Berlin’s Jewish Museum

Each day in 2013, Berlin’s Jewish Museum posts online a document that recounts the unfolding of Nazi terror om 1933 – 80 years earlier to the day. Each document presents a tiny story: a letter dismissing a nurse from work; a letter from a teacher to his student, explaining that he must leave the country and cannot continue their private classes; stamps in a passport evidencing one man’s search to find refuge from the growing discrimination and abuse. The online postings communicate the story of Nazi persecution in tiny packages – they illuminate the impact of German policies in the lives of individual men, women and children.

Now, with these small illustrations of how policies were carried out in granular detail, I can understand.

Note: Click “EN” on the top left if the pages come up in German. That flips the website to the English version.

Andrew Norton – Interview

I noticed Andrew Norton back in February after viewing his website featuring photography, video, and audio stories. It’s well worth a visit as Andrew has a light, engaging style that’s very entertaining. I was interested in his background in photography and radio production, and when I saw that he’d participated in a Transom workshop I contacted him for some additional information about that experience.

As a legit radio guy, Andrew suggested that we conduct an interview over Skype. He offered to record his end. I haven’t done this type of interview before so I bit at the chance. Unfortunately, it’s taken me forever to turn this around, even though I had the recording quickly transcribed through Elance – a web service I use to outsource some of my back office work.

Q1: Andrew, can you give me some background about yourself?

Norton: I originally started as a photographer and actually, the way I started photography was through shooting skateboarding. I was interning with a skateboard magazine while I was in school for photography. They offered me a job so I started as a staff photographer. Eventually I became the Managing Editor and all the while I was still shooting photos for them and going on trips, and also acting kind of as a Photo Editor, thanks to my background in Photography.

Q2: What pulled you into radio and multimedia?

Norton: At the magazine our Copy Editor recommended some podcasts and things like This American Life, Radio Lab, American Media. I started listening to those religiously and it got me interested in storytelling. It kind of opened my eyes to a new form of storytelling and when I was writing for the magazine I adopted a writing style very similar to the radio style of writing: very short sentences and very frank, but adding some humor and person touches to it. I would get people on the phone and do strange interview, little personal stories – that was kind of my outlet. So I learned to write from radio people and I became obsessed with listening to radio & podcasts.

At some point, I got a new D3S camera and it had a video function on it. So I started messing around digital video. The first video I did was me telling a story about a friend of mine who owns a hamburger shop. He makes his own ketchup – it’s like a 12-hour process and the recipe dates from the 1800s. So I brought my DSLR and a wireless mic and we spent a couple of hours together. I interviewed him and shot some B-roll (I didn’t know it was called B-roll at the time). I just asked him to walk me through the process and I made a short little video about him making ketchup.

Q3: How did that lead to Transom?

Norton: About the same time my wife and I got married. For our honeymoon we basically just took off in a car. The whole time we were on this road trip we listened to podcast after podcast. I saw This American Life’s Facebook page with information about Transom. My wife coaxed me to go, so I applied and got in. Transom is a two-month intensive radio-making boot camp. You eat, sleep and breathe radio, going from zero to sixty in two months. At the end of it you have two radio stories. I went into it wanting to learn how to formally interview someone, what makes a good story, and what kind of stuff do you need to collect audio.

I’d never thought about making a radio story. Transom selects people that want to tell stories but from various backgrounds from newspaper writing to someone in our group who was a nurse. Transom is really good at getting you into shape and within the first couple of days you have a recorder in your hand and you’re out there, breaking the ice, talking to people. I think that’s a testament to how good they are, and it’s also a testament to how small the technical barriers are when it comes to radio.

Q4: Which medium do you prefer?

