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August 10 2012

14:56

Viewfinder: Video journalism that works

Whenever I go out on an assignment I get a few of the same questions from onlookers who see me with my tripod and my reasonably large video camera: “What channel are you from?” or “When will this air?” But my favorite, and the one I get most often after I explain that the video won’t be on TV and that I work not for a channel but for a newspaper website is, “How are they going to get a video into my newspaper?” It’s an old joke by now. Video has graced the websites and mobile offerings of traditionally text-based outlets for nearly a decade.

Video or film storytelling is more than a century old, and print storytelling has a couple of millennia under its belt, but the last few years have brought the two together in exciting and evolving ways, particularly for journalism. Outlets like The Atavist and The Daily, and many newspaper and magazines’ mobile applications, make it possible to seamlessly pogo between a print narrative and snippets of video or a short documentary production. The form is in its infancy but loaded with possibility.

As any writer who has had to wait for a video journalist to get some b-roll knows – and as any video journalist who has wished she could avoid wading through a traditional print reporter’s interviewing knows – collaboration is a dance. For this, the first installment of Viewfinder, an occasional column on video journalism, I talked to a few friends and colleagues about the pleasures and pains of building video and print packages. It’s a common conversation, one I’ve had over lunch at work and on long car rides with fellow print reporters. It’s fair to say that most agree the product is a richer audience experience, but how we get there is still being worked out. I hope this column will be a place to parse this and other aspects of the burgeoning craft of web and mobile-based nonfiction video reporting.

Let’s start with what works. I’ve seen terrific packages, many of them big blowouts like the L.A. Times’ series about the effects of the recession, or the Detroit Free Press’ Motown retrospective. The Seattle Times did a laudable job with its in-depth look at the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.

How you make all the parts work together is no small challenge. I talked with my New York Times colleague Shayla Harris, who spent a good four months laboring, along with the photographer Marcus Yam and the reporter John Branch, to weave text, video and photos together to tell the story of the life and death of professional hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard. Ten or 15 years ago, the story would have been a terrific package at a paper – exhaustive reporting, stellar photography, maybe some good graphics. A few weeks or months later, a TV station or an independent documentary filmmaker might start in on a video/film project. Harris, who started at NBC News as an assistant/associate producer, confirmed as much: “A lot of our stories would basically be ripped from the pages of the New York Times. So, right now, we’re basically the in-house version of that. Unfortunately, when you’re working alongside a reporter you don’t get the benefit of having a finished story in front of you to work from.”

Harris also didn’t have much footage to work with, but when the team approached the Boogaard family about telling Derek’s story, the “floodgates” as she put it, opened up. The family had handwritten diaries, some from Derek’s earliest bouts, plus scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about Derek, family photo albums and perhaps most valuable, eight DVDs of every fight Derek had been in from his time in the Canadian Junior League until he landed in the NHL.

Though Branch relied on the same fight material to flesh out scenes in his print story (and were included in a pop-up version called a “quick-link” for mobile and web audiences) the videos felt distinct and complementary rather than duplicative. Harris explained that she felt like Branch’s story could handle the contextual aspects of the story and that her job would be to create a visceral experience for the viewer. “The thing that video can do, that words sometimes can’t, is … evoke a mood or feeling on a multisensory level,” she said. “Just hearing the inflection in someone’s voice and the way they say things can convey a lot of information.”

Video can convey emotion with much greater power than a text quote can. You can see this in Harris’s videos, especially in the interviews with Boogaard’s fellow enforcers. They’re big, imposing men whose job is to intimidate and often to bare-knuckle box on the ice, and their recollections of Boogaard are powerful.

That acknowledgment of video’s strengths has also worked well for my friend Erik German and his wife, Solana Pyne. German works for The Daily as a text reporter, but he’s always thinking about ways to make video work. “In our shop, video is just part of the production process, but there are three major areas that are suddenly very different,” he said.

The three areas: planning, execution and assembly.

“Each of those is a lot more complicated if video is involved,” he said. German argues if you’re really going to have video be a part of the story, reporters need to know from the beginning, for the best possible outcome. This entails thinking about everything from the pitch to the questions you ask a source before you leave the office – quite different than if you’re headed out with just a pen and pad. He says, “I find myself now asking TV producer questions like, ‘What does it look like when you do your job? If I followed you around all day, what would I see?’”

