institute for documentary studies

{A Week in the Life Blog}

Week 12: Multimedia

This is Week 12. Or more like, THIS IS WEEK 12!?!?!?
Just typing that fills me with terror and worry and dread. It also makes me wistful and sad. Because I can already feel that I’m going to miss Salt, big time. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I just finished a very rough edit of the audio for my final Multimedia project. The key word is “rough,” in every sense. For one thing, it sounds like the aural equivalent of Frankenstein, all its nuts and bolts and stitches glaringly on display. Mostly it’s just rough for me to listen to. I know there’s a story there somewhere. Only it’s not quite there yet, and in the darkest recesses of my mind, I can’t help wondering if it’s even there at all.
This is the really hard part, taking a good look at everything you’ve gathered in the last two months and trying to piece it all together into something that’s coherent, compelling, a story that will suck people in and hopefully move them and maybe even make you feel proud. Some of the pieces have fit, but the majority make me want to dash back out into the field and get more interviews and more photos and more of everything else I can have at hand in case I might possibly need it.
Will someone please tell me why I chose NOT to shoot any video for my final project? Sticking to photos and audio seemed like a smart choice at the time, since (a) I couldn’t find a sound artistic reason for juxtaposing video with still photography and (b) I’ll shoot for complete honesty and state that limiting myself to photos and audio just seemed EASIER.
But now I realize IT’S NOT! Perhaps I’m being naïve in thinking that video has a tendency to hold people’s attention more immediately, but right now, the concept of establishing a gripping narrative and leading the average viewer through 5 to 8 minutes with just pictures and audio seems like an nearly impossible task. Didn’t I come to Salt thinking it’d be fun to create really cool slideshows? Was I ever that young and dim-witted?
Oh well, it’s almost 1am and I’ve got to get up early so I can go take pictures of empty jail cells at the Cumberland County Jail. Then I’ll go to Multimedia class where my rough audio will be critiqued. Parts it will sound better than I thought, other parts will obviously need work, and my classmates will tell me things that will make me feel encouraged and inspired. Then I’ll work on it some more. And I will start worrying again, until the next critique. And so on, and so on, and so on…

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Week 12: Photo

I’m sure all you creative types can relate: Following a career in multimedia or photography can sometimes feel precarious. They’re both artistic and undervalued pursuits, and the reality that most of us Salties will soon enter the go-getter’s world of freelancing is one I find intimidating. Before my time at Salt, it seemed almost unfathomable, working as a freelancer — but I’ve learned over the past few months that with only a camera and tripod in hand, I can create some pretty good multimedia.
We’ve soldiered through this semester as one-man bands – hefting bags worth our weight in equipment, and collecting audio, interviewing, shooting photographs and b-roll — all on our own. Several weeks ago, we finished up our first video pieces, two-minute profiles highlighting a local character.
As much as we might feel that we’re positioned on the lower end of a steep learning curve, it’s not the case: We’ve seen the evidence ourselves, and the work we’re producing now is on par with professional work out there. True, we’re only just beginning our careers, but multimedia is a medium still in its infancy, too. With our skill set, we’re in a position to actively shape the field as it progresses.
What I’ve enjoyed about making videos is creating work on one’s own, and following a story from beginning to end. We’ve conjured whole projects out of mere bits and fragments: a line out of an article, a throwaway comment slipped in a casual conversation. Our stories were formed of our own initiative.
Ultimately, I feel legitimized. I’ve often felt – and have been made to feel – as if I were invested in far too many things, unfocused and lacking direction in my career goals. My interest in writing, photo and radio was something I sometimes considered a handicap, as if it spread me too thin, and cost me energy and focus. But I’ve found something here that embraces all the elements I’ve been exploring for years. Multimedia’s the thing.

