1 - The street artist who shares my initials and taught me how to zoom.

Before he won the TED prize and collaborated with Agnes Varda; before he was given a day to take over the Louvre and invited to paste his work on entire houses; before he was nominated for an Oscar and partied with Bono, french photographer and street artist JR had only one camera and a 28mm lens.

This created a challenge. He wanted to take a series of intimate portraits of citizens of the French neighborhood of Le Bosquet. The neighborhood had received negative press as a result of the 2005 Paris Riots, and JR wanted to challenge the notion that its citizens were thugs and thieves through a series of portraits. However, because he only had one wide-angle, prime lens, he couldn’t zoom in with his lens. Instead, he had to make himself physically close to his subjects–as close as ten inches from their face. 

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I’ve learned this in my own work. I started making documentaries when I was ten years old. (When I did my first interview, I would ask my question, press record on my family’s camcorder, and then say “action," indicating to my interviewees that they could start talking). What I have gradually learned since then is something that is embedded in JR’s work: in order to understand someone, you have to make yourself present in their world. You have to zoom with your feet.

I first experienced this when I was sixteen, leaning nervously on the counter of the Little Tibet Gift Shop while asking the shopkeeper–a Tibetan living in exile–to tell me her story. It was my first interview. Tseten spent twenty minutes describing her family’s escape from Tibet–walking through the Himalayas in the dead of night, being tied to a tree while sleeping so she wouldn’t roll down the mountain; working on road construction at age eight to help her family make an extra 25 cents a day; and learning her first sentence in a foreign language: “mother, please give me something.” She said it to passerby on the streets of India as she held out her hands, begging for food.

 
 

I had prepared for Tseten’s interview by researching the history of Tibet, trying to sift through political arguments and determine who was right and who was wrong. But none of that seemed to matter after talking with her. By zooming with my feet, I was invited to walk in the footprints of someone else’s story–a story that had little to do with international political dynamics but everything to do with the human will to survive.

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Whether it’s filming shopkeepers, writing an article on nomadic communities or pasting large portraits of Parisians, I believe that the philosophy of proximity embedded within JR’s work should resonate with all documentarians. Genuine understanding, righteous documentation, and symbiotic relationships are only passible through the shared vulnerability that comes with physical proximity. 

(Note: the description of zoom with your feet is adapted from a gallery talk I gave for my “We See the Change” Exhibition)

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2 - The filmmaker who always wears an orange jacket and wants to be a unicorn.

When I was a child, my mother used to take my brother and I to art museums. She was a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, meaning that she knew more than the average Joe and a lot more than the average eight-year-old. As we walked through museums, she would sit down and explain–in eight-year-old-speak– the methodology and the history behind the paintings. We talked about more than just the color and the artist’s birthplace. She broke paintings down. She helped us analyze them. She talked about how the metronome echoed itself visually throughout Matisse’s Piano Lesson. About how the Annunciations of the Renaissance were organized as diptychs. She allowed us to guess the artist’s meaning behind each piece, and pointed us towards more complete answers. 

 
Art Institute of Chicago (source: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Art Institute of Chicago (source: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

 

What these museum visits introduced me to was the beauty and appreciation that comes from being able to look at something and understand it. In my documentary work, I value and respect documentarians who go out of there way to explain and foster understanding. Like my mom in the museum, they don’t assume that their audience brings to the table years of background knowledge. Many of them are also are weary of short attention spans and tight timelines. What these documentarians do is explain a distant world in a manner that is meaningful, clear, and engaging.

My favorite docu-splainer is a filmmaker named Johnny Harris.  Johnny makes short films about big issues for an online audience. He takes abstract concepts and academic research and makes it tangible and accessible for causal viewers. I like Johnny’s work for a number of reasons: it’s dynamic, it’s beautiful, and I can find time to fit a fifteen-minute online documentary into a busy schedule day. 

 
 

Johnny focusses on microcosms, finding visual examples of global issues. He also relies heavily on animations, and uses them to contextualize the personal stories he shares to broader geopolitical themes. Much of his filmmaking style is run and gun, as he makes a point of being on the ground and sharing the “human stories behind the map.” 

