Friday, June 12, 2009

NYT Photog Takes Chance With Video

What's remarkable about today's KobreGuide pick is the amount of feedback it has generated, not only for the story it tells, but for how the story is told -- aesthetically and journalistically.

Chang W. Lee (right), an award-winning New York Times senior photojournalist, reluctantly leveraged his talents for his first foray into videojournalism, a six-part series called "Second Chance," about triumphant life transformations.

His initial installment, "The Jazz Singer," showcased today on KobreGuide's New York Times channel, is drawing mostly effusive praise. But the nitpicks and quibbles are notable because they connote an increasingly more discerning audience.

As the Times itself noted on its Lens blog, Lee made the leap from stills to video only because the transition was eased by the much hyped "hybrid" Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a new SLR digital camera that also shoots HD video. His first video effort, signficantly, represents a "second chance" of sorts for Lee himself.

So how did he do?

On the positive side, viewers justifiably complimented Lee for the way his story's theme and subject -- a single mom fulfilling a lifelong artistic dream -- touched their hearts and inspired them. His images were inarguably "masterful" and "evocative." Many appreciated the way his frozen stills would seem to "come to life" and become moving images.

However, many took Lee to task because they felt his initial effort fell short of TV or feature-documentary quality -- and couldn't understand why the short video should have taken four months to research, edit and shoot. They wondered if the story wouldn't have better been served with simply still shots, or perhaps an audio slideshow, mediums that played to his established strengths. What purpose, they asked, did video serve?

Many noticed that the audio quality was uneven, a trait especially distracting in footage of a performing musician. Others thought the story's sequencing and shot progression was amateurish, and that the narrative itself was flat -- we don't see the main character experience inner growth or catharsis.

Some gave Lee low scores on basic journalism principles, feeling that the story lacked essential details (e.g. her musical background; her finances), and that there was an absence of sources and perspectives. For instance, we never hear from the nightclub owner, the singer's fans, her son. And where are the kid's dad and grandparents?

Some appreciated Lee's cleverly edited laundromat sequence; others felt it was extraneous and detracted from the main story.

In sum, the point here is not to pick on a particular photographer, who has spent decades shooting stunning images around the world, but rather to underscore the chasmic leap that even the best still photographers must make to conquer the world of videojournalism. While photographers have some advantages, as one critic aptly noted, a lifetime of experience capturing stills does not prepare you for shooting moving images: "It takes time and practice. It involves changing the way you see, think and work."

The harshest naysayers, accomplished videographers in their own right, compared Lee's video to a student project. While intended as an insult, that may in fact be the highest compliment. After all, the best videojournalists are learning as we're doing. It comes with the territory. Every assignment is another lesson. The mere fact that an established pro like Lee is willing to stir himself from his comfort zone and attempt to master new technologies and techniques -- and that he and the New York Times are bold enough to publicly display his fledgling efforts -- is a feat to be applauded.

We look forward to seeing the next five weekly installments of Chang Lee's "Second Chance" series.

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