institute for documentary studies

{A Week in the Life Blog}

Week 15: Photo

May 16th: Our first gallery show.
Seeing your subjects in the flesh, standing under images featuring them and hanging on the gallery wall lends itself to a complicated mix of pride and fear. Thursday night, I watched my subjects look at themselves as I saw them in their daily lives, in their living rooms and their kitchens, in their most intimate moments.  Kimberly, one of the girls I followed, was wearing the same clothes she wore in one of my framed pictures.
I recognized people from my classmates’ photographs and multimedia pieces: walking, breathing, observing their documented selves. It was like seeing reality stars out of the last two months of our classes come to life.
When the family I’d been documenting watched themselves in the multimedia piece I had spent over two months shooting and editing, it felt as if it were the culmination of my work. By showing them, I was now including them in the conversation of the piece.
During the screening, when the family got to see the work played in front of an audience for the first time, someone in the crowd raised her hand: “What is it like for your subjects?” she asked. We didn’t know how to answer on their behalf.
The mother from my piece raised her hand. She explained in her own words: “Liz integrated herself into our lives,” she said. “She came over to our house at 6:30 in the morning, she watched us eat dinner at night. And over time, you build trust,” she said.
“And you don’t necessarily want to be part of the limelight,” she went on, “but you realize the value of your story being told.  And you feel like it’s being told right because you’ve built this trust.”
Working with this family was the best creative project – and also the most intensive – that I’ve ever worked on.  I learned early into the semester that trust is one of the key elements to creating great work – that the people you follow will give you more access and more insight into their lives when they believe that you’ll tell their story with sensitivity and compassion. And when you have that understanding, they’ll allow you the time you need in order to tell their story best.

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Week 15: Multimedia

And suddenly it’s over.

The last week or two at Salt isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience. It does have a very happy ending, but when I walked into the building on the last Monday morning, a few days before the opening of our show, the tension in the air was thick enough to knock you off your feet. I’d had a good night’s rest and a square breakfast, but instantly I felt squeamish. We’d finished all the work, but what about all the loose ends? The release forms and the uploading and the archiving? And aren’t we also responsible for organizing the show schedule and creating a show program, too? Group panic had landed, and for about two solid hours, I honestly felt like the show, or even graduation, wasn’t going to be possible.

But of course, it was.

The show all went off quite smoothly – and even on schedule, believe it or not – but by far the most memorable experience was showing my final projects to my subjects. The family I had been following for almost two months, the ones who’d started calling me “Stalker Smith,” arrived during the private-viewing portion of the evening. I got them all situated in front of a computer and stood back and watched them as they watched themselves, their story. There was tears and Kleenex, even though my pieces weren’t sad, and when it was over, there was silence. Which worried me, until the wife turned around and stood up and look right at me and sniffled and said, “I love it.”

They watched it again. And again. And I watched them watch it again and again. It was one of the most intense acts of sharing that I’ll ever experience. And it was with a group of people I never would have met had I not gone to Salt.

At graduation the next day, both Anne, our multimedia teacher, and Donna, the Salt director, talked of our ability to connect with people – by telling their stories and finding our voice by expressing theirs. “That’s what it all about,” Anne said. It wasn’t about money, or gunning for a hot-shot career. Because, as we’ve heard many times this semester, this field we’re venturing into still doesn’t have a sturdy business model and the big bucks will be elusive for the time being. A fat check would be nice, sure, but could it really be more powerful than what I felt while bonding with that family?

Nope, not really.

Last time I was handed a certificate at a graduation ceremony, I felt pressured to go out and take on the world. Now that I’m finished at Salt, I feel eager to keep my eyes open, my ears perked and make some meaningful connections.

