Saturday, January 29, 2011

What Dorothea Lange's Photojournalism could teach videojournalism

Migrant Mother- Dorothea Lange - from Wikipedia Creative Commons

To any photojournalist worth their salt this iconic image should be part of their long term memory.

To any visualists (videojournalist, multimediast) this photo has never been more relevant, with regards to an era of digitlization which is drawn to immanence - the now.

To anyone watching Egypt unfurl; angst and angry crowds in the streets, this photo is telling us something profound, which goes beyond the non-nutritious commentary provided by international broadcasters from the region.

I watched a network television reports from Cairo thinking, how caught off guard, fly-in journalism had become the de facto informant. Where once it may have worked, dropping-in reportage can only but provide information based on one's immediate perception, yielding pros and cons.

The documentarists
"Migrant Mother" - the story of California's migrant pea-pickers during the austere, depressed period of the US in the 30s, showed how its author Dorothea Lange would capture that of news value yet also provide context to the news at large, The Great Depression.

There were others, who loosely or as part of the RA, the Resettlement Administration, documented across the US what may have been known, but not seen.

They included Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White and Roy E Stryker who was charged with heading up the RA and coined the aphorism:

“documentary is an approach, not a technic, an affirmation, not a negation".

They pioneered the photo essay, and gave depth to the evolving form of documentary-photojournalism.

From the work of these figures came the likes of March of Time, US Newsreel par excellence; it was like no other newsreel in its documentary approach, as such calling itself a new form of journalism, and  then there was Pare Lorentz, The Plough that Broke the Plains (film clip)

Seeking new methodologies
What is videojournalism? A gathering of videojournalism professionals at the BFI photo by attendee Don Omope

Two days ago, a group of like minded film makers, onliners, creatives et al  gathered at the British Film Institute ( BFI). Parralleling meetings over the years; in the 1950s the gathering sought answers to Free Cinema; what is it and how does it work.

Well, this group's common cause was videojournalism.  The questions the group asked in many ways  put Lange's photos into perspective.

Mark, a BBC videojournalism trainers asked: "What's different now? What has videojournalism added to the body politik of news and content that hasn't been done already. [1more on that event in another post].

In Cairo, over the next few days, and for the past few, we've had TV Networks reacting to events, attempting to explain them; generalisations,  and the ocassional hyperbole.

What we need is Dororthea with her digital film camera, whom behind the headlines would give us context; not for what she solely thinks ( after all she's choosing the shots) but what she can make us think by within context.

The notion of if it bleeds it leads is still a strong draw in news; after all it invariably involves an event which pulls on the curiosity of our voyerustic-rubber necking nature.

The event has bystanders asking each other, what happened, with each shrugging until we stumble upon that person, untrained in observations ( aren't we all?) who saw something and attempts to interpret it.

Going beyond the obvious 

In subsequent broadcasts, the comments will fly again, we might even be afforded a background piece, strung together or is that shaped to provide knowledge of the now, but even that in sociological terms is flawed.

In a day and era where cameras are cheaper, we should and could be doing more to inform; and no doubt somewhere on YouTube lay those videos: on the web is the blog and Flikr, but what really of videojournalism?

Temporal time perhaps is the Achilles, but it isn't solely the cause. 

For the pro-reporter there is much to be hopeful about, if we can surpass our instinct to fall on the tried and tested methods e.g. give em dramatic shots of streets burning, that'll bring in the audience. Yes, but it's half the story.

In the last three years I have had the opportunity of working with a new generation of videojournalists in Cairo. I was last there in December 2010 and was able to see the fruits of the videojournalists' endeavors. For the first time they were sourcing new stories - naturalism or realism stories.

  • The vendor selling kebabs
  • The woman eking a living selling cheese
  • The souvenir makers who fuel the tourism industry
  • The struggling actor wanting to emigrate

These stories gave context to understand complexities.

I likened it to my first visit to South Africa, where through the fighting spirit of one amazing BBC producer I was allowed to make the radio documentary, First Time Voters.

It involved documenting four young black South Africans about to vote in their first election who over 40 minutes educated me and hopefully other listeners about their country.

Context doesn't have to be a matter of obsfucation, at least that's why reporters are paid to do their job, but neither can it rest on the default reacting to unfolding events in which 2 minutes will suffice.

It requires going beyond the news. That's what Dororthea did, that's what videojournalism can do ( Michael Rosenblum tells his strory about his work from Gaza in the 80s and how he helped inform one of the major US TV Networks).

But to the question Mark from the BBC poses, that too needs sorting: What can videojournalism do in programming context, content and aesthetics that hasn't been done yet?

