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November 27th, 2013

PDN Video: Is Your Photo Project a Contender for Lens Blog?

Jim Estrin: How Lens Blog Selects Photo Projects from PDNOnline on Vimeo.

Jim Estrin, founder and co-editor of Lens, the popular New York Times photography blog, recently sat down with PDN to talk about what he looks for in photo projects, what distinguishes the projects that Lens blog publishes, and why Lens editors reject many other stories. For photographers trying to get his attention, he offers insight and tips about work ethic, story choice, and representation of subjects. He also discusses two projects that exemplify Lens Blog’s standards and esthetic.

 

August 13th, 2013

PDN Video Pick: Monkeys in a Minute

Cary and Yari Wolinsky, a father and son video production team based in Massachusetts, have produced a series of genuinely heartwarming videos for an NGO called Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled. The organization provides its clients with companion monkeys that help with simple everyday tasks. But more importantly, the monkeys give their owners a renewed sense of purpose as caregivers to adorable, affectionate pets. The Wolinskys explain in a PDN feature story how they gained the trust of the NGO, which is extremely protective of its clients and their monkeys. They also share a lot of instructive details about how they produced the videos.

This video, called Michael and Kathy, is one of a series called Monkeys in a Minute. Other videos in that series are posted on the Helping Hands Web site. Several longer videos about Helping Hands are also available on the Wolinskys’ Web site.

Michael & Kathy from Helping Hands Monkey Helpers on Vimeo.

August 5th, 2013

Documentary Showcases Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, Hip Hop Historian, Activist

Jamel-Shabazz-Street-Photographer“Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer,” the new documentary about the photographer whose books Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack chronicled the rise of hip hop culture in New York in the 1980s, is playing this week at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. It will also be shown in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco this fall.

The movie follows Shabazz as he photographs on the subway and in the neighborhoods that he has photographed since the 1970s. It includes extensive interviews with him about his photography.

Directed by Charlie Ahearn, who also directed “Wild Style,” about early rap, “Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer” includes interviews with Fab Five Freddy, KRS-One and other musicians from the day. They probably help draw in audiences. But once in the theater, they’ll learn that Shabazz was interested in more than just the music and the culture. He was also trying to celebrate life in a community that was often ignored by the media, by outsiders, by government.

In a 2010 interview with PDN, Shabazz said, “It’s about recording history for future generations to see, and showing the dignity and the integrity in our community, something that’s not often shown in the media.”

Shabazz worked as a corrections officer in Riker’s Island, the New York City detention center. After working a shift, he would come home to Brooklyn and take photos as an antidote. He got in the habit of carrying fruit in his pockets that he would give away, in order to encourage kids to have a healthy snack. “I look for love, compassion, the human spirit of a person.” he told PDN.

You can view the trailer on Vimeo.

August 5th, 2013

How to Find Photo Projects in Your Own Backyard

Finding a good photo project is always a challenge, but the staff of The Herald in Jasper, Indiana, a town of about 15,000 people, has been coming up with a photo essay every week for the past 35 years. What’s more, photographers at The Herald have won a number of major photo prizes for their work over the years.

David Weatherwax, chief photographer of The Herald, has won Photojournalist of the Year  (in the small market category) in the NPPA Best of Photojournalism competition for the past two years. He recently explained in a PDN interview how he and his colleagues come up with so many story ideas in their own backyard.

At The Herald, they rely plenty on the personal contacts they accumulate in their day-to-day work as newspaper journalists. Photographer Carrie Niland, who has worked as a photo editor at The Seattle Times, AOL, and The Post-Standard in Syracuse, says the key to finding good local stories it so start a lot of conversations, asking people to tell you about the most interesting people they know.

She and photograph John Berry came up with more than 40 local story ideas for the 2013 NPPA Multimedia Workshop in Syracuse this past spring.  Niland found stories at a cemetery, a karaoke bar, a bowling alley, and a farm, to name just a few places. She searched by calling people she knew, but she also got in her car and just drove around. For instance, she scouted a working class neighborhood where she knew there were a lot of family-run businesses. When she spotted one that looked interesting, she walked in, introduced herself to the boss, explained what she was looking for, and started following every lead she got.

