Have you ever looked back at your life and wondered “How would things have turned out differently if…..I hadn’t have moved to a new part of the country when I was 13 years old or if I had stayed at Syracuse University instead of leaving school after completing my sophomore year and traveling around the world? Or if I had taken the job at Boeing after graduating from Brooks Institute…..or if I hadn’t seen that article in Time Magazine about “Indie” media ventures, referencing the 1st Digital Video Symposium that was going to take place at the American Film Institute?” Every one of those events at pivotal points in my life, carved out my next “chapter “ – determining who I was going to be and where I was headed. Some of my life’s twists and turns, I had no control over – like moving from Rochester, NY to the greater NYC Metro area when I was barely a teenager. But there have been a lot more pages turned in my life since then, and along with that a whole lot of decisions to be made along the way. The best decisions I’ve made in my life happened when I was open minded to possibilities and I listened to my gut. Last week I coached at the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop. It was a perfect example of peers helping peers and a wonderful collaboration between NPPA and ASMP, my trade association that I’m about to be President of next month. Even though these workshops are exhausting in every way, I get as much as I give on so many levels. Ultimately the workshop is about learning good solid video journalism storytelling, but the technical learning curve can be daunting to many coming from a still photographer background. Many of the students were totally green when it came to audio, movement, sequencing or the post-production editing process. Some became so overwhelmed by the gear that they lost focus of the most important part of the workshop – “the story”. It’s easy to lose sight of the “story”. At the workshop, Bruce Strong from Newhouse School of Journalism gave a talk about “Storytelling Basics”. He said something that really resonated with me “Ask the why behind the why. Look for the emotional core of the story”. I realized that I needed a reminder at this particular time in my life, as to what was the essence of a good story. I’m currently working on a documentary film about a family that has a deep and rich history. To be honest, I had been floundering on the story aspects of the film as I had begun to get lost in the details and facts. I had an epiphany as I listened to Bruce and realized that my job wasn’t to document the timeline of this family, that had already been done in written form – my job was to “tell a story”. That epiphany may sound obvious and simple, but sometimes I get blindsided by the daily consumption of life, and the “obvious” gets overlooked. But if I put myself in a different place, in body and mind, at a time in my life when I am open and receptive, the “right” path does become obvious. That path was there the entire time, but perhaps it wasn’t the right time for me. As Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending, than it depends on where you stop the story”.
It’s the start to a beautiful day in Brookside, NJ and I’m home at last after a long and arduous 4-week trip to China. I had been teaching Chinese journalists, video journalism or new media as they refer to it in China.
I hadn’t fully realized how hard “teaching” really is until after these past four weeks. To begin with, I was teaching a difficult subject – “how to produce and shoot short video stories”, to journalists at the “state’s” largest news and photo agency. I had 4 days to teach 4 weeks worth of material –how to think and shoot in motion, edit video stories and upload them online. To make things even more difficult, everything I said had to be translated by my interpreter to my students, making the instruction take three times longer.
Each week my students amazed me by their eagerness to learn, despite coming to the class with the bare minimum in the way of “tools”. Some students didn’t even have cameras that could shoot video. Some had dated low res video cameras and no one had any audio gear at all. When it came to the editing part of the program, their computers were under equipped to handle Adobe Premiere CS 5.5, which they had recently downloaded and installed on their PC’s. And yet, each class managed to produce a short story after less than four days!
This entire adventure was a lesson in collaboration. My students learned to collaborate. Like most photojournalists they were used to working solo, so collaborating was a foreign concept to them. But, collaboration is a common way of working when it comes to video and it was a necessity in China, because the students were lacking in gear.
I was part of a team of four teachers on this trip, so I too was working in a collaborative way. That was equally tough, as I am used to working as an independent producer and accustomed to making my own decisions. The other three photographers/teachers were also independent photographers, used to doing things their own way. Egos collided from time to time within the group, yet we ultimately knew we needed to maintain the “group” in order to deal with the angst that came with doing this job. On top of that, our Chinese hosts wanted to control us.