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Week 12: Radio

Megan, Peter, and Samara, dynamite radio students all, went to the Megapolis Audio Festival this past weekend. They brought back the goods: the names of up and coming producers, excerpted lectures, revolutionary pieces, and a glimpse into the experimental horizon. NPR has a sound, but it’s not the only sound. And as sound designers and audio engineers thrive in the radio world (just look at the success of Jad Abumrad and Radiolab), there is a loosening of conventions about what radio should sound like. The pieces are losing the pristine quality of the sound booth and are taking on a grittier, more organic backdrop. With any luck, the radio of the future will be full of surprise.
Take for example “audio soundscapes,” which motivated the folks at Megapolis to lead an outdoor sound safari (Peter dropped sand on a probe microphone and could hear every last granule fall). We talk about a lot about scene setting in radio class and how a sound rich piece is full of ambient texture that takes the listener there. The result is a little more real that what you would normally hear, as if you had extendable ears that could pick up on the audible minutia of your environment. At Megapolis, they used the example of a farm at night. A “soundscape” will synthesize a cow pick lowing, the crickets chirping, and the peculiar drip of water from a leaky faucet, all at proportional volume levels, but all louder than you could naturally hear. These are sounds you couldn’t distinguish unless you listened very carefully. And that’s what radio does—it takes you to places you’ve never been before and helps you listen very carefully.
Soundscapes are a simple idea, but difficult to execute. It requires getting your microphone dirty. So far, mine has been spackled with ice, fish blood, dirt, dog spit, and bread batter, but there are more questionable substances to be heard.

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Week 11: Multimedia

This week was an exercise in calm amid a storm. And faking it until you make it. And a lot of other things, but we’ll focus on these two.

This past weekend I drove three hours north to shoot for our video profile assignment. Basically, we were supposed to find someone with a good story to tell – and then tell it. Sounds simple, right? Oh, dear goodness, no. No, it wasn’t.

On the drive north, all I could think about was that I had clearly forgotten something. Obviously I was going to pull up to this person’s driveway and realize that I had forgotten batteries, or the lav mic, or the lav mic’s extra batteries. As it turns out I had everything and as this person was inviting me into their home, I realize I would just have to own this. I had no idea what I was doing. My fingers fumbled over all the equipment looking for the right buttons and knobs, but I just pretended that this was the way it goes. If this shoot was going to get done, I would have to take charge and get it done. I was literally saying these things to myself in my head, a mental pep talk. This is what it takes to get good video when you’re not confident in your skills – just fake it. Make a check list of things to do while you’re shooting and check it often – blatantly! In front of your subject. Because even if you only remembered to focus your shot because you checked your to-do list, they are going to think you’re professional. Or at least they are much more likely to if you don’t have to call them to do the interview all over again because you screwed up because of your own ego. (Realize that “you” is, indeed, “me”).

Oh, and that storm of which I was speaking. The deadlines. And the fact that technology is a cold master that doesn’t love you and never will. If you accept this now, in the eleventh week, you might make it out without a broken heart (broken heart = sleep deprivation and deep inner turmoil due to repetitive mouse clicking).

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Week 11: Radio

Are there certain conversations in your life you wish you could revisit? In radio, you have that luxury. Everything is recorded – well, almost everything—hopefully the most intriguing and informative parts. You carry these lessons in your pocket. And when you return to Salt after a day of fieldwork and transfer raw audio files from your recorder to your computer, that period of five to eight minutes is laden with more anticipation then Christmas. It’s a simple maneuver, but I tend to hold my breath as I upload my tape and watch the blue bar inch closer to completion, invoking the spirit of Terry Gross that the interview is:
1) Easy to hear – i.e. loud, but not too loud (too loud and the audio recorder will let out a banshee wail that means the sound cup runneth over)
2) Easy to see – i.e. visually stimulating (through descriptive power, scene setting, storytelling, or emotional candor. It should set a film reel rolling in the listener’s brain and cast mental pictures)
3) Easy to understand – i.e. able to be understood by almost everybody when put in context (Men, women, children, old, and young. The public in public radio).
Good tape is all three and great tape, the gold-minted kind you run home giddy to tell your roommates, your radio buddies, your radio instructor about, has an additional, though elusive, quality: It teaches you something important. It’s a flash of clarity – penetrating, but also magnanimous. It cuts right to the marrow of someone’s life and by extension, all our lives.
In the Salt radio program, these kinds of moments happen all the time. Sometimes they happen with other radio producers. Our instructor Michael May invites reporters, freelancers, editors, and sound artists to speak with us on a weekly basis. These hour to two-hour conversations mostly take place over Skype (sometimes in person), but they are always enlightening. This supplementary education by the public radio community is one of the major perks of being a Salt student. It’s school unlike you’ve ever seen it before, in which the lectures are participatory and the subject matter ever changing. It’s exciting. You feel like an apprentice on the verge of joining a guild.
One of the reasons I love radio journalism is because it’s an extension of school and I’m reluctant to stop calling myself a student. As a reporter, it’s your job to learn something new everyday. Your mind must be open and willing to understand something new. And by dint of recording people’s voices, you stand a better chance of remembering what they taught you later on. Some of it might stay with you for your life.
During these Skype calls, I take rigorous notes. I pan them for potential radio mantras to imbibe, as if preparing for future tests. Sometimes all I need to get over a reporting or editing hump is that one nugget of wisdom and I’m hoping that with enough scrutiny, I’ll be able to summon these words in moments of paralysis. It’s advisable to write and record everything – EVERYTHING – you can at Salt.  That way, when Salt is over and it’s just you and your number 2 pencil, you’ll be ready.
“There may be naïve people in your story. You don’t want to be one of them.”
- Andrea de Leon, NPR’s Eastern Bureau Chief
“Hash tags are like the address of a party.”
- Jeff Howe, Contributing Editor to Wired
“Imagine what would be the most awesome thing to happen on tape and what kinds of questions would produce that tape.”
- Robert Smith, Correspondent for NPR’s Planet Money
“A pitch should say who is doing what for what reason and why the audience is going to love it.”
- Peter Clowney, Director of Arts and Ideas at American Public Media
“Is there a way to record what the salmon hear?”
- Charles Maynes, Independent Radio Producer
“Always read the plaque.”
- Sean Cole, Independent Radio Producer
Don’t say, ‘I hate to ask you about this’ in an interview. It’s about them. Not about you and your reaction.”
- Shea Shackelford, Salt alum and Founder of Big Shed
“You know you have the story when different people are saying the same thing.”
- John Burnett, NPR Correspondent
“Come into your stories with genuine questions and genuine interest. We’re animals and we need to smell each other.” 
- Nancy Updike, Producer on This American Life

