Get to Know the Pros: A Q&A with Journalist, Producer, and Documentary Filmmaker Thomas Nybo
Thomas Nybo is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker who has reported from more than 50 countries, including Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Sudan, Guatemala, and Russia. He was an embedded CNN reporter in Iraq and has also worked for The New York Times, PBS FRONTLINE/World and several agencies within The United Nations. At CNN, he was one of the first journalists to pioneer "backpack journalism," in which one person reports, shoots and edits their own material in the field, using digital video cameras and laptop editing stations. His stories have included a post-9/11 look at Hezbollah in Lebanon, child trafficking in Romania, and a one-hour documentary film on the struggles of hip-hop artists in Cuba. In 2010, Thomas led the first Wayfinder.TV production in Guatemala.
WFTV: You’ve worked and shot all over the world for CNN, UNICEF, The New York Times, and on your own. Is there one place you can say is your favorite? What makes it so special for you?
I always return to Guatemala, a country I've visited about a dozen times over the past decade. I spent several months living in Antigua, living with a Guatemalan family while studying Spanish and salsa dancing, a combination I'd recommend to anyone. As much fun as I've had there, you have to recognize that Guatemala is a complex place – it has a rich, indigenous culture with some 23 different languages. The people are warm and open and generous, but at the same time, the country has emerged as one of the most violent on earth. In 2007, the United Nations and the World Bank ranked it as the third most murderous country – a legacy from a bloody 36-year civil war. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to my next trip, hopefully in the fall.
WFTV: Is there one place that you haven’t yet been that you’d like to go? Why there?
I've been trying to visit Iran for years. Because I'm an American hoping to produce documentary films on Iranian culture, I've run into considerable roadblocks. What fascinates me about Iran, beyond the allure of visiting a place that we are told is largely off-limits to an American, is the discrepancy between the conventional wisdom of Iran as a closed, conservative society, with the personal reports I've heard from friends who've actually spent time with young Iranians, who are brimming with energy and fresh ideas about how they'd like to see their country evolve.
WFTV: Is there one place you’ll never go?
WFTV: What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in while working?
I was filming a documentary in Lebanon, and was detained by a group of Hezbollah gunmen that was upset that I was filming in a certain area of Beirut. They took me to an isolated spot deep in the slums, and they weren't forthcoming with their plans for me. After an uncomfortable stretch of time, I convinced them to allow me to speak to a Hezbollah spokesperson that I had met a few days earlier, and he ultimately straightened things out.
WFTV: How did you get started on this professional track?
I've always been a storyteller. My first degree was in creative writing, with a focus on writing fiction. Then I picked up another degree in journalism. After a year writing at a newspaper, I landed a job at CNN, where things really opened up.
WFTV: What was the first documentary you worked on?
I spent a month following a group of people, including an 11-year-old girl living in a refrigerator box, in the largest garbage dump in Central America.
WFTV: What was the best part of the Wayfinder.TV Guatemala production?
Returning to Guatemala and spending time with Guatemalans, and being able to share that experience with the Wayfinder.TV crew.
WFTV: What’s your standard gear for a production?
I like to move fast and travel light. Tomorrow I'm flying to Bolivia and I won't even check a bag. I'll have two HD video cameras, a still camera, two laptops, a couple of microphones, a tripod, a small LED light, and some clothes – all crammed into a backpack and a barely-legal carry-on suitcase.
WFTV: Other than the stuff you just mentioned, is there one thing in your bag that is indispensible?
WFTV: If you need it, what do you do for creative inspiration?
Over the past year, I've spent more than three months working in Haiti. Whenever possible, I like to wander the streets at night with my still camera, photographing and talking with the Haitian people. I always set out with the goal of getting at least one photograph that moves me in some way. One time it was a photo of an old man tending a fire in a dark alleyway between houses in a neighborhood with no electricity. As I photographed him crouching by the fire, his beautiful teenage daughter walked up next to him, wearing a mini-skirt and a t-shirt that said, "I want it all!" It was a great juxtaposition.
WFTV: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists and filmmakers?
Get out there.