May 12, 2014
Vice cover image by Tim Freccia

Editors at Vice didn’t plan on giving an entire issue to one story about South Sudan. But then that story, photographs and video came in.

“And it was so good,” said Annette Lamothe-Ramos, Vice’s creative director, in a phone interview with Poynter. “And we realized we needed an entire issue for this.”

“Saving South Sudan” came out in late April in print and went online Monday. In more than 100 pages it tells the story of writer Robert Young Pelton and photographer and filmmaker Tim Freccia’s trip into South Sudan. Pelton, author of the book “The World’s Most Dangerous Places,” has worked for National Geographic and CNN, among many others. For Vice, he weaves his story between narrative and history.

It started as a simple idea: visit the world’s newest country with Machot Lat Thiep, a gangly 32-year-old Sudanese former Lost Boy who wants to help his nation, a homeland that is less than three years old and already in danger of becoming a failed state. Machot thinks he can make the situation better, even if it isn’t apparent that he knows how. What better way to understand the vagaries of saving Africa than with an African who wants to save Africa?

The “Lost Boys” are children displaced during the country’s second civil war. Thiep now lives in Seattle and manages a Costco; Pelton writes he convinced his boss to give him a month off, unpaid, and “provided some funds for his family to live on while we would be gone.” Together, the three leave in search of Riek Machar, the deposed vice president and rebel leader.

By mid-December of last year, though, internal tensions erupted again and Machar, the former vice president, escaped into the bush. In January, Pelton pitched the idea to Vice Editor-in-Chief Rocco Castoro, “and he got it instantly,” Pelton told Poynter in a phone interview.

This is the first time Vice has devoted a single issue to a single story, but it’s something Castoro has wanted to do for awhile.

“Obviously, the story had to be the right story,” Castoro said in a phone interview with Poynter.

It’s also a story that’s pretty complicated. To help readers understand what’s happened in the region in the past, and how that relates to where things are now, Vice spends several pages illustrating that history with a timeline, “How South Sudan Got Lost.”

The font used throughout the issue was also created especially for the issue, meant to look like hand-painted road signs in South Sudan, but also like dried blood. The design of the magazine and the images used had to work with the story, Lamothe-Ramos said, to be evocative without going too far.

“Human suffering is never entertaining,” Castoro said, but the stories we tell do have to be compelling if people are going to read them, he said.

“It’s our job to distill it in a way that it almost tricks people into being interested,” Castoro said.

And for all the photo spreads and white space in the magazine’s pages, another story gets told through the documentary.

“We saved all the really intense stuff for the documentary,” Lamothe-Ramos said. “The magazine is really just a kind of warmup.”

That documentary, shot by Freccia, is told in three parts and will premiere on Vice’s site Monday.


The full issue, the documentary and the Web presence of “Saving South Sudan” isn’t all, though. In the future, Castoro said, Vice plans to continue reporting on South Sudan. The story, images, timeline and documentary offer context not just on something that happened, but on something that’s happening. On May 9, Machar met with South Sudan’s president for the first time since violence began last December, BBC reported.

And while he did get a full issue, “Saving South Sudan” isn’t as long as what Pelton’s used to writing. But he hopes it will be enough to show people what’s happened there, what’s happening now, and why. And not just through his eyes, but through the eyes of a young man who lived some of it, left and returned. Together in the magazine, the documentary and online, all three men search for a way into the bush to find a deposed leader turned rebel again.

“There’s no sense of war correspondent,” Pelton said. “It’s me just walking around, talking to people. You get this really uneasy sense that something really horrible is going on.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to note that when Riek Machar fled, he was already the former vice president. He was fired from that position in July 2013.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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