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It’s not enough anymore to create work for one media platform, especially if you intend to raise awareness about issues or are trying to effect change. Now when I create a new project as a photojournalist or with Talking Eyes Media, the non-profit production company I founded with my wife, Julie Winokur, we have our eyes on expanded opportunities for distribution: the web, social media, books, exhibitions, T.V., lectures, workshops, academic applications, and NGO collaborations. There are undoubtedly even more I haven’t thought, of and we’re always looking for new options.
To work in this multi-platform landscape, you must develop skills beyond still photography. You should at least be proficient at gathering and editing audio, and preferably you’d also understand video and be able to handle post production to produce a finished piece.
Since Julie and I founded Talking Eyes seven years ago, we have developed a process that fluidly moves from proposal, field work, and post production to outreach and followup. With the Niger Delta work, we’re learning as we go. As usual, we’re applying for grants, but now they are in areas I’ve never ventured into before, attempting to receive funding support for educational outreach programs.
One small example of this can be seen on my blog where we posted papers written by history students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where my book was required reading. They were asked to pick three images and write about them, and we posted a handful of their papers with the students’ consent.
This is an important aspect of multi-platform storytelling: It can easily be disseminated to a wide variety of audiences. It also provides the means for those audiences to talk back with the photographer/producer about the work. It is exciting to being able to create a groundswell of interest in this way, by building a feedback loop between the documentarian, their subject, and the audience.
I am currently writing grants to fund a broader implementation of this feedback loop idea (really it’s a wiki, but I wanted to avoid that term). My vision is to create a new website, or augment the existing one from liveBooks, so that students in the U.S. and Nigeria (or anywhere for that matter), who are using teaching materials I’ve created around oil and environmental issues, can contribute their own comments, information, pictures, and videos to the site. So a student in Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta, would study these issues using the texts, stills, and video from my work there (along with expanded teaching materials we plan to include in a teaching DVD) and then do his or her own reporting or just contribute personal materials to the site. In this way, they can correct, augment, and develop my work to broaden, deepen, and personalize it.
On another front, Oxfam America has funded a traveling exhibition of my Niger Delta work. Oxfam is planning to bring it to at least ten U.S. universities to aid the organization’s legislative efforts involving extractive industries. Exhibitions, associated panel discussions, public lectures, and other forms of outreach around this project continue, including a week of activities planned in conjunction with an exhibition in London next year.
Our Aging In America project, which has been around since 2003, continues to be utilized by academia and professional organizations associated with geriatric, social work, nursing, and healthcare curricula. In November of this year I’ll be going to Florida for three days to take part in lectures, workshops, and a seminar around an exhibition of my work at a museum in Sarasota.
On the creative end, my work has never been more exciting. I’m shooting more video while enjoying stills like never before. And what was once a solitary process, working as a still photographer, now takes on dimensions of collaboration, visual explorations, and deeper engagement with my subjects through audio capture.
The downside is that, with all the new and old media, it’s hard to gauge my impact or figure out how to help the message rise above today’s cacophony of visual noise and stories. We’re constantly competing for people’s attention, even if they are interested in the topics our work addresses. By engaging with our audience directly, we hope to overcome some of these obstacles.
I recommend that photographers have a vision for not only the the issue you’re reporting on, but also what larger impact you want to achieve and how you see it being distributed and utilized. One key is to work with a great editor who shares your vision and purpose. Editing for a book or editorial essay is vastly different than producing a short multimedia piece. As is curating an exhibition or lecture or teaching tool.
My experience has taught me that collaborating with like-minded people who share my vision and — most importantly — my sense of purpose for the issue at hand is the easiest path to making my vision a reality. I cannot do this alone. Luckily the the working relationships I’ve learned to develop with writers, editors, producers, audio people, and videographers not only help make our projects happen, they also provide creative collaboration that is exciting and deeply rewarding.