From Grylls to God: An interview with Mungo the cameraman
‘Everything Bear does, we have to do with massive 20kg cameras.’ Meet the man behind the lens – Mungo talks to us about his life on the edge as he tackles jungles, faith, and fatherhood.
How did you begin your career in adventure?
I always had adventure in me but it wasn’t realised until I had the channel for it to be realised through. It really kicked in when I met Simon Niblett, a well-renowned documentary cameraman, and he offered me a job completely out of the blue. We had a lot in common and shared the same passions. I worked for him for over two years. I found that I suited adventure and adventure suited me. I’ve always been a risk-taker, living life on the edge was what got me out of bed in the morning.
Now I spend my whole time hanging out of helicopters with Bear and it doesn’t scare me in the slightest. My levels of extreme have to go way beyond. Though the older you get, the less brave you become – you have more to lose – now I’m married with a kid. I always used to be disposable in my eyes – if there was a story in a war zone, or somewhere dodgy to go, I would be the first to put my hand up. But now as I’m getting older, I love having responsibilities, it’s a whole different adventure; adventure changes.
Do you want to take your son on your adventures?
Of course. My dad was into sport, but he wasn’t adventurous, he was a businessman. He had four kids and a wife to provide for, so we didn’t have that kind of exposure. I remember when I was a kid we used to go to Polzeath in Cornwall, and I’d be looking at theses surfers going out, with their big boards and their wetsuits, thinking ‘I want to be that one day’. I never thought I would be. Then, when I was 16, I lived in Australia, learned to surf and discovered what I wanted to be.
I want to expose him to things, he may not be like me but I want to give him options, not to force him. I just want him to be happy. From what I’ve seen so far he’ll definitely be an adrenaline junkie, the higher I throw him the more he loves it and he’s only nine months!
What has been your most exciting moment whilst filming and your biggest adventure?
That’s difficult; I love working on Bear’s series Running Wild, it’s a short, sharp, hard shoot but we take some incredible people out. I remember walking up and down this mountain in Scotland with Ben Stiller, and that was really cool.
I love people, people are my passion and the access that you get – I’ve literally worked with the poorest of the poor, and then with British royalty, so you get the whole spectrum, and an exposure to a load of different things. Life’s the biggest adventure isn’t it? Because you just have no idea of what’s coming. With my job, I don’t know if I’m going to be around tomorrow; I find it fascinating. The fragility of life, but also the power and strength of life is really exciting. I’ve got nothing planned for the rest of my life, and that’s how I live. That’s got to be the biggest adventure.
Physically, my biggest adventure? I did a shoot with Charley Boorman called By Any Means and we travelled from Ireland to Australia, over land and sea. Over three or four months we went to 23 countries – it was incredible. It was a bucket-list tour of the world.
You talk about running up and down hills, to get the shot, do you have to do twice the running?
It’s different running. Everything Bear does, we have to do with massive cameras. My camera is 20kg sometimes, when it’s all rigged up, and it’s hard work.
If you want the shot you’ve got to find the shot, and you shoot in a sequence, you don’t just shoot everything at once.
The beauty of Bear’s stuff is that you have to get it in one take – obviously I can’t get him to do big stunts twice. So if he’s fast roping it out of a helicopter you’ve got to get it in one go; that’s a lot of pressure.
What are the biggest challenges of travelling to such extreme climates and doing such extreme work?
I find being away from home hard. Before I was married with a kid, I didn’t really have a reason to come home, I used to struggle with loneliness to a degree, everyone would come home to their families and be looking forward to seeing their kids, and I’d get back to some taxi driver who would take me home to an empty flat. That’s why I always wanted to go away again. But now everything’s changed.
Bear has often spoken about how his faith has helped in difficult moments, do you find there’s anything that’s helped you when the going gets tough?
Definitely my faith. I’ve found that I’ve been on a massive rollercoaster ride, sometimes I’ve got masses of faith, other times I want to ditch it completely, I’ve felt that God was not there, that he was nonexistent, then I end up coming through it again.
One time I was in Rwanda, where there had been Christian revival followed by mass genocide, and I thought, ‘Where’s God in that?’ It was quite soul destroying. You meet people who are literally dying, but then fly home in a nice plane, go home to your flat, running water, you’ve got a loo, you’ve got a bed, you’re safe, you’ve got good money; you can’t help but feel some kind of moral guilt for that, or certainly culture shock. I hardened up massively, both emotionally and faith wise, but then eventually you do see God in it.
