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Pete Muller

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In many ways, Yida is the South Sudan of popular imagination. Small Cessnas, ferrying medicine and other essential supplies, land on a tattered airstrip lined with beleaguered faces. The sprawling landscape is scorched and unforgiving. What little vegetation existed has been slashed and used by the camp’s more than 20,000 inhabitants to build basic shelters. Modest huts, made entirely of wood and thatch, dot a landscape that seems wholly unfit for human settlement.

The refugee camp in Yida rests approximately 18 miles south of the new and contested border between Sudan and South Sudan. To its north lies the embattled state of Southern Kordofan, where southern-aligned rebels wage a bitter and protracted insurgency against the northern government. In recent months, northern forces, operating under the command of Sudanese President Omar Al- Bashir, have employed brutal tactics to suppress the rebellion to no avail. An indiscriminate campaign of aerial bombardment has forced a mass exodus of Nuba civilians, more than 100,000 of whom have taken refuge in camps like Yida.

As fighting in Southern Kordofan and other adjacent border regions intensified in recent weeks, aid agencies in Yida reported a sharp rise in the number of new arrivals. Many come by foot, having walked for days to escape the high altitude bombers that have become a hallmark of the war. While Yida offers relative security, its extremely isolated location creates concern among aid agencies over their ability to provide adequate services for the rapidly swelling population. Food and water are scarce, electricity and phone networks are non-existent and political dynamics within the camp are contentious and secretive. The impending rain season threatens to turn the camp into a muddy and chaotic bastion of want and disease.

During the week I spent in Yida and neighboring camps, during which I provided visual media support for an Amnesty International research mission looking into wide-ranging human rights concerns in the area, I experienced alternating waves of inspiration and dismay. In nearly three years of covering South Sudan’s precarious transition to independence, I have yet to encounter a more welcoming, perseverant and intellectually driven community as the one I found in Yida. Despite dire circumstances, I met countless individuals who maintain an awe-inspiring thirst for education, a pursuit that many view as paramount in the battle against injustice and the marginalization of the Nuba people. Tea, coffee and assistance are offered at every turn and dignity defines the social landscape.

While their lives and aspirations have been compromised by this conflict, the mood among Yida’s refugees remains defiant. Many express support for the transformation of the Sudanese government, through forceful means if necessary, in order to bring about a system that more aptly embraces the country’s profound ethnic and racial diversity. “I ask myself why, for centuries, [the northern government] has been pushing us down,” wondered Issac Malak, a refugee from Southern Kordofan who arrived in Yida with hopes of finding employment. “There is no justice in Sudan…and I think of getting back my rights by all means that I have.”

With fighting in Southern Kordofan raging on and rains set to arrive in the coming weeks, the situation for refugees in Yida and other border camps is extremely precarious. “We pray for strength and peace,” says Abdul Rahman, a pastor in one of Yida’s six parishes. When I attended his service last Sunday, the pews of his thatch-roofed church were filled people who sang in tones that seem to put hope ahead of sorrow.

Pete Muller is a photographer based in South Sudan. He was named LightBox’s 2011 Wire Photographer of the Year. See more of his work here.

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Photographs from Egypt, South Sudan, Yemen and Vatican City.

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Of the millions of photographs moving through the news services—known as “the wires”—this year, the work of Associated Press freelancer Pete Muller, 29, stood out. His exceptional photographs—focused on Africa and particularly Sudan—take an individual approach to storytelling, one that combines a distinctive aesthetic with journalistic integrity.

The U.S.-born photographer moved to Sudan in 2009 knowing that the country was at a critical point in its history. Sudan had been devastated by decades of brutal civil war between the Arab-Islamic north and largely Christian south and was on the cusp of formal division. This July, southern Sudan became the world’s 193rd country, and Muller knew that very few journalists were in the region covering the story. “I thought that spending a few years documenting southern Sudan’s transition to independence would be of value to the historical record and might shed light on an underreported but geopolitically significant story,” he says.

Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography says Muller’s work showcases “a distinctiveness of voice combined with a fairly unique access.” Muller has found subject matter that balances the AP’s desire for news with a personal passion for more in-depth story telling. “I hope that, when appropriately paired with words, it contributes to the record of South Sudan at its long-awaited birth,” the photographer says of his work. “In an intellectual sense, I hope that it underscores the challenges of national identity and nation-states that exists in countless countries across the world and has, for centuries, been the source of immense bloodshed.” Internationally, where the majority of AP’s photo content is staff-produced, Muller is a rarity. He has been working for the AP since April 2010 and is one of a handful of freelancers the wire service works with, in part because of his location in Africa. In addition to his long-term work in Sudan, Muller has shot several stand-alone portrait stories, including one about rape victims in the Congo, in the last year.

Along with the work of a select group of established staff photographers—sprinkled across the bigger news agencies—Muller’s work diversifies the output from the wires to include work that differentiates itself from the standard news assignment fare. Other wire photographers who’ve also succeeded in adding their personal touch to their reportage work this year include Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly, who produced a topographic series from Afghanistan and Libya, the AP’s Kevin Frayer, who shot an essay offering a different perspective on Afghanistan, the AP’s David Guttenfelder’s, notable for his series in North Korea and Japan, and the AP’s Rodrigo Abd, who used a box camera that developed the film inside the camera to make portraits of indigenous Guatemalan women. Getty’s John Moore deserves special mention for his work in Somalia, which was sandwiched among his coverage of some of theyear’s biggest news stories, including the revolution in Libya and the Occupy protests.

In an era of image saturation where it is more difficult than ever to differentiate one set of images from another, this more personal approach is finding support from the within the agencies. “We want photographers to have a voice and as long as that voice is journalistically sound and is as objective or impartial as it needs to be meet AP standards for fairness and accuracy,” Lyon says. “It is Important to have diverse group of photographers and it is important to let them express themselves—to let them to do something that, once upon a time, was not common and add even unheard of in the wire services.”

Although the lion’s share Muller’s work this past year went out through AP, he also worked directly for the New York Times, the Times of London, Foreign Policy and others publications. Muller has what Lyon describes as a triple threat: an accomplished lensman and writer who applies his skills within the rigors or art as well as journalism. “We’re not just about pretty pictures,“ Lyon says. “We want our pictures to say something, there’s a story there.” Muller’s work bares creative testament to this ethic. His photographs bring his stories more attention through his creative process, which balance a unique vision and aesthetic with journalistic integrity. And in this last year, Muller has been peerless in raising the bar for photography on the wires.

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