Interview: Will Yurman

Will Yurman worked as a newspaper photographer and multimedia producer for many years before joining the faculty of Penn State where he now teaches multimedia.   Early in his photojournalism career, he attended workshops and saw multiple slide projector shows that combined images and audio.   He traces these experiences, along with a family “addiction” to National Public Radio, to his later interest in multimedia.

While serving as the photo editor at the Utica Observer Dispatch in 1999-2000, Will started building basic HTML galleries to enhance the newspaper’s website.   He started playing around with Flash, discovering that it allowed him to recreate some of the experience of the multi-projector slideshows he had seen at workshops.

Will spent about a decade at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, serving as photographer and multimedia producer. “I was fortunate in that I was learning before newspapers had really caught the multimedia bug, so for the first few years I could do whatever I wanted,” he says.  Will started working with video about 3-4 years ago.  “I remember early on talking about multimedia as a vehicle for my photography.  And I thought of myself as a photographer who was using sound.  But pretty quickly I realized that it’s the audio that drives the story and began talking about that.  And recently I have come back around to seeing that it can’t just be the sound. Because then you’re producing radio. And I love radio, but multimedia, to be truly great, needs both compelling audio and powerful visuals. So now I just talk about the storytelling.”

Q: What was the original idea and purpose of The Determined Divas multimedia project?

Yurman: Before the Divas I project I did a year-long project on homicides in Rochester for the newspaper.  Not Forgotten – Rochester’s Victims of Homicide in 2007 tells the story of each victim of homicide in the Rochester area in 2007 through interviews with family and friends, family photos, and photos from vigils, memorials, funerals.

Among the many amazing people I met was Bev Jackson who works in the community with at-risk young adults and teenagers.  She told me about the Determined Divas.  She was looking for publicity and wondered if I would come to an event they had planned.  I proposed something different.  I thought it was a natural follow-up in some sense to Not Forgotten, and was another look at issues that have engaged me for years – the disparity between life in the city and the more affluent suburbs, the impact of education, or lack of, on people’s lives.

I think narrative multimedia is ideally suited for giving voice to people – it’s really important to do data driven investigative reporting.  But sometimes those stories turn people into numbers.  And I feel like I can give them a voice, and remind the community that the issues, whatever you may think about them, impact real people.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the project?

Yurman: My original idea was a more documentary approach – spend time with some of the young women, show them in their day-to-day lives, gather natural sound, interviews, etc.  But the reality was, I would never get the time to do that the way it needed to be done.

So in many ways, the final project was simply a solution to a problem.  How to tell their stories in the time I had.  Bev Jackson was amazing at getting the young women on board.  The paper gave me the time to produce the piece – the advantage of being on staff.

Q: What do you think of the result – did you accomplish your objectives?

Yurman: There are a lot of technical things about the final piece I would fix. But I think it gives a pretty honest voice to their stories, and the technique is compelling enough to keep people watching. It got good numbers on the website. Beyond giving them a voice I didn’t have any firm objectives – beyond world peace and an end to poverty, crime, and unhappiness – which didn’t quite happen.

Q: Did this project teach you anything or lead you to other endeavors?

Yurman: I learned a lot about the limits of what is possible – how difficult the technical part of shooting video is. Monitoring two cameras, keeping an eye on the audio, and trying to stay focused on the most important task – the interview – is something like, I imagine, juggling ten rings during a session with your therapist.

Q: In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?

Yurman:  Small things – a better solution for the sound.  I don’t think the audio quality is quite where it should be.  I would have spent more time – I think I could have pushed the interviews even further.  I wish I was a better designer – I’m not crazy about the presentation, and regret now that it is Flash-based.  It would be fun to watch on an iPad.

Q: Where does Divas project sit in the wider context of your multimedia work?

Yurman:  That’s hard for me answer.  You can see a pretty good sample of my work at my website Some of What I Do – Photos and Stories From Work and Play.  In terms of style, it’s a technique I’ve used in different variations, multiple times – the talking head(s) with some kind of visual gimmick. Seniors Talk is another example of a similar kind of approach.

But I also like a more documentary approach to the story when I have access and time.

When I think of my ‘body of work’ I’m more likely to consider the subject rather than the technique.  While at the paper I proposed and worked on stories that returned time and time again to similar themes – following a city school teacher and one class for a year, following the birth of an urban charter school through its first year, Not Forgotten, Divas, the High School seniors piece, among others.  In my head at least, they all connect – not in their technique, but in their subject matter.

Q: Now you’ve transitioned into a teaching role, how are you structuring courses on multimedia?

Yurman: I was an adjunct at the Rochester Institute of Technology for a number of years, but just started full-time at Penn State this past semester. Multimedia can mean a lot of different things depending on the context and who you are talking to. It’s ‘multi’ after all. So it can include all sorts of data and maps and graphics and interactives as well as images and audio.

Because of my skill set and interests I focus on narrative storytelling – using stills, video and audio to tell stories – generally character-driven stories. But of course a big part of the learning process is the technology, so we have to focus on that as well – learning to gather and edit audio, stills, and video using a variety of software applications and hardware tools.

Q: What are the essential skills for producing good multimedia?

Yurman: For what I teach, the most important skill and hardest perhaps to teach is crafting a story – figuring out a beginning, middle and end with a story arc that takes us somewhere.

Q: Other than university programs like Penn State, how can people get good training in multimedia?

Yurman: There are a lot of good college-level programs that offer classes and degrees in multimedia. There are also a plethora of workshops – Maine Media Workshops, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, NPPA Multimedia Immersion, the Mountain Workshops, and the Northern Shortcourse are ones I’m most familiar with, but there are certainly others.
You can learn many of the technical skills online through services like Lynda.com as well.
But ultimately you learn by doing – pick up a camera and start shooting your dog or kids or whatever and go from there. I tortured my kids, and still torture them, by photographing and videotaping and interview them all the time.

Q: How is the field of multimedia developing?

Yurman: What’s so exciting is how new it all is – the rules change constantly and there is so much opportunity to innovate and experiment. It’s certainly evolving as the technology evolves – the DSLR was a game changer for many people – relatively low-cost, very high quality video. Now there are lots of limitations in those cameras – audio, the form factor, etc. but it certainly has opened lots of doors. News organizations struggle with how best to use this new medium – some are pushing out video as quickly as they can – less concerned with high production values and more concerned with immediacy. Others are thinking that that higher production values are what separates professional work from the silly cat on YouTube.

I don’t know where it all goes. There is still just 24 hours in the day, so I think as the medium develops, people will ultimately be drawn to the best stories and the people or organizations who develop a reputation for storytelling will succeed.

Q: Can you suggest some inspirational, well-crafted or innovative multimedia pieces to view?

Yurman:  LOTS of great work out there –

MultimediaShooter.com, MultimediaMuse.org, InteractiveNarratives.org all collect links to great work. I try and keep up at willyurman.com/links
Specific work I like:
and lots and lots of other stuff….