The first article I ever read by Teun Voeten was called, “A Legacy of Blood” [HIGH TIMES, May 1998], an expose on election-year violence in Colombia between government forces and their Marxist adversaries, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC]. In that piece, Teun speaks first with the government troops, then, in order to get the other side of the story, takes a bus to the heart of FARC country and allows himself to get kidnapped by the rebels. Now this man is a journalist, I remember thinking to myself.
As a photojournalist, Teun Voeten has reported from all the major global hot spots of the past 20 years including the former Yugoslavia, Colombia, Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, DR Congo, North Korea, Mexico, Libya and Syria. He is the author of the books How de Body, Tunnel People and most recently, Narco Estado. He is a native of the Netherlands, and lives alternately in New York and Brussels. His first piece of journalism was published in HIGH TIMES, and he was the first writer I sought out when I became Editor-in-Chief a couple years ago. I’ve long been fascinated by his work and finally had the chance to ask him about it.
HIGH TIMES: If someone came to you and said, “Teun, I want to become a war photographer,” what advice would you give them?
TEUN VOETEN: Well, in fact, it’s very easy to become a war photographer. All you need is a camera and a war. There are wars all around, and cameras are really cheap, so you just go and do it. I started in Yugoslavia with no experience at all, but I learned along the line. But I would also advise, especially in the beginning, be very careful, don’t push it, talk and listen to experienced reporters. Wars have become more dangerous over the last five years. I lost many friends in the Arab Spring, and actually I lost as many friends in the last two years as I have lost in 20 years before that. Over the years, there has become less and less respect for journalists.
HIGH TIMES: So the Arab Spring has been different from other wars you have covered?
TEUN VOETEN: Journalists, especially western, are no longer perceived as neutral. In more and more cases, extremist groups that have a foothold in many Islamic countries see us western agents and non-believers -- infidels. Even if you are a God-fearing Christian. And some fundamentalists think that gives them the right to kill ‘non-believers’, to slide your throat in front of a camera, and post the execution on YouTube. This was not happening 15 years ago.
HIGH TIMES: So that’s unique to the Islamic world as opposed to Yugoslavia?
TEUN VOETEN: Well, the Islamic world is big, and I met many incredible kind, sweet, intelligent and tolerant and sophisticated people over there. But to go back to the former-Yugoslavia, to put it diplomatically, the Serbs were not fond of Western journalists. It was rumored they had put a bounty on foreign journalists.
If you were arrested -- It happened to me a few times -- first, the low level Serb soldiers threatened execute you. But then they took you to the commanding officer, you could sit down with him, talk in a reasonable matter and explain everything. And at the end, they understood you were not a spy or a mercenary. You would have a few drinks, slap on each other back make some jokes and they released you. In Yugoslavia, there was still some adherence to the Geneva Convention. That’s totally missing in the new wars in the Arab Spring and in the wars in West Africa I have been in.
HIGH TIMES: How do you handle being arrested?
TEUN VOETEN: It depends on what kind of people you have against you. Are they reasonable people? Do they understand the concept of journalism? Can you communicate with them? If yes, than you have to start a charm offensive. Be nice and sweet and patient and explain everything as honest as possible. Once I was arrested in Serbia, 1991, I denied I had been in Croatia. Then they found a bus ticket and they thought it was proof that I was a spy. I had to explain a lot of things. Everything they found in my luggage was used against me. Even a book from Nietzsche I carried with me was proof that I was a fascist mercenary.
But at the end, however horrible the war was, Yugoslavia was still part of the Western civilized world. And there still was a military command structure.
Another time, in Colombia, I was at gunpoint taken out of a bus by guerrillas. They handcuffed me and brought me to the local commander, an intelligent guy. I could convince him I was a serious, European journalist. [“A Legacy of Blood” HT May 1998] I stayed as guest of honor for a few days.
It is different in the jungles of Sierra Leone or Liberia with the rebels. They don’t have any commander and operate in small autonomous groups of five or six people. They can do whatever they want. And frankly, they are not the most educated people on this planet. I once was held for a few hours at gunpoint by a group of crazed out, drugged rebels, It is a miracle I survived.
HIGH TIMES: You were in Libya right?
