institute for documentary studies
 

{Join us June 20th for a World Refugee Day Event!}

Join us June 20th for a World Refugee Day Event!

World Refugee Day is a global celebration that is held annually to honor the courage and struggles of the more than 15 million people worldwide displaced by war and persecution. Each year, Maine welcomes refugees from war-­‐torn countries and helps them to rebuild their lives in safety.

 

This year, on Friday, June 20th, renowned inaugural poet and Maine resident Richard Blanco will deliver an address at a World Refugee Day event scheduled for 4pm at Congress Square Park in Portland.

 

Following the celebration, Salt Institute will host a special reception featuring their newest collection “In the Shadows: Urban Refugee Children in Africa” by National Geographic photographer and Salt alum Amy Toensing. The reception will begin at 6pm. Both events are free and open to the public.

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Spend a week of your summer at Salt!

Are you interested in learning more about Photography, Multimedia, New Media (Video Storytelling), Writing and Radio?

Then consider spending 1 week with us this summer! Our short programs incorporate hands-on skills training, lectures and  individual critiques to provide a solid foundation (or build on an existing one) in just 5 days. This year’s offerings include opportunities for beginners, intermediate/advanced media artists, high school students, nonfiction writers and professionals looking to build media skills for the workplace.

Register here

Learn more here

“Being an alum, I know the incredible value of time spent as a student at Salt. The skills, confidence, and community that is gained through the semester program is tangible and long-lasting.  Four years later I am working as Director of Multimedia at a creative arts non-profit for youth teaching and documenting our work through photography, audio,and multimedia. I  enrolled in the summer multimedia course to learn about film, something I knew nothing about, feeling a little daunted by the technical skill needed to successfully shoot and edit video. In just one week we were skillfully taught and guided through multiple media projects. I had major learning moments and left feeling fully competent and inspired by my final  work and the work of my classmates. It was a valuable week professionally and personally and I would highly recommend it to anyone in our community.”
[Molly Haley]
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Photoville ME

Join us in Congress Square August 17-22 for Photoville ME : Portland’s first outdoor art exhibit held entirely in a 20×8′ shipping container!

 

Salt traveled to Photoville in Brooklyn last year, and were one of dozens of organizations, schools and artists to create displays in shipping containers in NYC’s Brooklyn Bridge Park. This year, we’re bringing Photoville to Portland with an exhibition of past Salt work. The exhibition will be on display during daylight hours in Congress Square August 17-22 before traveling to New York to participate in this year’s larger Photoville exhibition.

 

Read more about the exhibition in this Portland Press Herald article!

 

Photoville ME is sponsored by Zachau Construction, Portland Downtown District, Pulp + Wire, Grapheteria, and Salt.

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Architalx Voice of Design portals find a new home at Salt!

 

Voices of Design at the Portland Museum of Art 2013

Haven’t been to the Salt gallery in a few weeks? Come in and visit us, and you’ll notice something different. Thanks to Architalx, Salt is the new home of a portion of an architectural design exhibition featured at the Portland Museum of Art earlier this spring. The exhibition, Voices of Design, celebrates 25 years of Portland’s Architalx lecture series.

The 10-foot tall sound portals are hard to describe – but we’re so excited to put them to use playing Salt student work and as part of interactive exhibits here. Come see for yourself!

Voices of Design was designed by Tim Ventimiglia and Jennifer Whitburn, of Ralph Applebaum Associates, New York and the tower was built by Chris Wright and Martin Simpson.

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Week 15: Radio

Salt is self-selecting. Imagine a group of 20 people who are innately curious, ask probing questions, care about the inner lives of other people and could listen until their ears fall off,  sponges laden with the weight of your words. If this describes you, then coming to Salt is like finding your long lost brothers and sisters. Your people. And it was these people that I had the enormous pleasure of standing alongside during our graduation.
 
My sister calls them “freeze frame” moments. It’s those moments of suspended time, plucked from the rush of a momentous day, in which you can remember every detail perfectly. Our radio class decided to construct a Soundscape in two parts. We recorded a classmate’s laughter, our multimedia instructor’s favorite phrases, all manner of computer whirring and keyboard clacking and while it played in the background, we lined up in front of the crowd dressed in the uniform of our radio instructor (re: flannel button down + hat). We proceeded to say catch phrases from our class in a medley of sound bites. If you come to Salt, you’ll inevitable have your own inside jokes and loaded phrases, the refuse of days spent together trying to figure out how to tell a good story:
 

“Where’s the nutgraf?”
 