“The biggest advice I could give is to go to someplace outside your comfort zone”–for Niland it was the karaoke bar–”start talking to people, and really listen to what they have to say,” she says. “See what makes them tick, and what interests them, and what they find interesting.”

Niland kept her ear tuned for personal struggle, which can make compelling documentary stories. “Everyone has something they’re trying to overcome or work towards. it’s just talking to people to find out what that is, without directly asking them,” she says. Instead, she asked them about their work, their pastimes, their routines–and why they did those things.

“I think the most important thing is to be open to every story I could possibly find. I didn’t shut down what anyone had to say,” she explains. “If someone said, hey, I have this friend who’s really interesting, and she picks up dog poop for a living–that actually happened. There’s a person who goes around and picks up dog poop from people’s yards. I didn’t know people did that for a living.

“I investigated that. I was trying to be open to everything I heard and follow up on it.”

Alas, nobody at the workshop produced a story about the pooper scooper. The point, though, is that just talking to enough can lead you to surprising stories everywhere.

Of course, there are some useful resources online for finding story leads. Gregg McLachlan, formerly Associate Managing Editor of the Simcoe Reformer, Ontario, Canada, published a list called “50 Places to Shop for Story Ideas” several years ago. Although the list is several years old, it suggests all kinds of places and resources to peruse for story ideas hiding in plain sight.

Transom.org, a showcase and resource for independent radio producers, solicited suggestions from its readers about how to find stories in places where you don’t live. But the suggestions are just as applicable to finding good photo stories in your own neighborhood.

Happy hunting, and if you have other ideas for digging up good documentary stories near home, please add them to our comments section below.

Related: David Weatherwax’s Approach to Small Town Journalism

June 10th, 2013

PDN Video Pick: Open Lanes

In his short video “Open Lanes,” photographer Stephen M. Keller captures an honest, revealing portrait of a bowling alley owner struggling to keep his business alive. The video, with audio and visuals that are equally compelling, was one of several noteworthy projects by participants at the 2013 NPPA Multimedia Immersion workshop at Syracuse University last month. The five-day workshop was a hands-on course in multimedia story telling and production. Participants were given names of subjects and contact information, then turned loose to figure out the subject’s story, and gather the audio and video required to tell it. Coaches with experience in multimedia production helped the workshop participants shape and edit their stories. (PDN editor David Walker participated in the workshop at the invitation of organizers).

 

Stephen Keller – Open Lanes – NPPA Immersion 2013 from Multimedia Immersion on Vimeo.

PDN: What was the assignment you got at the workshop?
Stephen Keller: It wasn’t detailed at all. It just said, Solvay Recreation Alleys and it gave a phone number. I called and talked to the [owner] for 20 or 30 minutes about the bowling alley, and what was going on with it. He seemed like a good guy who loved bowling, and the bowling industry, but he was also in tough times and I thought [the bowling alley] might be in some financial trouble. But he was a normal guy who you want to see succeed.

PDN: How in-depth was your pre-production interview?
SK: I was trying to get as much information as I could, to get an idea where I wanted to go with the story. I wanted to have idea what I might want to look for, what I might want to shoot, what I might want to ask in the interview. I like to preview [stories], to see if they will be worthwhile. It’s also a way to build rapport and get [the subject] familiar with me, even before the camera is there.

PDN: Were you concerned he might tell you the whole story in the pre-production interview, and then be less enthusiastic about telling it on tape because he’d already told you his story?
SK: Not really, because he was a guy who seemed like he liked to talk. I think pre-production interviews are a good thing. I usually do the regular [recorded] interview after all the footage is shot. So I’m familiar with the subject and the story, and I’m going to ask the same questions multiple times in different parts of the interview so I get it clean.