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Week 11: Photo

Several weeks ago, our instructor Nelson set up a meet-and-greet with last semesters’ photo students. Their strongest words of advice, from a place of experience: Get on your second project.

Many of them confessed to having locked down their second stories late in the game, and only weeks before the end of the semester. We knew deep inside that we would never be like them. We wouldn’t make their same mistakes.

Here we are now, three out of five of us, still trying to find our second stories.

One thing I’ve learned from my time here so far is that the work you do at Salt is all-absorbing. When you’ve chosen wisely, you become so invested in your documentary project that it’s hard to tear yourself away, or to allow room – or thought — for a second. In order to photograph and truly document, you become enmeshed in the everyday of your subjects’ lives.

Nelson knows this. And he’s seen our efforts to find second stories fall flat, or fall through. Ever the open and flexible instructor, he offered up his own solution: You can all work on your second project, together.

But get on it.

His proposal approached the project through a collaborative lens: Working together would allow us to explore a concept as a group, and to work off each others’ ideas, perspectives, and varying strengths while out in the field. For us, mostly, it would be rejuvenating to work in a different context.

So we’re in the process of looking into stories. And it’s clear, just in the process of talking through our ideas, that we’ve already begun to think about photography differently than when we first began our semester. The questions we pose are more thoughtful, and so are the parameters of our project: How can we tell a story that will actually benefit from multiple photographers? What stories have three different perspectives that can be told?

We’ve spent a lot of time asking these questions, because while we do want to choose a story — and soon — we want to choose one where we can grow technically and conceptually as photographers. The big question we’re looking to answer, specifically: What’s going to make this a project where we raise questions, rather than answer them?

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Week 11: Writing

When my life because messy, my room becomes messier. Piles of clothing accumulate on the floor, and stacks of paper on my desk. I stay up late, eating toast in bed, and in the morning, I rush to class, not even bothering to tuck in my sheets. My physical mess adds to my emotional chaos—I feel more overwhelmed, less in control of my context—and vice versa, creating a perpetual feedback loop.

This continues for up to a week, until one day I look around and realize I am living in entropy. Then I fold, sweep, clear out unwanted papers, and put away all of my shoes, and everything starts to make more sense.

We’re down to the final month at Salt, and my story (and my room) is in a sorry state. For a while, all was well and tidy—I was excited about my topic, eager to interview my subject, and confident I was headed in the right direction. Now, I have done most of the research, I have the elements, and I’ve reached an impasse; I don’t know how to reconcile the interviews I have, the information I need, and what direction I want to take my story. Reading through my material, I feel like I am trudging through a swamp, and dread threatens to paralyze me.

