Being a juror for an industry competition has its share of challenges and rewards. My primary concerns were twofold: 1) the sheer number of entries and 2) their quality. Being an entrant (from The NYTimes), I get how difficult it is to pick and choose from the year’s body of work. But editing is a huge part of our job, and learning to let go is a must. I also can appreciate how difficult it is to edit down your entries based on the target audience as each photo competition has its unique categories.
And who knows which lens each juror will bring? As Dan Chung’s post (Multimedia Practioners Reactions to the 2012 World Press Photo Multimedia Awards) on DSLR News Shooter reveals, every producer/editor would bring their own diverse points of view to the judging process. Which is extremely important.
However, I do think we can afford to edit down the submissions by taking a hard look in-house at the best work. Maybe there’s something to be gained by that hard look, turning a pre-judging experience into a free self-training experience?
A thought: Maybe increasing the entry fee might help edit our submissions down. I wouldn’t want to discourage independent producers from entering, so perhaps a sliding-scale formula would make the big guys pay more than solo shops by factoring in the number of names credited on each piece.
The rewards, however, outweigh the challenges. First, I get to watch some projects that were new to me. Obviously, it’s important for us to observe and watch what others in our industry are producing. But finding the time to do so, between running a desk, producing work and living lives, is difficult. So it was a pleasure to get away for a few days and discover some great projects. Of course, the downside was having to sit through some mediocre ones as well. It’s a clear reminder on the importance of starting strong and layering narratives with tension and intrigue to keep readers and viewers engaged.
As a manager and editor, I also benefit from looking at the work of a number of promising and upcoming stars. I find it encouraging to see several producers (in the profession as well as those coming from academic settings) finding their own voice. The recording and editing tools are second nature to them as storytellers. They just need more opportunities in finding the right stories.
Overall, my experience was fantastic. Having judged a number of NPPA’s BOP competition in the past as well as World Press Photo last year, this year’s judging at POYi was appreciatively unique (they all are in their own way, of course) because of the progress of industry work, Director Rick Shaw’s rigor and smooth process and, most of all, the conversations I had with fellow judges who come from documentary filmmaking backgrounds. Being POYi, there were obviously discussions around visual storytelling. But the discussions weren’t focused around issues we’ve talked about years ago (ie., value of music, narration, etc.). It was predominantly around story, engagement and character.
Check out the full list of winners from POYi 69. Or watch them by category:
- Feature Multimedia Story
- News Multimedia Story
- Issue Reporting Multimedia Story
- Long-Form Multimedia Documentary
Did it suck?
It was timely that Mike Davis posted “Does Story Telling Lose In Multimedia?" at the time of the POYi competition. Someone had mentioned the post over a dinner break, and I was ready to disagree with him as I don’t find multimedia sucking. Having had a chance to read it after the judging was over, I was glad to see that I agree with Mike for the most part. He outlined the three-commandment formula:
- Though shalt approach subject matter that mostly happened in the past.
- Thou shalt point a video/audio producing machine at a person looking at said machine and ask them questions, as the primary story telling medium.
- Thou shalt make video of something in the present tense that may or may not have anything to do with that past event and then overlay that video cleverly with the interview audio to suggest a connection between the two, without being too misleading.
Most journalism stories are driven by writers and doctrine says the written story is better told by recreating past events. Transfer this doctrine to multimedia and voilà, the three commandment approach is almost the only one available in a journalistic setting.
… the greatest story telling potential of audio and video and still photography is reached in the present tense.
We are held captive by our own industry. It’s extremely important we find inspiration from outside the industry. It’s one of the many reasons why I found judging the competition with documentary filmmakers stimulating. The form of narratives we strive for is more akin to documentary films than our television news counterparts.
Unfortunately, the economies of scale are at odds. Many doc filmmakers will spend weeks or months with their stories to get pivotal moments as they unfold in present time. And those pivotal moments are often characterized by exchanges between characters or events that have to happen both in audio as well as video. The hours of footage will require several more months or even years to edit to a film.
