The place to start this story is with Ashley Roberts. She married the guy.
She married him knowing he would leave her on a dime, and he would return when he returned.
If he returned.
That’s the thing: Ashley Roberts married this guy knowing that his passion was to tell stories and that to tell those stories he would travel to far-off and dangerous lands.
But what the hell? Ashley loved Dylan Roberts so much and believed in his work as a freelance journalist so much and trusted in God’s plan for him so much that of course she was going to marry him.
For this girl from Jenks, who hasn’t seen all that much of the world, it made perfect sense.
“Growing up I don’t think I would ever have picked or imagined someone like Dylan,” she said. “But once I started dating him — and especially when I was ready to marry him — I was shocked in how many ways he was perfect for me.”
What doesn’t make sense is Dylan Roberts. He’s not a big guy. He’s not verbose. He’s not flashy. He just does his thing. And his thing for the last decade has been to create documentaries and videos from Mosul and Baghdad, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Mogadishu and Nepal.
When the world blows up, he runs toward the explosion.
“I don’t know he’s leaving till three days before, I don’t know he’s coming back till the day before,” said Ashley Roberts.
When Dylan Roberts does get home he plops down next to his wife and watches Dallas Cowboys games on TV, or goes to the dog park with Mumford, the couple’s Blue Heeler/Border Collie mix, or stops by 36 Degrees North with his computer to do a little work.
He could be anyone, anywhere. But he’s not. He’s a 27-year-old who’s traveled the world, started his own video production and 360 VR company, Freelance Society, and had a mortar land on the hood of a military vehicle he was inside of in northern Iraq.
Luckily for the Roberts, it didn’t detonate.
“I don’t know what I would do if something happened, and I don’t know how I would be notified,” Ashley Roberts said.
‘The Matrix’ Man
Dylan Roberts grew up in Austin, Texas, the oldest of three children. His father, Dwight Roberts, sold rice and other commodities all over the world, and always came home with stories for Dylan and his siblings, Nikki and Jake.
Robert’s mother, Zully, grew up in Paraguay, where she and Dwight Roberts met while he was in the Peace Corps. Eventually, they would marry and move back to Texas.
Between his father’s travel tales and his family’s trips to South America to visit his mother’s relatives, there was no way Dylan Roberts was going to escape childhood without catching the travel bug.
“I have always had the travel bug,” he said.
His passion for video, in all its forms, was inspired closer to home. Austin is a town of artists, and so it was when Roberts was growing up in the 1990s.
“They had an awesome film society, and I was learning high-end editing,” Roberts said. “So I can’t remember ever not being really excited (about it). I was always making movies.”
There were other inspirations. When Roberts was just 5 or 6 years old, his older cousin would share his home videos and the equipment he used to make them. A family friend did the same. And then there were the summer camps sponsored by the Austin Film Society.
“I always wanted to be a film director or do special effects,” Roberts said. “I remember seeing ‘The Matrix’ when I was a kid and saying, ‘Wow, I would love to do special effects like that one day.’”
Those plans changed at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where there was no film school but there was a running track. Roberts wanted to run for the track team, and he did run the 800 and the mile for two years. But by his junior year he was pursuing a different dream: conflict-zone reporting.
As a journalism major, he was being exposed to major publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post and Time Magazine. And the world around him was changing. Young people he knew were headed to Iraq to do battle. Something began stirring inside him.
“I started really learning about the world and then for some reason conflict zones and complex countries were something that really was interesting to me,” Roberts said.
Ask him why and he’ll say he doesn’t know.
“I have been really privileged to do it and it is something that I didn’t necessarily want to do,” Roberts said. “It was something I had to do. You kind of have to have that mentality.”
He was still a junior in college when he got his first overseas assignment — a trip to Ethiopia to film videos for nonprofits and ministries. The trip was not to a conflict zone, but there would be plenty of those ahead.
By the time Roberts graduated college in 2012, he had worked in Ethiopia, Uganda, Iraq, and Lebanon. Soon after graduation, he headed to Israel.
“I was there for the Gaza war in 2012 and covered different riots in the West Bank,” Roberts said.
It was in Israel, at a corner table on the second floor of the Zuni restaurant in Jerusalem, where Roberts met Christian Stephen in person for the first time. They had started working together without ever having a face-to-face conversation.
“I had had a fixer in the West Bank that Dylan also knew,” Stephen said by email from London. “The fixer introduced us online, and he and I almost instantly decided we ought to do this together — little did we know we’d spend the next half decade covering almost every major conflict together.”
Roberts calls Stephen his “second wife.” But really they’re best buds despite being very different people.
That’s why they click. Stephen is the poet and Roberts the tactician. Roberts gets them there, and Stephen makes sure the story is told right.
“We loved each other’s style of work. He was more of the creative, writing side. He’s very good at writing and just a creative mind,” Roberts said. “He liked my style on the logistical side of how to operate in a country and how to prepare for it on the technical side.”
So they decided to go into business together. Freelance Society opened its doors in early 2013, about a year after Roberts graduated from the University of Arkansas.
“I’m the fist, Dylan is the arm. I can’t work without what he brings, and ideally I add something to the way he works that makes us a team,” Stephen said. “I’ll drag us into an absurd situation, but without Dylan knowing it inside and out, up and down — we don’t get the story we need.”
About a year and a half later, in the fall of 2014, Stephen was Roberts’ best man when he married Ashley Roberts, nee Haines.
“I think they are a perfect pair together,” Ashley Roberts said of Stephen and her husband. “I love Christian.”
How He Does It
Finding freelance documentary film work in Mogadishu or Baghdad is no different than selling insurance in Tulsa or Broken Arrow. You have to get your name out there and hope stops long enough to listen.
