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Where photojournalism meets documentary filmmaking

I recently attended a lecture presented by the people behind MediaStorm, a multimedia studio based in New York but really based, well, online. MediaStorm is innovative in that it trains journalists in new storytelling opportunities on the web, as well as serves corporate clients, as well as engages in documentary projects for the web that combine still photography and video (see image above, a project on the new economic realities in the Midwest). Most of these have been created by seasoned photographers for whom video and sound are, er, ‘new’ tools. And indeed, it’s a whole new world out there. We can no longer understand photographers as those working with the still image when their cameras (see the Canon EOS 5D Mark II) no longer simply shoot stills. As the equipment moves more and more toward a single device that records both still and moving images, and beautifully so, the walls between disciplines continue to come down down down.

So is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well for one thing, in academia, it’s a mess. Photojournalists, for instance, are most likely trained in schools of communication or journalism, where instruction in nonfiction filmmaking might be over in fine arts, or media, or even theatre. Yikes. Hence MediaStorm’s training mission coming in handy for mid-career journalists. Even so, however, MediaStorm’s work lives firmly in a journalism context, so the documentary projects are absolutely interview-based, missing opportunities for more observational and purely cinematic work (are we at the historical moment AGAIN when we are waiting for another Maysles, Pennebaker or Wiseman to kick the door down?). And the lecture I attended, with mostly photographers in the audience, included a ridiculous exchange about authenticity wherein MediaStormers admitted to talking “at length” about if it was unethical to move a sound effect around away from when it actually happened. What? We nonfiction filmmakers have been doing that for years, and far more brashly than one measly sound effect. It’s called structuring drama.

The upside? A new form – check out the link below, wherein MediaStorm workshoppers beautifully combine stills and video in a portrait of a rebellious Staten Island mother who is negotiating family, work and identity. The “video portraits” included in the piece are fascinating – images that look and feel like a still — framed as a portrait, then, after a moment … they begin to move, the subjects twitching as they remain fixed in a pose. (“I’m going to take your picture. Stand still … but it’s a video!”)

The downside to all of this? The learning curve. Starting at square one in storytelling for seasoned professionals accustomed to capturing one second in time? It could be a tall order. Get ready for a lot more bad video. Not everybody can take a MediaStorm workshop, or luck into the right teacher with the right training. Additionally, will universities be able to change quickly enough to accommodate the ways in which entire professional fields are morphing, one into the next? Um, doubtful.

The piece at this link was co-directed by the brilliant photographer Gillian Laub (she’s excluded from the “bad video” comment above). It’s a strong documentary portrait, made stronger by integrating her beautiful stills — even if the credits use language like “additional reporting,” a term one would rarely, if ever, see in non fiction filmmaking.

–AH