Norton: I just call myself a storyteller. That story can be told through photos, through video, through audio. There are pros and cons to each outlet. It kind of depends on the story. The big pro of radio is that it’s just so much easier to do sometimes. It gives you more freedom because there are fewer technical limitations. It’s quicker. And it’s a lot more personal. Radio set-up time is five minutes. To do video you have to set up two video cameras, you set up your lights, you set up your audio – the set-up time is so long. And once you set everything up, your subject is hyper-aware that you’re recording them. It just takes away a bit of intimacy. People let their guard drop quicker with audio because you’re just there and yeah there’s a microphone in their face but they get over it quickly. It takes less time to go over a barrier.

One advantage of video, though, is that people are much more likely to watch it online. If I put a 5-minute radio story online, only people who are radio nerds are going to listen to it. But if I put a 5-minute video online, more people are going to sit at their computers and watch it. And even though it’s easier to get your audio stories out there now, if you’re not already established the odds of people seeing your video is higher than audio because video has virality built into it. If you do a 50-minute radio story and put it on PRX you hope people hear it; but the pass-around rate is way less. If your goal is to get as many ears or eyes on your work, and your means is just self-publishing, the best way to go is video.

Also, I think video is a lot easier to sell to people. If I approach a local brewery and say, “I’m going to do a 5-minute audio piece on you”, I’m not sure they’d be interested. Whereas with video, you can make more money on that and it’s an easier sell to people.

But for me, the best, the most innovative storytelling is on radio. All you have is the story – just the audio. So you really have to have your storytelling chops honed.

Q5: What equipment do you use for audio recording?

Norton: It’s pretty simple: a Sony M10. It’s just a little handheld recorder. I also use an Electro-Voice RE50 mic, which is just a standard microphone with a little windscreen on it. Finally, I use a pair of headphones. So it’s pretty small for radio standards. And very non-invasive.

Jess Engebretson, Radio Producer

I’ve reached out to several radio producers — some of whom have worked in both radio and the visual arts — to ask about the qualities of radio and how those may best be employed in multimedia storytelling.

Jess Engebretson was introduced to radio while a student at Swarthmore College. She participated in the school’s War News Radio and PRX Radio’s Sudan Radio Project. Following that, Jess spent a year “exploring radio and reconciliation” in Indonesia, Liberia, and Rwanda as a Watson Fellow; she subsequently taught radio journalism in Liberia, where she focused on human rights reporting and occasionally freelanced for PRI’s The World (Click hear to listen to two 2011 radio pieces). Jess is currently Associate Producer at BackStory, an outstanding public radio program and podcast.

Q1. What first attracted you to radio production?

Engebretson: When I was in college there was a student group that produced a radio program on the war in Iraq. I wasn’t particularly interested in radio, but I was interested in Iraq, and the radio people were the ones who were calling up students in Basra and MPs in Baghdad. I wanted to do that, so I started turning up at the studio and getting people to show me what to do. I didn’t grow up listening to NPR, so it was new to me on every level.

Q2. I see from your background that while a student at Swarthmore you worked at Swarthmore’s War News Radio (http://warnewsradio.org). Can you tell me a little about that program?

Engebretson: This was a weekly-half hour program a bunch of students put together on the war in Iraq (and later, the war in Afghanistan as well, though I was pretty much exclusively on the Iraq beat). It was started in 2005, and the goal was to cover the war with depth and nuance and attention to both historical context and personal experience. It was important to us that the show be more than a roundup of bombings. We wanted to dig into Iraqi politics and make sense of why politicians and militia leaders made the choices they did, and what impact those choices had on everyday life for Iraqis. We did our best to include a broad range of voices, and give listeners a sense of the diversity of “war stories” out there. For example, there was a great piece about checkpoints that took the twin perspectives of an American soldier (who talked about the fear that any given person coming toward you might be about to blow you up) and an Iraqi civilian (whose daughter had been mistakenly shot dead by an American soldier as she tried to pass a checkpoint).

