Fear, Stress, & Beauty: The Art of Storytelling as a VICE Documentary Filmmaker

Jackson Fager is a producer, cinematographer, and director for VICE News Tonight and VICE Special Report on HBO. He has filmed documentaries all over the world including Kings of Cannabis, Coming to America, Right to Die, Snake Island, and Fighting ISIS. The job often puts Jackson in situations that are dangerous and uncomfortable, but his passion for connecting with people pushes him to find real stories that will impact the world.

The Winding Road To VICE

Jackson didn’t always know he wanted to make documentaries. After college, he worked on a ranch in Wyoming, substituted at a school in Boston, interned for a photographer at the Boston Globe, waited tables at a few restaurants, and worked at a private trading firm in Greenwich, Connecticut. “That was appealing to me at the time. They were making so much money and were like a fraternity”. But, he quickly figured out that the finance game wasn’t for him.

Realizing that he always had a love for using a camera, he sought advice from a family friend who worked as a cameraman in Alabama. Jackson went to Alabama intending to stay a few weeks, but ended up staying for a year. He found a job at a local magazine that had recently started using video. They paid him to shoot advertisements for local shops in town to display for hotel guests.

A year later he landed a job as a cameraman & editor at a local TV station in New Orleans. Then the BP Oil Spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico. For the following six months, Jackson covered the story alongside all the major news stations from around the country. This experience solidified his desire to tell stories around the world.

At the time, VICE was still a relatively unknown organization with a twenty-person production team and a small cult-following. The first VICE documentary Jackson saw, called “North Korean Labor Camps”, was shot in Siberia with VICE co-founder Shane Smith. “He was being so real. Half of the story was just the journey of them getting to the place where the story was,” said Jackson. “It was so much more my style and so refreshing to see. I thought, those are the guys I want to tell stories with”. He wrote them a letter and landed a job at their headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.

Art of Storytelling

According to Jackson, his profession is all about communicating with people. “Yes I’m a cameraman, a producer, and a director, but at the end of the day it all just comes down to communication. I’m really just out there every day getting paid to meet interesting people, get to know them, and make them comfortable enough to tell their story. Then I tell that story to the world.”

In his experience, most people want to tell their stories, even if they are doing something bad. However, rejection is part of the job. Staying persistent is important because “usually when they say no it means they are hiding something and there is something interesting to get out of them.”

Their production crews are small (usually 2 to 4 people), so Jackson often has to balance multiple jobs at once; cinematographer, producer, and director. “When I work with Ben Anderson, who I think is one of the best war reporters in the world, it’s just the two of us and I play more of the cinematographer role. With a piece like “Fighting ISIS” [shot on the frontlines in Iraq), when you get to that level of telling stories in dangerous places with serious amounts of stress, you need to know and master the craft you’re doing. You can’t be out there wondering what button to push on the camera or if the sound is working okay. It needs to become so second [nature] that you aren’t even thinking about it. I’m focused on Ben and what we need to get for the story.”

When covering news stories or making documentaries, you have to always be ready and anticipating what might happen. “No-one is going to redo those moments for you,” said Jackson. “We’re not working on a movie script and can’t get an actor to re-do a scene 40 times. You don’t know when that big event is going to happen. I’ve missed some important things in the past that no-one will know existed because I wasn’t shooting them when they happened.”

The Lasting Effect

Being in uncomfortable situations is part of the job. One of Jackson’s most uncomfortable moments happened while filming “Coming To America”. Jackson and VICE co-founder Suroosh Alvi were following a mother and her three children (ages 15, 11, 6) from El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico. They jumped onto freight trains moving 60 to 70 m.p.h, sitting shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of migrants with no room to move. The only way of going to the bathroom was by hanging off the edge.

“When I’m in all these places, I’m not alone. I see all the people around me who actually live in these conditions and are brave enough to go through these experiences. That alone gets me through any fears and trepidation I might have. Then the adrenaline kicks in. I’m not an adrenaline junky in the sense that it’s the only reason I got into this. But the adrenaline definitely fuels me in these kind of situations. It allows me to stay focused.”

However, Jackson admits that filming in dangerous places often leaves a lasting effect on him. “I see a lot of messed up things in the world and feel guilty sometimes because I film them for a couple of weeks and I leave. I try to justify it by saying that I’m sharing the story with the world, but at the same time I’m there and could’ve helped. In that sense it’s hard mentally. Also, when I cover the conflict stories like in Afghanistan and Iraq, I got back and the IED’s had really messed me up. I was always thinking about getting my legs blown off and for six months I was walking around the streets of New York still seeing things that I told myself not to step on. I can’t imagine what soldiers go through when they come back.”

Right To Die

Although drawn to conflict stories because of the intense emotion, Jackson also covers beautiful stories of culture and people. One of the stories that had a big impact on him was a special on HBO he filmed called “Right To Die” about euthanasia, the practice of ending one’s life. Jackson and correspondent Vikram Gandhi followed stories of people across the US who were trying to end their lives but couldn’t due to laws prohibiting the practice.

To gain a different perspective, Jackson found a woman who decided to end her life in Amsterdam (where euthanasia is legal). After meeting with her a few times, Jackson earned her trust and the woman wanted him to film the final moments of her life. “She thought it was important for the rest of the world to see,” he said.

All of the woman’s friends stood around her in the hospital room. “She looked around the room and said goodbye to her friends, then she looks at me and says ‘Jackson, thank-you, goodbye’. Then she looks at Vikram and says ‘Vikram, thank-you, goodbye’.”

The woman then looked at the doctor and said okay and received the injection. She was unconscious within a minute and died two-minutes later. “We didn’t put that she said goodbye to us in the film. We worried that the viewer would think we had something to do with it. But I’ll never forget that moment man, it’s something I think about all the time.”

“Right to Die” was a culmination of all the aspects of storytelling that Jackson had been trying to put together. “It took earning her trust to be in that room. Then to be able to share that story with the world, showing both sides [of the argument], and leaving the audience to decide what they think. I’m just really proud of it.”

Enjoy the Ride

Jackson believes that one of the best things he ever did was stop caring about where he’d be when he is 50. It was something he often dwelled on in his early twenties. Instead he chooses to focus on the journey.

“I see that spirit in some people. That desire to live so hard and you can feel it when you’re around them. I gravitate towards those type of people who want to just seize everything right infront of them. They want to just go for the ride, not knowing where it’s going to take them in thirty years. But they have faith in themselves and a love for what they’re doing so they know it will lead to some awesome things.”

In January of 2017, Jackson moved with his wife and their 9 month old baby to South Africa for his most recent role as VICE Africa Bureau Chief. Traveling so often is tough, especially with a growing family. Jackson is much more careful about planning his time away than he once was. “I’ll go away for three weeks and think what the hell am I doing right now? It would be so nice to be home by the fire having a glass of wine and a hamburger. Thankfully I’m married to a really strong, independent woman, but it’s hard for us. I’ve missed a ton of friend’s birthdays, weddings, and bachelor parties.”

Nevertheless, Jackson’s passion for finding stories and connecting with people around the world is very evident. “There are so many beautiful people out there, so many different points of view, so many different ways of living, and so many different ways of just being on this Earth,” he said. “If you’re going to just spend your time around the same people you’ve known your whole life, you’re missing out on growing from the way different people affect you. Every time I go out there, yes I’m coming back with a story, but I’m also affected by the people I met — good or bad. And in that sense, I feel pretty lucky.”