Okay, just a tad dramatic. But things get serious at Salt, and it’s easy to forget that a world exists beyond the five-minute walk from my bed to class. The Salt panic is an artificial urgency; must find story, must interview, must write, don’t sleep, don’t eat. But the more my mental and physical health suffers, the more my work does.

I am the kind of person that needs eight hours of sleep, three meals a day, an occasional walk in the park, long phone-call with a friend, and lazy Netflix Sunday. The kink in my neck from last week’s post was most likely caused by the fact that I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in three days.

Rather than letting the dishes piles and the dust build up on the floor, it’s time for me to get back on track. I met with Mira during class on Tuesday, and as always, she calmed me down. I just need to focus, and narrow my vision, and make sense of my material. I have more transcribed notes than I know what to do with, and not enough time to delay writing in order to gather more research.

After I met with my subject yesterday, I took a detour and bought a cookie at a delicious South Portland bakery. A small pleasure indeed, but just letting myself sit on a bench on a weekday afternoon and eat a cookie was the nicest thing I had done for myself in weeks. Then I took the bus back to Salt, edited for five hours, went to a story workshop led by Peter, read the news, and went to bed. Finally.

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Week 10: Multimedia

At some point in the past few weeks, I realized I am no longer skimming the surface of multimedia—I am fully submerged. Our video profiles are due this week, our final projects are due in four. When I’m not in class, I’m conducting interviews, taking photos, shooting video, editing audio, and pondering the “story” in my story. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, like stepping into a raging river. Other times it’s disorienting, like when I look away from Final Cut and the real world is fuzzy, as if I’ve emerged from a pool with chlorine-clouded eyes.

The real world was especially fuzzy this week because I spent a lot of time editing my video profile in Final Cut. As with any medium, editing multimedia is a slow and tedious process. For hours, I slid clips of audio back and forth in the timeline, trying to create a concise and meaningful story. Then I added the B-roll (clips of video that play under the audio). After each edit, I scrolled to the beginning of the story and played it through, looking and listening for tiny flaws. I watched the minute-long clip again and again and again, until the words sounded wrong and the video looked stupid and the story seemed irrelevant. When this happened, I turned off my computer, hung up my headphones, and went outside. It’s important to recognize when submersion becomes drowning.

We ended class this week by watching “War Photographer,” a documentary on the career of James Nachtway. It’s such a powerful film that there wasn’t much to say when it ended. For me, the movie broke the spell of editing, of thinking the world is contained in my video profile or final project or writing assignment. There is importance in these pieces and in doing them well, but there is greater importance in stepping back. As one of my subjects recently said, there is value in looking at the entire watershed instead of focusing on a single river.

- alison, writing

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Week 10: Photo

Midway through the semester, our photography instructor, Nelson, looked through all the images we’d taken so far: the good, the bad, the blurryHe looked at the photos for my final project, a photographic essay of a family with two Caucasian mothers and their adopted Chinese daughters. “But what are you trying to say?” he asked me.

“I was just trying to capture,” I said.

“But you’re photographing a non-traditional family in a traditional way.”

What I gathered from Nelson is that you can point at something with your camera, just as you can point to something with your pen. “We don’t need another document, we need your opinion,” he advised.

I’m learning that photography is not all that different from writing, a medium with which I’m much more familiar – and just like with writers, it takes photographers a while to find their personal voice, too.

Inject yourself in there, he urged – ever the artist, based on the precipice of fine art and documentary.

With Nelson as our teacher, we photographers walk a fine line here at Salt. Our photography and multimedia classes are rooted in two very different methods of operating: While Nelson is a fine artist, our multimedia instructor — Anne — is a photojournalist. The two classes offer different perspectives: At Salt, this semester’s photography class blends fine art with documentary, whereas Multimedia adheres to a strict set of journalism ethics. While balancing the two can be a bit of a juggle, it’s added an extra element of exploration and possibility into our work.

With a background in fine art, and as a RISD graduate, Nelson’s invested in the impact of the piece more so than the mechanics of how it is made. We’re encouraged – only in photo class, mind you – to set up our shots, or to direct our subjects, in order to reveal an emotional or conceptual clarity.

Nelson’s method as an artist is sometimes unfamiliar to our still-emerging sensibilities. But it’s also offered a lot of freedom to think of how we present our work, how we envision it, and to embrace our projects through a different approach.

When it came to Nelson’s suggestion – to inject myself into the work — I pushed back. I don’t know how to do that, I said. I know how to do it with a pen, but I’m not sure how to do that with a camera.

