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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!!

Fundamental structure and access for shooting a short doccie on child assault in South Africa.

Just came back from the last session of my Masterclass in Groningen in Holland.  Great to see all the usual suspects again and the invited guest lecturers.  Want to blog a bit about that in the next few days – been a great experience – but travelling away from SA also helped me gain some new and out of the box perspective on my ongoing film project.

While I have started shooting, I don’t want to dwell too long on my experience of the technical side until a bit later – as important as it is.  I have actually found the structuring and planning and the need to evolve any type of pre-shoot script during shooting to be of far more importance than I ever imagined. For anyone who might have been in the dark on all the structuring side as I was, a great starting point is:

How to Write a Documentary Script a monograph by Trisha Das – (if you do a google search, it’s the 52 page document).

I have been wondering whether to write openly about the subject matter I am working on.  It is of course seen as ever so unprofessional to give away what you’re working on.  Firstly – talking too much could help set myself up for a mighty fall even more than is necessary, but I also feel that being as open and democratic about the process as possible helps me in terms of getting decent feedback and might also hopefully help others trying to make the jump into video and doccies with a photographic background.  To be very honest too – gaining open access to the subject I am covering has been a very long  (and still ongoing) process that gives me some insulation from any insecurity that I might have that I am being too open about the subject matter.

The general subject itself is to look, broadly speaking, at child assault cases in a certain area in the Western Cape in South Africa.  Specifically though I don’t want to look at the issue head on – apart from it not being possible given the legal ramifications and of course – moral restrictions of looking at such a sensitive issue as child assault cases, I wanted to rather focus on all those intimately involved in such cases on a professional level, including the counsellors, NGO’s, Social Service workers, Forensic Doctors tied to the Department of Health, the IO’s (Investigating Officers) with the FCSU (Family, Violence, Child Abuse and Sexual Offences Unit within the South African Police Service) and the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority: Equivalent in the UK to the Crown Prosecution Service).

On the face of it – it seems that the topic speaks for itself and would be something that can be conveyed powerfully with little need for playing around (from a structural and editorial point of view) with even a simple linear progression of subject matter making do.  You have characters faced with great and overwhelming outer conflict that requires some sort of resolution.  A plethora of inciting incidents can be identified:  Recently for example, there has been a relative crisis with the implementation of the Sexual Offences Act in South Africa. It appears as the relatively recent legislation did not prescribe sentences to 29 types of offences – including sexual assault, sexual grooming and exploitation – there has been confusion in the courts to the point where it has been advised that certain cases not be prosecuted until further notice and further instruction from the High Courts be dictated.  Or the alarming rise in the number of cases where the perpetrators of child assault cases have been as young as 4yrs old.  Such things has lead to exasperation amongst those working closely with such cases and would be a solid starting point from which a resolution can slowly be coaxed.

But – I feel – to really convey the overwhelming nature of these types of crimes it will be the inner conflict of the people that work closely with such cases that I will need to develop to truly get across the gravity of the subject.  Something that is far more subtle and harder and requires much more time and diligent attention to put together.  In making the child survivors and perpetrators almost secondary characters – I ultimately want to convey the ‘unseen horror’ of the situation through the slow revelation of the true (and heriocally distressed) characters of those working on the cases.

Some people with whom I have discussed the project have asked why I don’t get perpetrators’ PoV (sorry – Point of View) as well.  While it would be powerful and certainly meet the criteria of giving a journalistic balance in viewpoint – I really don’t think it will be necessary:

One thing my recent Masterclass has taught me is that access doesn’t always equate best results.  (In my humble opinion) it seems ever so slightly 2-dimensional, sensationalist and almost to dilute the emotional journey and empathy I want to create with my central characters.

Now – in so doing – I agree that the flip side of the argument is that I risk becoming too one-sided.  And for this I have yet to make a decision as to whether the doccie will require a 3rd person narration to go with the obvious 1st person (‘talking heads’) narration that the piece will be strongly tied to.  If the characters are too intense then maybe it will be better to give a more general perspective with a 3rd person narration as well.  Writing such narration though will be a very interesting experience indeed for me and will cross that bridge when I come to it.