PDN: Did you have a clear idea of the story narrative in your head before you got there, and if so, what was it?
SK: A little bit–it was kind of like an economy story. I wanted to go in that direction because everyone can kind of relate to that. When I got there, it looked pretty much the way I imagined, but I was wondering: how do I shoot an empty bowling alley? That’s boring, so how do I make it visually interesting?

During the pre-production interview I got information about when there were likely to be customers, but when I arrived there was just nobody there. For the three hours that I was there, there has nothing happening, so I went back the next day to [film] some actual customers. I ended up shooting with people there, and without people there, and I tried to get the same angles, somewhat. I should have put marks on the floor to put the tripod in the same spot, to make jump cuts between those shots [with and without people]. I [also] showed that the clientele is [disappearing] by filming the senior citizens who bowl there.

PDN: Did you do the interview after all the shooting was finished?
SK: We did the interview at the end of the first day [after] nobody came in. We were in the same room together for three or four hours, just us. [Your subject] kind of gets familiar with the camera that way.

PDN: What were the biggest challenges you had?
SK: With this piece, because I’m more experienced shooter, I wanted to focus on the parts of my skill set that aren’t the best. My main thing was to focus on getting best interview I’ve ever gotten.

PDN: Your subject’s struggle and sense of resignation comes across so well in the interview. How did you get him to let his guard down?
SK: It was just being around each other. It was being up front, and building that rapport. He opened up, and was the kind of guy who wouldn’t hide anything [anyway]. I also noted his responses to the questions, and returned to some of them to get him to elaborate more.
[Workshop coach] Evan [Vucci's] “dumb dog” technique really helped. When the subject finished up a sentence, I would give him the “dumb dog” look and he would keep going, and elaborate further without [my] even having to [ask a follow-up question]. [Editor's note: With the "dumb dog" technique, an interviewer tilts his head and raises his eyebrows inquisitively as soon as the subject finishes responding to a question. The key is to make the gesture without saying a word. The purpose is to prompt the subject to continue talking, and it often leads the subject to give an unguarded response to the question at hand.]

PDN: Was it a challenge to edit the story?
SK:  There were so may great quotes. The hardest part was cutting [them]. As Evan said to me, “You have to kill your babies” [i.e., the quotes that you love the most] to tell a great story about this guy. One thing [the subject] said that didn’t make it into the film was that he was an avid bowler, but he’s had a knee injury and hasn’t been able to bowl for a few years.

(See all the 2013 Multimedia Immersion videos here, and more videos by Keller here)

Related story:
PDN Video Pick: Our Own Little World

June 5th, 2013

MoMA’s Photography Curator on Underappreciated Photographers

Quentin Bajac, who was appointed chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, gave an interview to critic and author Richard B. Woodward, published last week in the Wall Street Journal. Bajac talked about his ideas for future acquisitions for the permanent collection.

“Artists that he thinks the museum has wrongly ignored or undercollected include Luigi Ghirri,” Woodward writes.  “Among Americans, he cites James Welling as an ‘important’ figure underappreciated in the past by MoMA; and Mr. Bajac was ‘shocked’ it [MoMA] had not a single print by the photojournalist Susan Meiselas.” Bajac also tells Woodward he’d like the permanent collection to represent more Japanese, African and Latin America photographers. (Yes, MoMA’s holdings seem pretty provincial, especially compared to those of other institutions.)

During the interview with Woodward, Bajac also touched on ideas for new shows (note how Martin Parr’s name is mentioned), his thoughts on displaying moving images and media installations, and what role he believes museums and curators should play in a society that experiences “a surfeit of images” every day. One of Bajac’s comments will ring true to anyone who follows photography today: “Photography is no longer about the wall. The book form is basic to photography. Young photographers are self-publishing. We must be aware of that and work closely with the museum library.”

The full article, “Snapshot of a Curator,” can be found on online.wsj.com.

