Ruud Elmendorp, a video journalist in Africa, writes about his experiences in the job
“Monsieur le journaliste? Votre interview avec le ministre est a deux heure.”
Mister journalist? Your interview with the minister is at two. Thank you, I say to the lady on the phone. Finally I managed to arrange an interview with a minister in Rwanda.
Some hours later I set up my tripod and camera, and start asking my questions. There I am with a small digital camera – and myself only. The minister is told that I am a correspondent for Dutch national television – normally the type of media you would expect to come with a camera man, reporter and a boom operator for the sound. The very kind and distinguished minister doesn’t give a wink about my solitary presence, and comments profoundly on the issues I raise.
Just because he’s used to it.
Before 2000 I was the typical television reporter coming with a crew. When the small digital cameras entered the market I took the challenge to do it on my own. As early video journalists we for some reason were forced into an innovative and creative approach. We had to do something different to the traditional crews, and so we did.
That was before I moved to Africa.
Here I saw that almost every television person is a video journalist. Most local television channels cannot afford full crews, and they depend on one-man-bands. No need to come up with other approaches or styles of storytelling. The video journalists bring news just as the traditional crews do.
The camera which is still mostly in use is the good old Sony PD150 or 170. However over the last years there has been a slight shift towards lower end HDV cameras, although they will be switched to DV or DVCAM and 4:3 aspect.
Here we’re talking about major national channels, because there is also a group of other video journalists carrying older and smaller cameras. These VJ’s are freelancers for the local channels or stringers for BBC or CNN. They really know their stuff, make reasonable shots, and know which questions to ask.
Being a VJ is about logistics.
In many African countries you have to a be a video journalist to move around. In remote areas it’s difficult to travel with a full crew, or you have to rent an expensive 4×4. A VJ can hop in local transport, or even board humanitarian or military flights taking the last and only, lucky-for-you, seat.
There are so many times it happened to me like that, and on arrival you’d discover that none of the traditional crews had made it there. That’s of course best, and it happens often.
It’s the same with borders. A video journalist can easily cross since the camera will be stowed away in your backpack, and no customs officer will bother. No need to fill out temporary import forms, or to pay deposits. They just consider you a tourist.
Being a VJ is about press freedom.
In several countries in Africa the press is free, as long as it doesn’t criticize the government or other big entities too openly.
It means that when things get dirty, it will become difficult for journalists to get there.
The fun part about it is that you will not openly be denied access. They let you go through friendly but lenghty accrediation procedures. If you get accredited at last, the event you were looking for will be long gone. Most journalists by then will have moved to other things to report on, and that’s what they’re aiming at.
Still, in the end your accreditation will only be a piece of paper, or a stamp. On the way you will find roadblocks manned by police officers who of course never heard of it, and can only let you pass after paying a hefty bribe.
The video journalist would be long back from shooting that same event, by being one of the passengers on local transport.
Being a VJ in Africa is about being able to report on matters you think are important.