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Week 15: Writing

Salt is over. Or at least, we had our gallery show and wiped our desktops and received our Salt certificates and handed back our key cards. I have left Portland am on my way to New York City, to catch a bus to Philadelphia, and then a train back to Boston, and on and on, and so my peripatetic life continues.
For me, “Salt” is now something I season my potatoes with. The topic of my daily conversations has shifted from “subjects” and “peaked audio” and “the reveal” to talking about jobs and employment rates and this strange concept of “weekends.” Having only two days of class, on Tuesday and Wednesday, has shifted my understanding of when a week starts and when it ends.
The last week at Salt was surreal. We kept asking each other–is this really happening? Is it really over? Although, it wasn’t really over, because we still had teasers to write and videos to upload, and late nights or early mornings in front of my all too familiar computer screen.
By the time the gallery show came around, it went better than any of us could have imagined, and it felt both strange and thrilling to see subjects walking the halls of Salt, pausing to look at photos of themselves, or asking questions at the end of a multimedia viewing session. I was too nervous to ask my own subjects to come, but after seeing how much everyone seemed to enjoy the evening, I really wished that I had.
While many graduations can feel uncomfortably ritualistic or tediously long, Salt’s graduation was perfect in its length and lack of formality. As my mother said, it was hard not to feel welcome. At the end, we formed a large circle, held hands, and raised our glasses.
So, I suppose, Salt is officially over. But really, it isn’t, because I just exchanged emails with two of my teachers today, talked on the phone with one of my classmates, and pitched my final piece to a literary magazine. The program has come to an end, but the connections I have made with my classmates and teachers are just beginning to grow.

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Week 14: Photo

It’s hard to believe the semester’s almost over. And yet, we’ve begun prepping for our gallery show, and screening nearly-perfect drafts of our classmates’ final multimedia pieces.
These are pieces that we struggled to lock down in our first (or, in special cases, last) weeks; ones where, in those early days, going out to interview, shoot and photograph was a terrifying prospect. These are pieces that now, despite having worked closely with many of my classmates, still surprise me in their skill, finesse, and ambition.
Anne, our multimedia instructor, asked if we wouldn’t rather have collaborated on our final projects. And I did, earlier in the semester, think jealously of past terms, when students worked in teams: one producing the radio piece, for example, the other taking photographs.
But as wonderful an experience as it was teaming up with my classmate Erika Lantz on our first multimedia endeavor, I’m glad that collaborating wasn’t an option for our final projects: I now know how to shoot, record, and edit a multimedia piece from start to finish, and by myself. I have clips that I can fully call my own. And I was able to pursue the stories on the subjects that only I was interested in.
We’re a highly critical bunch, with high goals and good taste – and sometimes it’s a hurdle to produce the pieces we initially envision. We complain a lot about it, too. “If you heard us talking about our stuff, you’d think we were truly terrible,” a classmate said.
But the truth is, we’re competitive in the real world. And what I’ve found to be the most gratifying about our multimedia experience, and what speaks to the level of the instruction, is that everyone — be it radio, writing or photo student — has risen together. Radio producers and writers have captured beautiful, impactful images (and with perfect exposure!). Photo students have crafted moving audio stories. From nothing, we were all lifted to the same professional standard — no one was left behind.

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Week 14: Multimedia

This week looked like a lot of finals weeks I experienced in college – not a lot of sleep, weird foods, later nights than I like. But, instead of working solo in a study carrel in the deep bowels of a library basement, it was a constant collaboration. Those last couple of days, every other sentence was, “Hey, will you give this a listen?” And we all did. Even though we were all up against the clock. Even though we all had multiple stories we were trying to finish. We all had time to be an editor. That’s what makes this group of people so special – there is give here. There is room.

Speaking of room, none of really believe in stopping either. I know many of us are planning on expanding or reworking or continuing to push our multimedia pieces further after graduation. Can we just take a second to realize how unique that is? I’ve never been around so many people that were motivated so genuinely around something, so true in passion. Such hard workers.

And I think we all had a moment of stunned gratitude after turning in our final edits, realizing just how much time and energy everyone around us had put into our work as well – our subjects (those heroes!), our teachers and the staff here at Salt.

Thanks for the space.


