On differences between video journalism and written journalism, OR, the laboriousness of filming
I’ve recently been filming around Port-au-Prince working on a video story with a colleague. Or I should say that, since he’s a filmmaker, he’s been filming, and I’ve been asking interview questions or playing defense or running interference as necessary.
Reporting for written work now seems easy, at least compared to doing video journalism. You go talk to people, take some notes, record conversations. There are plenty of challenges and difficulties to doing good reporting, but your only tangible tools are often a pen and notebook. You can be discreet.
Filming is tedious. It can be draining. Forget all the technical aspects—getting the exposure just right so that the Caribbean sun doesn’t blow out your footage; framing an interview just right in the midst of a crowded, noisy street; being sure to get quality audio in addition to getting the visuals correct—and I’m not even the one who has to worry about most of the tech. There’s no such thing as discreet when you pull out a video camera and shotgun mic in a bustling Port-au-Prince market.
Filming sucks energy out of you in a way that interviews for written stories don’t, like when the second you pull out a camera and start setting up a tripod, a portly woman selling secondhand flip flops starts bellowing at you like you just slapped her first-born child across the face with a snow shovel. This is where I come in, running interference like the Bandit so that the Snowman can get his footage.
This part can actually be a lot of fun, but it depends on how long it’s been since you’ve eaten, or how long you’ve been standing in the sun that day, or how dehydrated you feel.
People tell me they’re hungry, regardless of whether they’re eating a bag of Cheetos in front of me. I tell them that I’m hungry too because I haven’t eaten yet today. People ask what nationality I am. I tell them I’m an American and then ask, as if hanging on the answer, “And you?” People ask how much we’re going to pay them if they let us film them. I avoid a discussion of journalism ethics and simply try to explain that we’re poor freelance journalists, we don’t have the kind of money that foreign NGOs have. Which never completely computes for them, given our white skin.
People we’re not even trying to film ask for money or a gift. I tell them that every Haitian asks me for money everyday, which is not true—when I meet someone on the street or in my neighborhood they’re more likely to ask me whether I can get them a job than to try to hit me up for money. I then ask them how many Haitians there are. “Ten million.” Yep. Some people get it, and even give you a considerate glance.
Some Haitians are fine being filmed, but many if not most either immediately refuse on principle or want to know what’s in it for them, and a few are antagonistic right off the bat. The best and-by-best-I-mean-worst is when someone who has no authority over anything whatsoever gets all Buford T. Justice on you and explains why he “does not accept” you filming some other person’s wares, or a sign in a market, or an entire street, as happened to us yesterday. He naturally has authority to do this by virtue of his being Haitian and us being blan. This is about the time I wish we had a Sally Field on our team to do some sweet talking.
An inevitable lecture follows, about how we don’t understand blah blah blah, and I quickly cut him off and thank him for his time and tell him that while he might like to talk we like to work and have to be moving along, before I lose even more patience and say something downright nasty.
Yet in my short experience, a lot of people really don’t have a problem being filmed, they just take a little bit of coaxing or reassuring, which probably isn’t different from most people anywhere. If someone came up to me on the streets of D.C. or wherever and asked if they could film me, I would refuse before even really thinking about it.
I’ve only done a small amount of filming in the U.S. but know from that experience that many of the same aspects that make filming on streets of Port-au-Prince arduous are inherent to filming anywhere, at least in the eyes of someone who’s not really a filmmaker or video journalist and only plays one on TV sometimes.