VICE’s Thomas Morton gives his take on life as a correspondent for the HBO series
Last night, Georgetown Program Board was joined by HBO to host an advanced screening of two never-before-seen episodes of Season 3 of VICE, a documentary TV series that investigates topics ranging from the synthetic drug revolution to gestational surrogacy to Sudanese rebel groups using an immersionist style of filmmaking.
Vox was lucky enough to sit down with VICE Correspondent Thomas Morton right before the screening for a candid Q&A. Morton, who has worked for VICE since 2004, wrote and edited for the magazine before becoming the online editor for the company’s website and video adjunct, VBS. (He was also kind enough to remind Vox that you need to actually press the record button before beginning an interview…oops)
Vox: Generally, how do you as a VICE correspondent figure out what issues you will to cover, what countries you will visit, and who you will speak to?
Morton: That’s all dictated by the story we are covering or telling, and that’s primarily drawn from what we are interested in. Very often things will connect with some thread of either American foreign policy or economics, especially because everything is so interconnected, like, even if you are discussing something that is taking place in Kazakhstan, China, or Botswana, on a larger level it connects in someway with American or European interests.
Very often, it is things that we feel have gotten either ignored entirely by mainstream media, or a good deal of our stories are things that are covered by national or international press, but maybe only on a surface level. We like going back after stories have broken on the international news cycle, when the fervor for ‘breaking the news’ has died down, to get a more sedentary, full-picture take on topics.
Like Ebola, for instance, in the HBO Show, we are doing another feature on that now that everyone has stopped running around terrified and seeing where all the pieces lay. It is stuff that interests us, honestly. And the countries and people involved are dictated by the story, who makes the most sense to talk to.
Vox: In your most recent episode where you cover homosexuality and sex-change operations in Iran, a country where these topics are very sensitive, and sometimes dangerous, for people to be openly discussing, how willing were people to share their stories?
Morton: The people we met in Toronto [who had left Iran] were very open, but obviously they are in a place that has a great reputation for recognizing general human rights, and specifically LGBTQ rights. I was not able to go to Iran; this was filmed with another host and producing team, so I can’t speak about how open people were or not since I was not there.
Vox: But on the whole, how receptive would you say that people are with openly sharing and talking with you during these episodes?
Morton: People are extremely open, even more so than not. Obviously, when you are approaching people in instances where you haven’t set something up ahead of time where you are just walking up and meeting them on the fly, it is pretty clear depending on who you are and what the context is. Usually, foreign white guys approaching them with a camera and them not shutting off is a clear sign that people will be open and receptive.
I also think that media saturation world-wide has gotten to the point where what was once seen as the quintessential Western desire to see yourself on TV or to imagine yourself as worthy of being on TV, is more or less universal. I think everyone is excited to be on TV, which makes it pretty easy to get people to talk. And you have to be nice, too, the old Southern rule of thumb to be a gracious guest.
Vox: Is there a particular episode that was most exciting, or most revealing, for you?
Morton: In this season, or show entirely?
Vox: Maybe both?
Morton: This season, there was an episode I did about the demilitarization of police forces around America, which is something I wanted to do for a couple of years. And obviously what happened in Ferguson rose that issue to national prominence, which makes me wish we had done it the year before, honestly. But that was eye-opening both on the side that you see just how much of an industry it is to provide this weaponry to police departments that initially, I would argue, do not have a need for them, but then creates a need for them.
We also spoke to a lot of cops, and it was interesting to get a view into the psychology of the people who get this equipment, and end up looking like crazy futuristic storm troopers, and understand it from their perspective. They aren’t able to voice their own criticisms. Those cops have to execute orders on behalf of the city personnel, or whoever is giving them their marching orders, and then they bear the blame for it when the community is completely at odds with its police force. And then they can’t complain or say they don’t want to do this, or they would get fired. Yeah, I liked that episode a lot…
Series-wide, we did this one in a region of Kazakhstan called Semipalatinsk where there is a cornered-off area called the Polygon where the Soviet Union tested the vast bulk of its nuclear weaponry, so obviously it is a radiated wasteland. But the surrounding areas are very well-populated. Millions of people were exposed to the radiation, and there are continuing genetic abnormalities with ensuing generations which conflicts with the previously held scientific consensus on what radiation does. It also promotes this suite of public health problems, but in Kazakstahn, this is leading to a response which could be completely groundbreaking. What some people are proposing is a genetic passport there, which is, I guess, a sexual quarantine of sorts, which bears shades of sci-fi and Gattaca and all that, so that is very exciting stuff.
Vox: What is the most rewarding part for you about being involved in the series, as well as the most challenging?
Morton: The money. *Laughs* No, that’s a joke, because there is not much money…There are a number of aspects that are really rewarding. One is that it is fun. I get to pursue stories I am personally interested in, and I have been at VICE for a long time and have a lot of leeway with what stories I get to work on. You get to see parts of the world that somebody walking in without a camera wouldn’t get to see or be given as open of a reception to. And I don’t just mean the jungles of Malaysia, I mean in the United States with sub-cultures or the rap doc[umentary] in South Atlanta, which is the opposite side of Atlanta from where I grew up. This is a part of town that I would not be welcomed to unless it was under the banner of reporting. It is fun, educational…people seem to like it? We’ve gotten really effusively nice feedback, especially on Twitter and on comments, which is far from what I would consider normal with those medias. And very little of that bellicose trolling in response to anything.
Challenging…It is rigorous, the hours suck, but you know, it beats digging ditches.
You can check out new episodes of VICE every Friday at 11 pm EST on HBO.
Photo: VICE correspondent Thomas Morton with Arsham Parsi, founder of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees