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Palm Springs Festival – Part 3: The Video Editing Workshop and Moving Forward and other Issues with the Child Assault Documentary I have been shooting

I spent an important day away from the photography side of things to do a Video Editing course with Fletcher Murray.  The course itself was educational and I got to ground myself better in the important post-prod side of shooting video.  I have been undertaking a doccie last couple of years concerning the front line services, including counsellors, forensic doctors and police department involved with the dark issue of dealing with the deluge of child assault cases in the main township of Cape Town called Khayelitsha where as many as 1 in 3 children will suffer some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 18.

I have shot a fair amount of footage – mainly talking heads though – but have been unable thus far to move it forward.  One problem has been technical, falling a bit flat at the first edit stage partly.  In the past pre-digital era, editing was more formulaic but these days, editing is increasingly one of the most important part of the doccie production process and knowledge of it and technical know-how of prem pro or final cut is essential even if I am not going to edit the final cut myself ultimately.  It is not just techinical though – knowing what to cut and what to keep – even when I know my story intimately has been difficult for me.

Taking the course was important and will allow me to begin to move the doccie forward again.  But it is not just on the technical side where I had issues:

For starters, while being a strong and important topic to tackle, in practice there is not much leeway of what can be shown.  I was hoping to depict the gravity of what was being dealt with and essentially the ‘unseen horror’ (which could never be shown directly for obvious reasons) through the emotions and reactions of those working with the issue.  But what has happened essentially given the monumental task of achieving access through South African Governmental departments and of course the police force is that access is very controlled and restrictive and what essentially I have is a whole load of talking heads.

Professionals are also hardened to the issue and it is very hard to capture the emotionality of the subject and therefore the ‘unseen horror’ with people who have to protect themselves and form a professional barrier between their personal feelings and the terrible nature of what they deal with on a day to day basis.  And it is especially hard when the access is limited to a series of interviews.

I also realised a while back and even at the Palm Springs Photo Festival where I was pulled in so many directions – from photography to time lapse and then back to video editing – that I have very much spread myself a bit thin professionally and something had to give.  I see myself as a photographer first – but also know that I got into it as a photojournalist with a love and training in essentially telling linear stories.  The days for doing that in photography are essentially gone or going but in documentaries the possibilties are there and very much relevant.  I certainly feel that I will possibly end up in this field one day – but for now I have had to put the documentary on the back burner as I decide what to do and how to get the essential B-Roll that will make or break the doccie.  I have ideas and with more ideas about editing and the principles behind it will certainly help.

Time Lapse Photography in Khayelitsha

I was recently commissioned to shoot a few interviews and a time lapse sequence for an international charity with an office here in my locality in Cape Town.  They made up part of a larger promotional piece for the charity that is still in post-prod.  Interviews were pretty straight forward shot with the 5D MkII on video legs and using a simple shotgun mic for audio stream…
The time lapse provided somewhat more of a challenge.  I was specifically asked to shoot a sunrise over a township where you would first see the sunrise associated with the beauty of South Africa and only as it came up would you slowly realise that this beautiful scene overlooked one of squalor and poverty that is of course the trademark of many townships still in SA.Living in Hout Bay I tried first to shoot it locally over the tonwships in my locality of Hangberg or Imizamo Yethu.  Getting the shot meant I could only try once of course every day so got up at 5am on two separate days and went to a pre-chosen location.  I found in Hangberg – in the colored township (which I am of course doing a photo book project at the mo) there weren’t enough shacks to make the piece viable and in IY – while it was def what they would be looking for, the sun unfortunately rose from behind me onto the township that is set on a mountain side and couldn’t get it to work logistically.

There was only one thing for it in the end.  On my third and final attempt (given the strict time-frame within which I had to make the piece) I drove into Khayelitsha – the main township in Cape Town at 4.30am.  While I have been many there many times, driving in on my own with all the camera equipment when it was still effectively night time was a bit daunting.  Once I had pulled out all the equipment I did get loads of dodgy stares and a few people shouting ‘watch out for your stuff – be very careful!’ from their cars as they past which didn’t instil any confidence! But mostly people were friednly and mostly inquistive as to what I was doing there so early standing on top of my land rover on the side of the road with a camera!