“If you’re not on Tweet Deck, you’re really not on Twitter.”
 
“What do the salmon hear?”
 
“Okay people, can we take a five minute break and be back in five minutes?”

 

It sounded like Salt. It felt like Salt. In many ways, standing in that red room where we had first assembled as strangers all those weeks ago, it was a distillation of all I had come to love about Salt—on the high of creating work, sharing with others, standing together, and finding a creative way to make a moment our own. When I first came to Salt, I worried and wondered that it would be cut throat. Competitive. Every man an island.
 
Like all stories, you don’t know how it’s going to end in the beginning. And if you’re at the beginning of your own Salt experience, trust me when I say that you’re about to go on a journey. Standing on the other side, I can tell you with a full heart and a vote of confidence that the ending is beautiful if you’re willing to take the risk.
 

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Week 14: Radio

We’re exhausted.
 
Our computers are exhausted (which is probably why they keep crashing on us).
 
Our fingers are exhausted (which is probably why I hear the occasional sound of knuckles cracking amidst the clicking of keyboards).
 
Our brains are exhausted from the endless toggling between Slip and Shuffle mode that makes our radio pieces an intricate game of Tetris and the 11th hour script tweaks more obsessive than Webster writing the dictionary. I keep fudging at the level of single words, transitions like “but” and “now” and “and so…” in that hefty way Ira Glass sucks the story into a conclusive vacuum by saying “And so what have we learned…”
 
The only thing that keeps me awake and making semi-intelligible changes to my radio feature is pretending I’m a producer for NPR. Yes, I realize the vanity and silliness of this little rehearsal.
 
Executing radio stories in such a manner, interestingly enough, induces much insistent clicking and scrolling and track-pad-wheeling faith that this edit, this transitional hand-off between narration and interview tape, will bring my piece closer to what I imagined it would sound like in my mind’s ear. Is it better to say “Doug marched on Washington DC” or “Doug protested in Washington DC?” Which smears the mind with more vivid paint? How do I ultimately want my piece to sound?
 
These are the things we think about, as the date of our gallery show—There From Here—draws nearer. May 16th.
 
“There from Here” is borrowed from a traditional Maine phrase. I first heard about it while staring at a map of Maine propped on an easel in the Salt Writer’s room. Some topographer had carefully painted the state in light greens and browns, more vertical than horizontal, an elongated parallelogram with a prehistoric coastline. Some of the rocks that populate Maine’s coastline were once molten shale, pressed like phyllo pastry beneath a riotous earth and forced to the surface by the shifting plates. Maine is an ancient state.
 
The fringes of the Maine coastline are a series of peninsulas, like fingers fanning out into the frigid Atlantic. In order to traverse their surface, you have to go up a peninsula in order to go down another. You can’t hop. You can’t get there from here. There from Here. So, our show takes its name.
 
It’s a fitting reminder in a time like this. There are no shortcuts when it comes to creative work, no getting from the “There” of Week 1 to the “Here” of Week 14—so different than you thought it would be—without the missteps and the daily efforts on your part to tell better stories. That’s really it. That’s why we came to Salt and it’s made me grateful for every gracious hour, every courageous suggestion, every “Hey can you listen to this” met with “Sure,” in which another student took time out of his or her day to help make my piece better. The nature of Salt is collaborative and these pieces are as much a collective effort as an individual one.
 
We’re quite a tribe, we 11 radio students. We’ve seen each other’s stories from conception, when they were the faintest of notions and the most cursory of leads, and watched them evolve into these misshapen, susceptible organisms we shaped together over the course of weeks. Now these pieces—14 radio features, a handful of audio postcards and student profiles—are taking on their final form. They are solidifying and settling down. I’ve listened to them all, some several times, and am astoundingly proud to share them with others. It keeps me going, you know? Imagining the look on Erika or Emily’s face when the thing they’ve been laboring over for hours makes someone cry and exclaim, “You did a beautiful job. Thank you for making this.”

