Substance over style: Hipster's bible Vice magazine is making documentaries about war zones

The magazine's editor tells Ian Burrell why serious is 'in'
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The Independent Online

It's not always easy being a hipster. When you edit the world's smartest youth-oriented magazine, it seems you're habitually asked to pose for photographs in front of urban graffiti. "I'm 37," snorts the editor of Vice magazine, Andy Capper, who can think of more interesting places to be than London's trendy Shoreditch quarter, where the jeans are as skinny as the caffè lattes. Liberia, for example.

He visited the West African state last year, nervously pointing a hand-held camera at former warlords with nicknames such as General Bin Laden and General Butt Naked. "Because I was naked, I fought naked," the latter matter-of-factly explained in the ensuing film. The company, through its film-making arm VBS, has become a prolific source of current affairs content from the world's conflict zones. The work has been endorsed by CNN "as a very transparent approach to journalism" and is permanently showcased on the news network's website under the banner CNN Presents VBS.TV. Films on include a Capper documentary on British political extremists, as well as pieces made inside North Korea and Iran.

This month, Vice's British operation moved into large new offices on the site of a former Shoreditch dairy, opening 25 film-editing suites in the process. Capper, who began his journalistic career covering court cases in Lancashire, hopes to create something of the charged atmosphere of a newsroom. Potentially it will be a magnet for young British multimedia journalists.

Vice is a worldwide operation. Founded as a fanzine by three friends in Montreal in 1994, it now distributes a free monthly magazine in multiple languages to 31 countries, with a total circulation of more than 1 million. With Vice Media Group European head Andrew Creighton, Capper founded the UK edition of the magazine in 2002. In Britain, Vice magazine distributes 85,000 copies through a network of clothes and record shops and universities. "People say we just write about jeans, but we've never written an article about jeans," says Capper, who previously worked at NME. "We go to places where you're putting your life at risk; Afghanistan, Liberia, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, that's our bread-and-butter. Going to these places without any back-up, reporting on these things not because you love it but because you think people should know about it."

Not all of Vice magazine's commercial backers appear to understand that. "We haven't run much fashion for five issues and all the advertisers are pissed off now," he admits. "People have that opinion of us that we are trendy style-kids." That notion, he says, is a result of the company's reputation for throwing parties. It spent some of its profits on buying hipster hangout The Old Blue Last in Hoxton which it turned into a venue where the likes of Amy Winehouse and Arctic Monkeys have played secret gigs. If being tagged as a bible for east London fashionistas is such a handicap, why not move? "We run this area," he says, laughing. "And after nearly 10 years we know everyone." It's not really true that Vice magazine shuns fashion. It's "Dos and Don'ts" feature highlighting sartorial faux pas is a staple, with photos accompanied by acid comments. And because of its demographic the magazine appeals to young clothes brands such as American Apparel and Bench, which pepper the pages with young models.

But as Capper points out, when Vice (which is also expanding into books and DVD production) compiled a volume of its magazine's best material from the past five years with publisher Canongate, most of the interview subjects were middle-aged. There was a 14-page interview with the creator of The Wire, David Simon, asking about every detail of his working methods, and profiles of the film directors Werner Herzog and Spike Jonze, who has become the creative director of VBS.TV.

There was a piece on Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, and another on the singer Shane MacGowan. "[They are] older people, like the cool dads," says Capper. "We like to know 'How do you do this and how do you work that?' We weren't interviewing MIA or Russell Brand or Katy Perry or the guy who makes tight jeans."

Hislop is Capper's "main hero", for "how he looks into stories and reports things outside of the Max Clifford world of media". He citesPrivate Eye as "the best British magazine" and would like Vice to be regarded as "a young person's Private Eye", later expressing an ambition to be seen as "a young person's CNN".

Larger media organisations don't find it easy to engage young audiences with current affairs, but it's a question of how material is presented, says Capper. "There are people out there who want to learn, and who don't want to be talked down to."

VBS films aim at being "almost-arty news features", picking out storylines of special interest to younger viewers. Capper recently gained access to a mock Afghan village which the British Army has created in Norfolk for training purposes. The resulting film is focused on teenage recruits headed to the frontline. Capper is to accompany the same Parachute Regiment unit to Afghanistan. "The MoD loved the movie, so we are going to Helmand, it's something I'm so excited about I can't sleep at night," he says.

He claims that news stories of interest to young people are being ignored by a mainstream media distracted by celebrity journalism. "The obsession with celebrity at every single news outlet has worked to our benefit. You get guys with these amazing stories that no one will print and we become an outlet for them," he says, adding that Magnum, the photographic agency set up by Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, "send us their stories, where before they were sending them to The Observer or the Telegraph."

While the quality press ponders the influence of Katie Price in modern Britain, Vice magazine sends a 21-year-old to Chechnya to examine the rise of exorcism among young women. Leo Leigh, son of director Mike, made a film with Capper for Vice on teenage drug addiction in Swansea. Another new documentary, made by former Independent journalist Sarah Harris, highlights the practice, officially outlawed in India, where girls known as Devadasi work in what Capper calls "religious prostitution". "There are all these awful young things happening to young people all over the world and they are the stories we like to report on," he says. "Not how much young people like to watch celebrity TV."

Vice, headquartered in New York with London as its secondary hub, has other partnership deals with Intel (for whom it makes films on young artists) and Dell (a website on nerds and technology called Motherboard). Capper, who edits Vice across Europe, derides mainstream magazines as "run by marketing guys". He boasts that Vice magazine does not "deal with PRs", although it employs one PR person itself.

The old Vice magazine offices were home to 50 staff and spread over three floors. The old fashion department was a tiny cupboard with a handful of rags, while the previous film-editing suites were basic to say the least: a bare whitewashed room with a computer and a miniature blue guitar. "All the [producers] have got these mandolins, it's the new craze," says Capper, reluctantly acknowledging an east London fad. "I just want to smash them over their heads."

The editor of the trends bible seems to have it in for trends, though he doesn't look out of place in Shoreditch with his beard, brogues and a pair of white trousers that are suspiciously skinny. But like the neighbourhood graffiti, the ankle-width of Capper's jeans is an irrelevance.

"It's not just about bars and drinking and doing drugs and listening to bands," he says. "The culture we want to encourage is: go and buy a camera, and travel to a place that nobody has ever been before, point that camera and come back and show us what you've seen. It's about telling stories, that's what we're doing."