- Al, radio

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Week 14: Writing

I am unsure if Salt blog etiquette allows me to make dedications, but if it’s not too gauche, I would like to dedicate this post to my fellow classmates, particular the writing class. We are small (four in total, including myself) but we are mighty.
When first coming to Salt, I did not factor in how vital my classmates would be to my learning experience. They have become my friends, collaborators, and even teachers. Given the unique context, I am surrounded by people who inspire me. We are all innately motivated, hard-working, and creative thinkers—making it easy to forge friendships and collaborations. In writing class, I am thankful for my writing buddies for their editorial prowess and insight. I rely on their feedback during workshop and along the margins of my paper to improve my writing. We have held our own classes to supplement our learning: classes on storytelling, tracking, and photography. We have multiple ongoing email and Facebook threads to share articles we’ve found, or Final Cut Pro tips. I cannot imagine the experience without them, and I know that our connection will last beyond when we graduate.
As the semester comes to a close, I have been relying on my fellow classmates more than ever for their advice, storytelling expertise, and emotional support. Salt is a series of highs and lows—late nights and early mornings, tight deadlines, and sad peanut butter sandwiches. At any hour of the day, if you walk through the Salt hall you’ll see two or three Salt students huddled around a computer giving each other critiques, or in the break room splitting a bag of trail mix. The fact that we’re all going through this together makes the journey so much easier. Even though we are spreading far and wide, I know, hands down, that the best and most useful thing that I have gotten from the program is the network of Saltines.

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Week 13: Writing

It’s been a long week. A very long week. If you’ve ever been to summer camp, you know the feeling — time stretching, days melting, so that a week becomes a year. I could not tell you what I did yesterday or the day before because my memory does not extend that far back.
All I know is that yesterday I turned in my final draft for writing, and then I went to bed and slept for six hours instead of the usual four, and I dreamed that I had a bottle of milk in my fridge. That might not seem fantastical to a functioning human being, but for me, it’s so far from my current reality that it could only be a dream.
When I woke up, I felt like a new woman. Like I was one monkey closer to being a man on the March of Progress: my back is straighter, I can see without having to violently smush my fists into my eyes, and I can form full sentences. I will leave out the part where I had to use a T-shirt to dry myself this morning because my towel was in the laundry, or that I ate toast with peanut butter for the last three meals, or that my phone has been dead for 24 hours because I left my charger at home and I’ve been living at Salt. All of that is irrelevant. I have brushed hair and a relatively clean pair of jeans on and I feel destined for greatness.
Currently, Salt looks like a bomb shelter. Chairs have been stripped of their cushioning to make beds on the ground, the fridge is packed with condiments, soda, and questionably edible leftovers, and the counter is lined with crumb trails and empty Ziploc bags. In the lounge, there is a sign taped to the door that reads “Nap in Progress.” Salt students run up and down the long hallway in various states of panic, their eyes bulging, their hands shaking, their voices rising.
But all will be over so soon. Maine will finally admit to itself that it’s spring. Everything will be turned in – the essays and the jpegs and the archival files – and I will regain my sanity and my life. Graduation nears, and I can taste it. The fresh milk that will be in my fridge.
I plan to take a one-month nap. When I wake up it will be summer.

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Week 13: Multimedia

Alison, writing

It’s go time. As in, go-do-work-all-the-time, time. Final projects are due in five days, which means the world now revolves around my computer screen and the seven minutes of my piece. Seven minutes distilled from two months of interviewing and photographing and collecting natural sound. Brutal. There are so many moments that didn’t make the cut, that will never be heard by anyone but me. The hardest part of trimming and shaving and editing the piece is thinking I know the story well enough that these decisions are correct.

But I have to know the story well enough—it’s my story. That was the biggest lesson from this week. All of our stories have now been through several rounds of critiques, which means we’ve gotten a lot of helpful advice. My problem was thinking that the advice was creating my piece, that I could half-heartedly throw something together and then work from the feedback. This was not a good approach. Whether I realized it, or not, I am the authority on my story and I needed to commit. So I started over again. I went through every clip and put aside anything that might be useful. I made lists of information that needed to be included and things that did not. I got so sucked into the work that I forgot to move my car, which was parked in a two-hour zone. But I finished the story. And I’m happy with it.  And in five days, it will be done.