TEUN VOETEN: Yes, I was in Libya, Egypt, and last April also in Syria.
HIGH TIMES: The Arab Spring seems very confusing for Americans. For example, you have a guy like Muammar Gaddafi, who Ronald Reagan built up to be the “Mad Dog of the Middle East,” this terrible guy. So when NATO started bombing Libya and got involved in their civil war, Americans at home didn’t protest in the streets. Now, people are starting to realize that, maybe what comes next is even worse than what came before.
TEUN VOETEN: Most countries in the Middle East are or were horrible dictatorships that repress their people and executed and tortured dissidents and so on, but there is one good thing about a dictatorship: there is order and stability. The state has the monopoly on violence. We saw that in Iraq. Iraq was very stable under Saddam Hussein. Of course, there was a brutal state control and repression and yes, many people were killed. After Saddam was deposed, all the different ethnic groups and factions and criminal elements started to fight each other. Sadly, Libya is going the same way. Syria is even worse.
I try not be pessimistic. Democratization is a very difficult process, with trial and error. We should give these countries the benefit of the doubt. Europe in the Middle Ages consisted of fiefdoms and kingdoms, continuous civil war, strife, helter skelter galore, mass killings, war lords all over the place. It took Europe a couple hundred years to sort out their problems. And still, we are not the most perfect democracies. Only 70 years ago European countries in World War II were destroying each other, and even more recently, 20 years ago on the Balkan.
You cannot impose democracy from above. It has to grow from a grassroots level, generation after generation. So, I think we should wait and see and don’t judge to quickly on the so called ‘Arab Spring.’
You should not underestimate the fact that they have been living 40, 50, 60 years under a dictatorship. It is very hard to develop an independent intellectual class, to have a critical yet responsible opposition, to establish democratic institutions, to have tolerance and respect for all fellow citizens. Even in the West we have problems with these issues. I suggest we should be patient and give these countries all the moral and intellectual support they need.
HIGH TIMES: How was Syria?
TEUN VOETEN: As we journalists like to say off record, Syria is a complete ‘clusterfuck’. Everything which can go wrong, is going wrong. You have a divided opposition, you have countries such as Russia, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and many more supporting and financing all their own favorite factions. In a way it is a war by proxy fought between Sunni and Shia Muslims. And then Al Qaida got involved. On top of that, you have thousands of disenfranchised trigger-happy Western Muslims from Belgium, UK, France fighting as volunteers. On all sides you have gross human right violations. In the north you have a de facto Sharia state controlled by Islamists. Reporters and human rights workers get kidnapped and killed, so independent new gathering is no longer possible. To be very honest, it is the bleakest scenario I have ever seen. And I have seen a lot.
HIGH TIMES: When we were talking recently you said that drugs have played a role in almost all the conflicts you have seen.
TEUN VOETEN: Many wars these days are more about greed as about ideology. Warlords fight for local power so they can exploit local resources. That can be diamonds, like in Sierra Leone, Angola, DR Congo or timber in Liberia, but also a lot of times drugs -- Afghanistan warlords paid for their operations with opium. Same in Colombia. Ideologically-motivated rebels started to finance themselves by cocaine trafficking, purely as a means to wage an armed struggle. But eventually this became an end in itself and the guerrillas became narco-traffickers. In a lot of wars, the distinction between criminals and rebels disappears. In Mexico, of course, it went way out of control.
HIGH TIMES: When you’re in Juarez and you’re not covering the violence, what do you do on your day off?
TEUN VOETEN: When I’m in Juarez I hardly take a day off. I’ve been there ten, twelve times and every time it’s for a short period of time, two weeks or so, and I just work as hard as possible. Juarez is so depressing, the rate of killing and the violence was so incredible when I was there in 2009, 2010, 2011. Frankly, once I a while, I went across the border and spend a day in El Paso -- just to get a clear mind and have a beer in a bar without having to worry about an armed commando bursting in and spraying bullets, as happens quite often in Juarez. And one day in Culiacán, I took an afternoon off and I just went to the beach.
HIGH TIMES: Do you wake up everyday in Mexico worrying about your own life, your own safety?
