Interview: Margaret Cheatham Williams

Margaret Cheatham Williams gives us two deeply-felt pieces revolving around her grandmother who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease.  The first video, entitled “Goodnight Moon,” focuses on the story of William’s grandmother Dutchie and the people who surrounded her and cared for her.

The second project, entitled “Free,” centers in on Rosa, Dutchie’s caretaker who grew to be a close friend of Dutchie during the months they spent together.

 

Q: What attracted you to these stories? What were you originally trying to accomplish?
Williams: First, I should explain that I created “Goodnight Moon” for my Documentary Photojournalism class at UNC Chapel Hill.  I watched a similar project produced by my professor, Pat Davidson, where he documented his mother’s struggle with Alzheimers.   The subject of “Goodnight Moon,” my grandmother Dutchie, was a constant presence in my life – and sadly, her Parkinson’s began when I was fairly young.  As the eldest grandchild, I felt as if I knew her the best, and I had a responsibility to preserve her memory for my family.  It was a challenge to watch her decline and to feel that I may have been using my camera as a buffer to the pain, but I now understand what the process truly meant for our relationship and my appreciation for the immense beauty in her life.

“Free” began, in some respects, as a follow up to the original “Goodnight Moon.”  After Dutchie died, I fought with the issue and meaning of grief.  I knew I wanted to approach the emotions and space that were created in my grandmother’s absence, but I wasn’t quite sure from which angle to proceed.  Rosa (the primary voice in “Free”) is amazing – and she continues to do so much to hold my family together.  The original idea was not to do a story but to record Rosa singing the hymns to add to the conclusion of “Goodnight Moon.”  But it was far too beautiful and she had far too much to say to simply tack it on. I also didn’t want to affect the integrity of the original piece, as the uncertainty of Dutchie’s condition was such a factor in the piece. It seemed to almost cloud the original intent, to place such a finite and concrete ending as her funeral. I guess in my head, I wasn’t quite ready to put her to rest.

Q: How formal is your process? (storyboarding, shot lists – or more free-form?)
Williams: My process for “Goodnight Moon” was more formal than I am accustomed to.  In school we were taught a form of storyboarding that is fairly structured, and extremely helpful in charting the course of long-term work.  The project “road map” is a form of outline that allows for thematic structuring of a story, with areas to be filled with corresponding content as the project progresses.

Generally I do not like to approach a story with a preconceived notion of the result, but in this case, with my own family, I thought I understood the most complex issues of the story well before I began to shoot.

QUESTION: How would you describe your process for “Free”?
Williams: My process for “Free” was extremely loose in comparison – Like I said, I had no real intention of turning my initial visit with Rosa into anything substantive. I thought she would be an incredible addition, but she really surprised me. I thought I wasn’t ready to hear her reflections of Dutchie, or perhaps that she wasn’t ready to share, but all she felt was love for my grandmother. She had an understanding that I hadn’t quite reached – She was grieving her loss, but she was far more at peace with the fact that Dutchie was no longer in pain.

I had no plan – no storyboard for that one. I asked her only a few questions and let her talk – She had a far better understanding of what it meant to “take care” of someone, that meant a lot to me and to the story.

Q: How much time did you spend on these two projects?
Williams:  Storyboarding, photographing/recording and editing “Goodnight Moon” took about four months.

I went home to Charlotte almost every weekend during the fall semester to work on it, in an attempt to gather as much content and spend as much time with them as I could. The structure of our class demanded that we turn in weekly shoots, which we then discussed and edited as a class. Towards the end of the semester I began to sift through the audio and video and stills – I interviewed my grandfather and aunt once each. I then listened to their audio and began to build a story in transcripts. I ended up creating both the multimedia piece and a still edit of the project.

For the production of “Free,” logistics made it possible for me to shoot with Rosa just twice.  I first went to Rosa’s home with the intention to shoot a video portrait of the hymn that she sang during Dutchie’s funeral.  I conducted the interview by chance, in about thirty minutes before she left for church.  I asked her if she had anything she wanted to say while the camera was still rolling.