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Week 13: Photo

We’ve almost entirely completed our photo and multimedia projects for the semester. This week, I said goodbye to my subject family — next time I see them, it won’t be in their family living room but at the gallery show, watching them watch my work of them. There’s a sense of completion coming on, at least for the semester.

“How do you feel?” Nelson, my photography teacher, asked.

I felt proud — to have completed a long-term, intensive documentary project, my first. But I also felt something contrary to how I thought I was supposed to feel at this point in the semester: “I don’t know that I’ve completed the project,” I told him.

I wasn’t sure I’d accomplished what I set out to do, and was worried that ultimately my work fell under what Nelson had cautioned it might become: traditional photos of a non-traditional family. I didn’t feel that I had been able to veer away from that path.

It was a sense of accomplishment, hand-in-hand with a sense of wanting more.

To Nelson, that sense of incompletion wasn’t a bad thing. “The idea is not that you’ve created a finished piece,” he said. “It’s that you use that feeling to compel you to improve your work as you continue with it,” he said. He told me he hoped I’d continue working on my project, and expand on it after Salt.

Finishing projects and exchanging goodbyes with one’s subjects is a complicated thing. I’ve been incredibly lucky to find a subject family that was cooperative and invested in the work, but even more, one that I truly do care about. After two months documenting a person, there’s a real sense of intimacy.

I wonder sometimes how I’ve affected them, because my time with this family has truly affected me. My feelings about my subject family, too, play heavily into how I feel about my pieces. Sometimes I wonder, and other times I fear: What will they think of me once they’ve seen the final product? Will they like seeing how I see them?

But these are fears fueled more by nerves than reality: I think they’ll enjoy my work. Because there’s a larger question that I feel I can answer in good faith: Have I captured them truthfully?

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Week 12: Writing

In class on Wednesday, Mira handed out an article about the author Claire Messud. It begins, “Claire Messud isn’t wearing her wedding ring,” and goes on to tell the story behind this minor detail; she was making sixty heart-shaped shortbread cookies with red icing for her child and left her rings on the windowsill.
By drawing out this surface detail, the writer of the article hopes to illuminate a deeper truth about the writer.
The many roles and responsibilities of a successful author could go as easily unnoticed as an absent wedding ring—an analogy the writer drives home. The ring “offers a convenient metaphor for the vortex, or competing vortices, of novelist, wife, teacher, and mother that define and constrain many writes, but that quite often go unacknowledged when considering the lives of even the most accomplished.”
Is it possible to sum up the inner complexities of a person’s character by a phrase? Probably not, but the minor details—the way they smile with their eyes, or what they carry in their purse—can say something bigger about who they are and what they value.
I do not want to condone racial and ethnic stereotypes, especially when they foster prejudice and discrimination. But as writers, we do rely on a kind of “literary stereotyping” to describe our subjects or characters, using the least amount of words possible to create a realistic portrait of a person.
Here’s a list of phrases or actions that, standing alone, might be all you need to understand a person, maybe someone you already met.
Argues with you about your own height.
Is getting their Zumba teaching license.
Has six types of cheese in the fridge.
Substitutes tomatoes for onions and pickles for cucumbers and chicken for beef, and oh wait, actually, can I order something else?
Once had the screenname PrincessRawr69.
Cannot decide which is their favorite cat video.
Strokes the back of their iPhone like a pet.
Returns an overripe avocado to the supermarket.
Updates Wikipedia articles.
Hangs up stock photos of beaches and inspirational quotations around their cubicle.
Uses the word ‘summer’ as a verb.
Has a thing for mass movements.
Can’t meet you for lunch because they’re on a cleanse.
Knits tea cozies to sell on Etsy.
Shortens words, including ‘abbrev’.
Before biting into the last piece of cake, asks “Wait, does anyone else want this?”
Thinks vegan girls are “hot.”
Unfortunately, it seems easier to think of more negative than positive examples, which I suppose is the danger of stereotyping—it is derivative by nature, and limits our perspective. So then, how do we do justice to a subject and their endless complexities while still staying under the word count?

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