It was a massive amount of work and we were constantly understaffed and sounding like zombies because we voiced our pieces at 4 am. And we were in suburban Philadelphia, so all our interviews were over the phone or skype, which was a huge limitation. But I adored WNR and it really shaped what’s turned out to be a lasting interest in radio and conflict. The show aired on about 50 stations while I was there; the program’s changed quite a bit since then (especially given the “end” of the Iraq war), but they’re still making radio.

Q3. After Swarthmore, you spent some time “exploring radio and reconciliation” in Indonesia, Liberia and Rwanda, and then training radio journalism students in Liberia. Will you tell me about those experiences?

Engebretson: If you read about the 1994 Rwandan genocide one of the things you’ll come across is the role of hate radio in fueling the violence. Basically, I was interested in the flip side of that — how people in societies that have experienced mass violence are using radio to try to bridge divides and knit society back together. So I spent a year in those three countries looking at projects that approached radio from a reconciliationist point of view. That sounds really lovely on paper, but one of the ways Rwanda, for example, promotes “reconciliation” is by essentially declaring chunks of history and politics off-limits for journalists. And a lot of Rwandan journalists I met are understandably highly sensitive to the way radio has been used there in the past, and feel very strongly that avoiding those politicized issues is the right thing to do. Of course, plenty of other Rwandans disagree — but mostly behind closed doors. Personally, I do think that the lack of space for open discussion works against genuine reconciliation. But it’s a not an easy knot to unravel. I spent a lot of time thinking about the purpose of journalism.

That was all part of a fellowship year. Afterwards, in 2010, I moved back to Liberia for most of another year to be a trainer at the radio station at the University of Liberia. Liberia has a quite a vibrant media these days, and while there are definitely still limits to press freedom, there’s a real sense that journalists can begin to hold the government accountable. That’s never been the case until recently, so it was an exciting time to be there.

Q4. What makes a great radio piece?

Engebretson: Surprise, narrative tension, emotion, presenting people as people rather than stock characters. It needs to give some broader context to whatever the central issue is. It needs to use sound creatively (ie, hearing this on the radio should give me something I can’t get just from reading a transcription). It should change the way the listener sees the world, if only slightly.

Q6. What are the strengths and limitations of radio?

Engebretson: Strengths: You can hear the emotion in an interviewee’s voice, which often communicates much more than the raw words.. Also, you can hear their silence. Long pauses, stumbling for words — in the right context, those can be much more powerful than fluid speech.

Limitations: Often, time. That’s not an inherent limitation, but if you’re making radio for broadcast on an NPR station, you often get three or four minutes to tell a complicated story. A lot gets lost.

Q6. Coming from a radio producer’s perspective, how should multimedia producers employ audio to create the strongest stories?

Engebretson: Think about what story your audio is telling, and what story your images are telling. Often, of course, they’ll be complementary. But juxtaposing audio that points in one direction with an image that points in another can also be a powerful tool. It can expose the gap between what someone says and what the visual record shows.

Q7. Where can people go to learn how to better use audio elements in multimedia productions?

Engebretson: Transom.org is a great resource, as is the Association of Independents in Radio. Nieman Storyboard is not specific to audio, but is a wonderful resource for storytelling in all kinds of media.

Q8. What type of equipment did you use for producing the 2 radio pieces published on The World?

Engebretson: I used an Olympus LS-10. There aren’t any deep tech reasons for that — it was relatively cheap, highly portable, and was one of only two recorders that I’d used in the past. It didn’t actually occur to me that I might buy anything higher quality, or use an external mic. I think being in the right place at the right time trumped having top-notch equipment.

Elements of Story

Here’s a short film clip by Liam Thomson that illustrates how images alone can tell a story.
 


 

It’s interesting to dissect the piece.  In the first sequence (0:00-0:45), we have a character,  a setting, and emotion (some unidentified tension & conflict) — but we don’t yet have a story.  Only the second sequence (at around 1:25) — the backstory color section — do we have enough information to establish story.