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Week 13: Radio

The first pitch I submitted for my Salt radio feature was 581 words long. It began like this:
 
“Google “Druids” and you will likely unearth images of cloaked figures holding hands and walking sticks, encircling Stonehenge while raising their faces to the sky. Are they singing? Are they chanting? Are they praying? Their form of worship is beguiling.”
 
To my untutored January imagination, this was a beguiling first paragraph. It beckoned forward with a long, bony finger, much the way I imagined the Druid community of Portland entreated its followers.
 
Yet much like a blog post that takes too long to arrive at its point (thank you faithful reader), a radio pitch that fails to hook someone immediately will not a radio story make. The same rules apply to a movie trailer: Deliver on the goods, but don’t be conclusive. Make your audience want to know how this story ends. My pitch about “Druids” peaked interest, but didn’t sustain it through tight focus on one part of Druid life; it was “a topic in search of a story” as someone tactfully put it. Who was the main character? What was his plight? All told, my pitch lacked that tell-me-more quality that makes a story worth telling.
 
And so, mid-April, I searched high and low for such a story. Browsing local newspapers seemed a promising place to start. Who better to identify narrative tension within the mess of everyday life than a local journalist? I came across an article by a local reporter named Doug. His coverage bore the thoroughness of someone who asks great questions and knows how to get the information. I decided to call him for leads to other stories in his area and went into the sound booth, shutting the door and crouching against the egg-crate walls to dial his office number.
 
On the second ring, someone picked up. My heart lurched at this sign of first contact, but what happened next was both predictable and utterly bizarre. Doug’s voice came over the line with a standard greeting:
 
“Hello. This is Doug at the Morning Sentinel.”
 
That’s what Doug said (at least, that’s what I thought he said), but his voice was distant. Muffled. What’s more—his voice had the tinny quality of an electronic synthesizer, as if it had been mixed with mechanical parts and flattened, producing a low buzzing tone that urged his words onward. I had heard never heard anything like it.
 
Doug was speaking to me with measured thoughtfulness and friendliness, like most people in Maine, but it wasn’t with his natural voice. Instead, he was using one of those electronic devices, which I would later learn was called a “voicebox” or “electrolarynx.” It was portable, battery-powered, and when held against his throat, allowed him to speak in lieu of vocal chords (which were removed eight years ago).
 
Though I called Doug with every intention to discuss his article, he had other plans.
 
“I want to do a story about someone in Maine,” I told him.
 
“Story? You’re looking for a story? You should do a story about me. I’m fascinating.”
 
And he was. Doug was a beat poet in Boston, tore up cobblestones on Las Ramblas when Franco died, and marched on DC during the height of the Vietnam War. He told me how as a young man, he crossed continents and worked with his hands, picking grapes in France, Brussels sprouts in England, and operated a construction site on the Dead Sea. There was a time he could say, “I love you” in a dozen languages and when his kids were little, he made radio dramas and played all the parts. All told, Doug Harlow was a man who lived without apology. These days, he lived without a voice, but it hadn’t stopped him from being a commendable journalist.
 
The more we talked, the more I grew to like Doug and to discern his personality through the filter of his voice box. Even with a limited range (the voice box had only two pitch settings, high and low), he managed to be wry, charming, and direct. He was telling me the story of his life, but also questioning whether to go public by participating in a Salt feature. He had doubts, nerves even. The volume may have been soft, but the message coming through was clear: “Why should I do this piece with you, Emily? Convince me.”
 
I froze. While pitching this story to my Salt class, I had never anticipated pitching the story to Doug. His cooperation was something I took for granted, as I focused solely on what would make Doug’s life interesting to other people—people who had never seen, heard, or spoken with Doug. It seemed foolish in retrospect. How had I failed to consider what Doug would get out of the process in equal measure?
 
As radio producers, it’s our job to earn the trust of the people whose stories we tell. But what does trust even mean in the beginning, when all you have is a cold call and a gut feeling that this is the guy—this guy Doug is fascinating—and a blind faith that this Emily chick, this radio student won’t botch your story. Doug, as a journalist, was privy to my process. He knew that in agreeing to open up, he was entrusting me with the power of interpretation on the final broadcast. There’s a partnership that is formed from the moment you agree to let a stranger tell your story. And truth be told, Doug deserved to get just as much out of it as I did.
 
