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Like many photojournalists, I’ve been shooting with my iPhone for a while. Using a mobile phone allows me to be somewhat invisible as a professional photographer; people see me as just another person in the crowd. Invisibility is particularly useful in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a potpourri of armed groups and governments have used conflict minerals as the latest way to help fund the warfare, atrocities and repression that have afflicted the area for more than a century.

The electronics industry is one of the main destinations for these minerals, which include tourmaline, cassiterite and coltan. They are used to make critical components of mobile phones, laptops and other gadgets. So it is fitting—if ironic—that I shot this entire essay with my iPhone. I arrived in Congo in early August to document some of the mines in an attempt to highlight how the minerals travel out of the country—and the trade’s effect on the lives of the workers who handle them along the way. At a camp for internally displaced people in Kibati, the phone helped me shoot scenes unobtrusively. Taking photographs with a phone also raises my awareness as a photographer. Instead of concentrating on camera settings and a large piece of equipment, I am better able to focus on the situation before me. It becomes more about how I feel and what I see.

In Congo, the effects of the mineral trade on every person’s life—even the lives of people who aren’t working at the mines—are palpable. At a Heal Africa clinic in Goma, I met an emaciated teenage girl who had been gang-raped by three Hutu militiamen allegedly funded by profits from the mines. I’m not advocating giving up our gadgets. The causes of problems in Congo are far more complex. There are industry sponsored programs like Solutions for Hope, which tries to monitor coltan. But auditing the origins of these minerals is complicated by inaccessibility and danger. I’d like people to pause when they look at these photographs, taking time to think about where the material for modern technology comes from—and what lives are affected before they get into the phones in our hands.

Michael Christopher Brown is a photographer based in New York City. His photographs appear in this week’s issue of TIME. See more of his work here.

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How I Pulled Off a $300 Million Drug Deal

From 1972 until the late 80s, Brian O’Dea was one of the world’s most successful drug smugglers. Then he got addicted to coke, and although he cleaned up following an overdose and a heart attack, the DEA tracked him down. So, throughout the 1990s, while everyone else was enjoying grunge (and coke), Brian was in prison.

Nowadays, he’s a big, reformed hit on Canadian TV as a host and producer, and he continues to work with addicts while advocating the legalization of drugs. Far from being a grizzled ex-con, Brian’s an erudite, hip kind of guy. Apparently, as he told me, guys like him used to be the norm in the smuggling game. Nowadays, it’s all cartels and guns. I caught up with Brian to talk about the golden days of drug running.

VICE: I wanted to ask you about the process of drug smuggling, because it’s obviously a very complex operation. I was wondering if you could sort of talk me through it a little bit. First though, it was mainly marijuana that you were smuggling, wasn’t it?
Brian: Yes. From time to time I smuggled small amounts of coke just to get a stash of money when I was broke, but pot was always my choice because I loved it.

How were you bringing it in?
The last deal we did was ultimately 75 tons split over two loads, and we used fishing boats in Alaska. All of our crews were known in the area as fishermen, so we were hiding in plain sight. Do you want me to give you the anatomy of that last deal?


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