I think we all learned a lot about each other in the process as this adventure played out. I know I did. But, I also learned a lot about myself. Perhaps, this was the purpose of this trip – to learn more about myself and grow from the experience. Time will tell.
I can also say that I learned from my students. There is always one student who feels that they already know everything, and usually tries to “stump the teacher”. When this happens, I handle it with humility and thank the student for teaching me something that I did not know. I do not hide the fact that I don’t know everything. And then I take the opportunity to relay to the rest of the class, that I never want to stop learning, no matter how old I get. I tell them that in living this way, it has brought many rewards in my life and I encourage them to do the same.
I’m home now. It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Brookside, NJ and I’m reflecting on my last weeks, which remained an adventure until the end. Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng was on my flight from Beijing to Newark, NJ, seeking asylum in the US and making a new life for himself and his family. As Chen adjusts to a totally new life in America, I’m happy to be home again with my freedom and liberties in tact.
It’s been a tough 3 weeks teaching video to journalists in China – perhaps the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. It’s not the teaching part that’s hard – it’s knowing if what I am saying is being correctly translated to my students, it’s being away from friends and family and just being away for so long that makes it tough. I have one more week to go and will take a good long rest when I return to the US.
Last week was especially difficult but yet my amazing students got me through it. They simply amazed me in how quickly they learned. They learned in 4 days what it takes most photographers to learn in 4 weeks or months.
Every week I have a new group of students and each week there are always one or two students that I know really “get it”. There was one student who I coined a nickname for “Mr. Question” because he asked more questions than most. His questions weren’t just about what settings to use on his camera or how to do something in Adobe Premiere, but more about the “big picture”. His questions always showed me he was thinking.
One question, this particular student asked me this week, really caught my attention. He asked me “How are we (new media producers) different than TV?
I had just read an article online that addressed this very question and it talked about how newspaper video journalists are now winning more Emmys than TV news journalists.
I responded to my student by telling him:
- TV news makes the reporter part of the story – sometimes even the “star”
- New media tells the story through the voice of the subjects – making them the “stars”
- TV news is delivered to us on the network channels – 3 times a day.
- Online news is 24/7 and on demand. We get the news online when we want it and wherever we want it – on our desktop computers, on our iPhones or on our iPads. We also can share the news and interact with others. We become part of the delivery chain.
- TV news journalists rush back to the studio to get the story on air by 5 o’clock. The stories are generally very short – limited to their broadcast slot.
- As new media producers we have the luxury of working longer on feature stories and delivering them online to a global audience. While print newspapers and magazines are folding – there has been a rebirth of the long documentary story that can now be delivered online. We are communicating to a wider audience around the world, no longer being restricted by time and space.
In the 1960’s newspaper executives were lamenting about the good old days and predicting that TV would kill them. I find it ironic that the shoe seems to be on the other foot now. I teach “motion” and “video journalism” to a lot of still photographers. There are some who buy their DSLR’s and aspire to make broadcast spots for TV. There are some who aspire to make feature length films for Hollywood. And then there are some who tell me that there is nothing new about video and that field is already glutted with videographers and cinematographers. Those are the old business models for video and motion.
The ones who “get it” are the hybrid creatures that recognize that there is a shift in the way we communicate. They understand that video is really just another medium in which to tell their stories – not a business model, nor a niche market.
My student in China who asked me this question- he “gets it”. He understands that he is part of the future of how Chinese journalists and others around the world, will deliver the news. That’s why they call it – new media.
I’ve been in China for the past two weeks, teaching video journalism to some of the best photojournalists in China. Last night at dinner, the top director of the program told me (via my interpreter) that Xinhua, China’s biggest news agency, was setting up their multimedia department to stay current with how news is communicated in this day and age. She thanked me for teaching and inspiring her journalists in this medium and said that I was an honorable “pioneer”.