“As a journalist, you’re always the person writing the story. Being on the other side of the table might be interesting for you and inform your work.”
 
“You are a fascinating person who has lived a fascinating life. This is your opportunity to tell it.
 
“People could learn a thing or two about strength from you.”
 
“People may have never met someone with a voice box. Let’s change that.”
 
These were the things that tumbled out of my mouth as I sought to reframe his life as something worth sharing. Doug didn’t interrupt, but listened carefully weighing his options. He said he would talk to his children and let me know. Wednesday morning, this was the e-mail Doug sent:
 

Hi Emily –
I’ll do it.
Count me in.
Let’s set up a schedule to meet.
Call me anytime.
Doug

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Week 7: Multimedia

Early last week, Portland was on the cusp of spring—birds were chirping, the sky was blue, people even ventured outside without hats. I hear it was great. I enjoyed the nice weather from the safety of my apartment, busily reworking the final draft of my first writing piece. This left little time for multimedia, but my brain found a unique solution: multimedia dreams (which were really more like nightmares). While my  body tried to rest, my mind worked itself into paralysis over the shortcomings of my final multimedia project.

At this point in the program, our final projects are locked in and we’ll all gathering photos, videos, and interviews and developing the arc of our stories. I was a little stuck. The root of the problem was the phone. I needed to schedule a time to go into the field with my subject, but I hate making phone calls, so I put it off. This meant that I finished the weekend neither well rested nor properly prepared. Luckily, spring in Maine is fickle. On Monday night it started snowing. The prediction was for over twelve inches of snow, so Tuesday’s multimedia class was rescheduled. I used this reprieve to make phone calls. Lots of phone calls. It was a stressful hour, but successful: by Wednesday morning I had concrete plans to meet my subject on Friday.
“You’re pretty brave,” my subject commented. This was Friday night. The two of us were hiking up a wooded slope, alone, at night. To her, this was an act of bravery (possibly stupidity). I like being outside, especially at night, so for me, this was the easiest part of the week. But it doesn’t mean she was wrong. I was pretty brave this week, I used the phone to call strangers. And for the first time in a month, I felt great.

- Alison, writing

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Week 7: Radio

For the past month, I’ve been time traveling. I’ve been venturing out of state to a living history museum that replicates village life in 19th century rural New England and getting to know the historical interpreters: those costumed men and women who operate the village for a curious 21st century public. Donning period clothes, they are trained in period skills, everything from doling out caramels at the general store to printing on an ink press. They do so with a wink and a lesson. Did you know that a skilled compositor, who arranged moveable type, could set 1000 characters an hour? Now you do. Historical interpreters have long fascinated me, the way some other little girls were captivated by Disney Princesses. 100-proof unadulterated magic. On every family vacation and field trip (it’s a rite of passage for most kids in the Massachusetts/Connecticut area), I would try to get one of them alone and ask the questions about who they were “in real life.”

 
I was never successful until Salt, with an ID card marked “documentary student” and a microphone to cut through the illusion. It’s been wonderful. I can follow my curiosity and ask all the questions I’ve always wanted to. In return, four interpreters—two men and two women with nearly 90 years of experience among them—have shared generously about their professional and personal lives. Their tape is rife with interesting material. The more I listen, the more amazed I am by the alignment of their working lives with their personal values: face-to-face conversation, simplicity, experiential learning, accessibility of history, awareness of food pathways, energy use, and labor. They’ve shared what it means to interpret history and have entrusted me with an interpretation of that intimate knowledge. In many ways, I feel like a historical interpreter to a second degree. I am plagued by a low-lying terror of producing a radio feature that won’t do their work justice.

 
The past three weeks have been a challenge for precisely that reason. At first, I took a multi-pronged approach to the story out of fear that eliminating angles would dilute the material. My first script read like an extended village scene, a knotted mess of quirky details (e.g. they made condoms from sheep intestines!) without a clear narrative. I began looking elsewhere, inspecting the tape with a spyglass for moments of tension. I wanted Mystery! Intrigue! I wanted to raise the stakes so listeners would take the work of historical interpreters seriously. My second script looked at the business side of living history and how museums had to make history digestible for the sensitive public. It thickened the plot, but with a weak agent. I hadn’t done enough reporting to make a conclusive statement about the managerial evolution of the museum. Back to the drawing board.

