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G4C 2009: A Toolbox With A Paintbrush

— By: The Team at Nau

Nau’s Editor note: This is the second post in a series of updates from our 2009 Grant for Change grantees, Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele. The Seattle-based documentary team will be sending us monthly updates from the field, as they work to build eight new stories for their long-term project, Facing Climate Change.

The first multimedia story that Benj and I created for Facing Climate Change was about Sámi reindeer herdsmen in northern Norway. Initially, we intended to tell the story through photography and writing, but once we were with the Sámi, we found ourselves in an audio rich world and started

We didn’t have a plan for how we were going to use that audio until after we got back and started to think about the best way to tell our story. We considered all of the traditional venues for documentary work — fine art galleries, coffee table books, glossy magazines — but the print industry was struggling and reindeer herders don’t regularly flip through coffee table books and go to galleries. How could we share our work with them and our neighbors in Seattle? This is especially important with climate change. How can we engage diverse audiences with a complex, scientific issue?

Benj and I soon started to experiment with character-driven narratives that combine radio-quality audio storytelling with the power of still photography. This form of multimedia opened up a toolbox we now use to build stories across a wide range of platforms including the Web, live presentations, exhibitions and print applications. For example, assets from our recent story about the Sustainable Prisons Project were used on the project’s Web site, presented live in prisons and at a TED Talk, and published in Mother Jones magazine. Another advantage to multimedia is that it gives voice to the people we work with. Hearing a prisoner’s perspective makes for a more personal and engaging story.

But if you’re combining photography and audio, why not just use a video camera and make a movie or something for TV? Here’s a conversation, or a “smackdown,” between Ira Glass from This American Life and Robert Krulwich from Radio Lab. Robert talks about why listening to radio is a more active experience, like painting. We think this applies to multimedia too. (The “painting” excerpt I refer to begins at 9:30.)


Words by Alex Hamlin.

— Sara Joy Steele