TEUN VOETEN: Well, as a foreign photojournalist, it is dangerous but I didn’t feel particularly like an endangered species. Everybody in Juarez has his own rationale why nothing will happen to him. Some people say, well, I look like a Mexican, they won’t kill me. Others say, well, I’m American, they won’t kill me because my country will get involved. Some people say, I’m so tough they won’t kill me. My rationale is: "Hey, I am nice Dutch guy so nobody will harm me." Of course, completely irrational, but everybody needs to fool himself once in a while. Most killings in Juarez are never resolved. There is a 98% impunity. But if criminal groups kill a foreigner there will be a lot of heat. Sadly, many journalists have been killed, over the last ten years 81 journalists. But these were without exception all Mexican journalists, mostly investigative reporters, researching the ties between organized crime and authorities. But as a foreign photographer you only scratch the surface, and show the visible, the horrible and cruel killings carried out by the cartels and their henchmen. Yes, you make bad public relations for the cartels. But of course they already have a pretty bad image.
HIGH TIMES: In some way they depend on the journalist to photograph the violence -- that’s why they hang people from bridges.
TEUN VOETEN: It’s a little bit tricky. Reporters should cover the violence but in a way, we are used by cartels to spread their message. The cartels want to mark a territory, they want to spread the word how ferocious they are. They kill people in the most brutal, savage way. They hang people upside down, disemboweled from bridges, they decapitate people, they cut bodies in 10 pieces and display them in a sickening manner, they post gory snuff movies. That is their way of communicating. And we are the medium. Sometimes the cartels call journalists to a crime scene. So in a way, we are used and manipulated, but the alternative is not to report on the violence at all. I think we should report on it, but any responsible journalist should do that in such a way as not to become a messenger boy of criminals. It’s a thin line.
HIGH TIMES: Tell me about Sierra Leone. You got in trouble there, right?
TEUN VOETEN: Well, it’s a long story -- such a long story I wrote a book about it, How de Body? One man’s terrifying Journey Through an African War. (St Martins Press, 2002 ). I went there in 1998 to cover the civil war and there was a military junta formed by the army and the rebels. Then the junta was attacked by the West African Peace Forces and was kicked out. If you go to a war zone, it is bad news to find yourself to be on the side that is being defeated -- especially if that side hates losing. The whole country descended into total mayhem.
Most westerners had already fled the country. I was one of the last ones left. Rebels started to loot and I was targeted. I had to flee but was stopped at a checkpoint. I had a nasty encounter for an hour with five guys who were totally drugged up. They wanted to execute me and torture me and castrate me and whatever else. Horrible. Thank God, and with the help of a cool-headed bodyguard, I survived. Then I had to hide for two weeks in the bush. I could find shelter with a school principal and still there were rumors that rebels are looking for a white boy. A local journalist, Eddie Smith, helped me and we managed to sneak out and walk through rebel lines to the next liberated city.
Eddie was a very brave individual who actually saved my life. My book is dedicated to him. Two months after I got safely home he was killed by rebels in an ambush. That’s is the difference between local and foreign journalists: If we get depressed, if we get afraid, if we get tired, we just leave. But local journalists, they live in the country and they have no choice. Some people consider us heroes, but I have the greatest respect for all the local journalists who constantly work under extremely difficult circumstances and can never fly safe home, as we foreign reporters can do. That is often forgotten in our profession.
HIGH TIMES: Doing this for 22 years, you’ve been to Rwanda and witnessed the genocide, you have seen lots of death. How has it affected you personally?
TEUN VOETEN: It is my work, I choose deliberately for this profession to cover the dark side of humanity. I see a lot of ugliness in human behavior, but I also see a lot of beauty as well. I have always been a little bit, you could say, pessimistic -- I’d rather say realistic -- about humanity, so all these things I see don’t come as a surprise.
In every war you meet truly nasty, depraved individuals but you also meet courageous, brave people, and that is what gives me the power to move on.
It is also important to have a functional social life. I am not always on the road. I have a home, I love my kid, I have good friends. I try to enjoy nature, culture, the arts, wining and dining. So I’m not going like a wild dog from one war to the next one without resting. It is important to take breaks. I see a lot of war photographers, being non-stop on the road and after 5, 6 years, they burn out.