All in all, I am glad I took a moment to think about the whole piece before I began shooting.  As someone once said – things get so much more complicated when you start and I can certainly bear witness to that.

I’m sure more developed doccie makers might read some of this and question some of the process.  All in all though I am happy with the slowly evolving direction of the doccie project.  One thing that continues to worry me though is the sheer number of protagonists – all passionate and great for the project – I am trying to incorporate.  I think at 1 point or another – I will have to tie myself to fewer characters to avoid making the piece too convoluted.  But having a structure is a godsend.  My first self-taught golden rule of film-making is to def go into these pieces – however simple they may seem in structure – with a definitive plan – even if it evolves drastically by the end – otherwise you may find yourself not doing justice to even the most basic of video projects.

Introspection, shooting vid and the way forward….

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‘I spent more than half my life in hotel rooms alone. There is a loneliness with that, but when I come home, I sometimes feel even more lonely. Even though I am in their (my family’s) physical midst, it becomes so clear how I feel neglected. They are not asking any questions, it’s just like: “Oh, Dad’s home. Bye, I gotta go. I got a date,” or “I am gonna hang with friends,” or “I have a soccer game or a baseball game.”’

‘Photographing the World, Longing for Home.’ – Ed Kashi’s Reflections on his Photos – in Diaries and Letters. (NY Times 21/03/12)

Recently updating my website and going through my News Spot section I found myself slightly deflated by my own pics .

I have seen my pics enough times now to shield myself from the worst elements mentally – even though looking at them all again still makes me grimace from time to time.  It was actually mainly out of a sense of frustration at the limited nature of the work itself.  I have been asking myself some soul-searching questions recently – both on a deeper and more practical level and the one glaring, inescapable truth is that the type of work I have done will not sustain me for much longer.  When I did my photojournalism course at LCC in London I was motivated by 1 thing – and that was to go into war zones and the such and be that war photographer – Inspired by books such as Don McCullin’s ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’, Antony Lloyd’s ‘This War Gone By, I Miss it So’ and of course ‘The Bang Bang Club’ I craved to be shaken out of my North London existence and become – for lack of a better expression – a ‘Witness’ to world events.

A decade on and I’m def not so sure – Don’t want to dwell too long on the  personal side – but at 35 yrs of age – and wanting to settle again 1 day, all the traveling will eventually either put a strain on any relationship – or more likely – there won’t be 1 at all – I don’t want to be that 55 year old in Moggie or Sudan or Nigeria on his own – far, far away from any point of reference.  Apart from the loneliness it’s an extremely selfish and solipsistic way of life too.

Far more importantly – there just isn’t any money in news photography or photojournalism as a whole these days.  Shooting for news agencies in particular – esp as a stringer  – just isn’t worth it.

Tthe maths of shooting as a stringer just doesn’t make sense.  You have to pay all costs to a dangerous location (which is usually very expensive) not to mention satellite links etc – and all for US$60 per pub.  That’s crazy -and to be honest offensive. In terms of agencies and representation, apart from my Reuters stringer contract, I have recently re-signed a Getty contract and am signed to Polaris and AMO in SA.  But while that all sounds great on paper – I sometimes wonder what the real worth is – I get by on commissions and library sales in gen with the agencies )the rest comes from NGO/UN commissions).  I am in particular to expand library sales dramatically (Alamy is another great source that I am looking to in future) – but it will only ever bring in a certain level of income.  I don’t want to be struggling in later life and running around while spreading myself thin – both physically and emotionally – As a business model it simply doesn’t make much sense any more (I would love to hear from people who disagree though).

I def want to be on the creative end of work which is why I took on the Masterclass as a way to try and expand my reach into more long-term artistic/abstract photog. projects.