“So use your pen to augment your photo,” he said. “Write.”

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Week 10: Radio

My multimedia feature is about a documentary filmmaker who, in late January, lost 40-years worth of work in a barn fire. All that remains is a mound of jagged wood, charred black and jutting skywards at painful angles. Wedged in between the burnt beams are artifacts of his documentary life. A burnt film reel. A warped script. There was even a fragment from the Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Richard plucked it off the ground and cupped The Bard of Avon’s face, encircled by a curling ring of scorched paper. With remains like that, it’s not wonder Richard and his wife decided to burn the rest down. I drove up to their house to document the burning the day before.
The ruins were unmistakable from the roadside. I got slowly out of the car, lowering my voice and setting up my tripod to survey the damage. Though welcomed graciously with a handshake from Richard and a small smile from Julie, I felt like an intruder. It was a discomfort similar to arriving at the wake of someone I didn’t know very well. It broke all rules of privacy, in which the outside world is permitted access to the intimate space of a person’s joy and suffering. In many ways, it’s our job at Salt to be that liaison, but that doesn’t lessen the discomfort of actually being there to witness their pain.
Our lives revolve entirely around our subject’s lives. We leap to our phones when they call. We twiddle our thumbs awaiting their e-mails. We talk about them, analyze what they say, and worry about what they think of us. Mira, the writing instructor, once advised us to read the literature our subject likes and to listen to his or her favorite music. I’ve not only been watching a lot of Richard’s films, but owing to him and other subjects, have developed an appetite for Acadian folk music, goose eggs, and Red Sox (my Yankee Uncles would murder me if they knew). Marty McConnell one said: “At some point it becomes true that all stories are love stories.” How true.
Case in point: Somewhere between interviewing Richard on Thursday and watching his neighbor Arthur light a match on Friday, I realized that my audio recorder was missing. I circled the escalating fire like a vulture, snapping pictures while casting my eyes futilely around for the recorder. It was in my hands the night before. I remembered stuffing it in my pocket as we stood at the periphery, but couldn’t remember taking it inside. A bolt of panic went through me. Was it possible that my tape recorder was still here? And by here, I mean – there? In the fire? On fire? Here was a man cremating his life’s work. Had I unwittingly threw my lot into the pile? When the flames consumed the Tascam recorder, would I hear it scream? How ironic. I could picture my multimedia piece now: a black comedy about self-sabotage by fire.
I bit my tongue for as long as I could, until finally mustering up the courage to ask Richard if he had seen my audio recorder. He had been staring blankly at the fire, lost in his thoughts, but the moment I said something, he went into search mode immediately. He stalked the edges, turning items over with his foot, asking me questions while we retraced our steps from the previous day. While I wrung my hands, he reassured me that we would find it and that this type of thing “happens all the time.” It was clear that 40 years of documentary filmmaking had given him a paramedic’s serenity in matters of technical disaster. I began to understand where he got his strength from, strength not only to recover from the fire, but also to let a wayward 22-year-old make a documentary about it. It struck me how swiftly we broke character, how he jumped to my aid and I embraced his help. In many ways, it provided a welcome diversion for both of us: He from the grueling spectacle of watching his work burn and me from the grueling task of watching him. By the time we found the recorder, laying in a patch of sun on the kitchen table, we hugged.
And this is why the word “subject” makes me so uncomfortable. It reduces a whole human being to an object of study and doesn’t properly reflect how human the relationship is, how collaborative, and how predicated it is upon a foundation of trust. These values are all the more important when you consider the peculiar conditions of your interaction. Typically, you don’t ask someone about grief and loss the first time you meet him or her. It would be too personal, yet by its very nature, documentary work is personal. It permits a depth of conversation and acceleration of intimacy that bypasses the normal getting-to-know-you process. And in doing so, you will learn more from this person than you could have imagined.
In early February, an alumna named Amy Toensing returned to Salt to showcase her photographs of Sudanese refugees in Lewiston. I was fortunate enough to keep one of her pictures through a raffle draw. It’s a gorgeous black and white print of a woman with penetrating eyes enrobed in shadow, but illuminated by a slice of light. It’s a photograph that embodies the best kind of work and I keep it at the foot of my bed as a reminder. You can tell how much she trusts the photographer and that her gaze is the product of a long, hard-won relationship. She appears to look beyond the frame, transcending its two-dimensional constraints to emerge a fully realized person. The photograph merely borrows from her strength.

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