May 30th, 2013

PDN Video Pick: Our Own Little World

Photographer Lori Waselchuk‘s three-minute video titled Our Own Little World was one of several noteworthy projects produced by participants at the 2013 NPPA Multimedia Immersion workshop at Syracuse University earlier this month. The five-day workshop, which was attended by a PDN editor David Walker at the invitation of the organizers, started with a crash course in multimedia storytelling and production, and quickly moved on to hands-on training in one-man-band video production. Workshop participants drew assignments out of a hat, then hit the streets to shoot the stories. Back at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, where the workshop was held, coaches helped participants shape and edit their stories.

Lori Waselchuk – Our Own Little World – NPPA Immersion 2013.mov.

We asked Waselchuk to tell us a little about her project, and how she pulled it together.

PDN: What was the assignment you got?
Lori Waselchuk: It said, “Keith (Traub) and Theresa (Daddona-Traub) are making furniture from recycled farm materials” and then it gave the name of their business (Unite Two Design) their address and contact info. It was very brief.

PDN: How did you conceive and construct the story from that?
LW: The workshop helped me walk into the story. Bruce Strong‘s lecture on story telling helped me take the basics–who, what, when, where and why– and develop a story arc that has commonality and universality for an audience. Keith and Theresa’s story came out in the interview. I interviewed Theresa first. She was really open. When I asked, ‘how did you start to make furniture?’, she was able to talk honestly and authentically about their journey.

PDN: Did you do the interviews before you started shooting? How did the interview inform what and how you shot?
LW: As a photographer, I get my visual cues from interviews. That was a natural process for me. I needed to know more about who these people were. As they were telling their story, I was able to figure out the important aspects. Theresa spoke about their journey and lessons learned. Keith was shyer about their journey. Working with the farm materials is what gives him his creative oxygen, so I had him talk about the craft, the artwork. He talked about collecting materials, and building relationships with farmers whose farms are no longer in use. He goes out to farms to collect stuff. So I asked if we could go out on one of his scavenging hunts. He made it happen the second day. I drove to Keith and Theresa’s place half an hour before they arrived so I could get the sunrise shots. I wanted to show the texture around their place in early morning light. Keith rolled in, then we went out to the farm, collected, then I spent the rest of the day shooting them at work.

PDN: Why was texture around their place important? What did it contribute to the story?
LW: it was a phenomenal space visually, so I needed to capitalize on that. I wanted to get the quietness, the peacefulness of the place. it’s a bit of a treasured space for them, so I wanted to be able to describe that color and texture.

PDN: What was the biggest challenge you had producing this story?
LW: Shooting felt quite natural. I felt good about photography. It was the sound that I would not have known how to handle. The challenge is to creature texture in editing between sound and visuals. McKenna Ewen (one of the workshop coaches) helped me create those complex mixtures of sound and visuals in the editing. The way he layers those things is something I would never have been able to do. The biggest challenging for me is the editing.

PDN: What were the biggest lessons you learned, about story telling or production?
LW: I loved the intensity of the workshop. It made me feel the way I used to when I was a photographer for a daily newspaper. I’m super excited about the demands of video, and the learning curve ahead. I needed that inspiration.

(Other videos from the workshop are posted on Vimeo. Search “NPPA immersion 2013″)

April 22nd, 2013

Video Pick: Thomas Dworzak’s Long View of the Caucasus

Since the 1990s, Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak has explored the volatile republics of the Northern Caucasus. It’s a region that’s now in the news because alleged Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had ties there, but  Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia and other republics of the Caucasus have long been a source of curiosity and geopolitical ambitions, especially in Russia.

In his 2010 book, Kavkas, Dworzak, who is now based in Georgia, wrote: “Having discovered the importance of the ‘Caucasus Experience’ in 19th century romantic Russian literature, I finally put together a book with all the images from my years spent in the Caucasus.” Kavkas includes images Dworzak took while covering the conflicts in Chechnya and Abkhazia and their aftermath, as well as scenes from Dagestan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ossetia.

In the book’s introduction, Dworzak called Kavkas “a toast to the Caucasus.” Magnum in Motion made a multimedia slide show of some of the images from the book. They appear on screen as in the book, interspersed with text from writers including Tolstoy, Lermontov and Pushkin.