I remember in Rwanda we visited a church where a lot of people had been slaughtered, I stood there quietly and said to God ‘What was all this about?’ I was looking for answers, and don’t feel like he gave me any but that he stood there with me, looked at it, and was equally as sad. That was really moving; it was the answer I really needed. It wasn’t a case of him making sense of it, but just knowing that he understood the pain, that he felt it too.
That’s part of the Christian faith – he gave us a choice, he gave us his love to set us free, and then we go and balls it all up in so many ways, it’s painful for him. There’s the biggest adventure in life – trying to weigh it all up.
The conclusion I’ve come to, is that I’m not a religious man but I’ve got a lot of faith. My God is the God that I see, feel, and love while I’m out in the surf, bricking it because a twenty-foot wave is about to crash down on me, or up a mountain and a blizzard comes in, and I’m really out of my depth. In the corners of nature, that’s my God, and he’s massive and able. He’s not just stuck to church and ‘hymn sandwiches’, he’s awesome. Having the privilege to travel and learn through that travel, eventually is the biggest faith booster you could ever have.
How has your faith affected your work?
Ironically it’s just when I take my foot off the gas of my career, that’s when it all explodes, because finally I’m just saying to God, ‘I’ll be who you’ve created me to be.’ I know that I’m the best Paul Mungeam there is, because I’m the only one. I don’t want to be Bear, I don’t want to be my dad, I don’t want to be anyone else, because I can’t be.
Once God’s got you, you can’t run away from him. Working alongside Christians, for me, is incredibly rare, so to be with somebody like Bear who’s in that influential position and so open about his faith, I found it really challenging and massively encouraging. I used to think we were spiritual special forces, behind enemy lines, where a lot of people don’t know you’re even a Christian but you let your actions speak louder than your words.
Being the best friend you can be, and just being there for people, being Jesus to them – that’s how you’re going to make the biggest impression. We need people out there being salt and light, people won’t come to us, we need to go to them.
Just be Jesus to people. That’s it, simple.
How do you try to effect change in your everyday life?
One of my favourite quotes is by Mother Theresa, she was asked by a journalist shortly before she died ‘Mother don’t you realise what you’ve done in your life is amazing, but it’s only a drop in the ocean?’ She came back with, ‘Yes but the ocean is made up of many drops, and my life is my drop.’
I can’t brush my teeth whilst leaving the tap on, because I’m so aware of how precious water is. I’m aware of it, and if people are aware, they start to do the little things and that could make a big difference.
I was doing a shoot for the BBC in central India, in a flying hospital – an American charity convert jet air-planes into hospitals with state-of-the-art operation theatres. They fly into communities, bring people into the plane, operate on them and send them on. It was a Christian charity in a Muslim area in India, so we had ex-navy seals protecting us. One day I was having lunch with one of the doctors in-between shoots and said to him, ‘It must be so amazing to have a skill where you can just go and change somebody’s life.’
He said, ‘You don’t realise your camera is more powerful than any gun.’ He’ll never know how that comment made a massive difference to me, and had such an impact on my career. I realised that someone can go in with their gun and shoot one bad person, and probably get shot themselves, and what have they really achieved? There’ll be another hundred bad people. Whereas, with your camera, you can take a photo, or a video and you can show it to ten million people on the internet. Then education will really create change; people will petition for change, and petitions effect politicians, that’s how policy changes, when pressure is built.
How can we inspire the next generation to live differently?
Live by example, you’ve got to live what you preach. I’ve learned with age that it’s easy to stand on your soapbox and say this, and that, but it’s difficult to live it day to day. So just be the best person you can, don’t be someone you’re not. I’ve always said, that if I could take people to see what I’ve seen then that could change them, but I can’t, so the most I could do is take my camera, and try and get into their emotions. The other key is to not be overwhelmed by it. It’s the little things that matter.
Finally, and most importantly, what’s the scariest creepy crawly you’ve come across?
I had a bug live in my ear for about a week from the Amazon. We ended up drowning it – we put olive oil in my ear and then on its way out it scratched my eardrum – I was projectile vomiting, I was in Brazil and it was like something out of The Exorcist.
The scariest creepy crawlies are the ones you don’t see, if you’re lying in your hammock at night and you can feel something crawling up one of your orifices, that’s horrible. All the others you can deal with – leeches ticks etc. Mozzies are the most frightening because of what they’re carrying – and one of the biggest world problems.
You can read more about Mungo’s adventures in his books Mungo the Cameraman and Mungo
Featured image by Kyle Jaster