The group hopefully will meet again soon to figure out.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A brief history of Videojournalism - redux

A brief visual history of videojournalism from david dunkley gyimah on Vimeo.

We meet on Thursday. We're trying something new. Practitioners and academics, theorists and the practiced based, the realists and neo-realists.

This vision language can be learnt, but it involves a range of cross-disciplines, which many of us have begged, stolen or borrowed from previous jobs.  In itself videojournalism is difficult to qualify, but then depends what your definition is.

I drew a circle for my Masters students. Inside I placed docs, motion graphics, videoslides, video art and then rather ostentatiously drew a videojournalism wrapper around it. To justify this I then set about arguing a definition for "journalism".

So to a visual journey of Videojournalism, here's to the BBC's reportage, working with newspapers in places such as Beirut, Channel One TV, Channel 4, BBC World Service Radio and to the many times we've all tried something and it hasn't worked.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Videojournalism United - an anglocentric POV

And so for a good while these men: artists, politicians etc who shared a common passion of painting, would keep each other company at a local diner opened all hours called the Andler Keller.

It might have stayed inconspicuous, as with the many other bars  in Paris, except that it soon came to be known as the Temple of Realism, where some pretty nifty ideas were cooked up in between the truffles of course. Of course.

We have much to be thankful to the group, for without them the idea of capturing ordinary people (realism) on camera may have been delayed or perhaps not have happened at all.

Granted it's the 1850s and the movie camera has not yet been invented, but there's a strong argument to propose as Bazin does that cinema had already arrived and artists, cine-philes were looking for new subjects, fresh material and techniques.

Today this scene plays out in many an area e.g. local school, church and yes the local diner where groups of like-minded people meet and thrash out ideas and next week we'll do the same. Temple of Realism this is not, but we have an idea nonetheless.

Working with the David Hayward from the BBC Journalism college and Paul Egglestone from UCLAN, we're curating a gathering of some of the UK's leading videojournaists at the BFI. Some pretty impressive talent have agreed to attend from international film makers such as Claudio Von Planta to well know videojournalists who make films for Channel 4 and BBC.

The first session seeks to define the form, not as simplistic iteration of the status quo, but what it means, its potential and where it's going. IPad watch out. 

I'm hoping we'll use an artistic practice called Creative fight club to capture and record the outpu which will become a piece of art in itself.  More on that soon.

But this evening I also popped over to the Apple store in London. Apple have been really supportive in the past and speaking to their theatre manager I may be back there to give a fuller account of what we're up to.

I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Deconstructing RTS Prelude blog

Continuing the conversation, Mike kindly left a short message on the last post about The RTS - best of the best prelude blog.

MikE: Really struggling to understand any of this. Perhaps I'm thick. 

I have wrote this below in response.

Hi Mike

Sorry bout that; I'm forever struggling through Lacan, Husserl and the rest and though you're using ( my assumption) the term "thick" self-referentially, I'm guessing there are subjects you're passionate about that no doubt I could easily struggle to follow.

If I hear another deconstruction of Inception as psychoanalyss, I'll lose it.

But I hope this below helps

Cinema is said to be built on how you're affected by what you see, feel, hear. News is about delivering information ( a talking head would do).

Cinema is about fiction. News is about fact, or the expression factvity.

Cinema needs drama (dramaturgical), fictional drama; News needs drama ( factual) to interest us.

Cinema craves something being real for you to suspend belief, even though its isn't; news/docs need their subject to be real, even though frankly in constructing the events, its the author who's producing for you their events as real.

e.g. When broadcasters tell us a helicopter straffed insurgents, we see the video and believe it to be real. Then Wikileaks reveals tape with onboard dialogue and says this is real Chopper staffing journos .... (this is just one of many examples)

What's happening is we're building firmer bridges between fact and fiction modes. BBC Radio 4 Presenter Ed Stourton said of the Gulf war, the danger was cameramen/producers looking to shoot scenes such as the chopper against the sun, like Apocalypse Now made the film look like cinema.

I think he meant the journalism was being trivalised. What's really happening today is the cine-mode has come full force. Question is can we the audience distinguish the two. Certainly, photography has achieved this distinction.

As a journalist first before becoming an academic, I used to rile against words such as "Verisimilitude" or say "Hacceity", but I have come round to seeing how specific arguments around content require a use of word or construct that is highly appropriate.

Oddly enough I now find myself using Ashanti words ( my parents' mother tongue) to express something. Nothing new there, we Brits have done that with the french language or German: "Ouvre" or "Zeitgeist".

The thing I guess is to write for the audience, or is it. I'll go through days when its free-form, then as someone put it Pseud-corner.

