My most difficult shoot. South Sudan with my Leica M10. by John Milton

My most difficult shoot. South Sudan with my Leica M10.

by John Milton

NOTE: This is another amazing entry from John Milton. This is real photojournalism my friends. Real, Raw and Powerful. See his other powerful posts HERE. 


I’ve just returned from the world’s youngest country and certainly one of the most volatile. South Sudan has only been in existence since 2011. This place abounds with civil war, tribal conflict, and unfortunately has over 1.5 million people on the brink of famine. Definitely the most difficult country I have ever tried to gain access to. Before entering I was told by an insider that the CIA station chief warned this is one of the few places on earth that a Special Forces team cannot be used for civilian rescue ops and on the flight out one of the top UN commanders in the country explained to me how the place is a ticking time bomb.

Not too comforting.

It was a tough decision to go thru with due to risk levels but it was definitely worth it. The airport terminal was simply a tent with holes in it. The capital of Juba has a 7pm curfew and I was instructed to be absolutely certain not to snap any photos while in the city as I could be imprisoned by National Security. I felt much safer once I left the capital where there were no restrictions. After 7 hours of driving into the bush with a team of fixers, we reached the nomadic camp of the tribe we were searching for. I slept out in the open with these incredible people for three days and I must say it was damn exhilarating.

During my first day I was invited to bathe in the Nile with the children but was casually warned to watch out for crocs – I respectfully declined that invitation. Each day was full of unique surprises – from cows urinating on heads, to children being led around the camp with a rope around their necks as they were taken to fight other children (none were harmed!), to scarification of men’s faces as a rite of passage, to covering themselves in the ashes from burned cow dung every morning – all mind blowing traditions. As you’ll notice from the photos, the AK47 plays a very important role in tribal life due to protection of their cattle from theft by other tribes which happens quite often. These people will kill for their cattle without blinking an eye. After a few days I quickly realized the tribal South Sudanese are tough warriors and amazing people. They have absolutely NOTHING but still have EVERYTHING. All they care about is their family, cattle, food, and traditions. Nothing else. Quite a nice way to live life.


Enjoy the photos!

John

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98 Comments

  1. Flabbergasting. Thank you for sharing. Very little words are left to describe what the pictures are telling..

  2. I dig your pics… I have no where near the nerve to travel to a place like that. Good on you, I can’t criticize you photos but I am going to disagree with the part in which you said they live quite a nice life. My perspective, not into being urinated on by … by anything/one… but by the grace of God, there go I. I am grateful to have not been born in a place like that. Life there looked pretty tough to me.

  3. John, great work. I was moved by your photos. I hope you don’t feel put down by the off the wall critique. It was inappropriate and total crap. His write could have been a script for a sitcom.

  4. Wow, these are some of the best photos I have seen on this site. The subject, colours, all great. Where is your next adventure and can you please post again?!. Thanks

  5. These images are fabulous. It shows life as it is for these people. I dismiss the previous comments about clutter in the background etc thats rubbish. It is what it is when you take real images. What you are supposed to tell people… Ummm Im taking a picture everyone off the set… Please. What I find about Leica cameras (I have an M240 and Q) is that (I’m talking of the M240) they are not fast paced cameras you need time to set up the shot… I find the Q far more fast paced and reactionary. Lovely work.

  6. Great images and thanks for the background story. It takes a lot of courage to go into such a difficult situation and come away with such inspiring, beautiful and respectful images. Just remember this: you do you. You know what you’re trying to say. If someone wants to go into the same situation with all their “advice” on how to “improve” let them do so and then we compare. I think you did a great job. I know I wouldn’t have come away with these fine images had I been in your shoes. I’d have been too scared. lol.

    • Really appreciate it! Almost anyone in my shoes would have come away with great photos because it’s such an interesting place and every second presents an amazing photo op. I always tell people I’m not a great photographer but I simply travel to extremely interesting locations 🙂

  7. Hi John,
    I like your pictures, and you clearly have the motivation to do great stuff.
    If I can share some constructive criticism with you…

    1. Watch your backgrounds, most of your pics are environmental portraits, a good env’ picture begins with a great background, shoot through your frame to bring context to your subject within the backdrop.
    2. Avoid clutter, your shot of the three boys is being lost in the horns and shapes of the animals, by following point 1 above and placing your subject, you can communicate your vision more clearly – this will help the viewer connect with your subject. And you’ll have a better picture.
    3. Are you shooting everything wide open? Unless this renders a better picture, then you’re undermining your subject, either shoot it well, wide. Or don’t.. You’re on leica? A couple of these shots would pull texture into the frame with 5.6. At 1.4 I feel they’re a bit woolly. (Yes I’m a leica user, but if the method reduces the impact of the image, don’t use it, its a camera, and if it was shot on an olympus OM10, we’d be crying foul more readily).
    4. You need to spend more time with your subjects, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the environment, taking pictures is an easy distraction, but you end up with snaps. Try slowing down a little to build trust and get closer, just because you’re an amateur, your pictures don’t need to be. HCB shot a heap of work as an amateur, and the best of us are amateurs, its a passion not just a job, for ‘thinking photographers’ 🙂
    5. Be aware, that photographing tribes, peasants and the poor will bring questions around motive. I see a lot of amateurs in asia, photographing poor people in their huts and villages. If you don’t have something to say then the work can reinforce the stereotype – not your intent, but have a story to tell.
    Southern Sudan. Salgado
    https://www.artspace.com/sebastiao_salgado/dinka-group-at-pagarau-southern-sudan
    McCullin India
    https://curiator.com/art/don-mccullin/early-morning-at-the-kumbh-mela-allahabad-india