Interestingly, the ending sequence reverts back to B&W (2:10) to continue the original sequence — but now we have enough information (character, setting and emotion plus backstory) to have a rudimentary story.  A full story?  No.  But just enough to have some story.

And importantly, the cinematographer Thomson has created one other element: questions.  You can’t watch this sequence without wondering more about the context of the struggle between these two characters.  We see how the given situation is resolved, and the resolution (death and mourning over that death) suggests a connection between those characters that would pull us forward into the next sequence.

One final note: above I said “images alone” tell the story.  But that’s not quite true, is it?  There’s also a soundtrack.  Ask yourself, what if Thomson eliminated the sound?  Or replaced it with an upbeat, chipper soundtrack?

 

Aaron Huey and Cowbird.com

Aaron Huey is a photojournalist that I’ve followed for several years. He originally caught my attention with images he took of a journey through the Republic of Georgia (formerly part of Russia). His images were staggering; his ability to immerse himself into different cultures was impressive. Huey’s images from Georgia aren’t easy to find on his website, but I’m including a link below (unfortunately, this takes forever to load; but it’s worth the wait):

Recently, Huey has collaborated with Jonathan Harris, the creator of Cowbird.com, to build a community multimedia storytelling program that would give Huey and people from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota a platform to aggregate text, images and audio as a communal story in a single place.

The project, much of which is posted on the National Geographic website, is funded by a grant from the John and James L. Knight Foundation.  Huey, from what I can tell, is currently a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.  I’m interested in this project for 3 reasons:

  1. Why would Huey, who has access to the entire world (he’s currently back in the Georgian Republic doing something) devote so much time to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation? What attracts Huey to this subject? (He’s been photographing at Pine Ridge for 7 years.)
  2. Why would Huey, the photojournalist, cede “control” over his story to his subjects? The essence of Cowbird seems to be collaborative storytelling – or what I would call story sharing. How does Huey as a photojournalist see collaborative story sharing developing?
  3. What interest does Stanford, National Geographic, and the John and James L. Knight Foundation have in this type of collaborative storytelling / story sharing?

Cowbird.com claims to a free platform for people to share stories using online tools. Cowbird’s purported mission is to “build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as a part of the commons.”  I contacted Cowbird to ask more about their product and the community of storytellers that they’re building.  They’ve responded with some info – I’ve got some research to do and I’ll fill you in on Cowbird.com with a subsequent post.

I’ve also emailed Aaron Huey to get his perspective, but as I mentioned he’s on the road (and for him that probably means completely off the grid) in the Georgian Republic.  I’ll keep you posted on what I learn.

Kate Holt – Interview

Kate Holt is a freelance photojournalist who has covered Bosnian refugees, the sex slave trade and human trafficking from Eastern Europe and the Congo, and conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia. Ms. Holt reported for the BBC and The Independent Newspaper prior to establishing herself as a freelance photographer. She has been nominated 3 times for the Amnesty Aware for Humanitarian Reporting, as well as the Prix Pictet Photographic Award. Ms. Holt currently photographs for the international media, NGOs, and corporate clients and provides consulting services and media training for NGOs and governmental agencies. Ms. Holt’s website is www.kateholt.com.


Ms. Holt has incorporated various multimedia techniques into her professional work. I asked her about the market for that work product, and how incorporating audio and video with photography has affected her work.

Q1.  First, I saw somewhere that you grew up in Newfoundland (where my family originated). Can you tell me a little about your background?

Holt:  I was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where my father was working as a doctor for the military and my mother was a journalist. As the civil war worsened they decided to leave – travelling first to Cape town in South africa and then on to Newfoundland.

My father had been offered a job working in Intensive care units and helping on the oil rigs. We inititally lived in ST Anthony and then moved down to St. Johns until I was 11. So yes, 6 years of my childhood was spent in Newfoundland – surrounded by a lot of open space and the sea!

