institute for documentary studies

{A Week in the Life Blog}

Week 1: Multimedia

The first week of Salt was an extended exercise in introducing myself to strangers. This was neither entirely unexpected (how else would I get to know my classmates and instructors?) nor should it have been difficult, what with my familiarity on the topic of myself. However, when it came time to synthesize my geographical and academic histories into a cohesive explanation of why I was attending Salt, I found myself struggling for clarity. Too much information was confusing—how does three years of seasonal employment punctuated with extended bouts of travel relate to writing? Too little information—name, track, and most recent mailing address—seemed uncooperative. Less than ten minutes into my career at Salt and I was paralyzed by the task of telling the simplest story of all: my own.

But I got through it and it got easier. By the third time we introduced ourselves, I rattled off the requisite information as if answering the most mundane request. And that was the end of that…until the second multimedia class.

The first day of classes was a barrage of logistical information, syllabi, and (of course) introductions, all of which blurred together. The second day was closer to the average schedule: track classes in the morning and multimedia class in the afternoon. So, by the time we settled into multimedia that afternoon, my newfound confidence in self-introduction was almost thirty hours old and the nervousness from the day before had completely disappeared. And then we were instructed to go out into Portland and talk with three strangers. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than initiating conversation with people I do not know. Nothing. But, aside from freezing with panic, there didn’t appear to be any other options than to complete the assignment.

I started at a nearby clothing store where I made lots of good eye contact and had several successful imaginary conversations. This was a waste of ten minutes, a third of our allotted time. Back on the street I wandered the block, scoping out potential subjects and smiling at everyone who walked by. Finally, I found both a smoker and some nerve. Trapped by state bans on indoor smoking, the unsuspecting art student had nowhere to flee and I startled her into a sporadic discussion about sculpture. Bolstered by this success, I traveled the block looking for more smokers. This is how I secured the second conversation. I expected the third to be simple, even easy. It wasn’t. The man I approached declined comment as soon as I mumbled the word “journalism.”

The rejection was devastating. It was exactly what I feared and the problem seemed rooted in an inability to properly convey my motives in the initial introduction. How could I ever find a story if people refused to speak with me? It wasn’t even the end of the second day and my future as a documentary maker was clearly in jeopardy.

Except that it wasn’t. Many other students had gotten refusals; a few had been turned away several times. The trick seemed to be twofold: practice a clear, straightforward introduction and keep trying until someone agrees to talk, because someone will. I figured that out the next day when making cold calls to potential subjects for our Documentary in a Day project.

And so, with this early lesson from multimedia class in mind, it seems appropriate to close with a practiced introduction. These are the most pertinent facts: my name is Alison Hudson and I grew up on Mount Desert Island, Maine; I spent the last twelve months living and working in Wyoming; and I am in the writing track at Salt and will be blogging about my experience in the multimedia program.

- Alison, writing

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Week 1: Photo

Hello prospective Salt students, and Mom:

I‘m making the guess that you’re interested in the school, and here to gain insight into how a photo student at Salt spends her time (and why she hasn’t called you back). And I hope that in the next several months, I’ll be able to help illustrate, at the very least, one student’s experience in an honest and fulfilling way.

On with the introduction: My name is Liz Mak, I’m 25, and from Los Angeles. I’m a recent graduate from UC Berkeley, and in the past year and a half since leaving college, I’ve lived in Beijing, traveled throughout Asia, and worked in DC as an intern for NPR.

Back in September, a friend of mine was looking through my photos and suggested I apply to Salt — I’d never heard of the place, and also never seriously considered pursuing photography. I’ve always loved taking photos, but haven’t felt good enough to pursue it — I’m not the greatest photographer by any means, and could be described, at best, as an amateur and hobbyist. But as an intern at the time, with no real plans come the end of the semester, a history of good experiences in following my interests, and with a newly adopted policy of actually applying for opportunities on time, I gave myself permission to pursue a years-long passion and applied. Now you’ll find me out of my element in the dead of winter in Portland, Maine.