 
 

Johnny’s work–and the docu-splainer methodology in general–is far from perfect. Johnny works at the pace of a journalist rather than a documentarian, meaning he only visits a town or place for a few days. He’s also a white American guy, and although is projects are incredibly thoroughly researched, he will always be limited to an outsider’s perspective. 

In many ways, I think that Johnny represents an emerging breed of documentarians. He notes that he is working to become a “unicorn,” someone who is capable of writing, researching, editing, filming, interviewing. As many news organizations and documentarians shift focus towards online short documentaries, “unicorns” are becoming increasingly valued. This is an aspiration that I share, and in my time at CDS, I have intentionally worked on and developing my skills in as many forms of media and steps of the process as possible.

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3 - A photographer who made me weary of yellow borders

Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl taught me to fall out of love. When I first saw it, I–like millions of others who would see the hauntingly beautiful gaze–was captivated. There is a stunning three dimensionality to the photograph. The Afghan Girl stares not merely through the camera lens, but her glare pierces the viewer.  Her gaze is rare in that it appears so vulnerable, so open, and completely unconstructed. It’s a split second moment of unobstructed connection and humanity.

 
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Portraits originate as relationships–images that are constructed through an exchange between photographer and subject. But as soon as the shutter button is pressed, this relationship is compressed into a commodity. In this case, it was Steve McCurry and National Geographic’s commodity. The resulting photograph was placed on the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic.

It would become an icon, referred to as the Modern Mona Lisa: the most recognizable National Geographic photograph in the magazine’s history. To this day, National Geographic has repeatedly plastered the image on tote bags, and advertisements to sell DVDs and magazine subscriptions. McCurry sold special edition prints of the portrait. A bold face title emblazoned on the matte below the photograph displays a name–but it doesn’t say the Afghan Girl’s name, instead it says Steve McCurry.

 
 

In fact, McCurry didn’t even write down the name of the girl he photographed–that’s why the portrait is known as “the Afghan Girl.” And while some may suggest her anonymity strengthens the photograph because she represents more than her physical being, I would argue that her anonymity suggests a lack of genuine connection between subject and photographer. 

The objectification of the Afghan Girl would continue in 2002 when National Geographic did a special report in which McCurry set out to find the woman. After a search period and confirmation, which included sending her eyes to the FBI for referral, the geographic did find the woman. She did have a name. It was Sharbat Gulu.

Sharbat had never seen her famous photograph, even though it was circulated around the world and became synonymous with the National Geographic brand. She graced the cover of National Geographic yet again. Her reveal was marketed like that of a new car, her burka is pulled over her head as she holds her portrait in her hand. You only had to buy the magazine to see what was inside.

McCurry’s Afghan girl presents itself as a portrait of a young girl in Afghanistan–a look into a distant Afghanistan, where war and poverty had torn through people’s lives. But the story behind the photograph is also a mirror. It’s a reminder of the ways in which seemingly exotic faces and stories can be exploited for personal profit.

I now keep the story of the Afghan girl in mind whenever working on a project–especially when working with foreign communities that I might risk presenting as exotic and distant. There is often a pressure to portray scenes in a way that will maximize instagram likes, or seem deserving of an iconic yellow border. 

My perception of the Sharbat fiasco is a reminder that the documentarian must avoid these temptations and connect meaningfully, genuinely and symmetrically with one’s subject. It prompts me to recall one of my favorite quotes from Australian Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson:

“If you have come here for charity, you are wasting our time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, let us work together.”

- Lilla Watson.

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4 - The cultural icon who I had to google.

When I learned that David Bowie had died, I immediately went to Wikipedia. His name was familiar but I wasn’t quite sure why. His music wasn’t a huge part of my childhood, but upon seeing his picture, I remembered why I knew Bowie. He was actually one of my biggest inspirations but for a rather peculiar reason.

I spent much of high school interviewing Tibetans living in exile about the situation unfolding in their homeland. As I prepared these interviews into a movie, I faced a slight problem. My entire documentary project was all about Tibet and yet I had never been there. I ran out of B-roll forty-five seconds into the trailer.