Q2.  Coming from the still photography photojournalism world, how interested are you in multimedia? Are you seeing a pull from your clients for multimedia? And if so, would you characterize this as strong demand, or just some demand? Is your multimedia work primarily a personal interest or a professional “necessity”?

Holt:  I still believe firmly in the power of still photography – and think it still hasn’t a hugely important role to play in the media and as a communication tool in other areas eg internal marketting. I am actually starting to encourage a lot of my clients to start experimenting with multi media – by multi media I mean putting audio with still photogrpahy and creating short 3 – 4 minute packages. Some are showing an interest – some prefer to stick to stills.

I would say that some of the clients I work with two or three years ago were turning to film – but are now turning back to still photography and the use of multi media instead. Reasons being:

1. it is more economical
2. means they get the best of both worlds – eg a short photo film – but still able to use the photos individually
3. in some countries where internet is slower – multi media uses less bandwidth so is more accessible than films.

  

Q3.  I browsed through the Mogadishu project on your website, where you incorporate still photography and recorded audio into the final product. How did you approach the sequencing of images for this project?

Holt:  I try to tie in images with the audio – eg make the images relevant to the text.

Q4.  In Mogadishu, did you start with a collection of images and then build out the audio? Or start with audio and build up the images to support that audio? Or did you start with a blank slate and build images and audio simultaneously?

Holt: Start with a blank slate. Working in Mogadishu last July – time was very limited on the ground because of security. So we had limited material to start with! Sometimes content is never quite what you thought it would be so you have to be creative and keep an open mind.

Q5.  For your work, how beneficial is the addition of audio to your still photography?

Holt:  I think it adds hugely to the story telling process – and can be so much more powerful than film. One can say a lot more in a four minute photo film than you can in a traditional film.

 
Q6.   I also looked at your project called Fairtrade Tea, where you’re using video and some time-series still images. How did you find working with video different from working with still photography?

Holt:  Very – but I prefer stills! Although this was a fun project to work on and because of the interviews we needed, video/film was the only option.

Q7.  Did your thought processes change when you incorporated video vs. still photography?

Holt:  Yes, because you are having to work in sequences and think about interviews.

Q8.  Did you separately collect audio for this project?

Holt:  No – the audio came from the video.

Q9.  Are there any particular applications or situations that lend themselves toward multimedia (esp. in relation to still photography)?

Holt:  Yes – Soundslides is a great and very simple programme to use. Final Cut Pro — if you know how to use it — can create some lovely photo films too.

Q10. Do you have any new multimedia projects on the horizon?

Holt:  Currently working on two – one from Haiti with the Guaridan and another one about water exploration in Turkana, Kenya. Both are very different but I am using the same techniques and programmes for both.

Documentary Arts Asia – Revisited

Back in August 2012, I encountered Documentary Arts Asia (“DAA”) on the web and was interested in the breadth of this organization’s offerings. I connected with Ryan Libre, DAA’s Founder and Director, and in an earlier interview he outlined some of DAA’s activities, including an artist-in-residence program located in Chaing Mai, Thailand.

Returning to the DAA website recently, I see some new activities, including the Chain Mai Documentary Arts Festival 2013 (running from Feb 8 – 14, 2013) and the first of what may be multiple Podcasts. I asked Ryan for an update on DAA.

Q1. Ryan, this is the 2nd Chaing Mai film festival, correct? Will the format (exhibitions by photographers, film screenings, and workshops) be the same as in 2012? And can you give us some highlights?

Libre: Yes, second installment. This year is different in that we have one of the best galleries in SE Asia booked for the festival and 5 partner exhibitions in additions to our 10 major exhibitions. We also have a proper theater booked for the films, a photobook showcase, and a great key note speaker, Shahidul Alam.

Q2. When we last spoke you had just launched your DAA Artist in Residence program, with the first artist (Sitthixay Ditthavong) having been selected. How did Sitthixay’s project work out? Do you have plans to bring in another artist this year?