In the past, I’ve worked mostly as an arts critic, and found that I wanted to tell stories that required more interaction and involvement with the subject matter, that allowed me to be out in the world instead of at my desk — and while I’ve always thought of writing as my main channel for communicating, I want to become more literate in storytelling, and with multiple mediums at my disposal. I’ve always suffered from the exact opposite of tunnel vision, being interested in not only writing but radio and photo and many things at once, and I don’t feel that I have to confine myself to just one of them. Ultimately, I’d love to be able to work at the point where storytelling, travel, and advocacy intersect.

In the first week, Salt has been everything I hoped for and more. In my experience, I’ve found that the most enriching periods in my life have been those that have scared the hell out of me, and I’ve already had my fair share of fear while here. We’ve been forced to get out into the city and talk to complete strangers — something I avoid at almost all costs — to acquaint ourselves with the town, take pictures, and look for story ideas. It’s an exercise in getting over yourself, something that will turn out to be a necessity in coming weeks (future assignments on photo syllabus include: follow someone home, spend 24 hours with a stranger).

My photo teacher is a badass artist/intellectual, whose biggest identifier is thick scarves that fold around his neck and settle, as if completely solid. The first assignment he gave his students was to capture a neighborhood visually, and on the first day I spent the first hour or two in Munjoy Hill waiting to spot people and taking miserable photos of houses, mailboxes, and other objects I could think of that, in my mind, represented a neighborhood. What I came to realize while shooting was that I’ve never taken photos for an assignment, and have only ever taken photos as I’ve been struck by something — I haven’t had to think too much about what they meant or represented or who I was taking them for.

Chalk it up to the fear of turning in an abysmal project, or to the high of studying in the company of a motivated crew — unlike college essays you end up writing two hours before deadline for your 600-person lecture course, there’s an intense sense of ownership in the work you turn in here. I’m rarely motivated to self-impose exercises in getting over myself, but being at Salt makes you decide how far you’ll go for a story, or an assignment: I knew I wanted to photograph the inside of a neighborhood home, to capture something different, and the motivation of fear soon got me knocking on doors, hitting every residence on the block, one at a time. Almost nobody answered, one man yelled at me (and very close to my face), and when my fingers began to freeze and I was ready to call it a day, a really nice man with a goatee and only a few minutes to spare opened the door and let me into his home, giving me free reign to take the pictures I asked for. They didn’t turn out amazing or anything, but I’ll take that small victory for what it was.

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Week 1: Radio

Q: Have you ever been…

A) Comforted just by the sound of someone’s voice?
B) Spellbound by a story?
C) Had a stranger’s words rub your heart raw, strum the chord of something deeply personal, maybe familiar, maybe foreign, and force you to pause – transfixed – startled by the feeling of your mind being changed?
D) All of the above

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above, you would like radio.