 
No small amount of hair has been spared extraction from my scalp as I’ve tried to salvage my script. I don’t know why it’s been so difficult, but it is. It is extremely difficult to distill real life in all its blithe wildness into a radio story.

 
Mary, another radio student who is skilled at getting to the heart of matters, took me aside the other day and said: “Why did this story interest you in the first place?” I thought about it.

 
The answer to that question is very simple: the people. I love these people.

 
“There’s your story,” she said.

 
And that is what my radio feature is amounting to. It’s tempting at Salt, where you have so much time, technology, and access to interesting people, to dream up a five-part saga fit for the History Channel. That’s a false idol, I’m coming to realize, for anyone but Ken Burns. Plus you don’t have Morgan Freeman’s voice. You have yours, your time, and your ability to work hard. My piece will probably be six minutes long. It will not make any grand statements or groundbreaking discoveries. Its scope has narrowed and its goals winnowed from a competing jury of many to the one most important: to bring historical interpreters into the purview of the listener and have the listener understand, for six minutes, why someone would want to spend 40 hours a week in another time period. Six minutes of suspended reality, six minutes I need to make worth your time.

 
Ironically, the person who understood this far better than I did was my main subject. She’s a radio junkie. It’s allowed a nice rapport to develop between us, a give and take that makes our interviewer-interviewee relationship mutually beneficial. She’s fascinated by radio production. I’m fascinated by historical interpretation. We try to make our jobs as transparent to one another as possible.

 
Our first conversation took place as she was seated behind the counter of a country store skimming a newspaper for sewing machine advertisements. Radio is the first thing we talked about. She understood that I needed to record ambient sounds of her sheep baaing for authenticity, remarking that she would notice if I had recorded sheep at another museum. She said something else too, something that I knew would never make it into the radio feature, would never be heard by anyone but me, but that articulated the challenge of her job, my job, and the job of anyone whose job is to interpret the lives of others: “I love the people who just tell the most boring, mundane, cereal eating parts of their lives, but they’re beautiful because of how they tell the story. It’s not taking the most extraordinary events, but taking everyday events and allowing them to be extraordinary.”

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Week 7: Writing

“To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.”
– Christian Wiman

 

I am an over-sharer by birth. In my family, feelings are like food: to be set down on the dinner table and shared, chewed over and digested. I make friends on airplanes to San Francisco, or elevators to the tenth floor – any enclosed space where it is perfectly okay to ignore the people around you, avoiding their eyes by staring down at your shoes. I don’t know how to have acquaintances, or peripheral friends — my friendships are founded on the kind of tell-all, late night conversations that necessitate a life-long bond; as a child, over tubs of ice cream in my parent’s kitchen, and now, on a bench in the park, or in the corner of a bar. A moment of connection, a lesson that we are only as misunderstood as we let ourselves be.

 

Our culture thrives on over-sharing. Thanks to Facebook, I know what my lab partner from my sophomore year of high school ate for dinner, and how it sat in his stomach. We’ve grown out of modesty. Left privacy at the door. A few weeks ago at Salt, we had a Skype session with a social media guru who urged us to build our social media presence, establish our beat, and curate tweets to fit within the Twitterverse.

 

I might seem like the prime user for social media, but in fact, I hate it. Sharing my thoughts comes naturally with my closest friends, but not with an unlimited amount of strangers on the internet. The same goes for the personal essay, which happens to be our next assignment in writing class. The idea of showing my essay to my fellow writing students doesn’t make me lose much sleep, but the prospect of making it accessible to all of the internet unnerves me.

 

In “The Limit”, Christian Wiman writes about the dark underbelly of his family; his words are so hauntingly raw that it is easy to forget the risk he is taking in exposing his personal history. Writing for “the reader” is a daunting task. Who is this reader? How will they judge me? And addressing my own personal history, it would be impossible to not include others. Rarely are people flattered by their portrayal on the page or their face on the screen. Somehow, I run the risk of not doing my loved ones justice, betraying their essence, filtering the facts through my own experience. By striving for honesty, will I inevitably falsify my experience?

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