Libre: This project is unfortunately on hold for right now. We have had no real funding in the last year and have managed to keep all our programs running but this. However im sure very soon someone will support this and we have have 1 – 4 AIR programs a year.

Q3. I also see DAA has begun a Podcast series. What’s on the horizon for the Podcast series?

Libre: Lots of in depth multimedia interviews with established and rising Asian photographers and others influential in the field.

Q4. You’re also seeking a sponsor for the Podcast series. What will that sponsorship involve?

Libre: Sure, it takes time and resources to do these justice. I’m hapy to give good PR and credit to any company or individual who can cover our basic costs to produce them. Win-Win situation.

Q5. Any other plans — either for DAA or for yourself — for 2013?

Libre: In 2013 DAA and I will finish a feature length Documentary on the Kachin Independence organization. (www.when-will-it-be.com) We’re also planing to get our center in Kachin State running full time.

Simplicity

It’s been ages. Ah, Christmas activity…

I listened to an audio program recently and mention was made of a challenge put to Ernest Hemmingway by some of his buddies: “I bet you can’t write a story in just 6 words.” He took the bait. Here’s his story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”

How crisp and poignant that is. An entire story in 6 words. It may make a stronger impression as an audio statement (you need to pause between phrases to pull out the pathos). But it proves the point that storytelling can be simple. As simple as 6 ordinary words.

A Future Reset

James Dao and Todd Heisler at the NYTimes created a 3-minute multimedia piece covering difficulties faced by a war vet who lost a limb in combat.

Some observations:

  • Dao & Heisler split their start: audio is strong out of the shoots with the narrator Cpl. Sebastian Gallegos telling us that he lived but someone else died. But the imagery starts slow with scenes of suburban America. I’m not sure why Dao & Heisler send these mixed messages.
  • Character: Dao & Heisler introduce us to Gallegos, a character with a physical disabilities who is struggling to adjust to his disfigurment. I see Gallego’s pain, but I guess I don’t know enough about him to get emotionally invested. Maybe that’s unrealistic in a 3 minute short, but I think the reporters could have given us a little more info about the main character. At apx. 1:00, Gallegos remarks that his war injury “has changed they way way I think; it cuts me off from conversations.” Wow, how ’bout some more on that? That clip hints at Gallego’s internal needs for human contact and acceptance – but I don’t hear more about it. Later, Gallego’s wife is shown in the background. How about a 10-sec soundbite from her, reflecting on her husband’s character or emotional state?
  • Structure: Gallegos struggles to adjust to his artificial arm, but it’s not clear is whether he has changed (positively or negatively) through the course of that struggle. Personally, I want to know about Gallegos’ transformation: what’s happened (past tense), not what’s happening (present tense). I’m not sure this story was ripe enough for documentation.
  • Information: Dao & Heisler show information about Gallego’s prosethetic arm, but I don’t have the sense that this visual information is necessary. It seems extra. Interesting, but disconnected from the narration.

Kate Holt: Effective Audio Slideshows

In an earlier post I wrote about Soundslides, a software package that helps photographers move into multimedia by automating slideshow transitions and incorporating sound. Soundslides also has a blog, and I found this recent post entitled “Kate Holt’s Digital Storytelling Insights – Part 1“.

This is the first of several Soundslide blog posts, each covering Holt’s storytelling process. Holt prefers audio slideshows because of their simplicity. But she describes her not-so-simple preparation and workflow in putting an audio slideshow together.

Kate Holt is a freelance journalist based in the Nairobe. After spending time with the BBC, Holt undertook a project to document refugees fleeing from Bosnia into Albania in 1999. Following that endeavor, Holt spent several years documenting human sex-trafficing in Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine, followed by a similar expose in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003. Holt has been nominated 3 times for the Amnesty Award for Humanitarian reporting; she’s also been nominated for the Prix Pictet Photographic Award.

Click image below to view an example of one of Holt’s audio slideshows:


http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-19060390