Bits and pieces of the “Free” story were shot during the original process of “Goodnight Moon,” and some additional B-roll for “Free” was shot at my grandparent’s home on the day of my grandmother’s birthday.

Q: What type of equipment did you use for images and audio?
Williams: In both “Goodnight Moon” and “Free” I used the Canon 5 D Mark II and a Seinheiser lavaliere mic on the lapel with a Marantz external audio recorder and a Rode mic as back up.  I synched the audio in post with a software program called Plural Eyes.  In Rosa’s case, there is a bit of audio cleaning in Soundtrack Pro.

Q: What was the most difficult part of these projects? (planning, image/audio capture, interviewing, post, etc)
Williams: I would say the most difficult part of the “Free” story for me was not process-related or technical – instead, it was difficult for me to hear Rosa talk about my grandmother.  They had a bond that was indescribable, and it was an emotional and daunting task to sift back through four months of material with my grandmother to fill in the missing pieces.

For “Goodnight Moon” I knew that the story of my grandmother was something that meant a great deal to me, and that I wanted it to be my concentration while I had the greatest amount of time that I had been given for any project to date. I wanted to make it meaningful, however, I soon realized that I had no true understanding of what the true story actually was. The piece, in my head, soon evolved from a story about her condition and the difficulties of disease and aging, to the story of a family and the complexity of relationships.

My professor and mentor Chad Stevens was an enormous presence in this story for me. There were several times when I felt like it was far too emotional to continue – He taught me to be patient, to listen.

My aunt Katie, who is featured in Goodnight Moon, is like a sister to me. All of my family was incredibly involved in the care of my grandmother, but her situation was unique in that she lived three hours away.

I wouldn’t understand the value of family or story telling without the support of my family.

Q: Looking beyond these two projects, I see that you are producing both videos and still photography. Which do you prefer? Are you finding that one is better suited than the other for particular things?
Williams:I began shooting stills in school, but it wasn’t long before I began to shoot primarily video. I suppose I naturally gravitated towards video in a progression mandated by necessity and the changing face of technology and media, but it is something that I have really come to enjoy.

I appreciate the value, the contained emotion in a still photograph– the ability to capture a moment with intricate layers and complexity.

I worry that sometimes with multimedia, audio can be used as a crutch – to mend imagery that doesn’t quite convey a story. My attempt is to layer audio, visuals, video and stills in a way that is most similar to the layers in a photo. Personally I am compelled and driven by voice, and the first person representation of a story. I thoroughly enjoy talking to people and to me it seems most natural to have them express their thoughts in their own words.

Q: In a given story, what drives your choice between still photography and video?
Williams: In choosing between stills and video – I think the motion is the most important factor. Video thrives on details and motion, and stills on moments, light, and composition – interaction. For me, however, it can be difficult to choose… Allowing a moment to unfold on video, to me, is extremely powerful.

Q: I see that you’ve attended some immersion courses – was that experience worthwhile?
Williams: Though I began as a staff photographer and assistant photo editor for our campus newspaper, my most influential experiences have been immersive. Enthusiasm for this work is contagious, and I have been incredibly lucky to have the guidance and support of driven and talented mentors. In situations like the Carolina Photojournalism Workshop and The Mountain Workshops facilitated by Western Kentucky, I was plunged into a culture of dedication, inspiration and energy. I would highly recommend these programs to anyone hoping to expand.

Q. Where are you going from here? Any projects in the works? Things you want to tackle?
Williams: I will return to school in the fall to shoot primarily stills, because I think that still photography is the basis of all good video. I worry that I jumped some of the fundamentals of composition, moment, and elements that make a good photography.

I am currently a video intern at the Washington Post, and though I just started, I am thoroughly enjoying the people and the types of stories that I have been assigned. I have a deep desire to explore the depths of mental health – which I have started to approach in a piece I just finished, Four Seconds, that was shot as part of the Hearst Journalism Championship in San Francisco.

I would really like to push to better understand the complexities of mental health and the systems in place to manage our well being as a community.

I am extremely lucky that these people have allowed me into their lives to try to tell their story, and I so very much appreciate their understanding and support!

Speak Your Mind

*