I never set out to be a pioneer when I first started shooting video and motion in the mid ‘90’s – I merely recognized that when the “tools” of this medium became affordable, it was now possible for me to tell my stories in another dynamic way. But I never turned my back on still photography and I would say that it still makes up about 50% of my business – at least in the time that I devote to it. I would also say that while I spend 50% of my time split between both mediums – I make more than 75% of my income from shooting motion – capitalizing on not just making income from shooting video but also on the other elements like editing.
I started thinking about the aspect of being a pioneer and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t trying to set new ground at all – I was really just challenging myself and more importantly staying true to why I became a photographer and that was to communicate.
I’ve given a lot of workshops to still photographers who want to move into video. Generally there are two types of photographers – the ones who think that because they have been “shooting” for many years, they “just” need to understand a new mode on their cameras and the ones who embrace the fact that this is an entirely different medium and they understand that they are novices, and are eager to learn how to communicate in a different way. It’s usually the cocky photographers that fail miserably and end up with a string of unconnected “moments in time” to a music track.
Ever since the first DSLR that incorporated a video mode hit the scene, I’ve seen more and more still shooters, move into motion. After only a couple of months, I even see some of them teaching workshops. It amazes me, because many times some of these same shooters have been hypercritical of “amateurs” coming into their profession with their auto everything “point and shoot” cameras. I’ve had some shooters tell me that they aren’t going into motion, because they think that when these tools become easier to use and more automated – the same thing that has happened to the profession of still photography will happen in video. I disagree with this notion but more importantly I think that this attitude is usually a mechanism people use to talk themselves out of challenging themselves and are reluctant to “change. ” Just like when still photography moved from film to digital – the ones who got left behind were usually the ones who tried to convince themselves that digital would never be as good as film.
I cannot take credit for being a pioneer in video. There are many who came before me that were true pioneers and I feel that would discredit them and their efforts. I’m simply a storyteller and I’m happy that I’m still passionate enough about telling the story that I continue to find the best way to tell the stories that I am meant to tell.
Thanks to the gracious people in China and the Xinhua News Agency for recognizing and embracing the future and being keen to learn. Perhaps many of these students will not shoot multimedia – but learning how to shoot in motion has made me a better still photographer and will make them better shooters as well.
I’m sitting in the Continental (United) airport lounge at EWR, waiting to board a flight for Beijing. I’m headed to China for 4 weeks to teach Chinese journalists, video journalism. My mind is spinning with ideas, questions and the usual array of “what ifs” as I take on another adventure.
About two years ago, I started saying “yes” to opportunities that presented themselves to me – or at the very least, I began to consider opportunities, rather than to talk myself out of things, right off the bat. Because, of that mind set, I’ve been going where life seems to take me and it has presented quite a few interesting adventures. It’s not that I’m foolhardy and doing things on a whim – it’s that I have been listening to myself – my inner voice – and it has been my guiding force.
I’m told that the Chinese are hungry for “western” knowledge. But what I have to teach them is something universal, and that is – how to tell a story – using the medium of video. Seems so basic and simple – how to tell a story – and I suppose it is, but like anything else, it’s simple if you understand it. The key to understanding something is to have the desire to learn. Some people say they want to learn – but that’s different than really having the desire to learn.
Some folks feel threatened by this seemingly insatiable desire of the Chinese to learn all things western. I’m also finding that when people feel threatened by something – they try to “stop” whatever it is they are feeling threatened by. It’s one of those stupid human tricks that folks have played since the beginning of mankind. I process this behavior pattern as unproductive and unsustainable. It rarely works as far as eliminating a perceived threat. You simply can’t totally eliminate desire.
Rather than stop others from growth – a better way is to better yourself. I’d rather put my energies into where I want to go in my life – than in trying to squash other people’s hopes and dreams. I’ve also found that what goes around – comes around. When you “give” and “help” others – you ultimately create a better world – or “space” for everyone.
So, as my mind races this morning with my hopes, my expectations and enthusiasm – I try to keep the nagging doubts and fear at bay. I tell myself that it’s natural to have concerns. But I also tell myself that I can either let my concerns consume me and turn into fear or I can welcome the “unknown” and embrace the opportunity at hand. I’ll let my inner voice guide me because it seems to be doing a good job.