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Gathering Audio

Part 1: Introduction by Brian Storm

March 1, 2005 -- Like most professions, photojournalism has undergone a sea change as a result of the digital revolution. Storytelling opportunities continue to evolve via constant technological innovations and an ever-expanding media universe.

Given the current landscape, it's clear to me that the next-generation photojournalist will add some new capabilities to their toolset. One of the most important is the process of gathering audio and combining sound with their still images to create a cinematic package.

Adding audio to the reporting process isn't always possible and it's not something that every photojournalist can or should do, but for those who choose to add this skill they will gain both journalistic and financial benefits.

The most passionate and creative visual journalists I know aspire to create in-depth, meaningful work that will help educate people, and hopefully affect change in the world. The biggest hurdle in this process is almost always securing the financial support necessary to complete these types of projects. Adding audio to the reporting process is one way to overcome that obstacle. My basic premise runs like this:

  • In-depth journalism is critical to an informed society
  • The best photojournalists invest energy in long-form, personal projects
  • Personal projects require significant time and financial investment
  • Gathering for multiple distribution outlets diversifies and expands audience reach
  • Licensing to multiple outlets improves the economic opportunities of long-form coverage

The Benefits of Gathering Audio

Gathering ambient sound and interviewing the subject of a story are the perfect complements to a documentary photograph or essay. Consider how a well-produced National Public Radio report paints a vivid picture of characters and their surroundings, transporting the listener into the scene and providing an evocative visual context in a style complementary to slice-of-life photojournalism.

How many times has a subject shared a story or provided a detail about his or her life while you were photographing that you remembered during the picture editing process? Wouldn't it be powerful if you could share that experience with your readers as well?

Gathering audio has several benefits:

  • Audio interviews give the subject a voice, which complements the photojournalist's taking of a photograph.
  • The act of interviewing can lead a photojournalist to important picture opportunities as they learn more about the subject.
  • Regardless of whether the audio is published, the interview process will add extensive detail to captions or even lead to a full text story, which increases the chance of getting published.
  • Detailed captions are the key to syndication in what is now an all-digital, metadata-driven search universe. Clients aren't searching on pixels they are searching on the text associated with a media asset.
  • Audio can help communicate information that may not be communicated as well via images or text. For example, emotion or humor that is heard in a person's voice through word choice, pauses or breaks in their voice, or music to create a mood, or ambient sound that transports you to a location.
  • Audio provides the all-important narrative spine necessary for linear media productions in broadcast and on the Web.

The Fourth Effect of Multimedia

The still image elicits a visceral response oblivious to language barriers but influenced by personal interpretation based on the viewer's cultural background. Text captions are great for the basic who, what, and where of an image. A well-written text caption should teach the reader something new about the picture and make them want to look again at the image with a new understanding of the context. The image and caption should work together to create a third effect where one plus one equals three.

The addition of audio should then take the picture and the text caption to yet another level, the fourth effect of multimedia, where the image, text and audio work together to create an experience that none could produce on their own.

Tapping Multiple Markets

The tools for combining audio narratives with photography exist, but what's the financial model? What are the outlets for this type of work?

The key is to not abandon traditional outlets like the lucrative licensing opportunities in the print world, but rather gather for the most demanding of presentations, which in my mind is on the Web.

In postproduction you can then deconstruct a new media package (which requires sophisticated text, audio, video and stills) to create the most usable product possible for each of the traditional media. Print is still the most important paying outlet with magazines, newspapers and books consuming still images at a voracious pace.

In addition to the primary outlets for photojournalism, the gathering of audio adds a narrative spine to a still photography project and creates an arc of distribution opportunities including:

  • Web: Related audio clips and narrative sequences.
  • Broadcast: Ken Burns style cinematic movies.
  • Radio: Audio reports with first-hand accounts.

