institute for documentary studies

{Week 8: Photo}

Week 8: Photo

I thought you all might want to know what it’s like to be in the field, so I’ve compiled an emotional play-by-play for the fledgling documentarian, as informed by my own experience. It’s likely that you’ll pass through all of these stages, in their various forms.


You’re all like, “I got this.”

Radio blogger Emily Kwong and I were congratulating ourselves for getting our acts together and being ahead of the curve. We’d rounded up our equipment, I’d bought a sick new tripod, and we were all set to do a practice video interview, just to prepare – unprompted and solely on our own initiative. We spent an hour or so on the interview, perfecting the frames, filming b-roll, angling for the natural light to flatter the others’ features. I forgot to record the sound.

Things will get uncomfortable.

It’s not uncommon for me to feel as though I’m overstaying my welcome. Often times, subjects will ask if you’d like to join them for a meal — at which point it’s your cue to do one of two things: feign fullness, or pull out your Tupperware with the homemade PB and J melting inside.
There are other precarious moments — you’re involved in the very minutiae of your subject’s life — and sometimes, after a few hours, it can be hard to stay focused. Try being professional while stifling a yawn or grumbling stomach.
Sometimes, too, I’ll have my camera poised inches from my subject for several minutes – unmoving — just waiting for them to make the right gesture. I’m not sure what the other people in these very public settings must be thinking.



Your subject no longer wants to be interviewed, or the camera defaulted and you’ve taken two days’ worth of photos in jpeg instead of RAW.  The wind will not cooperate. Stay calm and smile a lot.


Extreme gratitude.

I’ve never spent so much time with people who have led me into the most private corners of their lives, and had so much patience while I used their stories to help me learn my craft. Subjects have let me stay with them for 24 hours uninterrupted, and had unfailing tolerance as I maneuvered around my equipment and hobbled behind them in front of their neighbors, with camera, audio gear, and tripod in tow.
You’re also there for some of the most intimate moments of a person’s day, and while there are times you’d rather shrink into the wallpaper and let them have their space, you have a responsibility to your story to be present for the moment, in all its privacy. The access my subjects offer triggers my inner guilt, because they give so much of themselves for my story, and I’m using it for my benefit.
And I’ve been blessed – not only in finding the right subjects, but in getting the right story. I’ve been so surprised and fortunate to have found subjects with the sensitivity to understand the piece I wanted to produce, who offered me both the joyful and painful moments of their lives, just so I could get it right.