If you've got some time on your hands grab
Rethinking Documentary: New Perspectives and Practices
Thomas Austin. Includes an interesting chapter from Bill Niichols on realism.

It's a fab book for making film makers re-think that we've taken taken for granted. Then something on Realism e.g. Art- the definitive visual guide.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

RTS Award Prelude- juror for best of the best in journalism

RTS Judging package arrives with DVD

Nestled between CS5 and code hints and introductions to polysemic documentary making,  I can see on my diary, RTS awards.

[Read here for response to Mike looking for further explaination  of RTS Award Prelude]

his will be the third year running I have been invited to sit with a panel of experts to adjudicate which UK TV or newspaper takes the Innovation award for Journalism.

Two years ago, it was for me unequivocal: 10 Days to War by BBC Newsnight - an impressive dramatisation of the lead up to the Iraq war involving what looked in the end- a hand in glove fit between documentary mode and drama (fiction).

The programme didn't have it its own way. A rigorous vote ensured from a shortlist, which itself proceeded arguments for and against contenders.

Sitting down to Judge the awards. In shot Toby Castle ( ITN), Nigel Baker (Chair) APTN,  Iain Dale, Deborah Gorbutt (APTN), Martin Turner (BBC)

What got me thinking was how the concept flagged up the notions of embedded videojournalism. That wasn't the casting vote, for by itself 10 Days was an imaginative piece that tackled a subject which wrestles the collective conscious.

It was a sort of Green Zone - Dir. Paul Greengrass, but more newspaper journalism than novel-cinema.

Its relevance can't be over emphasised enough. What really happened and why the world (a US-axis with Europe et al) went to war is still as contentious then as it is now. The programme should be made available for all secondary schools to study.

I pondered though, what if programme makers got videojournalists into these pivotal events?  In  cases, some of the scenes were predictable according to the press. Almost any follower of the build up would have known from the media that Colonel Tim Collins would be delivering a rousing speech.

"You tread lightly there. You'll have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people  than the Iraqis. You'll be embarrassed by the hospitality they offer you even though they have nothing. Do not treat them as refugees in their own country".

The above from the loquacious Shakespearean actor, more recently the director of Thor, Kenneth Branagh, underscores the paradoxes of war.

Two years later, I caught up with the figure behind the series. Peter Barron, an old acquaintance from my Newsnight days in 1991, who also hired me to work on Channel 4 News from 1997-2001 and is now a senior executive at Google. Peter reflected on the programme.

"It was bold", I said, "What of fact-fiction storytelling?"

It came with huge risks and must be treated with due care, he cautioned.

Last year that latent thought materialised in the shape of photojournalist and self-taught cineist  Danfung Dennis  Battle of Hearts and Mind. ( Please note there's swearing and some scenes could be considered not appropriate for youngsters)

Here was a film that had the affectiveness of cinema wrapped around factivity. Zeitegiest! I interviewed Danfung - an incredibly humble and self-effacing person at the Southbank Centre - as part of a programme for my artist in residency.

Danfung had thrown film form's vividness into a dramaturgical cauldron wrestling verisimilitude . 

By that I mean the notion now of what's real in cine-mode, resurecting debates around neo-realism, and dramatic constructs of  Honore' de Balzac or more recently epic realism of Brecht.

[Added notes next day to clarify: the cinema mode is not just the screen look e.g. Shallow depth of field, but founded on several principles refined since cinema began. Video as a format has struggled with this, read David Bordwell]

Show the two videos side by side to the screen generation in secondary schools and they'll be hard pressed to consider Danfung's piece as verity outrightly. Is that cinema? it looks real one youngster told me during an exchange with a group talking about modern day filming. 

On the night of the awards, I couldn't make it to black tie do, for I was many miles away in Miami at Wemedia, where thanks to the huge support of Dale and Andrew, its founders I was being treated untold generous hospitality - shortlisted in their game changer award.

A year later and a submission would raise the bar, courting a wee bit of controversy from us jurors. but that's for another story.

.. continues next week

David Dunkley Gyimah is midway into PhD study on hyermedia film and is a juror member for RTS 2011 Innovation in News Journalism Awards. He lectures at the University of Westminster and publishes where he showcases processes and techniques of the digitalisation of film form e.g. Interviewing with former CIA chief.


Friday, January 14, 2011

The medium is the message and instrument

It's that infallible aphorism from Marshal McLuhan.

Marshall interpreted the future at a time when the second wave was yet to come; the first was the 60s, where the likes of Allan Kay, Vannavar Bush, Alan Turing, where either establishing themselves or had done so.