Print reporters rarely ask a source they’re going to visit what the inside of someone’s office is like or if it gets good light in the afternoon or if there’s anything noisy going on that might make doing a recorded interview difficult, but those are all concerns for a video journalist. Yet thinking about those challenges as a text-based reporter can help set up a good video collaboration.

One of my favorite pieces by German, with great videos produced by Pyne, is about a new law in Texas that made it legal to hunt feral hogs from helicopters.  They interviewed game officials, farmers upset by the damage the hogs cause to land, and representatives from the two camps of hog eradication. The hunters and the trappers were all convinced their differing methods were superior.

One aspect of the story they hadn’t counted on was a heat wave that sent the hogs deep into the brush, nowhere to be seen. “You could do a print story about a hog infestation even if you don’t see any hogs,” German said, “but for a video you’ve got to see the pigs.” Yet you’d never know about the missing pigs to read German’s story or to watch Pyne’s videos, in part because they artfully used what footage they could shoot, including material from small-action sports cameras mounted on the stocks of rifles. They bought a bit of stock material from a local shooter and had some great material of very clever hogs working their ways out of traps.

The Daily, which is designed from the ground up every day, elegantly meshes video and text and, like the Boogaard series, uses shorter embedded elements to good effect – “like visual and aural snapshots,” as Pyne puts it. “They conveyed things that would have been hard to get across any other way.”

The effect is, I think, one of the best ways to meld video into a print story. Texan twang and drawl about the difficulty of hog hunting came across in little snippets of video that might not have had a home in the bigger video story, and when transcribed for print might have lost their punch.

Pyne also does a lot of thinking about what makes for good video and print. She’s a senior video producer at GlobalPost, which produces a good deal of video, sometimes as a standalone report. She assigns many of the video journalists; most are freelancers who work on GlobalPost packages, often in tandem with a staff reporter. She often tells video journalists to follow their instincts. “I think it’s important to ensure that the print reporter doesn’t take over the story, because then you get a video that’s just like the print piece,” she said. “It’s useful to have them work together, but I want the videographer to feel comfortable leaving (or staying) to get good video.”

I recommend a deep read and watch on the touching series she helped put together from Japan shortly after the earthquake and the nuclear disaster. Like many of the best collaborations, the text stories anchors the bigger-picture thoughts and the video focuses on characters: everyday Japanese people whose lives were upended.

Sean Patrick Farrell (@spatrickfarrell) is a staff video journalist at the New York Times. He has made videos about tracking wolverines in Montana, dangerous medical radiation and aspiring young opera singers, among many others. He is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied documentary film. Before becoming a journalist, he spent a decade working as a  bicycle mechanic. You can find more of his work at www.seanpatrickfarrell.com. This is his inaugural Viewfinder column for Storyboard.

 

August 01 2012

17:30

Highlight reel: Some of the best from this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism

Back in April, we went down to Austin for this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism. As far as journalism conferences go, this is one of the special ones — highly recommended.

We’ve already written about much of what was covered there, like smart-fridge strategies, O Globo’s crazy-engaging tablet-only evening edition, an examination of journalistic behaviors on Twitter, and a study that pinpointed the most likely demographic to pay for the news. (Check out our roundup of lessons learned from the symposium.)

Now, ISOJ has posted a complete collection of video from the conference. Watch them all. Here’s a smattering to get you started:

Welsh: Let’s get to work

The Los Angeles Times’ Ben Welsh will make you love robots. He’ll also effectively shut down anyone who’s still arguing that computer-assisted reporting is somehow inherently bad for the industry. He’s genuinely passionate, and that’s just fun to watch.

Highlight: Skip to 11:08 to watch a minute-long crescendo that ends with the best F-bomb of the conference.

Boyer: News is a craft, not purely an art

Brian Boyer, who this summer joined NPR’s news apps team, wants you to think about news function. “Data visualizations are not on their own useful,” Boyer says. “If we only make art, we are doing our audience a disservice.”

Highlight: Skip to 3:03 to hear Boyer break down why journalists, engineers, and designers need to learn from one another.

Brown: Don’t fight the audience

University of Memphis journalism assistant professor Carrie Brown-Smith tracked the use of #Memstorm on Twitter during severe weather in her region. She examined the use of hashtags in centralizing real-time news. She also explored what kinds of information was shared, and how journalists’ coverage of the storm fit in. One key lesson for newsrooms: If your audience starts doing something cool, join in.

