of the worst interviewers I have ever seen. I can't even watch the whole interview because it is so painful. He is constantly interrupting Tim Freccia before he has even begun answering the ridiculous questions. The obvious pushing and prodding when the interviewee obviously has no interest in discussing something is painful to watch.

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  21. Este tío es el peor periodista que he visto nunca, pregunta a posteriori cuando las preguntas ya han sido respondidas y además habla más que el entrevistado. Háztelo mirar colega, no eres una estrella.

  22. Interesting to find out about Tim but the interviewer is asking some silly questions. Tim doesn't SEEM interested.

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