    The above are black and white, but demonstrate composition, in a similar context.

    keep going. Best cb

    • Dude, how and why would you critique some ones work who’s actually out in the field. You don’t know his conditions, limitations, etc… Wheres your work?

    • Thanks for the critique and encouragement. You’re right – I do need to slow down sometimes but in such a risky place it’s hard to do that at times. And yes my compositional skills need to improve quite a bit. I don’t shoot wide open all the time but had to on a lot of these shots due to lighting and lack of tripod.

    • Your comments are spoken like a person that has done nothing, but thinks he’s done everything.

      The man was shooting in a place with strangers, a foreign land, dangerous, dusty and captured that quite well. My hats off to him….just don’t push you luck with some folks – it ain’t worth dying for IMHO.

    • I think by far, this is the worst constructive criticism I’ve read of some of the best images I’ve seen in awhile. One cannot critique work this good and not share their own work.

      • I agree that one should never ever criticize others work without sharing their own and offering it up for critique. Just as people should not “review” lenses or cameras without sharing images they took from them. ; )

  8. Clearly, no nobody told Mr. Milton that if you shoot an M body with a 35mm lens you are only allowed to shoot mediocre street photos of people walking around trying to get to work or school. This business is of traveling to dangerous places and capturing amazing images is most peculiar.

    Great stuff, John. Nice to see someone actually using an M in the wild.

    -Alex.

  9. Excellent images – the tone, feel, placement – outstanding. One message on this thread suggests you were not close enough. I think he fails to note that you, as an outsider, went into the heart of one of the most dangerous places on Earth, gained access, gained trust, spoke with them, stayed with them….if that is not getting close, I do not know what is. The image of the boy with the bullet in his teeth is World class.

  10. 1.5 million people is “unfortunate”? The understatement of the year.

    While I found the images beautiful in colour and sometimes composition, I failed to see the connection between them and the undoubtedly brutal environment.

    As someone once said… “you’re not close enough”, and I really mean that. These images have a very distanced feel about them.

    • Really? Fantastic critique. I feel distant too. I mean, three or so feet from a tribesman with a 35mm manual focus lens is way too far back. I mean, seriously. And he should have told them to smile.

    • Yeah i know I’m a terrible writer. Should have said “absolute tragedy” – and yep I should have gotten a bit closer but sometimes it’s hard when in such an unknown environment

  11. Protected by nothing, these boys have survived harsh environment there. They are surely the toughest boys for their age in the world…but how old are they?

  12. The photographer may have a solid collage of good work, but with all due respect, in my mind this is a very good lesson on how not to photograph Africans. As a journalist, I struggle to make the connection between parts of the text and the images, where were these actually shot? If some shots look posed, I’m wondering, was this really for journalistic purposes? If this was a reporting assignment why is that left out of the text? As for the pictures, regardless of how striking some images are, I find it difficult to appreciate work that in my opinion looks like it over exoticises it’s subjects and comes too close to reducing young African boys to objects of poverty porn. A people and it’s culture deserve dignity and respect.

    • Poverty porn? Your comments were not made with “all due respect” but, rather, to showcase your high opinion of your own sensibilities. Your comment is nothing more than armchair photojournalism. If you believe any of the photos are overly contrived or that Mr. Milton sidesteps the truths of a hard life for “the shot” or a personal agenda, go to South Sudan for us and return with the truth.

      Mr Milton: Thank you for these photos.

    • @TM So, what exactly would make these more dignified or respectful for you? Perhaps it’s your own racism and sense of cultural superiority at work if you see these people as “exotic” and undignified in these excellent photos. I see interesting people full of personality from a different place and background from myself.

    • Hi TM. These photos are from a nomadic village along the Nile about 5-7 hours north of Juba. I’m not a journalist as all my travel is simply for adventure purposes as obviously i am an amateur photog. Sorry if you felt the photos were a bit disrespectful since that was definitely not the intention as I have so much respect for these people. I guess I failed as a photographer since my opinion was not properly communicated thru the collection of images.

    • show us your work around the ice cream parlor or some other of your “danger zone” photos…

  13. Ok I may get slated on here for saying this. As I’ve read through the comments and everyone is fawning over these images. They subject matter is amazing and very interesting and I’d love to see more. I’d even buy a book from this guy as his work is very edgey and exciting. But I can’t help feel that in most of the portrait shots the composition is very, well amateurish. I suspect it’s a result of the rangefinder system we’re it is easier to get focus over the middle of the image? What I mean is the photographer has placed his subjects in the bullseye position in the frame. With so much negative space above their heads. I get the shots with the cows in the frame behind them but the others I feel he’s missed the chance at getting some amazing portraits. Still I find thhe feel and colours of the images amazing. This guy has some major balls going to these places.

