In February 2016, A producer named Jeff Newton was at work on an episode of Vice on HBO about ISIS. The United States was carrying out airstrikes against the terrorist organization across North Africa and the Middle East, and Vice sent Newton and his crew, which included a cameraman, a correspondent, and the video journalist Brent Renaud, to Libya.
Renaud, an unassuming but tenacious filmmaker from Little Rock, Arkansas, who’d won a Peabody for his 2014 Vice series about a school for troubled kids in Chicago, was accustomed to filming in perilous environments. He’d reported stories in cartel-controlled regions of Mexico, earthquake-devastated towns in Haiti, bombed-out villages in Iraq. His vérité, fly-on-the-wall style earned him comparisons to the likes of Albert and David Maysles and DA Pennebaker, but he approached his subjects with a rare combination of compassion and courage, earning the trust of his colleagues in even the most hazardous conditions. “You have to make split-second decisions all the time,” says Newton, a gruff but affable man of 54 with the build of a linebacker, who worked with Renaud for 11 years in places like Iraq, Libya, and Somalia. “And the only thing you have to make those decisions is experience.”
Newton’s crew was in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, when the US bombed an ISIS training facility 50 miles west, in a town along the Mediterranean coast called Sabratha. He wanted to shoot the aftermath. “Nobody else in the world was really able to film it,” he says. An hour after the strike was reported, they were in a helicopter. On the 20-minute ride from Tripoli, one of the crew’s fixers told Newton that Sabratha was still under ISIS control. Newton got nervous. His “hasty decision,” as he puts it now, would risk the lives of his entire crew. But soon they were on the ground, and Newton had a job to do. He told his crew he’d go to the training facility alone, get the footage, and come straight back. “I didn’t want other people to have to be responsible for my decisions,” he says.
The government had arranged accommodations for the crew at a seaside resort, with armed guards keeping watch as if it were a military compound. After a night’s rest, Renaud told Newton he’d go with him to the training facility, which had been reduced to rubble and was still smoldering from the airstrike. “Brent was willing to put his life on the line for me,” Newton says. The other crew members then agreed they’d all go, “one for all, all for one. And it worked out.” The footage aired in June 2016, in an episode of Vice titled “Libya on the Brink.” Newton says it “made the piece,” and no one saw it as a mistake because the crew returned unharmed. Still, he says, it was “one of the worst decisions [I’ve made] in the entire 28 years that I’ve been doing this.”
Calculated risks are routine for a war journalist, and knowing when to take them gets more intuitive, if not easier, with each assignment. “To get that picture, or that video, you’ve gotta be closer,” Newton says. “You get to the center of gravity.” But no amount of experience can prepare you for the unexpected. “You cannot account for every sniper in a window. You cannot account for every mortar that falls on you that you don’t hear coming until it’s too late.”
Renaud was always one to get as close as he could—not to the conflict, but to the people. And though he couldn’t account for every landmine in Mexico, nor for every ISIS fighter in Libya, he survived two decades of reporting in such places. In late February, Renaud flew to Ukraine immediately after the Russian invasion. He was making a film about the global refugee crisis for TIME Studios and knew the horrors unfolding there would be essential to the story. He was right: As of April 21, more than 5 million Ukrainians had fled the country, Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.