And if you answered “Yes” to all of the above, I think you would really like the work we do at Salt.
The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies is situated right on the main thoroughfare of Portland, Maine, sandwiches between an Indian restaurant and a real estate company. Adhered to the windows in weathered blue lettering is the word “Tinder,” the name of last semester’s gallery show. Past the glass doors are pitched walls adorned with photographs and plaques describing last year’s projects. And deeper still, past the red room where Salt students assemble for their first day, past the kitchen where those selfsame Salt rookies navigate the cupboards and make introductions, is an archive containing 40 years of Salt documentary work from thousands (and its really thousands) of students who came before. Walking through Salt for the first time is a bit like approaching a wall of graffiti with your own can of spray paint. You are struck both by the contributions of those before you, their symbols and subjects, their trademark words, their storytelling prowess writ large, and the invitation – the imperative in fact – to paint over it. You are at once treading on hallowed, familiar ground and covering it with your tracks, venturing your own version of Maine people, places, and things. There is something exhilarating and terrifying about the first week at Salt.
I am one of these exhilarated and terrified students. My name is Emily Kwong, I am 22-years-old, and enrolled in the radio track. My classmates are extraordinary people, coming from Egypt and Canada, out of state from Oregon (by way of the other Portland), Texas, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New York. They have worn many hats in their lifetime, identifying themselves as journalists, media-makers, writers, professionals, teachers, union activists, students, singers, and ukulele players. Each is possessed with a unique ear and radio voice. They are all great storytellers. It should be noted that my experience is only one sliver of our collective experience at Salt. I hope to feature them all over the next fifteen weeks. Together we will relay what we see, feel, and most importantly, hear in the sound booth, on the road, and in the field.
For me, radio is the total in an imagined equation of “things I like to do”: follow curiosity, listen and learn from other people, write, record, and tell stories. Inspired by a longtime admiration for public radio, I took the plunge into radio journalism three years ago as a licensed programmer for the Arts Department of WKCR 89.9FM NY. The station served as the breeding ground for my amateur radio endeavors while I completed my last two years at Columbia University. I was an Anthropology and Human Rights major with academic tunnel vision. I spent a lot of time in the library, unable (or unwilling) to see the world beyond the scope of a formalized curriculum.
This changed dramatically while studying abroad in Durban, South Africa the spring semester of my junior year. Through World Learning’s SIT program, I conducted an independent research project on the adaptation of oral traditions for digital media. The research was an avenue to storytelling, first as a discipline to be studied and eventually, as a craft to be learned. I returned to Columbia for my senior year buoyed by this discovery and made the executive decision (really, it was a protracted, tearful three-hour conversation with a friend) to ditch my senior thesis and create a full-length radio program about student life at Columbia. At first, this program was meant to emulate the popular “This American Life” in sound and in scope: my co-producer and I chose a theme – “Undergraduate Life at Columbia” – and featured first-person narratives exploring that theme. With time, we realized the program brought a kind of kinship to everyone involved: the subjects, the listeners, ourselves. By creating an artificial environment of storytelling, extending the sound wave between student speakers and student listeners that would not have existed otherwise, we hoped to nurture a kind of auditory empathy. “I’ve been there.” “I know how that feels.” “I’m not alone.” The satisfaction from being that interstitial person is something I’ll never forget. I’ve come to Salt out of a desire to learn how to do that better.
In an interview for RadioLab, a radio program on WNYC, developmental psychologist Anne Fernald explained how mothers speak with their children and in the process, made a prescient point about sound. She remarked that sounds are not necessarily “about” something in a pointed or didactic way, but operate more like touch. She said, “If you whack me on the arm in a sudden, sharp way, I’m going to be startled. Or a gentle touch has a different effect. And actually, sound is kind of touch – at a distance.” The idea that sound is “touch at a distance” is literally true. Waves of vibrating air travel through space and are channeled into the ear of the listener. They vibrate the bones of the eardrum. Charged molecules send an electrical signal to the brain that is processed as sound. It is touch that arises out of a chain of multiple touches and it’s this domino effect that I’m hungry to learn at Salt. For, in the mechanics of sound, there arises a metaphor for human contact – the desire to reach out and feel, in a tangible, physical way, the presence of another human being.

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Week 1: Writing

Before I was birthed, for the second time, into the “real world” of post-graduate life, I had a series of informational interviews with alumnae from my college. They had all established a career in media; working at the news desk at The New York Times, producing a morning radio show for NPR, freelancing for The New Yorker. I wanted to know how they left their extra-long dorm mattresses behind and became full-fledged, successful adults. Despite their busy schedules, they were kind enough to sit down with me as I delivered a monologue on my fear of the unknown, and read from a laundry list of fears and anxieties. They nodded with empathy and uttered sounds of understanding. Mhmm. They knew. They had been through it ten years ago, too. The economy was better back then, but the feelings were the same.

“You just have to give it your all” one of them said, stirring cream into her coffee. “Don’t give up”, said another. Woven within their aphorisms were bits of concrete and invaluable advice. Write networking emails. Send thank-you notes. Go to Salt.

Unsure if they were talking about the seasoning, and too afraid to ask for clarity, I went home and researched Salt. At the time, I was mired neck-deep in my thesis and on the cusp of celebrating my freedom from academia, but I was already planning the time when I would study at Salt.

After saying goodbye to New York, weaving through the thick traffic of Bangkok on a motorcycle taxi, putting the chickens to bed on a farm in Nebraska, sanitizing chew toys at a preschool, inputting ISBN numbers into an excel sheet at a publishing house, I arrived in Portland.

One week in, and I already know it was the best decision I’ve made since graduating.  I didn’t realize how much I missed that beloved mix of exhaustion and excitement, when you are learning so much your brain hurts before bed. I cannot walk down the street without reflecting on an article we read in class, or pass by a man feeding stale baguettes to pigeons without wanting to ask him about his story. Did he let the bread go stale on purpose? Does he come here every day? Why is he smiling?

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