For many in the news cycle, we simply don’t have the time to wait for the right moment to unfold as we’re rolling sound and video. Take a look at the awards given for both POYi and World Press Photo. “The Uprising” from Lightbox was the only piece awarded that covered the Arab Spring, even though it was one of the biggest stories from 2011. And even then, the video was a sight-and-sound piece with still photography and ambient audio. (To be fair, “Dawn of a Revolution” was recognized with a mention in POYi. But it was also produced in the similar sight-and-sound fashion.)
The other project awarded that was in response to news, and the other big story from 2011, was “Flirt” by Damir Sagolj, which reviewed the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan. Again, it was mainly still photography and laid over the ambient sound of waves. Narration by the photographer and his experience packaged it into a photographer’s journal.
These projects have a place in our industry. Obviously, they all come from the news category from POYi. They are artful but fail to tell the FULL story. We don’t actually see key moments unfolding nor do we meet any characters. And as this medium evolves ever so closer to being a documentary film, the need to complete the package with other materials such as user-submitted or archival footage will be greater. I’m reminded of a documentary titled “Trouble the Water” in which the filmmakers weaved 15 minutes of home movie footage shot the day before and the morning of Hurricane Katrina.
The Features and Issues categories generally represent stories that allowed photographers and filmmakers to spend some time with the stories and their characters. And it was in one of these categories where the judges became fully immersed in the discussion because we were really looking at the observational method of visual reporting as opposed of being directed.
It’s a good exercise. Go ahead: Watch several multimedia packages. Or even consider your own edit. How much was kept in the final edit that had true exchanges between characters or events? It’s easy to get those walks across the fields or the drive on the prairies because those visual sequences happen several times a day.
It’s not enough to say that using only the voice of the characters in your story makes your piece (cinéma) vérité. I feel that we’ve bent that definition a bit to help us make an argument for non-narrated pieces. But the better exercise is to count the moments of candid realism.
The economy of scale issue, again, is at odds.
An excellent case study would be to compare the film “Restrepo” by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington to “Hell and Back Again” by Danfung Dennis. Both great docs but told in their own way based on the material they ultimately captured. I’m sure many PJs have had discussions over drinks on this very topic. Another war doc, Armadillo, is also worth watching.
At the end, it was great to know that our discussions often relied on truth, transparency and honesty between the filmmaker and audience.
During the thoughtful discussions of visual storytelling, vérité and engagement, I can’t help but think about the process of our judging work in isolation. I have two concerns:
- Are we reviewing and recognizing the most impactful work out there?
- Are we in the ideal setting for consuming this type of content?
I started this post referencing the overwhelming number of entries we had to review and weed out. And although I am certain we recognized some truly strong work and awarded the best based on the dynamic and lens of the jury, I wonder if some were left behind or weren’t even entered in the first place.
Other web competitions have Viewers’ Choice or People’s Voice divisions. But even then, the number of projects have already been edited down to nominees. And leaving it up to John Q. Public may only bring us LOLCats and Kony2012. I opened up InteractiveNarratives.org to a wider pool of contributors in 2008, but it hasn’t reached the numbers I had hoped. This is one of the reasons why I relaunched IN’s original form as a Tumblr blog.
Only a couple of years old, tablets and e-readers have launched a resurgence of long-form storytelling in text. Think Atavist and Kindle Singles. And for as much as we encourage people to start with compelling tape to lure viewers in, I wonder whether there will come a day when we can be as patient in our small-screen storytelling as the filmmakers are on their big screens.
As this work continues to evolve ever more akin to documentary films, the computer is simply NOT the ideal medium for this type of long-form visual journalism. Every moment you’re on a computer (and smartphone as well), you’re fighting the urge to check your email or your Twitter or Facebook feed.
As an industry, we need to get our multimedia stories distributed on other channels. Hulu and Netflix would be a good start. An Interactive Narratives channel on HBO Go would be pretty sweet. And if Apple ever launches an iTV with an equivalent of Newsstand for video content publishers, it could potentially change everything.
Now here’s a thought to get our work into the mainstream: Why not bring back the Newsreel of yore to the modern age? If the film festivals play short docs before feature films, why don’t we show our multimedia features along with the movie trailers? And what if we had a way to review and critique multimedia features as we do during this judging experience as a way to demonstrate impact?
At least we’d be giving people a reason to talk and use their devices while in the theater.