Theirs was the processing revolution; the onset of miniturisation - diodes and valves becoming antiquated, combustion engines enough to fly a man to the moon

It was a fertile period for the development of TV too; hence his saying. It came at a time of pending transition from film to ENG, accompanied by a change in social philosophy.  

The riots of Paris 68 crystalised self-expression, individualism. Euro Cinema was mounting a fight back.

The 1960s was truly big sociological lab.

Today, the epistomology is along the lines of digitalisation, interactivity, hyper-management. The medium may still be the message but it has acquired new purpose. It has become the instrument.

TV's medium shapes an aesthetic and semiotic which to that extent fixes what we say and hear. The Net does otherwise- a rebounding echo; symetrical, multiple pronged.

Is it any wonder we're unsure of its thingyness - or to give it its academic term hacceity has no fixed form. Everyone's a producer and consuler. If TV and video was the medium with corresponding message, in the digital realm of video, it's become the medium that is expressive, malleable, hyperised.

You can take a video of a dog; it's barking, happy - the message is clear and unambigious, but with the subteltly of art, a faster camera, a wide lens, a melancholic sound track, the message changes. The video has become an instrument to extract different emotions.

Curiously, its the reason why video, news, cannot be neutral, that realism is always questionanble, because of the subjective involvement of the author.

I wonder today what McLuhan would have made of it all.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Intentionality - videojournalism alt-directness

If thoughts are the pathway to impulses: you think and so you do, why don't we give "thoughts" a hierarchy in news filming?

We do in literary journalism: Minister what did you think? Yet so far we fail to give it enough precedence in non-fictional filming.

Our thoughts; the subconscious are unsecured, unguarded and if anything giving it prominence in filmic narratology may open us up to not just thought, but intent, which is convictable.

Man: Yes I was going to murder him ( film shows how)

In the plastic arts, such pathways are encouraged; they're the stuff of flashbacks, entertainment par excellence as in Minority Report or Dream Sequences: Jacobs Ladder and last year's mind bender Inception.  Mental content directed was the basis of Intentionality by Husserl.

Memories from david dunkley gyimah on Vimeo.
This video references the past, but not just as literal recordings of events ie news, but an essay, reflexive thoughts, that could be the basis of non-fictional interaction.

In non-fictional, the canon of "cause and effect" and evidentiary purpose leaves "thought" still a figment.

Evidence, what you see and hear from an event only acquires the status of fact if it can be tested, both outside the discursive arguments by people of repute. As Bill Nichols puts it: "Facts become evidence when they are taken up in discourse; and that discourse gains the force to compel belief through its capacity to refer evidence to a domain itself"

Policeman: Tell me who saw you thinking this?

Doesn't quite work, does it and only in films do subjects interact with each other in the same plane.  What makes Nolan's Inception all the more fascinating is the shared consciousness - call it social networking dreaming.  Coming to a screen near you. Stick that up your bonny clyde!!

This is all dandy so far, but can it, does it have a legitimacy in non fictional filming? As an emerging currency for videohyperlinking and spatial videojournalism, why yes! The DVD extra now becomes part of the body politik.

This is the emergence of spatial cinema post "24", as captured elegantly by Inception, repurposed not just within the screen but the narrative. See the cube on
Though limiting at the moment; it was an expression, more than the finished product, it relays screen based frame watching, with a leaning to vid- hyperlinking ( see article that features David's thoughts in The Economist)  and hyper narratives.

And in a world of varying truths, re: wikileaks, what we thought was true and now realise what is and isn't require a bit more than reflexive paragraphs.

We might not give it much exposure now, as we're still locked into a mimetic language of films of record - point and shoot, but as we become more video narrative literate, we'll begin to borrow more from fictional-film.

The power of thought materialised really means " you mustn't be afraid of thinking a little bigger, darling".

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Media innovation in the UK

For the last three years I have been a juror in the UK's highest awards for television journalism, the RTS.  

As I get ready to provide my critique and nominations for the innovation award, I will be looking to reflect on how the last three years square up between what TV has been up to and how outthere compares.

I think it'll make for an interesting exercise talking about some of the issues that I feel I can talk about which frames how and what constitutes innovatory TV work.

Fab. Robot pop video on Canon 5D

This is a video involving Ryan Jackson as DOP, shot on the Canon 5D Mark-I

I met Ryan about three years ago when I was giving videojournalism seminars in the US ( Chicago etc). He'd signed up and produced in a couple of days a nice vid, though that's nothing in comparison to what he's doing now.

Enjoy this and then ping over to his website where he breaks down the whole process - story board and all

The Cathedral and Visualist, and Videojournalist

For a moment discard all labels: video maker, videojournalist, VJ, Solo VJ, Videographer and the rest and imagine as you would the following.

