Project Review: Udayan – A Refuge from Leprosy (Part 1)

As a starting point, I’m going to dissect a recent multimedia project I recently completed, going through the process of visualizing the project; pre-production considerations like lining up access, permissions, releases and thinking through logistical details; equipment used during the project; what I encountered during the actual shoot (and how flexibility and a sense of humor can help you ride out some tough ones); post-production activity to consolidate images, video and audio capture into an intelligible whole delivered via the Web; and a recap of lessons learned.

The Project: Documentary of Udayan – a Home for Children Affected by Leprosy

Udayan is a non-profit organization located on the outskirts of Kolkata, India.

Udayan girls eat lunch at the cafeteria

Founded 40 years ago, Udayan now houses 300 children whose parents suffer from leprosy. The organization provides housing, education, medical treatment, food and vocational training for each of the children, most of whom arrive at Udayan at a very young age to live the balance of their childhood within its walls instead of living with their parents in leper colonies and/or poor villages. (Most adult lepers in India live as beggars.) The children visit their parents during school breaks (and in fact I accompanied 3 students to visit parents during my visit).

I arranged to create a documentary slideshow of Udayan to highlight its activities and show its impact on the lives of these children. Udayan plans to use this material for fundraising purposes.

Part 1: Pre-Production Planning

Through some former work colleagues now located in India, I made contact with James Stevens, founder of Udayan. 40 years ago, James left his successful haberdashery business in England to do something more meaningful with his life. He founded Udayan and then borrowed a truck from Mother Teresa to gather up 11 children of lepers in the slums of Kolkata, bringing them to Udayan for safekeeping and nurturing. James and I arranged a week in February when I was in Kolkata to conduct the shoot. With everything planned I flew to India with my gear bag and great anticipation.

Only to find that James wasn’t responding to my local phone calls. Or emails. Or texts. Fortunately I had saved and printed out some old emails that allowed me to track down a board member at Udayan who also sits on the Kolkata Foundation board (a funding organization). Through Shamlu, the board member, I learned that James had been taken to the hospital for surgery just prior to my arrival. But Shamlu was able to connect me with several staff members at Udayan who knew of the planned shoot but unfortunately did not have my contact information.

So…. it all worked out but here’s a lesson to remember: bring some extra old-fashioned paper with contact information that will help you connect with more than one local person. And when travelling internationally, especially, be able to connect with those people in several ways. I’d switched my cell phone to international service but it took a couple of days for that to activate, so I didn’t have local cell phone service when I first arrived. So after trying James’ phone from the hotel (no luck), I had to fall back on email via the hotel business office (I didn’t have phone numbers for everyone I’d been dealing with in preparing the trip), all of which slowed me down, cutting into the 5-day period I’d set aside for the initial shoot, some hotel-based review of what I’d captured (and gaps I would need to fill), and another day or two for filling in those gaps. 5 days became 1 day – to get it all and get it right (or you’ll probably have to live with big gaps). Another lesson: build in extra time, especially when working with international non-profits, because logistical snags are much more likely to happen when you’re outside your normal environment, and you also have to expect a certain formality and ceremony when you first arrive at an international location. It’s a part of greeting an international guest and making him/her feel comfortable, and in fact it’s wonderful to experience the warm welcomes that people extend when you meet them on their own turf, so to speak. But it does take time, so don’t intentionally cut things too short.

Gear

Okay, this was my first trip to Kolkata, India and although I’ve travelled internationally quite a bit, I really had no idea what I would find in a city renowned for slums and poverty – especially as I planned to visit a leper colony or two. I needed to keep things light & portable – basically a kit that I could sling over my shoulder to haul from place-to-place, working as I moved along. Here’s what I decided on:

  • Allen shoulder bag – I use this bag (designed for hunters to carry shotgun shells) because of its easy access and, frankly, because it doesn’t look like a camera bag stuffed with expensive gear.
  • Nikon D300 body with two lenses: 17-35 f/2.8 workhorse and 50 f/1.8 (for stills)
  • Nikon D200 back-up body
  • Nikon SB800 flash unit
  • One foldable lightstand with Wescott shoot-through umbrella
  • Lumiquest III small portable softbox and Lumiquest snoot modifiers
  • Canon T2i body with a Fotodiox lens mount adapter to take the Nikon lenses (for the limited video I planned)
  • Marantz PDM661 digital audio recorder
  • Sennheiser MKE400 mini-shotgun mic (including a shock mount for the T2i, an XLR connector, and a windscreen)
  • Audio Technica AT899 lavalier mic
  • 8 ft XLR cable (to connect either mic to the Marantz recorder)
  • Assorted lens filters, lens cleaners, extra batteries, battery chargers, extra media cards, etc

This was a functional kit, and portable. The only modification I needed was to tie down my lightstand/umbrella to the bag (they kept slipping off) in a way that I could release the ties quickly for use. Would I have enjoyed other gear? Absolutely. My largest concessions were lenses. I left a 70-200 f/2.8 off the list due to size & weight, and a macro lens off because I doubted I’d have enough time to use it enough to warrant carrying the thing around. I didn’t bring a larger shotgun mic because it’s just too bulky and fragile – and because I took it internationally once and was stopped in every single airport security checkpoint for special review. That thing looks too much like a gun barrel.

Next up: The Shoot, The Post, The Results

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