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During a recent talk at Amnesty International, I freaked out the organizers a bit by suggesting that the web was not the best place to see images. They had booked me for a debate in which I was supposed to be arguing for the greatness of the digital revolution, in which we can see everything for free, all of the time.
In the last year I’ve looked at so much multimedia and taken in so much photography that I’ve completely lost a sense of perspective and awe in what I’m looking at. It’s slightly pathetic, but the critical, sometimes cynical eye I’ve developed keeps me from getting too close, too intimate with anything I look at. Before, I used to just enjoy looking at an image, a simple but wonderful pleasure — now I consume it and spit it out the other side, like a wine taster who sucked on too much vinegar.
At my Amnesty talk I spoke about getting up one morning to find a book come in the post from Joseph Rodriguez. It was a great moment. One to be treasured. Our lives touched, his work seeping into mine. I felt energized.
But right now I feel like slamming the door on multimedia, I’m worn out on its endless possibility. Exhausted.
So what can I offer this month? Two things.
One to illustrate a point and the other because when I look at it, the work it transcends all of my exhaustion and reminds me what it is to be a human, to love and to lose and also to be lost.
Phillip Toledano‘s “Days With My Father” is a masterpiece. Its a love letter that has nothing to do with any of us but that is written in such a way that it could have come from the pages of any of our lives. Its a gift and it proves that I was wrong, the web can be the best place to experience photography. The experience can be utterly transformative. No more words needed — just check it out.
I came across the the second multimedia feature I want to flag via Twitter. It’s astonishing. A panoramic image of a Nairobi street that takes the YouTube video six minutes to travel down. It comes from the book Trading Places, The Merchants of Nairobi by Steve Bloom. It held my attention for at least a minute before I got bored and moved on. Had I come across this image in a gallery, though, I would have spent a lot longer examining and re-examining it.
So maybe I was right in the first place and the web is not the best place to view images. What do you think?
I’m writing this from a small hotel in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where duckrabbit and the Bangladeshi photographer Sheikh Rajibul Islam have been working on a documentary about the effects of climate change on this beautiful country.
If the scientists’ predictions are right, up to 20 million Bangladeshi’s will become environmental refugees in the next 50 years. There is no bigger long-term story than the havoc man is wreaking on nature.
It would be easy for us at duckrabbit to reduce our stories about Bangladesh to the most brutal, the most shocking. This is always a temptation for photojournalists looking for the money shot, for their World Press award, but it’s a cheap and ultimately destructive way to capture the world because it reduces people to the status of victims.
At the BBC I used to produce Costing The Earth, their flagship environmental documentary programme. We always strived to tell a balanced story, beyond emotion, because understanding is more important than shock, and debate is more powerful than bashing someone over the head with a message.
“We want true stories, and we want them as gritty as the real world is. But we also want balance — and we recognize a third-world-cliché when we see it.”
There are plenty of weak multimedia pieces about the environment out there that suffer from the same clichéd black-and-white photography and lack of balance in their storytelling, but let’s not blow any more CO2 on their two-dimensional approach. Instead I want to point you to a visually stunning and deeply thoughtful piece of work by Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk.
Airsick: An Industrial Devolution is designed to persuade us that the earth is slowly drowning in CO2. Part of why it works so well is that, instead of focusing on apocalyptic images of the developing world, the piece is rooted in the familiar, in the industrialized world. I can’t watch this and not feel part of the problem. That is powerful multimedia.
(duckrabbit would like to thank the CBA for funding their recent Bangladesh trip.)
Click here to see the New York Times multimedia piece, “The Fallen.”
One of the great things about working as a radio documentary/features producer at the BBC Radio is that I was never expected to treat the audience like idiots. Instead, we were encouraged to have a journalistic vision for each program and to see that vision through.
Another thing we were never expected to do was slap music gratuitously over everything. In fact you knew that there were nine million listeners who were ready, willing, and able to rip you to shreds if you bludgeoned the art of radio with such an approach — which is just a long way of saying, “Why on earth are so many multimedia journalists and audio slideshow producers slapping music over everything?” Generally it shows a lack of confidence, either in the production process or the material. Either that or they don’t think the audience can handle something that is stripped down and real.
When we admire great web design we say its “clean.” Here’s my plea: Keep multimedia clean when you have powerful audio, powerful images, and you want your audience to do some thinking. Just like this awesome New York Times-produced piece built on Paul Fusco‘s legendary photos taken from the funeral train carrying the Robert F. Kennedy from New York to Washington.
It might be the greatest moment in the history of the written arts — it’s also a scene duckrabbit uses to teach photographers about great multimedia.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet steps out from the shadows and utters the immortal line:
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
The students in our latest training course might not have expected us to open the workshop with a reading from Shakespeare, but for me this soliloquy in which Hamlet debates his very existence is a point-by-point lesson in how to create powerful multimedia.
