Ben Anderson is a Senior Producer and Correspondent for VICE on HBO. He's been covering foreign conflict for almost 20 years, has made over 70 documentaries during that time and authored two books, No Worse Enemy and The Interpreters.
VICE: Looking back, can you pinpoint anything that had a real formative impact on you, that led you to where you are now and has influenced the work you’ve done at VICE?
Ben Anderson: I grew up in a pretty crappy small town called Bedford. I was about 16, 17 when I first started learning and getting excited about international events – the West Bank, Gaza, Congo, Iraq, East Timor. I thought, ‘Why isn’t this always front-page news?’ I was an annoying evangelical about everything I was reading. My dad wanted me to just get a trade that pays £40k a year. He thought I was an idealist, that there was nothing I could do about any of this, much less actually go to these places. His dad was a painter and decorator and he’d been a policeman. It didn’t seem possible that I could travel the world and make anything that might be published.
My dad thought I was an idealist
When did that start to change?
I remember watching a World In Action by John Pilger, explaining Britain’s role in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. There was an Australian reporter called Greg Shackleton who’d gone there when it was clear the Indonesian military were sweeping across the island. All the other reporters left but he stayed and did this really long piece-to-camera about the people he’d met, how nice they’d been, and how they’d probably all get killed in the next few days, and how he might be killed too. And he was killed – all the people he filmed were killed, he was killed and hung up by his feet, he had his balls chopped off and put into his mouth. Weirdly, I saw that and for the first time ever in my life I thought, ‘I could do that.’ Obviously not the getting killed part, but the willingness to stick it out, hang around longer, get close to people, then hopefully get out in one piece. That was what really set me off thinking about documentary or TV news. Up till that point, I’d really wanted to be a writer.
Have you ever come close to being hung up by your feet with your balls in your mouth?
During the Liberian Civil War we were surrounded by child soldiers who were drunk and high and could have done anything; I was held in Iran for a week and accused of being a spy and they threatened to execute and torture us; I’ve been very close to ISIS and other groups over the last few years; the same with the Taliban in Afghanistan… The two big fears over the decade have always been stepping on an IED and losing your legs – or your balls – that way, or getting captured and turning up in one of those videos that your family have to watch as you confess and get beheaded.
The two big fears over the last few years have been IEDs and ISIS
How do you deal with that?
It might be a bit scary for a few weeks but compared to the people I’m surrounded by when I go to these countries, I’ve got it easy. I’ve got a return ticket in my pocket, I’ve got money, I know I’m gonna get a warm meal, shower, bed at some point fairly soon. I know that if I get hurt there are people who can try to get a helicopter or something to try to get me out.
What about afterwards?
So far I’m fine. I don’t drink that much, I don’t do any serious drugs, and that’s what seems to get people in trouble, when you get really mashed and start thinking about it in that state. That’s when people do stupid things.
You mentioned that writers were just as influential to you as documentary-makers when you were getting started in journalism. Any in particular?
People think that immersive journalism, or embedding, is a recent phenomenon but George Orwell was doing it back in the 1930s, writing the best book about war ever written by a journalist in Homage to Catalonia. People criticise immersive journalism ‘cos you’re putting yourself in the centre of the story but Orwell was so humble and self-deprecating, even when 50 or 100 metres from the fascist frontline in the Spanish Civil War. That showed me you can do immersive journalism without it being an ego trip. I also liked that he just went in there on his own – joined the war in Spain, or got a little place in London or Paris for his other books, getting the shittiest job washing dishes at a hotel… He just went wherever his curiosity took him. That’s very much the style I try to use. I used to shoot completely alone, it was just about getting to the right place for long enough so that you’re there at the right time to witness important things going on.
Orwell’s book is the best journalism ever written about war
What about other writers?
I knew Hunter S Thompson for years through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but I didn’t know about his journalism. When I finally read his Campaign Trail stuff and the writing about police violence and corruption in East LA, I was just blown away. There’s Ryszard Kapuscinski, his two books Another Day of Life and The Shadow of the Sun. Obviously Michael Herr. Martha Gellhorn's war reporting. Oriana Fallaci's interviews and features. Getting back to docs, there was Sean Langan’s BBC film, Tea with the Taliban and a documentary about Muhammad Ali called The Greatest by William Klein, a fashion photographer, that’s just him alone with a small film camera, which is my favourite documentary of all time. The access he gets to people, including Ali, is just extraordinary.
What’s your dad’s opinion now, on what you do?
He can’t believe some of the things I’ve managed to do. To him, the idea of travelling the world for a living wasn’t even imaginable. University wasn’t either, nor was working for an organisation like the BBC, it didn’t even register as a possibility when he was a kid.