... 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.