You're faced with a scene: an event such as a man running down the street being pursued by another man, wearing a uniform. You watch, observe, unpicking the scene, taking in scraps of information, though that's not how it seems to you.

To you, you're witnessing a major scene and as either a journalist or blogger possess the skills to relay that in text. It reads well, it's real; you're a natural. A man is being purused by a policeman. Why?

Unbeknown to you, you're doing something remarkable aided by your senses, your sensory perception to be precise: eyes, ears, smell, even the breeze of air are being interpellated and interpreted by you.

Unconsciously you're going about a task, not that unfamiliar, for which you possess the ability to make some sense of.

A new scene
Imagine now the scene was a riot. If you're unfamiliar with such surroundings, you may feel intimidated, unsure. You're capacity to witness is heightened, though you may be fixated on particular scenes. The man yelling at the police etc.

You're subconsciously imbibing the scene again, based on differences in the texture, complexity, difference in what would be the norm of the scene. The hundreds of people looking on are not so as interesting as that man yelling at the police.

Then you remember you have a camera in your bag. You take it out and commence to shoot. There's a problem because the settings of the camera aren't giving you an account of what you see unaided.

By now you're spending considerable time on the camera. The world's still turning and for seconds and minutes your attention has been procured elsewhere.

Then the camera works, You begin to record. What you saw with your eyes is being recorded by an instrument; an instrument which intelligently makes a record of what you see, but cannot interpret the events for you.

The camera has yet to become your haptic device - an extension of your arm; the equivalent of the game console for the gamer.

When you play the recordings to a friend, he or she will be relying on connecting the dots in a manner they see fit.

What you didn't see.
But remember when you were filming, the woman standing three metres away crying. To your left 100m a phalanx of youth are storming a building. All around you something is happening; some more engaging than others.

Very little of that is recorded on your device. The youth who shoved the policeman man to the ground did it with a force that had the policeman laying postrate.

You got that on camera, but some how the venom of the shove is less than it appeared in real life. The dazzling of the lights and fuse of colours diffused.

What then if at the point of impact you were in a position to capture that event with the camera compensating for its lack of intelligibility.

In other words laying lower that the two figures you capture the arm foregrounded, huge on the screen and then the shove.  What then you might think would that look like if it were a macro lens magnifying that push?

The account I have just given plays off a logic for consciousness provided by Husserl which I have adapted for my own ends.

A new unconscious understanding
What the eye sees

Imagine for one moment that your ability to interpret events live, not hindered by a camera, but aided by it. That the ecosystem of the event, not just the panoramic, but the detective's gaze a perceptive figure who reads crime scenes,  was your visual palette.

That your skill at recording unfurled a narrative of questions and answers, but always with enquiry.
That so unconscious are you of events that you captured scenes that in playback surprise you.

The camera has become your eyes. Impulses lead you to film the event, but also frame along the axis of N.E.S.W. ( North. East. South. West. South - NEWS) and then the i-component.

The cathedral that embraces a true account of that event is an unobtainable one, but you, skilled unconsciously at bridging and welding the literary, with sound and video-sight, yield an account of the scene which is emotive.

Unlike the mere physical or mechanical recording of this scene you have delivered an interpretation true to your principles of wanting to tell the truth.

The result is your film: a collocation of reality in life and on your website.

This thing you do is but a strand of your malleability, because the timing and texture of a riot is diadactically different from comedy or the country side - other areas of interest.

Think for a moment if you had a name for this. Videojournalism might do, but its tainted; it appears limiting to others when you try to explain this church to them.

Then you remember from readings of plato that our comprehension and beliefs because they are in perpetual change, at least in liberal societies, that conclusions are not finite.

Every new enquiry which is legitimate opens up discussions to tweak or radically change our positions.

For the moment then videojournalism will do. You are a videojournalist.

And you can tell us why. This is the growing church of the visual- narrative story teller.

NB Remember your answers to questions are not based on experience alone, but by causal links that are stregthened by rigorous defence. However the more widespread your experience, the more sharing and participation you've been involved in, the more your perceptions and beliefs are changeable. Nothing as they say is finite - even death is contested, religions tell us 

Here for what makes a good reporter
Many students have now graduated, some have found jobs, others will join an unofficial club reeling of letters and CVs.

Having been on both sides both in the media; I still have all my BBC rejection letters and then got into a position to recommend others for broadcasters and newspapers. Now, I'd like to share some of my thoughts. More here.

David Dunkley Gyimah is completing a PhD combining experential learning as a practising videojournalist over 16 years and broadcast professional from 1987. You can more about his work and commissions from