Highlight: Skip to 3:37 to watch her account of what happened when a local Fox affiliate tried to change the hashtag.

Doria: Make something beautiful

The iPad is special. That’s why Pedro Doria, digital platforms editor for Brazilian newspaper O Globo, wanted to give readers an iPad app that was specially made for the device. Doria felt that the paper’s basic mobile app wasn’t making full use of the platform. (Read our article about the app.)

Highlight: Skip to 8:14 to see Doria break down the numbers about engagement with the app, which jumped from an average of 26 minutes to a mind-boggling 77 minutes.

Gingras: There’s too much news

Anyone else feel like Google’s Richard Gingras is everywhere these days? It’s likely you’re familiar with his views by now. Bottom line, Gingras says, “we have to rethink it all.” To him, print is nothing more than a “derivative mechanism” and the big problem in news is that “there’s too much of it.”

Highlight: Skip to 7:45 to hear someone challenge Gingras on the idea that there are no gatekeepers anymore. Who gets to decide who a news organization is and is not? Audience member: “You do.”

Whurley: You already have the answers

“I don’t do slides, ever,” said Whurley, general manager of Chaotic Moon Labs. So instead, he opted to crowdsource his slides — asking journalists to shout out questions that he addressed later in the presentation.

Highlight: Skip to 6:12 to hear Whurley sum up his experience coding and developing The Daily, and what it demonstrated to him about the fundamental problem in journalism: “What they did is fantastic for one reason, and the reason that we participated was one reason: Nobody wants to be the first.”

March 30 2012

14:59

Documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk’s “Grace Before Dying” and the ethics of narrative activism

Lori Waselchuk describes herself as a “documentary photographer and arts activist.” We’ve wanted to talk with her for a while about her latest project, “Grace Before Dying,” which focuses on a prison hospice program in Louisiana. In light of the recent discussions around visual documentary and accountability spurred by “Kony 2012,” we also thought she might address the ethical quagmire that documentary activists can fall into when creating stories in communities outside their own.

Waselchuk has worked as a freelance photojournalist for many major U.S. newspapers and magazines. In addition to “Grace Before Dying,” her long-term personal projects include years of gathering images in Africa and tracking the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We talked with her earlier this month by phone about how she approaches her work, and about simplicity vs. complexity in storytelling. What follows are excerpts from our conversation and images from “Grace Before Dying.”

You’ve done freelance photojournalism for Newsweek, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times – and other Times that I’m probably not remembering. And then you have these portfolios of extended projects, like your work documenting a prison hospice program or a hurricane. How do you think of the short-term assignments vs. the long-term projects?

Usually, the short-term assignments are how I get out into the world and I get to learn more about what’s going on. I learn best when I’m face to face with things. And it affects me more deeply than reading about it. So usually my long-term projects come from assignments that I’ve done.

Hurricane Katrina was not just an assignment, it was my experience. So that work is coming from an entirely new place. Even though I did a lot of work for newspapers and magazines while I was working on longer-term projects about New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf, usually the assignments are where I can enrich what I know, and it provides access and introduction. And they also help me earn a living.

I’m particularly interested in “Grace Before Dying.” How did that project get started? Did it come from a photojournalism assignment? How long did you spend on it?

Yes, that started as an assignment. I was commissioned by Louisiana Magazine to do a story, which was unusual. They wanted a photo essay about this hospice program, and so that was my introduction. It took a while to get in, about three months. And then the deadline for the magazine was pushed back as far as they could push it back, but it still came up very shortly after I started working.

I realized after the magazine had published the project that I really wanted to do more work on this, so I asked for permission to come back, not with any publication waiting for work, but on my own to try to see how deeply I could tell this story that was incredibly beautiful and moving to experience and witness.

You did the short-term project, and then when you came back in a more free-form situation. Did you approach the people differently? Did you shift gears?

I didn’t come back as a different person or with a different attitude. I always had the same sort of goal, which was to try to say in photographs how important the work that the hospice volunteers were doing was, and to somehow show the complicated journey that these men were on, and the complicated space in which these men were doing this work.

So photographically, I went from a traditional 35 millimeter digital camera to using the panoramic camera as my main tool. I wanted to see if it could do close-up work. I think this camera is more traditionally thought of as a landscape camera, but I wanted to see how it would describe what I was trying to describe. I thought it worked very well, and so I changed completely how I was approaching the project photographically. I went to black and white film and pursued my personal vision of what the work could be.

