Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cinematic Videojournalism?

Have you been following the fuss over "cinematic journalism"? It started when Khalid Mohtaseb went to Haiti and produced a video montage of the earthquake's aftermath. As you can see, it's visually stunning...

... and therein lies the controversy. Although it's not clear what exactly the dispute is.

First, some objected to the idea of shooting pretty pictures of people in misery, claiming irresponsible ethical breaches. Then, when Mohtaseb shared his aesthetic secrets on a popular DSLR blog (color-grading with Apple Color and Magic Bullet), others objected to "glamorizing" reality in the name of journalism. Others found it vile that he used a Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly to create motion in otherwise stagnant shots, arguing that the technique belonged in fictional Hollywood films, not in real-life disaster zones.

Mohtaseb and his defenders counterclaimed that visual journalism need not consist solely of gritty images, and that shooters should take advantage of the ubiquity of high-definition technology to produce something that will grab attention by deliberately looking different from the typical TV news footage we're all too accustomed to seeing. Many applauded the simple fact that it looked new and fresh and stylish.

Others objected to the fact that, without interviews or narration, the images alone presented no context or understanding of the situation. We get to know the subjects only by their faces, not their hearts, minds or souls.

You can follow the debate here and here and here.

Vincent Laforet, an award-winning former New York Times photojournalist, chimes in, adding perspective about using DSLR for news and documentary video:

Here's Mohtaseb himself hashing it out with veteran TV news cameraman Philip Bloom:

From our perspective, the wrong questions are being asked. The controversy shouldn't be over whether videojournalism can consist of gorgeous images -- visual journalists of every generation have always taken advantage of the latest optical advances. Isn't that the point of owning a HD-DSLR? Color correction and enhancement has been with us a long time, and is fair game -- provided, of course, it doesn't alter reality.

As for employing cinematic style, we're not sure why there should be a problem with enriching one's visual vocabulary by looking towards Hollywood for inspiration. While we draw the line at "special effects" that distort what the naked eye would see at that same location, it's always been the job of the visual journalist to employ an arsenal of legitimate techniques to draw our eye to the subject, and see it in a novel and unexpected way.

Ultimately, what was Mohtaseb trying to achieve? In a Huffington Post interview, he said:
My intent when creating this piece was to cover the disaster in a non-traditional manner as well as create a piece that can be viewed as a series of moving photographs... I wanted the visuals to do the talking rather than have sound bites or interviews. Most of the footage coming out at the time was of the devastation and destruction. I wanted to show that life continued despite incomprehensible odds.
The visuals are admirable, and unquestionably light years beyond the oft-numbing pedestrian B-roll we've grown accustomed to seeing on TV newscasts. But we would argue that the piece falls short of telling its intended story, and not necessarily just because it substitutes a maudlin strings soundtrack for human voices.

Ironically, what's called for is more Hollywood influence, not less. Like an array of beautiful words in search of sentences and paragraphs, Mohtaseb's beautiful footage needs to be arranged into scenes and sequences to tell a compelling story. We need to get to know the characters, up close and personal, to empathize with their plight.

The video might serve a useful purpose as a companion to a fleshed-out text article, but to qualify as journalism on its own merits, it needs to show us more than well-lit, well-composed colorful images. It also needs to enhance our comprehension of the situation and inform us of the basic W's: who, what, when, where, and most of all, why.

Not all shooters can be great interviewers, and vice versa. Very few have all the requisite skills to find, plan and execute a multi-dimensional story that engages, entertains and enlightens.

While solo artists gravitate toward videojournalism -- or are pushed in that direction by budgetary considerations -- they also need to candidly assess their strengths and weaknesses, and compensate accordingly by recruiting collaborators to assist in areas where they are deficient.

So can "cinema" and "videojournalism" coexist? Of course! However, what we are seeing in this Haiti montage may be great cinema, but it's not quite journalism.


Glen Canning said...

Substituting the strings for human voices is a good point. Mohtaseb makes a mistake when he says he wanted the visuals to do that talking. That long drawn out cello talks as much as a human voice ever could. What does it say about this story – “Look at these poor pathetic people and what they have to deal with following this horrific event.”

It’s not happy or cheerful music, it’s a sad lonely cello that puts this story in context from the second it starts.

Turn the sound off and watch it again. Does it lose much of it's original punch? At 1:19 imagine you could hear that little boy to the left laughing instead of the wallowing cello. Are we getting the truth of that moment or are we being forced through the music to think it's sad no matter what we see?

It's beautiful as cinema. As journalism it's deceiving.

Walter Wick said...

I appreciate your insight on this story. It saved me from chasing down all the links you provided!

With the camera getting top billing on the title slide ("Shot entirely with the Canon 5D Mark 2"), the video has feel of a vanity piece for Canon. If this were all the journalism we were getting from trouble spots like Haiti, we'd be in big trouble. But as something ancillary to the larger story, the approach has it uses. The piece was sensitively shot, and without a voiceover guiding my thoughts or directing my vision, my eyes tended to roam all over the frame, as one would look at still images in a gallery. And in my own quiet way, I found myself contemplating heartbreak and hope as the vivid, memorable imagery rolled along.

I don't mind the dolly shots, but it does seem slick B roll. In the field, it must be cumbersome to plan and set up and therefore one more impediment toward getting the story.

Cliff said...

This issue has become quite heated, and I myself got involved in the initial postings on Dan Chung's website.

You stated it well Ken:

" qualify as journalism on its own merits, it needs to show us more than well-lit, well-composed colorful images. It also needs to enhance our comprehension of the situation and inform us of the basic W's: who, what, when, where, and most of all, why."

That was my beef with the montage. None of these foundational elements was brought to light and as such it was vague. It was a disjointed collection of perfectly setup clips set to music with no context to show whether this was a fictional or factual montage. To have called it journalism was a slap in the face of the profession - and too many nowadays are willing to discard the very foundations of journalism for the sake of creative license.

A dangerous line to walk - and cross over in my opinion.

Cliff Etzel
Solo Video Journalist Blog

Hasib said...

I don’t mind Mr Mohtasebs use of color correction or pocket dolly. We must adopt the technology. But the end result is not about image enhancement, it’s a story about the aftermath of a disaster. I think this is where he failed.

I have seen many photographers using modern technology to express their point of view. Don’t we still accept a black and white photo story? So using technology perfectly acceptable as long as it serves the purpose.

Personally I think " in this era of ‘infotainment’ a good photo story is factual and fictional at the same time. "Cinematic” like many other styles is only a means to convey the message.

Do we really believe in the photograph's ability to tell the truth or do we rely on the video journalist’s commitment and consistency?