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.

Stillmotion: Visual Storytelling Instruction

Stillmotion recently came out with the first 2 of 4 instructional videos on visual storytelling:

1. The Four P’s of Storytelling
2. How to Use Keywords to Pick the Perfect People, Places & Plot

I highly recommend these short, 10-12 minute instructional videos. They present worthwhile information in an engaging, easy-to-understand style. In addition, they preview an upcoming competition where budding filmmakers can employ some of the presented techniques in a short film.

Story in an Image

My son asked me for a photograph to use in a campaign to run for his high school student council. Rather than using a run-of-the-mill headshot, I asked him how he’d like to portray himself. “Rather not look like a nerd or egghead,” he said. So we came up with this idea:

The concept: late in the afternoon, even as the light fades and storm clouds pile up, there’s a guy out there practicing his hurdling form. That’s the guy you want working for you as your student council rep. The space below is reserved for text.

Participatory Storytelling

In a recent post about photojournalist Aaron Huey, I described how he uses Cowbird.com to chronicle his project on the Pine RidgeIndian Reservation. Cowbird.com is a web-based product for “a community of storytellers” that, by offering users storytelling tools for free, will “automatically find connections between your life and the lives of others forming a vast, interconnected ecosystem.”

To be honest, I’m struggling with the concept behind Cowbird. It seems to extract individual perspective from a story, leaving information (such as images, sounds and text) for the viewer/listener to interpret and make sense of. In a sense, the narrator has vanished — or maybe proliferated — and what remains are story elements that we (as viewers/listeners) need to assemble & compose into story.

But I’m running into similar themes elsewhere. 

In a September 2012 post on PBS.org, author Sue Shardt in “Public Media Reinvents Itself With ‘Full-Spectrum’ Storytelling” describes a reinvention of storytelling within public media involving citizens as participants — not merely recipients — of documentary stories:

We are working in accordance with the fact that citizens are not only consuming radio and television over the air, they are downloading, creating, remixing, and sharing all kinds of media on small and large screens, and increasingly, in the street via mobile devices… Text, image, audio, video and dynamic user-generated submissions are all converging, spawning dynamic new media life forms.

Sue Shardt, as executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio (“AIR”), explains how AIR’s Localore is one of the “boundary-pushers”. Localore is a platform for independent producers to distribute documentaries about events affecting their lives.  Similar in nature to the qualities inherent in Cowbird, Localore provides a mechanism for collaboration and participation in the documentation that is underway. Shardt explains:

There are more than 120 station-based, community, technology, and field producers operating out of our station hubs. The work underway recognizes the full spectrum. From a storytelling standpoint, there are multiple access points for citizens to not only experience, but to contribute as documentarians of their own lives. One operating principle for our work is that these access points should be identified, at least for a time, “outside” the current public broadcasting structure — both physical public media buildings (onto the “street” plane) — and also outside the broadcast space.

Audio Storytelling Workshop

Transom.org, an organization that I would characterize as an “audio thinktank”, has just announced a 3-week “traveling” workshop to be held in New York Aug 12-30, 2013. Applications to this workshop will be accepted up to April 30th. A website with additional information is: http://transom.org/?p=33839, or by clicking the image below:

This 3-week documentary workshop will be co-sponsored by Transom.org, The Bronx Documentary Center and the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. The class format will be:

Week 1: Participants will be introduced to folklore and oral history approaches. They will also identify potential story ideas for the following weeks.

Week 2: Audio Boot Camp. Participants will learn basic audio skills such as: using field recording gear, approaching and interviewing strangers, writing for radio, voicing narration, digital editing basics. Each student will produce a vox pop and a promo. Audio Boot Camp will be taught be Sarah P. Reynolds (an independent producer and regular Transom instructor).

Week 3: Audio Narrative. This week will build on the audio skills learned in Boot Camp and will focus on storytelling as well as field recording, interview techniques, multitrack editing, and script writing. Participants will produce a short broadcast-quality piece about a creative person. The Audio Narrative portion of the workshop will be taught by Rob Rosenthal (founder of Transom.org).

Transom’s intensive “boot camp” workshops typically run for 2 months, so this 3-week format is somewhat unusual. But the organization is experimenting with some shorter-format classes (such as two 1-week workshops for which, unfortunately, the registration deadlines have already past).

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.

The Art of Storytelling (audio course)

I’m listening in to an audio course entitled The Art of Storytelling, offered through the online company The Great Courses (www.thegreatcourses.com).

The Art of Storytelling consists of 24 lectures, each 30 minutes, which I listen to during my commute. The instructor is Hannah B. Harvey, a professional storyteller and performance artist. Dr. Harvey holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies/Communication Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and she is now an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University.

As a performance ethnographer, Professor Harvey develops oral histories into theatrical and solo storytelling works. Her stories highlight the experiences of contemporary Appalachian people. More important to me, Dr. Harvey is an engaging, fun speaker to listen to. While The Art of Storytelling course is primarily directed at oral storytelling, I’m finding applications to multimedia storytelling.

Yesterday’s lecture, for example, walked through the ways to use time in storytelling to focus the audience on specific elements of the teller’s story. In addition to using just “scene time” (where time in storytelling approximates actual time), Dr. Harvey described techniques to slow time & accelerate time for dramatic effect. Dr. Harvey also illustrated ways to mix past tense, present tense and future tense in storytelling for creative purposes. I’m finding the lectures interesting: they bring up topics that I don’t normally think about.

Today’s lecture focused on the narrator’s role and tools available to the narrator such as switching between “closed focus” (the story’s details in the “then and there”) and “open focus” (the narrator’s connection with the audience in the “here and now”). Again, this discussion was interesting because I wasn’t conscious of how “closed focus”/”open focus” could be used creatively – but as soon as Dr. Harvey mentioned it I thought of Woody Allen’s opening sequence in Annie Hall. In Annie Hall, Woody first speaks directly to the audience (“open focus”) about the characters, setting and background of his film, and then Woody flips himself into a character (“closed focus”) for most of the film. Occasionally we hear Woody as narrator addressing the audience directly. It’s a nice illustration of Dr. Harvey’s “closed focus”/”open focus” narration technique.

I recommend this course, particularly if you have long hours to kill (like during a commute). You can get a sample of the product on the course website page. I also recommend that you wait for the course on sale. I paid $35 for the audio download during one of their periodic sales, but I see that right now that same audio download version costs $130. Finally, I got the audio download but there are a few spots in the lectures where video would be beneficial.