Can you talk about exactly who you were photographing at Angola, and what Angola is?

Angola is the nickname given to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was given that name when the land that the prison was built on was a plantation, for a century and a half. It was nicknamed after the people who were brought in as slaves. Most of the slaves came from the Angola slave port. And it kept that name, but it’s really the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Louisiana’s maximum security prison.

The program I was photographing was the hospice program, where both the patients and the volunteers are incarcerated. The volunteers are incarcerated serving either life sentences or very long-term sentences, as are the patients. I was really interested in how you get to that place of incredible humanity and love and selflessness in an environment that’s designed to punish and isolate. And also coming from a history that was most likely filled with violence or hurt, they are extraordinary examples of what we are capable of as human beings.

I don’t mean to put them on a pedestal, because they definitely have their problems. They’ve got their difficult days. And they’ve got a terrible history, most of them. In spite of all of that, what mattered at that moment was someone else.

You work the humanitarian side with your projects, and the journalism side of things, too. Do you see yourself as a storyteller, an advocate or something else entirely? What are you trying to do with your work?

This is a very crucial moment for me, because I’m in the middle of what’s possible, and what’s survivable. Right now, I consider myself a storyteller, and I feel like that’s my primary mission, but I’m interested in placing my work in community.

When I’m shooting, I’m in storyteller mode, and that to me is creatively wonderful and challenging. With the “Grace Before Dying” project, I think about how important it is to have the conversation around the work.

So through that I’ve built this traveling exhibit that was designed for prisons, initially, and it continues to tour the country in all kinds of venues. It moves around through grass-roots efforts. So small organizations can bring it to their community, and they move it around their community, and they then take charge of how this body of work inspires the conversation they’re interested in maintaining and putting in front of the public.

It’s been a powerful example to me in how I can really direct thoughtful and engaging conversations based on my own work. It’s also let me research how other photographers are trying to do this kind of work and getting their work out in the world.

I guess I’m both. The storytelling comes in the gathering of images, and the advocate comes in asking, “How do we then put this in community and encourage an intellectual or an emotional conversation, or both?” You want people to be smart, and also to feel.

When you think of a print story that’s a narrative, something in the story usually changes over time. Do you think of your work as having a narrative component? How do you think of visual storytelling?

In the book, the sequence had sort of a narrative structure. It’s not about the same people, but I had different ideas and aspects of the program that I wanted to show. So I brought people through the care part, and I also wanted to describe the prison and then (go) into the final days. It felt very sequential.

I think it was important for it not to be cryptic. It’s such an emotional story, I needed to ease people through it. I approached care, the final days, and then the dignified funeral. In the book, that’s the way it went.

It went almost the same way in the exhibition. The exhibition came first and broke down the different aspects of the program. I built it for other correctional facilities to host, because I really thought people could use the information to trigger conversations on “How can we incorporate some of these things in our end-of-life care program?” or “Can we start an end-of-life care for our prison population?” So I really broke it down into the different programs and how they helped the families of the prisoners, and how they did their own caregiving, the different aspects of it. The exhibition started out as an emotional but informational project.

The film “Kony 2012” has been in the news a lot this month.

I’ve been watching it.

It’s spurred a lot of discussions about voice and who gets to document stories. As someone who has gone many times to Africa, how do you weigh the question of telling someone else’s story in pictures?

It’s been a fundamental question I have continued to ask myself. I was based in Africa for 10 years. I have been asking myself that since the beginning, and it continues to push me. And I think that, more than anything, pushes my personal projects. I feel like my personal work – I don’t make it for anybody but myself. I can control how it moves in the world and how it’s seen.

The “Grace Before Dying” project has been transformative in a way, in that I have been able to do what I do, which is make photographs that focus on human connection and empathy and have an understanding of the way I am inspired by our best – the best in us.  I’ve been able to jump outside of the working world and create something that has its own life, has its own distribution qualities. It continues to resonate with audiences.

I feel like even the traveling exhibits are collaborative. The quilts that travel with the exhibit are made by the hospice volunteers. So their hands, their work, their own visual art are part of the photographic story. That collaboration will influence my future projects. And as I think about future work, collaboration with community is going to be part of how I work in the future. How the work is placed is fundamental to an ongoing conversation that I have with myself about telling other people’s stories.