Before I could get my equipment out though I had to first find a location where the sun rose over the township at a point where there were enough shacks to make the piece viable.  In the dark, this was not easy to say the least! I also had the problem in that I didn’t know where the sun came up from! In the end, I pulled out my iPhone and used the compass to work out where east was and drove around – jumping on the roof rack of my land rover from time to time – to find the perfect spot.

In the end – after much fretting – I got the simple piece done.  Technically, it was a bit of a challenge too in terms of adjusting the aperture and shutter speed manually as the lighting conditions changed rapidly especially once the sun began to come up (thankfully – due to the mountain cover in the background the sunrise delayed on the loaction and I had til 7am to find my location and set up).

My one concern once I had put the piece together in post-prod was that I noticed that on top of a Land Rover – the slightest movement – esp from the passing buses whizzing by and causing the Land Rover to move slightly on the shock absorbers – caused the picture to move a bit. Otherwise though – the piece came out to spec and the charity that commissioned me seemed more than happy with the piece.

I am excited by time lapse photography to the extent I went out and purchased the Epic 100 robotic camera mount.  In conjunction with the intervalometer, it will allow me to take stunning time lapse sequences where the camera will seem to pan across the scene I am capturing… look forward to playing with it soon!!

The Thing about On-screen Interviews…

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I have done a few interviews in my time – usually to get the information for a written piece or for quotes to go with a photo story but never on film for a doccie.

Turns out that – as a rookie – setting up can be as daunting for the interviewer as it is for the interviewee.  The whole process transforms completely and to be honest – works against everything that helps make for a free-flowing sound interview.  For any broadcast journo this is all of course obvious and part and parcel of the job – but not being used to the process it is interesting to quickly go over a few of the issues I faced:

The first thing that changes is the ease with which I was used to communicating with any subject – with video – even the basic canon 5d mk II set up – you suddenly create a whole host of barriers to simple fluid communication and the interview becomes a slave very much to the technology that sits between you.

For starters there are a couple of glaring continuous 800W lights on the subject and extra film crew hovering just out of shot that makes the subject and interviewer less at ease – Mostly though – the prob with on-camera interviews are things like the fact that you suddenly have to ask the subject to paraphrase questions continuously (as I’ve said before the piece will focus on first person narrative and talking heads.. my voice won’t be on the film).

This then means that you have to stop and start sometimes which breaks the ease and flow of natural conversation.  Being constantly still and quiet on the set as well so audio doesn’t pick up any extraneous noise is also an issue for someone like me who fidgets and moves a lot naturally.

Simply put – the problem with on-film interviews is that the process itself gets so much in the way.  For a piece that is all about examining the emotions of those working on the front line of child assault cases, it is proving to be an issue and I am looking to work round this.  Ultimately, I think sacrificing some technical polish from interviews for more comfort and better on-screen reactions from the interviewees is def worth it.

In this case, it was lucky therefore that our subject – Dr Genine Josias – one of the forensic doctors involved in the project has a great presence and is natural and calm (more so than I am!) in front of the camera.  This made the process more relaxed and much easier to handle.  My film crew are also much at ease and helped also put Genine in a good space.

Two old tricks that came in handy – common to broadcast interviewers – that work very well is:

1/ The pregnant pause:  After an answer always give the subject time to add more.  Never ask the next question immediately.  This technique is especially useful with professionals who are used to the interview process. It is usually during these simulated moments of discomfort that the best and most unique answers can be attained.

2/ Get to chat and connect with the subject beforehand.  This greatly helps to put them at ease.  In my case, I have years of contact with many of the subjects on the film so this is not a problem.  But certainly, with people that I don’t know so much, it is worth sitting down and having informal chats with them before the whole circus begins.

Our next interview situation will be with front line service counsellors and we have the added dimension that a Xhosa interpreter will be used.

Success with the tv interview process all comes down to putting the interviewee at ease in my humble opinion.  The more time I have doing this, I am sure the better it will get.  Whatever though – I do feel much more at ease behind the camera and can’t wait to get back to where I belong!