With the Masterclass, delving into the world of long-term book projects and gallery exhibs has begun to bare some fruit on a personal and technical level of understanding – I shot the above images mainly as an academic project, to explore the world of more abstract photography although grounded in more underlying socio-economic trends and issues.  They were shot in Mombasa on a housing estate and depict the hardship of life for the so-called African middle class.  Without running water and sparse electricity and other basic amenities, I wanted to see how African traditional life and the social nature of life on the Continent came to fill that vacuum left behind by the absence of municipal authorities to provide the most basic of services.

I must admit – while I am pleased enough with the results to put them up on my website, coming up with ideas and the actual shooting of such projects I have found hard.  I found myself when shooting this project constantly saying to myself – ‘what the hell am I doing?- I’m just wondering around an estate taking what feels like random pics.’

Coming very much and solidly from a journalistic background I immediately have a fundamental notion that if it ain’t newsworthy – it ain’t worth engaging.  Unfortunately – I chose the 1 medium in the world of journalism that doesn’t pay too well these days (though I hear some of my colleagues from other mediums bitching as much as me these days).  The career structure for photojournalism I find is more akin to that of acting than anything else in the journalistic world (ie a few minted people at the top and a mass of struggling morons below with no middle ground in between).

Which is where starting the filming and vid process comes in.  While the economics of short doccies at the mo ain’t too amazing they are def far better than photography – in the long-term I am certain it will get better (as fast broadband becomes the norm worldwide) but more importantly – the possibility it offers in terms of avenues to do those old news stories I have such a good grasp on I feel are a lot better than with photojournalism.

Technically I have also always considered my traditional strengths to be in straight visual story-telling.  I think creatively doccies are a better medium in a lot of ways for achieving this end (although some might disagree)…

Translating this though into actually shooting is a whole different story.  The learning curve has been steep.  At 35 it is a bit unsettling  to start out again to learn a new medium but it’s def been worth it.  I had a film-maker friend teach me the basics in terms of equipment and I feel pretty competent now at holding it all together on the shooting side (although my audio knowledge – outside of positioning the various mics and managing the different sound channels – is pretty much limited to making sure the green bar thingy doesn’t become a red bar thingy on the Zoom).

I have found large stumbling blocks along the way and am a bit nervous but feel almost ready to plunge in.  The largest problem has been my choice of subject for my first project.   Instead of opting for simple subject matter – like the eccentric fellow who owns the antique shop down the road – Me being me, I just couldn’t resist taking on a subject that has mushroomed into encompassing 2 large SA Government Departments, an assortment of NGO’s and high ranking officers in SAPS (South African Police Service).  While my friend who gave me a bit of tutoring is completely from the ‘let the script and structure grow organically’ school of doccie thought, given the largesse and gravity of the subject matter I am undertaking, I def don’t want to go down that route (as someone once said – it gets a lot more confusing once you start shooting anything).

I have been immersing myself in reading up about pre/post-shooting scripts, shot lists and paper edits etc at the mo (although I’m almost certain I’ll go in with a general pre-shooting script and develop it organically as I go along into a tight post-shooting script for the forthcoming vid project).  It has helped that I have rather randomly done a film script writing course with a Hollywood scriptwriter in the past (it’s a bit unnerving how the fundamental building blocks of fact and fictional film-making are so similar in many ways) but all the preparation in the world will almost def lead to problems at some point in the shoot.  I promised myself I’d make this blog as blunt and truthful as possible so please key in for my next installment probably titled – ‘How NOT to go about shooting a short doccie’ or ‘How to destroy your reputation in a new medium in 5 minutes.’

Overall – I have large insecurities for the road ahead – it’s such a different road from the well-trodden one of the past but a necessary change is required but it’s also exciting in many ways.  I guess as ex-South African President F W De Klerk once famously declared, you have to ‘adapt or die’ (or in my case ‘adapt or open a small coffee shop on a wind-swept beach in Cape Town engaging in banal conversation and looking out to sea forlornly for the rest of my life’…).

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