It’s the golden moment when the actor steps forward out of the scenery and bares their soul. A moment of complete intimacy between us and them. The best multimedia producers will create an immaculate visual landscape from which their characters step forward, Hamlet style, to deliver their soliloquy.
Think about it this way. The photos or the moving images in a multimedia piece are the scenery. They both surround and create the stage. They impart a sense of place, of action, but it is the voice, the words, that tell the story and carry much of the emotion.
Now for an example from a master. Maisie Crow may only be in her early twenties but she the most talented producer of multimedia that we have come across at duckrabbit. Quite simply she sets the standard because her work is so complete.
For Maisie it’s all about the person: She places them and their story center-stage and has them speak directly to our hearts. Because their story is so important to her, she is determined that it will become important to you to.
I’m not going to say anything about this particular piece. Other than that you won’t be sitting there marveling at technique, or the use of some fancy new camera that records video, because you’ll be completely sucked in by the story. That’s how it should be. Some of the most celebrated multimedia producers could learn a lesson or two from Maisie. We certainly did, and so did the trainees in our latest masterclass.
One of the most annoying comments I get when I post a multimedia story on the duckrabbit blog is, “This is too long.”
My favorite film is Paris, Texas, but I’m pretty sure if you forced 100 people to watch that film, 90 of them would vote to have the film shortened by half. Me, I’d rather cut off a finger. My point? Everything is subjective. What’s too long for you is a blink of an eye to somebody else; what’s meaningless to you is the moment somebody else has been waiting for all their life.
It’s true people will generally spend less time watching things on the web, but should multimedia producers always be trying to appeal to morons with attention deficit disorder? If you’re working to order for cash, then the answer is probably yes. But if you want to create something with depth and soul that will resonate many years from now, by all means keep it tight but don’t suffocate your vision.
This month I’ve chosen a piece of multimedia magic that the majority of you will probably only watch for the first three minutes. Don’t worry, all you’ll be missing is hands-down one of the best online documentaries ever made — but of course, that’s just my subjective opinion.
Living in the Shadows: China’s Internal Migrants, tells the story of three families in Shanghai, and the struggles they face as undocumented internal migrants. The film, photographed and filmed by Sharon Lovell and produced by David Campbell, quietly reveals their struggle to make a life for themselves, even as they are denied access to local social services and discriminated against by both state and private employers.
Actually, I don’t want to say too much about why I admire the way this documentary was made. It will unfairly influence the way you watch it. If you’re interested in discussing this piece, I’ll be happy to respond to your comments. I’m sure David Campbell will be happy to join in as well.
David White: Innocence, duckrabbit’s feature about child soldiers in Sri Lanka, just sort of emerged organically. I shot the photographs a few years ago now, whilst there was still a ceasefire. It was a very difficult and at times dangerous job, but one that I desperately hoped might make a tiny difference.
Recently I was sitting up very early in the morning when I saw a report on the news about the escalation of the war in Sri Lanka. I just started to write about how that made me feel. For once I was not worried about how other people would interpret and dissect my thoughts — I just needed to get my feelings out.
I posted my thoughts on the duckrabbit blog, and from there Benjamin picked up the baton, unbeknown to me.
Benjamin Chesterton: David is someone whose photographs have always moved me. His great big generous heart comes across in all his work and never more so than in the beautiful pictures he took in Sri Lanka. I’ve long wanted to turn them into a piece of multimedia, but what can you do with just 10 photos?
I got up one morning to find that David had posted about that experience on the duckrabbit blog. He captured the artist’s predicament in a really simple and powerful way. The desire to make a difference because some cause has embedded itself so deep into you. The feeling that if you don’t do something, it will suffocate you from the inside out.
Pretty much all I did was take his words, grab some screenshots off news sites on the web, use a song that never fails to move me, and mix it all up with his original photo’s. I didn’t tell David I was doing this. Just banged out a rough copy in a day, sent him the link and held my breath.
David: I have scanned, printed, and reproduced those Sri Lanka photos many times. I like them, I think they’re strong, but they’re not new. The words were a few lines I hammered out when I should have been sleeping. Yet, when I saw the finished piece, I cried, as did my wife, Jane.
Since then, that has been the many people’s reaction.
It still amazes me that such simple content can be reworked into something so strong. I could never imagine those stills in a magazine story having the same effect. Imagine going back to a set of pictures you have taken a while ago, that you know intimately, and having them move you to tears. That intrigues and excites me. That’s why I think multimedia offers amazing opportunities for photographers, to get their work out to new audiences, and to use it to reveal the world in new light.