There are emerging opportunities for still image and audio packages, which include:

  • Blogs: Independent sites are blossoming and new advertising models are evolving to support them.
  • DVD: Educational materials or self-published releases. Netflix is extending the niche DVD opportunity at a rapid pace.
  • Exhibits: Interactive picture and audio galleries.
  • Podcasting: Legalized pirate radio will do for audio (and soon video) what blogs have done for writing.
  • Wireless: Cell phones are an important new platform as a result of an emerging 3G network, allowing both picture and sound capability.
  • Portable Media Players: With the success of the Photo iPod and Sony's PSP it won't be long before independent storytellers tap these new outlets.
  • Film: Independent films are coming on strong in the marketplace. Imagine what will happen when the iTunes for film hits the mainstream. Just as small, non-record label bands have a place in the global marketplace, so too will independent filmmakers.

Existing Examples

Some of the top photojournalists working today have expanded their storytelling capabilities to include audio reporting and an eye towards publication in multiple media. Their work is capturing acclaim around the world in a time when attention spans are running short.

These are photojournalists who are focused on leveraging the various outlets available today from the very start of the storytelling process. They use state-of-the-art tools and innovative reporting techniques, they invest the time to go in-depth and they become authoritative voices on the stories they are covering. Quality is their focus as they aspire to create projects that will stand the test of time and will have long-term syndication value.

Look for and click the "Play" button to see what I call a "sequence" in Kari Rene Hall's Hope at Heartbreak Motel project at: http://msnbc.com/modules/ps/henry/splash.asp.

A great example of a cinematic narrative can be found in Aging in America by Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur at http://aging.msnbc.com.

Why Not Just Shoot Video?

First, it's important to play to your strengths. The assumption here is that you are a still photographer interested in adding to your skill set and broadening your distribution opportunities.

I do believe in the linear power of video storytelling, but I also believe in the power of the still image. Combining audio with stills to make video can bring the best of both worlds together.

As a still photographer you already have strong visuals, you just don't have the narrative spine (the audio) which will allow you to make a video package. And, you are more than likely already shooting sequences in which the action moves through a composition.

It's important to note that thing that makes great video is really strong audio. If you learn the basics of linear storytelling by recording audio only first you can make a more seamless transition to video later.

From a financial perspective, if you shoot video instead of stills, you negate the entire print market in your distribution because the quality of a video grab simply isn't high enough resolution for print. Most still photojournalists can't make that financial leap.

I also believe that process of interviewing a subject with a microphone and looking them squarely in the eye will lead to more intimate responses. Pointing a video camera at them and asking questions from behind that camera isn't quite as intimate.

With that said, if you can shoot a headshot interview with a video camera on a tripod and then shoot all your daily life images as stills you can have the best of both worlds.

I do see a future where there will be one camera with enough resolution for still grabs to be published in print, but that camera is not here yet. Building on the skills you already have as a sophisticated still image maker who also masters the concepts of great radio pieces will set you up to become a great video storyteller when and if that migration makes sense for you.

Conclusion

I envision a day when a photojournalist spends much more time on far fewer stories, either working alone or with a team, focused on gathering materials for a story that will be published across the spectrum of available media outlets.

The "premiere" of a story will remain critical, and in the best case scenario will launch simultaneously in print, broadcast and new media. This type of media blitz will journalistically affect the largest possible audience and the multiple licensing opportunities will make the economics of long-form coverage work.

Investing in an audio recorder and a microphone is probably the most important thing a photojournalist can do to get into the new media game. Learning new skills is critical to keeping pace with the evolution of storytelling. These new skills will take time to master, but the upside in terms of improving the quality of your journalism and expanding your distribution outlets can be both journalistically and financially rewarding.

It's a revolutionary time to be practicing the craft of journalism. On the one hand we see major media conglomerates seemingly focused purely on profit, downsizing every possible ounce and in the process homogenizing storytelling to the lowest Common denominator. On the other hand there's an explosion of self-publishing on the Web with niche viewpoints empowered to share their perspective with easier to use tools and, without question, the ultimate global distribution outlet at their disposal.

Given the business-focused journalism at mainstream media and the wild frontier of independent voices in new media, gathering sound and taking control of your story can unlock a world of new possibilities for the next-generation visual storyteller.



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