    • point taken! i love constructive criticism. if the photos feel a bit “amateurish” it is simply because they are. I’m purely an amateur photographer and travel + mediocre photos are both hobbies of mine. Actually the “rule of thirds” is engrained in my head but sometimes when shooting in places where your heart is racing thru your body because of fear and excitement then the rules just seem to be forgotten and i just focus on pushing the button (and yes many times it is also due to the focus patch on rangefinders}

  14. Truly great work! As mentioned by another reader – Leni Riefenstahl’s pictures from Africa comes to mind. This is both art and photo journalism. There will be a book? Did you have a team of people, including guards? Leica… Dust?

    • Thanks Tor. Yes I had to hire a team. Impossible to do without. Yeah the Leica went thru hell on this trip!! 😉

    • It has ALWAYS Been focused on brands I love and use. From day one, it was Leica. This site started by being a Leica review site. M8, M8.2, Lenses, M9, M240, etc. Then Started using Sony, Olympus, and write about those formats and brands. I tried all others and have owned all brands but still stick with Leica, Sony, Olympus and Hasselblad. This is a different kind of review site as it’s personal. I talk of my personal thoughts on cameras in reviews. But Leica is what gave birth to this site 10 years ago, and it has always been a focus here. Thank you.

  15. Wow, loved your article. Great photos and interesting stuff. How did you find the courage to go to such a place

  16. Jaw dropping extraordinary with amazingly breathtaking beauty while exuding raw emotion in every capture. Thank you for sharing!

  17. Wow seriously grateful that you are sharing these with us all here, and for risking so much for all of our viewing pleasure and education.. absolutely mind blowing photos that are just incredible! Have been taken back by every post from you so far and this is another one that leaves me speechless, thank you so much.

  18. Amazing images, Don’t know about others seen these images but I get and underling hostility going on here which makes feel very uneasy. Doug asks about the bullet in the lads teeth, scary enough but its the eyeshot make me uneasy which is the whole point of these image. Lovely images with beautiful muted colours. Well done.

  19. I’m curious what led to the photo of the child holding a bullet between their teeth. Was that a documentary photo or was it posed?

    • This boy was fiddling with a bullet in his hands so I asked him (via my fixer) to put it between his teeth. I’ve always wanted to take a photo like that but never had the proper opportunity.

  20. Fantastic reportage and images.
    Must be the best since a long time here!
    Thanks for sharing your work John!
    John

  21. Amazing photos! So much emotion as well as perfect composition and edit. Is it shot with 28mm?

  22. Leni Riefenstahl in her book ‘The Last of the Nuba’ photographed in Sudan 44 years ago Congratulations on your excellent documentary of Sudanese life.

  23. John,
    You’re contribution of the unique photographs that depict the predawn of civilization constitute a one of a kind summary of that phase of human life.
    They’re stunning, & out of this world.

  24. Wow. Just wow. There are some times I run across a post or photo log and I think, “those are fair photographs but the setting/subject really makes it” and other times “those are fantastic photographs too bad the setting/subject is not terribly interesting”.

    Then there are posts like yours that scream “these are stellar photos of a people you might never see photos of again”. I’ve already gone through these twice, and will likely do it a few more times. You captured both the emotion of the moment and the character of the people. Hats off to you sir.

    • so glad they had such an impact on you. This has to be one of my favorite trips ever and I’m thankful this shows in my photos. i still have so much to learn with the Leica rangefinder though

    • there are tour companies operating in South Sudan…reasonable hotels in Juba too (see Tripadvisor, etc)

      • there isn’t a single capital city in the world where TripAdvisor doesn’t have reviews. Those guys have really conquered the world

        • john also keep in mind there are hundreds of NGOs working in Juba due to massive humanitarian efforts therefore there are plenty of people to write reviews of these hotels but just don’t be mistaken as this is not a casual tourist destination that you can rock up on and catch an uber to your hotel 🙂 if you are interested in going though then just let me know and I can help

    • it was tough and yeah it took me a long time to get access to this place. Somalia, Afghanistan, and North Korea were much easier to get into. thx

  25. wow. mini masterpieces embodying the core reason for taking a still image: moving the viewer and memorializing an essential event or thing. and considering the risk, amazing job. did you have one (or multiple) camera body on this trip and how did u handle the dust? having been in central nigeria in similar conditions i have an idea of the difficulty. did u use a wide angle big, perhaps a 28mm summilux? i can feel the dust in between my teeth and the joy of such a opportunity to be with these people. beautiful art!

    • Yes you know exactly how i felt then!!! The dust was really unbearable and all i had in the back of my mind always was “my poor Leica!” conditions were horrible but a damn good test for my M10. I used the 35 Summilux FLE and the 75 Summicron. I do have an M6 and a M240 but I only brought the M10 along on this trip. In these conditions its always best to travel as light as possible. I’m trying to gain access to the oil rebels in Nigeria soon. Wanna join?? 😉

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