Teaching photography and the great rewards that come from it (part 2)

Winning Image: A view of Hangberg and Hout Bay beyond. With such clear economic divisions in South Africa as a whole it is hard to foresee a time when true reconciliation will occur in the country. Until such inequalities are addressed, South Africa will never truly be at peace and stable as the current labour unrest is further evidence of. As in many Western societies, peace and social redemption is rooted with the emergence of a strong and large middle class in society.

 

One of the students who I was working with won the photography prize for the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Awards – There is no greater reward in teaching than that..

 

Teaching photography and the great rewards that come from it…

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I have often tried to dispel as many of the sloppy clichés that photography – especially photojournalism has unfortunately sunk in to while writing on my blogs… Teaching photography def falls into that category.  It is often said in our rather snooty circles that only failed photographers teach… what a load of rubbish – or at least it should be with all photographers.  Teaching is not only about a job or even ‘giving back’.  It is an amazing way to hone your own skills and better yourself as a photographer on both a professional and a very personal level..

I had the pleasure recently to work with a group of 18 year olds – the first from the generation of ‘Born Free’s’ as they are called in SA from the townships in my locality through a local NGO called Lalela.  I taught them about photojournalism and mentored them in taking images for a nationwide competition organised by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation.  The theme was ‘Reconciliation’.

I found the kids amazing to work with and surprisingly receptive to ideas that students at international schools sometimes have difficulty grappling with.  It made me realise – that past the technical side, photography is such a personal expression and statement in life – I knew that before – but seeing it unfold before my eyes so easily with students that obviously have so many varied and different experiences and obviously have a lot to say was revelatory.

Being able to walk freely through the two local townships was another eye opener in itself – not so much because of the places themselves – I have obviously been to many for work – but the fact that literally 150m from my house is almost another world and existence so different from my own suburban one.  Where I live in Cape Town can be described as a micrcosm of the country as a whole – different communities living side by side but – on the whole – not really connecting with each other apart from the most perfunctory of contact.  It is such a shame and addressing it is fundamental to South Africa’s long-term prosperity – I’d even go as far as to say survival…

On a professional level, teaching the 18 year olds has been great in terms of making a breakthrough myself.  I had wanted to go into Hangberg – the local coloured community to do a long-term project there.  It had been hard for me to find ways to enter with cameras.  Unlike the black South African townships – such as the largest, Khayelitsha where I have ventured many times since I came to SA in 2009, always through local NGO’s, coloured communities – being slightly more affluent – do not get as much attention from NGO’s.  To be frank though the main problem is that coloured communities all over the Western Cape suffer from some of the most violent and lethal forms of gangsterism on the Continent fuelled in large part by an explosion of crystal meths use (or rather a dirty form known locally as ‘Tik’).  Recently, the army had to go in and restore some semblance of order in the main coloured community on Mitchells Plain.

While Hangberg is nowhere near as bad, it still suffers from the problem – and by all accounts it is getting worse. One of the boys I met while teaching who really took to the photography classes and understood what it was all about offered to accompany me as an assistant and I in return offered to firstly pay him and also train him further.  If it works out the teaching would have opened a big door for me professionally.

For the record – I love teaching photography in general– and teaching the 18 year olds from the townships has not only hopefully helped them in some small way – It has helped me.  I have found without fail that to be a better photographer you simply have to become a better, more focused and honest person. What better way to make a step towards this by teaching what I myself love so much. It is only when you are constructive and happy that you can realise your true expression in the art form.

This morn I received a phone call at 6.30am – I thought it was my girlfriend calling so I invariably answered and said ‘Hi sweets’ without even checking the number.  There was a pause.

‘Errr – Hi?’

‘Hi? – whose calling?’. I said realising rather embarrassed!

‘It’s Nomtha.  What time is photography classes today?’

‘Oh sorry Nomtha – you’re up early!  I’m afraid there are no more classes – you’ve entered the awards now.’

After a very brief moment’s reflection though – and maybe feeling the disappointment on the other end of the phone I added:

‘But I’ll talk to Lalela and try and arrange more.  You enjoyed them?’

‘Yeah’

‘Then let’s do it!’

And I meant it.  Look forward to doing it again some time soon…

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