I’m working with a group of photography students on a ‘day in the life’ project for PBA. So this week I’ll use to get my thoughts in order and write down some of the things I’ve learned over almost two decades of Internet storytelling. Photography is almost 35. (Maybe I should be better at all this by now.)
The class and my interns will be telling photo stories about individuals around Atlanta. The gist is all the many ways and means of life that people have in the community. Atlanta is full of stories, and I want to try to bring it down to the level of people. Too much news is approached from the big picture, which is worthwhile obviously, but what about how it affects people’s lives? How do we get along? What are we doing? When someone reads “single parent” or “activist” or “politician” or “homeless”, what does that mean?
Part of my sort-of revelation about how good I have it came from the work I did around homelessness, poverty, and sex trafficking, among other issues, when I started at PBA back in 2011. “Homeless” meant the obviously disturbed guy approaching me on the sidewalk whose eyes I was desperately trying not to meet. “Sex trafficking” was something from a Liam Neeson movie. “Poor” was someone lazy.
Then I started talking to those people.
So I live in a bubble. And I like my bubble. But really, we all could do with some getting out.
Oof, that seems like a hard way to give you a listicle of how I approach interviews and stories, but there it is.
And so, in no particular order, here’s how I approach my digital projects:
One of the things I try to stress when talking to anyone about a project that lives on the Internet is that IT’S NOT ABOUT THE INTERNET. It’s so easy to talk about computers and tools, but does every newspaper story start with the type of ink you’ll use? No. I like to start any planning meeting with no computers at all and just ask, “Why are we doing this? ”
Our new news director at WABE said something I took to heart and passed along to the students, “Tell me why I should care, in two sentences or less.” Everyone should do that with any project.
I told the students to “think small”. What I meant is to focus. Why is this interesting? Why are you there? What are the details? Show them to me. I also told them to “think big”. Widen your net, do something that you are interested in, but not familiar with. Reach out.
Most of my projects start in the think big arena, and then I get so overwhelmed I just stop. And the ones worthwhile I usually manage to tighten up to the one thing, the “golden coin” of the story (thanks, Dave).
When I started Art Relish, I didn’t have any real connection to the art community. I was pretty new in town, an average photography student, and no real background in criticism outside of classroom crits and papers. What I did have was some technical skill and the ability to talk to people. And I showed up.
Doing just that much, over and over again, brought me the connections I needed and demonstrated my commitment to the subject at hand. Then people started calling me, because they could count on me. Be early too. You don’t want to be in a rush setting up.
One day you are going to need that mini to 1/4″ adapter. Or an XLR male-to-female. Or a USB cable. Get a good bag, and put everything in it. I have three now, one for video, one sound, and one still. And make sure you didn’t leave the tripod mount on the other camera. Another handy thing about being prepared is that you can be the one to save the day when the venue suddenly does not have everything they need.
Get good sound
People will look at bad picture. They will not tolerate bad sound. Wear headphones, real ones. If you can’t monitor the sound you won’t know what you’re getting. Once I went through a whole interview wearing the old style iPod headphones. I thought I was hearing my subject through them, but it was just him talking. Turned out I hadn’t fully clicked the cable into the camera. Calling him back for a do-over was kind of embarrassing. I use Sony studio monitor headphones now. They are affordable and good enough.
Know your stuff
To get good picture, good sound, good finished product, you have to know your stuff. That means test it in advance. Got a new microphone? See how it sounds. New camera? Shoot something. Do everything in your power to not have the event or interview be the first time you’ve used your gear. You don’t want to be fumbling while some famous artist is waiting on you (pro tip: he won’t). This does not mean being an expert. It means doing your homework. For the record, I have never taken a video production class.
Don’t move the camera
Let your subject move. When I was taping bands in Athens in ye olden tymes, I liked to do RADICAL ZOOM in time with the music. And it was the worst. If they’re performing, let them perform. Unless your story is about the camera itself, let the action take place on its own.
Tell people what you want them to do
Your subject expects you to be the expert. Be that. Fake it. If you want them to stand in a particular place, tell them. If you don’t understand or need more, ask them to repeat, or rephrase your question. If a truck goes by, have them stop talking. You are the boss, no matter who you are talking with.
Of course you need to do your homework and walk in with questions. For a super tight interview, I usually start with:
- “Who are you?” (ask them to spell it too)
- “Where are we?”
- “What are we looking at?”
- “Why are you showing it to me?” I usually put this a little more politely, “What do you want people to walk away with after [seeing/experiencing/whatever] your work?”
Those questions pretty much always give me what I need for an under three minutes interview, and they focus attention too. BUT. I am always, always listening, and ready to follow up or go in another direction. Mark Twain said, “If we were meant to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.” This is true, and you need to quiet down and listen up.
In addition to becoming hardened to critique, the most valuable thing I got out of art school is the ability to edit. That means knowing what goes in, and what does not. When I first started doing interviews, I thought I had to put in everything the subject said. This led to epic nine-minute interviews, and barely anyone watched. Not everything someone says is worth remembering, or passing along. Let it go.
Go back to what it is you’re trying to get across, based on your needs, on the listening you did with the interviewee, and the golden coin that they gave you. Eliminate everything else. Something I got from an old newsroom editor, if you question whether some part is worth including, then it’s probably not.
Give yourself room to cut too. Get more than you need. If you want a three-minute final product, talk to your subject for 10.
Roll with it
Something is going to go wrong. Something unexpected is going to happen. Being prepared, listening, patient, and knowing what you want will help you deal with it and get what you need. Also, there’s a lot of waiting around involved for that 15 minutes you get to spend with your subject. You’ll need patience, and to be ready to go when the time does come.
And that is that, more or less. All my secrets. After following these guidelines, the rest is mostly pushing buttons. Figure out the right ones and you are good to go.