While many of Dworzak’s images are poetic and allusive, and compliment the writers’ rhapsodic prose, at other times they make a sharp contrast, showing the violence and hardship the region has seen in recent years.

Related article:
Boston Bombings Focus Attention on Caucasus, And Photo Projects on the Region

Notable Photo Books 2010 (review of Kavkas, published by Schilt)
(For PDN subscribers only.)

April 2nd, 2013

Video Pick: One Family Business Copes with Climate Change

The team of Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele have long been using multimedia and video to get beyond statistics and portray the stories of individuals around the world whose lives are affected by climate change. The four new films in their Facing Climate Change are about people in the Pacific Northwest adapting to rising sea levels and atmospheric change. The films premiered this year at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival and are currently being shown around the country on a nationwide tour.

Their film “Oyster Farmers, Facing Climate Change” uses dramatic underwater footage, documentary photography and video, music and interviews to tell the story of Kathleen Nisbet and her father, Dave, who have for years farmed oysters in Washington’s Willapa Bay. Recently, however, oyster larvae and young oysters have been dying at an alarming rate because of the acidity of local waters, caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide. The problem is particularly acute off the Northwest coast. The Nisbets’ solution:  moving some of their business to Hawaii, where there is less ocean upswell, and thus the acidity in the water is increasing less rapidly.

Drummond and Steele had many partners in the making of the new films, including the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington and Washington State Department of Ecology, and they received major funding from Nau’s Grant for Change and several other funders. You can read about the making of the film on Drummond and Steele’s blog, bdsjs.com/blog. You can view all the videos at bdsjs.com/facing-climate-change/ and on Vimeo.

March 26th, 2013

Short Poverty Film Wins Top Multimedia Prize at BOP Competition

Photographer and director Alan Spearman of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has won the Best Use of Multimedia prize at the NPPA Best of Photojournalism contest, judges announced yesterday.

Spearman won the prize for his short film called As I Am, a rich, poetic film about the hard edges of poverty, from the viewpoint of an insider struggling to pull himself out. Spearman entered the film in the NPPA contest under the title, “Memphis Poverty: What Obama Didn’t See.”

The subject of the film, Christopher Dean, had a moment in the YouTube spotlight in 2011 for his charming introduction of Barack Obama at a high school graduation, where Obama spoke.  Community leaders in Memphis rallied around Dean afterwards to help him pay for college. During the summer of 2012, Dean was an intern at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where he worked with Spearman on the “As I Am” film.

“Memphis Poverty masterfully tells an important American story in a non-traditional way, bypassing the literal translation of poverty to strike the soul,” Best of Photojournalism jurors said in an announcement posted on the NPPA web site. “The artful blend of documentary moments, poetry, music, cinematic shooting and editing craftsmanship moves our art of storytelling forward in a dramatic way.”

The jury, which included Nancy Andrews, Zach Wise, and Jonathan Quilter, gave special recognition to “Dying for Relief,” a multimedia story about the overuse and abuse of prescription drugs, produced by Liz O. Baylen of the Los Angeles Times.

Spearman also won the first place prize in the Feature Multimedia category for the “As I Am” project. First place winners in other BOP multimedia categories included Albert Lee of the Los Angeles Times, who won both the Multimedia Package category and Visual Column/Recurring Series category for his photo and video blog called Framework; MediaStorm in the Documentary Multimedia story category for “A Shadow Remains” (an extension of Philip Toledano’s “Days with My Father” project); Chris Zuppa of the Tampa Bay Times in the New Multimedia/48 Hours category for  “RNC 2012, Inside and Out;” Misha Domozhilov for “Motoball Monsters” in the Sports Multimedia Story category;  and Reuters for “The Wider Image” in the Tablet/Mobile Delivery Project category.

Related:
Picture Story: A Guided Tour of Poverty in Memphis (PDN subscription required)