A Fireside Chat with Matt

A week or two ago, an intriguing invitation arrived in my inbox from Lieutenant Commander Glenn von Zeil to attend a talk by Matt Tennyson about “The evolution of conflict journalism & interesting people interviewed”. This immediately piqued my interest, as I knew Matt from my involvement in the Cape Town Military Tattoo.

Glenn is is the Manager of Student Housing at UCT and Warden of Groote Schuur Residence and Mansions; in his efforts to introduce students to interesting South Africans, he holds so-called fireside discussions at Groote Schuur Residence in Rondebosch, at which various speakers are invited to share their knowledge and experience on a diverse range of topics.

I remember meeting Matt behind the scenes at the Cape Town Military Tattoo in 2010 – which was the first year I had been granted access behind the scenes with my camera and notebook in hand. I was told that he was a conflict journalist and war photographer who had been to virtually every war zone in the world. He had the world-weary air of someone who had experienced and witnessed the worst side of human beings first hand. But he did not fit my preconceived image of a conflict journalist – loud, confident, brash, a bit of a cowboy, bragging about the dangerous people he had encountered and sharing horror stories of close calls with death. Quite the opposite: he was quiet and unassuming, with a twinkle in his eye and a ready laugh.

Matt and Karen at the Cape Town Military Tattoo 2010, chatting with Capt John Manning, the announcer of the CTMT

My initial nervousness (I knew hardly anyone in the military at the time, and had felt thrown in the deep end – a case of sink or swim!) was soon dispelled, as we got chatting on the sidelines of the Tattoo, and as I got to know him a bit better. Matt was unfailingly kind, humble and generous in sharing his experience and knowledge, always doing so with a warm sense of humour. Over the years, our paths crossed a few times at military parades and subsequent Tattoos. I learned that he had created a website and was publishing a monthly magazine targeted at young people called ‘Hipe‘; the first issue had been published on 1 September 2007 – and the 10th anniversary edition has just come out this month! Go and check it out – I’ve included the link to the September PDF below.

Click to download the PDF

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was sent a copy of a new e-magazine called ‘Military Despatches’ – created and edited by Matt Tennyson! There have now been three issues of this (July, August and September), and they make for compelling reading, covering a broad range of military history, famous (or infamous) leaders, weapons and equipment, military traditions, historic campaigns or battles, reviews of books and movies… I was not surprised when he told me that he has received positive feedback from people all around the world, who have downloaded and forwarded this magazine.

Matt must be one of the most prolific writers I’ve ever encountered.

So when I heard that he would be giving a talk, I did not hesitate. I even persuaded hubby to accompany me to Groote Schuur Residence on Wednesday night, 13 September. I was pleased to see that, in addition to students from the residence, there were also a couple of my friends from the military present.

To start off his talk, Matt showed us some of the many items concealed in his photographer’s vest, which is the kind of sleeveless vest with multiple pockets, often worn by photographers, in which they keep spare batteries, memory cards, filters, cables, etc. Matt’s vest was stocked with some very unusual items, which I shall not reveal! 🙂

He shared his life story, from his youth in the small town of Garryowen in the Republic of Ireland, through his years of school in South Africa, the arrival of his call-up papers, his national service in the South African Defence Force, and the +/- 25 years he spent as journalist and photographer on assignment in war zones around the world. He has been shot at – and shot (!), arrested, imprisoned, deported, and blown up (!). Miraculously, he has survived – and carries his scars, both inner and outer, with dignity and courage.

In-between all the conflict journalism, he also lived in the US, where he interviewed film stars and famous folk in Hollywood (!), and for some time he even worked in the White House (!). He has met several US presidents and has flown in Air Force One!