I jumped at the opportunity to work this into an exhibition rather than a movie. That’s when I heard about this guy named David Bowie. My art teacher mentioned that there was an exhibit called, “David Bowie Is,” and it featured an audio guide with his music that accompanied the exhibition. 

Although I never saw it, the Bowie exhibition opened a door for me. It gave me permission to create an audio guide that was more than a white man talking in a British accent about the birthplace of a painter. I was coming to learn that audio guides could be dynamic–an integral part of the story. They could include the voices of the individuals pictured. They didn’t have to be the side show. Their importance could be elevated to the same level as the photographs and installation art itself, functioning in a manner that was synergistic with installations.

I wanted the viewer to feel that their physical interaction with the material was a part of the story.  My hope was to create an experience for the viewer that was akin to walking inside of a documentary–I called it a walking documentary.

As I created that first exhibition, I learned that I could manipulate the audience’s position through the size of text. Small text and they would come in close. Large text and they would stand back. Too much text and they won’t bother reading anything. 

I used red books – a reference to both Chinese passports and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Books. They included quotes of repression. (A complete virtual tour of the exhibition can be viewed here).

 
 

I used barbed wire and transparent identity cards to reflect the invisible stories of prisoners. 

 
 

I included art books, which told the story of environmental impacts. 

 
 

I ended the exhibit with a “reflection space.” It featured a large paper banner with quotes and headlines from two opposing perspectives on each side. The viewer sat low on the ground, from which the towering banner of headlines seemed insurmountable, blockading them from connecting to the viewer on the other side. They were, however, given one opportunity to connect through a tiny hole in the banner through which eyes could meet.

 
 

The idea was that political and psychological differences are impossible to overcome when you remain entrenched in your own perspective. However, they can be breached through the human connection. Not only would the viewer see the vulnerability of the human connection, but they would feel and experience it. In this way, the structure of the audience’s interaction with the piece contributed to the storyline.

My first exhibition helped me to fall in love with the flexibility and creativity of multimedia work. But I would soon encounter the frustrating difficulties inherent to exhibitry. One big difference: I am upfront about my intention in the work, and my installations are intentional. There is a singular, accessible thesis. Some people disagree with that approach and embrace the mystery of art. I cling to the clarity of story, and use installations as a vehicle for sharing that story.

Another difficulty I have encountered comes from the fact that my work doesn’t fit neatly into a box–it’s not really art because what “should” be the captions is written inside and on the installations. It’s also not just a didactic panel because many of the pieces cannot be so easily replicated. 

I worked with the Illinois Holocaust Museum for nearly an entire year working to remaster this exhibition for their space. The project eventually fell apart, largely because it didn’t fit into the box of “didactic panels.” 

In my second exhibition, I faced this issue from the opposite end. Working to put my climate change work in the Power Plant Gallery was an incredible opportunity and I am very grateful for Caitlyn’s guidance. But again–to no fault of her own–I had to alter my work in order to fit it into an art gallery. My captions, including key quotes of those photographed, couldn’t be mounted at an angle that easily meets the eye and placed directly below each framed photograph. Instead they were mounted flat to the wall, and off to the side. After all, in an art gallery, the image is seen as the art, and the caption, a separate, author-less entity. 

Personally, I don’t care if my work falls into the class of art or didactic panels. But when I present my doc work, I like to present the images and the captions as inseparable, as I view them as mutually supportive and of equal importance. One is not favored over the other. All that really matters is the story!

 
 

So I started this piece with two sentences about Bowie and proceeded to talk about myself for the next twelve paragraphs. Sounds like a horrible first date. In all honesty, I have a multitude of other exhibit inspirers–Ai Wei Wei, JR’s exhibitions, etc. The installation world is a beast of its own. But I think it is an exciting yet challenging space for documentarians. Full of potential yet with more rigid borders and a higher barrier of entry.

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A complete virtual tour of my Tibet exhibition can be viewed here. We See The Change Exhibition description is here.

