Photographer Steve Shelton revisits Sudan

Steve Shelton in Sudan.

The Department of Communication caught up with multimedia journalist Steve Shelton (BA, 1984) as he was preparing for his second trip to the village and refugee camp of Doro, Sudan. Once more partnering with Dr. Allan Kelly of the international non-profit medical care provider, Medical Teams Worldwide, Shelton documented the plight of the refugees through the use of video, photography, and writing. However, this trip’s destination proved to be different from the village he had left in November 2011.

Shelton is a veteran photographer and journalist with over twenty years of experience. His journalistic expertise has led him to work in such places as Kosovo, Nicaragua and El Salvador. He says that after years of refining his skills, his current focus is “visually exploring subjects’ potential, challenging stereotypes of what we might think of another’s potential.” Simply put, he wishes to “optimize potential.” Working for non-profit and socially conscious organizations appeals to his journalistic approach. “If it’s not personal, maybe I shouldn’t be in the business.”

Shelton prefers to partner with companies with missions like environmental intelligence, gender equality, conservation and disease control, and believes the key to reaching these goals is “empowerment through education.” Although Shelton enjoys his work, Sudan is an extreme climate with equally intense social issues. As he describes it, “It’s not a great camping trip. You’re basically camping out in a dustbowl. It’s just an armpit.”

Sudan is a war-torn country with a history of conflict and violence. A decades-long civil war that left two million people displaced in its wake ended in 2005. The peace didn’t last long as a new issue developed when South Sudan seceded from the rest of the country in July 2011, drawing a bloody, oil-stained border in the sand. The most recent conflict involves ta dispute over the right to ownership of territory along the nations’ shared border. It only added fuel to the fire when the southern territories turned out to be rich in oil reserves. It was here, on a dirt-covered makeshift airstrip, that Shelton and his team entered Sudan.

When Shelton arrived in South Sudan in November 2011, Sudan had recently bombed the bordering country of South Sudan, killing an estimated twenty people and forcing thousands more to flee their homes. As many as 5,000 shell-shocked, hungry and wounded refugees piled into the village of Doro. Shelton began documenting the injuries and strife of the Sudanese nation. He encountered people who were directly affected by the bombings, as Dr. Kelley treated everything from shrapnel wounds to malaria patients. However, as Shelton would discover upon his return visit in March 2012, the situation would only progress from bad to worse.

The differences between the two trips were vast. Shelton returned to Doro in March 2012 to find the village had increased from 5,000 to 45,000 occupants. The world had started to pay attention to the Sudanese conflict with non-governmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders and World Vision arriving to offer aid. The United Nations also appeared, mediating conflicts between the many different tribes, helping to keep tensions as low as possible. Although these organizations lived more comfortably than the actual refugees, no one ever gets comfortable. As Shelton explains, “Everybody is in refugee mentality. Everybody is in some way displaced, even the NGOs that have come over there.”

The increase of heat from 120 to 135 degrees, combined with cool nights, played a huge role is the types of illnesses the team was treating. Respiratory problems such as pneumonia, malaria and whooping cough were more prevalent than the physical injuries from last November’s bombings. Although the situation was bleak, Shelton maintained a positive attitude, keeping in mind the possibility for growth and the hope embedded in the refugee camp. In an interview, he paid tribute to “the strength and resilience of the refugees in terms of what they are able to withstand, physically and emotionally, on an everyday basis.”

When asked to predict some future problems of the Doro refugee camp, Shelton said that with the rainy season approaching, the potential of the area becoming a giant cesspool is realistic. With those kinds of unsanitary conditions being a breeding ground for dysentery, diarrhea, and malaria, the camp may be facing relocation in the July through August timeframe. He also believes we have only had a small taste of the magnitude of events to come in Sudanese oil conflict.

Although he would love to revisit Sudan, Shelton has moved on to address other social problems in the world. He recently finished a short film for Dormans Coffee in Kenya, highlighting the inequality of women in the coffee industry. Also, “I’m currently working on more extensive productions in Sudan and Kenya and partnering with established NGOs who, themselves, are invested in social responsibility, health care and education issues,” he said. Currently, Shelton is spending time with his family during a well-deserved short break.