That’s how Roberts got Freelance Society’s first job — a video assignment for a California nonprofit called Arc Solutions. (Now known as Warzone Initiatives).
“They did water projects in Mogadishu, Somalia, so I cold-called and emailed them and they came back saying, ‘Hey, we love your stuff. We would love to have you or one of your staff members come with us to do some projects,’” Roberts said.
He’s also relied heavily on his mentors — people like Kevin Sites, Robert King and Brian Edelman. Seitz and King are veteran conflict-zone journalists, and Edelman is CEO of Rain, a creative and technology agency based in New York.
“I did get a lot of work out of my mentors, people I asked questions to and (who) gave me feedback on my work,” Roberts said. “A lot of them were the ones who helped me get connections in the country (and) gave me obviously clientele work and provided great advice.”
Now people are calling him, like they did in April 2015, when he and Stephen were in northern Iraq shooting news dispatches for RYOT. Twenty-five hundred miles away, the ground was shaking in Nepal. Thousands of people were dying in an earthquake.
“We actually had not intended on going but we had good connections there for sure, and a few nonprofits and RYOT said we should go over there,” Roberts said.
So they did. By the time they landed in Kathmandu, they had three clients, including RYOT and the nonprofit Thirst No More, lined up.
“At this point we have a good relationship with different clients and individuals where (if) a crisis does happen they either send us the funds right there and then we go,” Roberts said. “If it’s really critical we’ll just go and get reimbursed as we’re going there.
“Rarely do we go just for a story and try to sell it. It’s too difficult to do that now. You’ll get a lot more money, and it’s easier if you just pitch the project and actually do a project with a client.”
Roberts estimates he and Stephen — traveling together or individually — have worked on about 40 projects for Freelance Society. They were in Europe when nations there were overwhelmed with refugees migrating from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. They were in Aleppo, Syria, to film “Welcome to Aleppo,” for RYOT, for what Roberts describes as the first virtual reality film made inside a war zone.
They have been to Iraq more than 10 times, including a 2013 trip to the Red Zone in Baghdad to tell the story of Andrew White, a 6-foot-5-inch Anglican priest known as “The Vicar of Baghdad.” Their client was VICE, whom Roberts cold-cold to pitch the idea.
“Which is crazy, because they are so big now,” Roberts said. “We really didn’t know they were going to sign off on the deal until the day we arrived in Baghdad. … We believed in the story because Andrew was one of the most incredible people we had ever met.”
Roberts’ latest trip to the Middle East took him to Mosul, Iraq, for a month earlier this year. He was embedded on the front lines to shoot a 360 video of an Iraqi medical unit treating fighters injured in battles with ISIS on the western perimeter of the city.
But it was something that occurred outside the medical unit that surprised Roberts and still sticks in his mind. As he and his fixer were traveling from Mosul to Erbil after a day of filming, they saw a bulldozer moving earth as a bunch of rags flew into the air.
They had happened upon a cemetery in Hamam al-Alil. The man in the bulldozer was digging a large hole in the ground for the proper reburial of 20 to 30 people found in a mass grave in Mosul. The dead were men, women, children and babies.
“They (the military) took them out and did a reburial,” Roberts said. “We saw the reburial.”
Roberts had been around dead bodies before. He’s seen hundreds in his visits to Iraq alone. In the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, people were buried alive and left to die.
“The smell of death, I’ll never forget,” Roberts said. “It will be with me forever. … The smell is like none other.”
Home Sweet Home
Sometimes Dylan Roberts doesn’t know what to do with himself. It’s a feeling of uneasiness that envelopes him when he’s home, waiting for work. On the one hand, he’s happy to be able to play golf with his buddies; on the other hand, he’s anxious for the next job.
A perfect scenario would be if he didn’t have to choose, if he could tell a great story locally and maybe sleep in his own home more often. He’s done some advertising work for businesses in Texas and Arkansas, but the jobs have been few and far between.
“In Oklahoma I would really like to focus on 360 and virtual reality,” Roberts said. “I think I am the most experienced 360 virtual reality content creator in Oklahoma.”
Roberts will host a panel discussion on 360 virtual reality filmmaking at the Tulsa Overground Film and Music Festival on May 5 and 6.
“There will be a panel of about three or four speakers and they will discuss how they got into VR and what they see for the future, and there will be a Q & A,” Roberts said.
The event will include a VR experience room where visitors will be able to put on VR headsets and view 360 videos Roberts and other filmmakers and journalists have made.
But first comes another trip to Iraq. Roberts left last week to shoot videos for the nonprofit Open Doors Ministry. When he’s done, he’ll come back to Tulsa and wait for his next job.
This is Dylan Roberts’ life. And that’s fine with Ashley Roberts.
“We are both Christians,” said Ashley Roberts. “I think that’s where a lot of the not worrying where he is (comes from) because I have 100 percent faith that he doing God’s will.
“I would be more worried for him if I felt he was going against what God wanted for him.”
It’s not like she didn’t know what she was getting into.
Ashley and Dylan Roberts met playing intramural soccer and flag football at the University of Arkansas. After the games they would go to Sonic to talk strategy.
“We’re both very competitive,” Ashley Roberts said, laughing.
On their first dozen or so dates they never went to the same place or a place she had been to before. Dylan Roberts wanted her to try new things, gather new experiences.
Ashley Roberts loves that about her husband, how his sense of adventure and curiosity take him places others would never go. Even if those places are far away — and dangerous. Their first year of marriage, he was out of the country about eight months.
But they manage. He texts her at least once a day when he’s away, and they talk once or twice a week. She doesn’t need to know every detail, just how he’s doing. So he tells her. And that’s that. No worries.
“A check-in, honestly, it may not sound like much, but that’s good,” said Ashley Roberts.