5 - A sketch artist named brian

Last semester, Kelly Alexander banned me from using two words in my writing: “simple” and “deep.” I love Brian’s work because it is simple yet deep. Brian is best known for his sketches and digital illustrations. Much of his work accompanies online newspaper articles, and he is perhaps best known for illustrating the New York Times’ popular Modern Love column. 

 
 

Brain disarms himself with his childlike drawing style, which allows his graphic message to pack a punch. His images evoke laughter, reflection, nostalgia. I believe that many of the most powerful images in documentary share traits with the works created by Brian: their beauty and depth emerge from simplicity and clarity. 

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6 - A writer whose inclusion in this list will dock my grade by 5%

PLEASE NOTE: I take a good long while to get to the point on this one. I had never written about my eyes before so I played around with it. It’s slow at first but still very related to my doc work!

When you have a lazy eye, there are a couple of side effects that no one thinks they need to tell you about. First, introductions. They will never not be awkward. People will spend the whole time trying to figure out where you’re looking. Second, calling on people. Give up on your teacher dreams, every time you call on someone whose raising their hand and forget to name them, two people start talking. Third, Grayson Allen. When you meet him, he won’t be able to stop staring. He will walk past you while rubber-necking, trying to get a second look and you will have to stop yourself from running up and tripping him.

These side effects can be frustrating, but they are also understandable. We meet and connect with people through their eyes. When your eyes are like mine, you make it harder for others to form this connection. So people start to freak out inside.

Before we proceed, I have two requests. First, please do not feel bad for me. I am a white middle class male in the United States with supportive family and friends. My life is way too good—please save your feel-bads for someone else. 

Secondly, don’t be mad at these people. I have to remind myself of this one. Don’t be mad at these people when they ask you how your eye is doing (I clearly have two and what kind of question is that?). Don’t get mad at them when they ask you to take the glass one out (dearest eight year old boy, please stop reaching, I’m very serious—it’s not glass, and even if it was…what?!). Don’t get mad at job interviewers when they asks which eye they should look at (he’s just trying to make you comfortable). Instead, be understanding. Your having a lazy eye is really hard for them so you have to be their support network. Let them know that they will be okay. We will get through this together. 

What these people don’t know is that individually, my eyes are perfect. In fact, they match my class year: 20/20. What my eyes lack is the ability to collaborate. Honestly, I can’t really blame them—I hate group projects as much as the next eye.

This inability to collaborate has a scientific name: strabismus. It means that I can only see out of one eye at a time, but then they switch back and forth.  The switching happens every couple of seconds. I can control it if I want to, but for the most part it’s involuntary. 

 
 

My parents told me it was a minor super power. One of my eye doctors called me a rapid involuntary eye switcher. It’s a lot like living life with two camera angles, which sounds cool–and it is. If I’m slouching on the couch with my knees up and need to see if I left the tv remote on the coffee table, I don’t even have to move my head, I just switch eyes to see around my legs.

 
 

But this rapid eye switching also comes with its challenges.  For one thing, where’s Waldo just got a whole lot harder. 

But perhaps the biggest problem is this: I don’t like to read. I have never liked to read. It is difficult and straining and gives me a headache. Reading is a constant battle. The words jump around the page and never stop. Even if you hold your finger there.  It’s a distraction. I used to have to put on eye patch on. But that just meant my world would go black every couple of seconds when my eyes switched and then switched back. And at six years old, being a pirate is only cool on Halloween. 

My disdain for everything words is part of the reason that I fell in love with documentaries. Video is visual. I could watch a documentary without having to read anything. When I got to the end of a movie, not only was I emotionally captivated, my eyes weren’t tired and I didn’t have a headache. 

Until recently, I did everything in my power to use as little text as possible in my documentary work. I used audio guides to avoid captions. I condensed and summarized. 

Last semester, things changed. I wish it was that I sunk into Shakespeare or was thrilled by Thoreau. In reality, I read a junky article on the satire site McSweeney’s and couldn’t stop laughing. It’s called, “It’s decorative gourd season, …” there’s another word there at the end but I can’t put it in this essay. The whole piece is an expletive-filled tirade filled with shockingly wonderful imagery. I am yet to see a single person read the 250 word rant (I recommend skipping the third and fourth paragraph where I believe Colin Nissan, goes too far) with a straight face. 