Who does it benefit? What is the value of the information of the issue versus the empowerment of the actual community being affected by the story? All of these issues continue to be part of how I work.

I think when I’m working on my own projects, when I turn the story about the hospice program into a personal project, with nobody needing this work from me, I’m able to pursue a more honest line of thinking and produce work where I can slow down and have conversations with people, like the guys at the prison.

For people just coming up, who maybe haven’t had as much time to ponder these issues, one clear suggestion that rises out of what you just said is to think about what kind of role your work will have in the community and collaborate with the community. Do you have other tips for how people can approach something like a “Grace Before Dying” project?

Look outside the traditional field of journalism for inspirations on how to get your work out. Right now I’d say the Internet can be considered traditional. To me in journalism, your feet have to be on the ground. You have to be interacting with people. You can’t report without coming face to face with people and feeling as well as hearing as well as seeing. How can you honestly translate that in different ways?

Think of a way to get your project out in different directions. You can publish in a magazine. You can publish online. You can put prints up somewhere. You can have a conversation with your subjects about how they might want to see it.

Certainly “Grace before Dying” has been published around the world by magazines and newspapers, but nothing can compare to the way an exhibit creates conversation out in the community. It gathers people around a topic in different ways and inspires different kinds of conversations. But always the conversations are intense and, I think, enlightening.

Can you talk more about “Kony 2012”?

The great thing about it is that it’s an in-your-face example of so many things. I can list like 10 things off the top of my head.

Do you want to talk about some of those things?

I was alerted to this by my 13-year-old daughter, as it seems like many people out in the field were. She came to me and talked about it. Ten years ago I (had done) a story on the reintegration camps up in northern Uganda, so I told her about my experience.

Then the emails (about “Kony 2012”) started coming in, with all kinds of different conversations: “This is good,” because now everyone knows about him, or “This is bad,” because it doesn’t really represent the situation. It got very interesting. There were people who tried to look at it broadly.

Very few people talk about who’s funding the Invisible Children, besides all the people who want wristbands to demonstrate their concern for another continent’s conflict. The source of funding is always something that needs to be gone to first, but it still hasn’t reached that point. The self-serving documentary where the subject is not the actual issue, but the person who made the documentary is the issue – you can’t get a clearer example of having a documentarian incorporate himself in a story. That was to me truly bizarre.

I struggle with the viral video a lot. I don’t see a lot that’s helpful, except for how it helps this organization. And a lot of people disagree with me, but I think that part of the thing that I like to do with my work is to introduce complexity in a way that people can absorb it and maybe start to think about it and not decry a situation by making it simple, with a good guy and a bad guy.

I hope that’s what “Grace Before Dying” does, because these are the last guys on earth that we would consider to be heroes. They’re serving life sentences in Louisiana’s maximum security prison. So I think that trips people when they see this story – and angers some, but I really believe that we are more than our worst act. We have to be.

Here I’m coming into the advocacy thing – I think our prison system is unwieldy and overarching. We need to find a way to reduce sentences to make them more in line with international standards, reduce our incarceration rate and find a way to reintegrate felons and people who have served prison time, so our prison system gets reduced rather than continuing to grow.

What do you say to those people who argue that to convey a story to a big audience, you have to take off the rough edges of the complexity? That you have to tell the truth but not get lost in the complexity?

I do think you can take off some of the rough edges, but I also really think you can draw people in with a universal. We are connected to each other in really fundamental ways, and in order to tell stories that will connect with others you have to use those tools and look for common ground.

You can start with that, but you have to deepen the conversation, and you have to be honest about who this is serving, and what your goals are. If the goal is to inform people about the ongoing war and terror that the Lord’s Resistance Army is wielding against people in East Africa, you can certainly boil it down to a few facts, but you probably need to be more specific about what’s going on and clearer about those facts. One of the things that upsets me is that I don’t believe that their goal of capturing Joseph Kony is really their goal. I’m suspicious of it. The movie was just too self-serving. I think they themselves were surprised, but I think their goal was to continue to raise funds for their organization.

I’m kind of cynical, but I just can’t imagine creating a documentary without having the research and understanding the depth of the issue. It was built for the Internet, it wasn’t built for broadcast. It was built to be something they could put up without having any sort of scrutiny before it went out in the world. There was nobody it needed to pass by before it was published; they just put it online. It just makes me wonder what their real intentions were.

All images appear courtesy of Lori Waselchuk.

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