Some journalists spend their careers behind a desk. That’s a fine way to work, depending on the beat, but it’s not for everyone. It’s not for Gianna Toboni and Isobel Yeung, who travel the world as correspondents for VICE on HBO.
The work is difficult and necessary. Toboni has reported from the frontline in Iraq, interviewed members of ISIS, and has previously worked with Al Jazeera and ABC News to tell important stories. Yeung has traveled to Aleppo, interviewed rape perpetrators in the DRC, embedded with fishermen in Tanzania who fish with dynamite, and previously lived and worked in China.
With the fifth season of VICE premiering earlier this year, Yeung and Toboni are as busy as ever. We managed to catch up with them to learn a little about how their work.
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Current Gig: Correspondents and producers, VICE on HBO. One word that best describes how you work:
Gianna Toboni: I leaned on my trusty and talented producer buddies, Alyse and Nicole for this one. They said “earnestly” and “fiercely.”
Isobel Yeung: Passionately. Current mobile device:
GT & IY:iPhone Current computer:
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today. How’d you end up in documentary news?
GT: Throughout college and in the few years after, I worked at ABC News as a booker, field producer, and digital correspondent. After quitting, I raised money on Kickstarter to fund a documentary I wanted to do in Haiti, which eventually got me in the door at VICE. I’ve had the opportunity to make a range of documentary films in more than 20 countries around the world with VICE. In between, I worked at Al Jazeera as a correspondent.
IY: Right after I graduated, I moved to China. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, except travel and learn a language. I started freelancing for various publications and broadcasters. It felt like Asia was underrepresented in global media coverage, so I was passionate about covering in-depth pieces that brought attention to that part of the world. China is a goldmine for fascinating and complex stories.
In 2014, I pitched a piece for Vice News on the Hong Kong protests. We created a 30-minute documentary, allowing us to dig into some of the issues that weren’t being covered in the news headlines. That immersive style of long-form docs really won me over. So I moved to New York to do that full-time.
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?
GT: Pen and notebook. Phone. Notes app. Podcasts. Zoom mic to do voiceover on the road.
IY: I use Day One quite a bit—it lets you keep a digital journal on your phone and stores the location/images, etc. It’s great because I’m always losing paper journals and this way I can jot down notes as I go, geotag locations, and upload images of places I’ve been, and try to keep track of everything. I also have an unhealthy relationship with most forms of social media.
What’s your workspace setup like? Obviously “workspace” can mean a lot of things, especially when you’re out in the field.
GT: I like having multiple drinks at once—water, juice, coffee, tea, etc. Having a sweatshirt and comfortable shoes are key. This all may seem obnoxious but mobile comfort is important when you spend a lot of time in uncomfortable places. Notebook and pen on one side. Research packet and usually one book on the other side. MacBook Air front and center—it helps that it’s small and easy to whip out. Phone with charger case usually within arms distance.
IY: Hectic! I’m out in the field a lot, so one day we’ll be at a civil rights protest and the next we’ll be in the Congolese countryside. I’m often prepping for shoots squashed into the back of a van or a plane (which is where I’m writing this from now!). I can work anywhere, but my home in Brooklyn is my sanctuary—I have a huge desk, big bay windows, and a jungle full of plants. I love working there.
And regarding workspaces that aren’t always optimal—how do you manage to get work done under difficult or sometimes dangerous circumstances?
GT: By surrounding myself with the best people who have become some of my best friends, and also by staying calm and making smart decisions.
IY: You need to be prepared, and to know as best you can what the situation is you’re walking into. That way you can half-predict what might arise. We’re also super lucky to have an incredible team of colleagues who we can chat things through with and calm our nerves when they need calming.
You obviously work from the road a lot. How you manage that? Bring everything and the kitchen sink, or stick to the essentials?
GT: Definitely stick to the essentials. I usually only bring a backpack regardless of whether the trip is 3 days or 2 weeks. Packing light is always worth it; sinks are for mid-trip laundry. Comfort and preparedness are the key.
IY: I’m a terrible packer. Fifteen minutes before I leave the house I throw everything in a bag. Once I arrived on a two-week shoot with one pair of socks! Generally though, I keep it as light as possible and just take the essentials. Oh, and I always take mini bottles of Tabasco wherever I go.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
GT: My mobile voiceover microphone. We often have to deliver pieces when I’m in the field, so the mic allows me to do voiceover wherever I am.
IY: My Kindle/iPad. I need a library of books and articles for a long journey.
What’s your favorite to-do list manager or way to keep things organized?
GT: I rely on my iPhone calendar and notebook. I also send myself text messages and emails.
IY: I sometimes use the Swipes app. It’s quite satisfying when you’ve completed a task to swipe it clean. Mostly though, I just revert to good ol’ pen and paper.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
GT: Listening. I’m not sure that I’m better than everyone else, but in conversation or interviews, I’m always focused on listening. If you’re trying to get something specific out of the convo, resist the urge to fill the dead space and you’ll often get it.
IY: I make killer eggs. Not to brag, but people do say they’re the best they’ve ever had.
What do you listen to while you work? Obviously it depends on the work you’re doing, but do you have a favorite playlist? Or do you prefer silence?
GT: Usually silence. But sometimes Blood Orange, Solange, and Lykke Li. I love NPR and podcasts but can’t multitask well while listening—I gotta focus on one or the other.
IY: When I’m working in the office or on a plane or café, I need zero distractions. I wear my headphones, switch noise canceling on, and sometimes blast some white noise if there’s chatter around.
What are you currently reading?
GT: I just finished It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario, a war photographer who works for The New York Times, among others. I’m just starting Ratfucked by David Daley. And I’m almost done with Originals by Adam Grant.
How do you recharge? Working in the news can be brutal when you actually want to disconnect for a moment. What do you do when you want to forget about work?
GT: Go to a rural Mexican beach town where no one speaks English and leave my phone in the room.
IY: I exercise, run, and cook—it’s my magic formula for switching off.
What’s your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early riser?
GT: I’ve always been early to bed, early to rise. I use the regular old phone alarm clock but am usually up anyway.
IY: It’s messy. I recently started using the Sleep Cycle app, which just confirmed how irregular my sleep is! I’m constantly jet-lagged, so quite often I wake up very early in the morning and start my day then because I can’t get back to sleep.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.