One of the goals of documentary work is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. I think that writing (and its cousin audio) are particularly powerful tools for achieving this end. The piece by Nissan takes an accepted societal norm–decorative gourds during the fall, and makes them strange through a braggadocios voice that produces a series of images never before conjured, which collectively call into question the ridiculousness of decorative gourds. It’s a piece that is only possible within the blank, open, and faceless slate of the written word.

I still believe in the power of multimedia. In some cases, it makes more sense to show something with pictures: the best way to understand land loss in Louisiana is to look at before and after aerial photographs.

But in other cases, writing can be the most effective way to foster understanding.  This is especially true in cases where visuals can create a distraction. If you show an audience a portrait of me, they will immediately look at the lazy eye—many of them won’t be able to see past that for a while. But my lazy doesn’t define my character. In fact, I only notice my lazy eye when I look in the mirror. In cases such as these, words and writings can bridge visual barriers and create understandings between subject and reader through a unique channel: a faceless voice, which somewhere between its anonymity and intimacy–its otherness and its sameness–pricks our humanity.  

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7 - A cinematic filmmaker who will hopefully make up for number 6

Ron Fricke is a world-famous cinematographer whose breathtaking work speaks to the power of visual cinema. My favorite of his films is Baraka, which doesn’t include any audio yet manages to tell the story of the history of humanity through breathtaking visuals. What strikes me about his work is his use of repetition.

He also uses time lapses as a means to create pace and rhythm. Few of Ron’s shots are “real time” many are slowed down or sped up. I felt that Baraka and the earlier iterations are a testament to the visual power of cinema. There are no words. But there is no need. His meaning is clear, enticing, and powerful.

Note: The actual film doesn’t have narration, unfortunately the trailer does.

8 - A long lost friend who found herself

When I was eight years old, I had a neighbor named Maggie. One night, when all of the neighborhood kids were gathered together, one of the parents jokingly said something along the lines of, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome –remember this name –Maggie Rogers.” 

 
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Maggie stood up in front of maybe eight of us–there were kids and parents–and she started singing. She was such a confident singer. I remember almost being taken aback by her voice. It echoed through the trees above us. She was so present, so vulnerable, so comfortable. So much so that I was becoming uncomfortable. I started looking around at how everyone was reacting to her voice. They were completely captivated by her presence.

I think that it’s sometimes overlooked that one of the most important aspects of a documentary film/audio is the music. Music sets tone, it gives emotion, it creates a feeling inside the viewer. It adds an entire dimension to a piece. It’s the documentarians secret way of guiding the viewer: telling them how to feel, how to react, how to take new information and process it on the emotional level. 

Music can be manipulative. But music can also validate, drawing the audience in, further connecting them to a body of work.

When I recorded the voiceover for my first documentary, I was a high-voiced eleven-year-old. I remember being disappointed because of how boring and flat it sounded. I didn’t think I would ever be able to share the work because I didn’t have a deep, rich British accent. Then I added the music below my narration and when I showed it to my mom she cried. 

So it’s true that music manipulates the viewer, but in this case it was in keeping with the spirit of the story. When things are told retrospectively, through the voice of someone recalling something that may have taken place years earlier, the emotion they felt when an event took place is often lost. Music is a way of adding this feeling back into the film or audio piece.

It is the job of the documentarian to be responsible when employing the use of music. Documentarians must remain true to the emotions of the story. It’s with this idea of staying true to one’s roots that I look up to Maggie. 

 
 

A couple weeks before she graduated from college, she shared her work in a masterclass with Pharrell Williams. It made him cry. The video was recorded, posted online, went viral, and she was launched into the global spotlight. Her career has exploded, she has been on Fallon, Colbert, Ellen, was even the musical guest on SNL this past fall. I think that Maggie is a role model for leaning into the pressures of commercialized art gracefully.

She has remained true to the spirit of her story. Even when on the world’s grandest stages, she’s still the same person whose voice echoed in the trees above, as an awkward eight-year-old became uncomfortable with the power of music.

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