With my fellow photographers Lorraine and Brent Best, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Sterne, and Matt Tennyson at the Cape Town Military Tattoo 2013

He showed us some of the photographs he had taken in various places around the world. The ones that stood out for me were of child soldiers in Africa; despite their small size, they looked old beyond their years. He said that, in Africa, the idea is that if you are as tall as the gun you would carry, you are expected to shoot – and kill, without a second thought. As a result, even children as young as 9 or 10 years are already battle-hardened soldiers. I find that incredibly sad and profoundly disturbing.

What is wrong with us as human beings, that we allow – even demand! – children to take up arms and become cold-blooded killers?

In response to questions about keeping safe and overcoming the language barrier, he replied that he always traveled with a translator, who often acted as guide and driver. It was imperative, especially in dangerous situations where it was likely they would be shot at or inadvertently stray into a firefight, to have someone who could mediate and explain who they were and assist in making contacts with interview subjects and gathering information. He said he had, over the years, developed a finely honed sixth sense, which told him when to pack up and get out quickly. And he always tried to learn some helpful phrases of the local language, as this could also defuse a volatile situation.

Matt emphasized that, since the official end of World War II, there has in fact been a war or conflict somewhere on the planet every single day. Driven by greed and fear, wars are fought over resources and land, between factions, political adversaries, tribes, ethnic groups, religions, nations, fuelled by international interference and nefarious agendas, a hunger for power, control and influence, and driven by an entire industry of making money through the arms trade and out of the misery of ordinary people.

Why is it that we cannot live in peace with each other? We only have one planet, and we are busy destroying it more and more every day. Why can we not see that?

There is no shortage of work in conflict journalism, sadly, but the proliferation of smartphones, the internet and social media across the globe has changed the ‘game’: nowadays, ordinary people on the ground film events with their phones and upload footage directly to the internet, to YouTube and other social media sites. It is no longer necessary to send journalists and film crews to sites of conflict, when so much footage is freely available online. Matt remarked how, in the old days, he would have carried a bulky DSLR camera with spare batteries and memory cards and a book everywhere with him – now he uses a smartphone and a tablet.

But I do think that there is still a place for the trained journalist with the integrity, the courage and the skill to ask the difficult questions and uncover the underlying facts and storylines – particularly given the emerging threat of the ‘fake media’ and the fact that our world seems (to me at least) to have become mind-bogglingly and increasingly complex, with so many competing ‘truths’ and hidden agendas muddying the waters and making it so difficult to understand what is happening and why – never mind the challenges of arriving at workable solutions.

A fireside discussion with Matt Tennyson (the bearded gentleman in the grey shirt sitting on the sofa) and guests at Groote Schuur residence

During our chat after the formal talk, Matt spoke about a project that is very close to his heart – helping the veterans in South Africa, many of whom are struggling to survive and to cover their medical costs, etc. I remembered reading an article called ‘Quo Vadis Military Despatches‘, that Matt had published in the September issue. I’m taking the liberty of quoting a passage:

“I went to a function some time back. One of the people at the function was a veteran of World War II. He was 91 years old. He was wearing an impressive collection of medals that included the Military Medal. I complimented him on his medals. What he said to me made me want to cry.

“Thank you. But you can’t eat medals,” he said.

This man, this veteran, a man that had given so much could not afford to eat three meals a day. And I know that there are many like him. I personally know a number of veterans that are battling. Many of them need medicine that they cannot afford. Some of them do not even get enough to eat. That is the reason why I want to raise funds. Imagine being in a position where we could actually help.”

Matt had spoken about using the internet-based platform called ‘Patreon’ – which promotes people who are trying to raise money for various projects and worthy causes. People can become patrons of a particular project and donate between $1 and $500 to a project every month, if they wish. Matt is intending to use Patreon to raise funds for veterans. If you would like to find out more about this project, you can contact Matt directly on editor@hipe.co.za.

Thank you to Matt who giving such a wonderful talk to us, and for granting us some insight into his life story. Good luck to you with your future endeavours! And thank you to Glenn von Zeil for arranging the talk and inviting us – and for allowing me to use his lovely group photograph!

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