Tsunami Aftermath video – my response to the debate

Comment by Dan Chung

I did not expect or intend this particular video to trigger the debate that followed on Vimeo and elsewhere in the blogosphere. It feels strangely beside the point to be continuing it when what matters is that 10,000 people have died and many more are missing due to the earthquake and tsunami. But, given the reaction, I feel I should explain why I made it.

The whole piece is honestly the closest I could bring you to what it felt like standing in that place. It’s one thing I’ve found hardest to do in video and to judge from some of the comments, perhaps I have not succeeded. I am not seeking to manipulate the viewer or to tell them how to feel – I am trying to convey how it feels to be there. Yes, it is uncomfortable looking at the ruins of people’s lives. If a disaster doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable then you are not human.

It was not frantic – it had a strange sense of calm. When faced with a scene of devastation like this, as I have been many times, you feel dazed, like you are not really there. It feels like it’s all a bad dream. Watching the survivors I think a lot of them feel the same – it’s shock. I felt the use of camera movement with a slider conveyed this sense of displacement.

Some of the commenters seem to think I am using news as an opportunity to make art. It is the opposite. I have been covering news for a long time and it frustrates me that people do not respond to it. I am trying to use cinematic techniques to make people connect to and care about news, not using news as an opportunity to make cinematic pieces.

One of my still images from Shintona - not as 'real' for me as the video I shot

There is nothing about a standard news package that is “real” or “authentic” or “unstylised”. It has its own conventions. What worries me is that I think there is often a disconnect from what is ‘on the news’ because it is presented in a pre-packaged way. People are used to it and know what to expect. They stop responding. Just because something IS real, doesn’t mean it ‘feels’ real to the viewer.

TV news rarely gives you a real sense of being in a place as cinema can. Because cinema has a language easily understood by audiences, they do not have to learn a new or alien visual language as they do with other multimedia. The difference is that while cinema uses these techniques to make you suspend disbelief and take you to another world – I am trying to take you to a place in the real world.

There is still plenty of room for ‘straight’ TV style news reports, but there is also room for something else. In text journalism you have stories full of facts and analysis, but you also have colour pieces. There are some excellent pieces of ‘traditional’ multimedia from photojournalists like myself – combining stills, audio and often music – but all the evidence I have seen suggests they do not reach a mass audience.

People have asked why we didn’t speak to locals. We did: it was in the news piece. This is a different piece. My colleague Jon had the option to narrate. We both thought it was better with the music.

(The Guardian decided to re-edit my video into the piece below – adding the voices of some of the survivors. Some commenters preferred it to my original. For me the piece didn’t work at all, mainly because it failed to convey what it felt like to be there.)

Photojournalism tells a story without words; who ordained that news video has to follow a prescribed format? ‘Straight’ TV news is not even a format that has always been around – back in the days of Pathe and Movietone newsreels people would watch a sequence of images with music without objection. That changed in large part because the technology changed. As the technology changes again, news should and will evolve too.

Some have suggested it was inappropriate to set up a small slider and a DSLR in the middle of a disaster zone, but it is surely no more disrespectful or intrusive than the large Japanese news crews and four-person BBC teams present. Nor is it more artificial than a photojournalist shooting stills in black and white, when the world is in colour – something few people question.

A Japanese TV crew reporting from the Tsunami zone - A satellite truck is behind out of shot

As for the music – again, it’s an attempt to convey what it feels like in those places. I guess it is partly a matter of taste but I strongly feel it was the right choice. I’d also add that it’s much more common to use music in Asia, where I live, and perhaps it seems more natural to me than others elsewhere. I often use all natural sound or dialogue when I think it works better. Take a look at my recent Arizona shootings video below.

Below is one of my earlier attempts to convey the feel of a place using cinematic journalism. This was the day the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium was unveiled to the press. (Back in 2008, shot on a regular camcorder)

People will not like everything I do – some people may not like anything I do – and considered criticism has helped me improve my work. I am grateful to those who have spoken up for me, some of whom did not like this piece but respected my intentions. I feel there has been a valuable discussion around this video and despite some of the negative responses to it I still believe cinematic journalism is a way to involve audiences in world affairs more.

About Dan Chung:
Dan is a Guardian photographer and videographer. He also runs


Posted on March 27th, 2011 by admin | Category: Journalism |

12 responses to "Tsunami Aftermath video – my response to the debate"

  1. photosbyth Says:
    March 27th, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Dan…stunning work. For me you succeeded in bringing the message halfway around the world. Great photography, videography is art. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t move the soul.

  2. islandmedia Says:
    March 27th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    When one is on the cutting edge of anything, one must EXPECT strong Criticism.
    “Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds”—Albert Einstein.

    Personally, I would have used the slider shots more sparingly.

    Nice work.

  3. Rabonour Says:
    March 27th, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Oh boy. It’s the Haiti video all over again.

    I think you arguably used the slider too much, and two minutes with no dialogue isn’t my style. However, these are aesthetic complaints, not ethical ones. I don’t think you did anything wrong. You conveyed the scene as best you could with the tools at your disposal.
    As you say, this is no more or less “real” than a traditional broadcast package. It’s just different. In my mind it’s better, but that’s besides the point.

    Change threatens people. Old-school broadcast videographers are terrified that people like you are moving in and making great work with a small footprint. They’ll get over it or fade away, though. Keep doing what you’re doing; it’s fantastic work.

  4. markgardner Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 4:40 am

    Having now visited the tsunami zone twice the problem with everything I’ve seen covering it is that none can really show the scale of the devastation.

    The problem I feel with the music backed version without narration is, do people watch it close enough to take in what they are seeing?

    The addition of just a few words can add additional power to the images which the music cannot and doesn’t.


  5. Andyg Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 5:18 am

    I work in a similar way to you Dan and know how hard it is especially in conditions like the ones you came across in Japan. For what its worth I liked what you did….I’ve done similar pieces and had a very favourable reaction (people liked that it was different) and words are sometimes superfluous. By the way I haven’t been part of a 4 person BBC team in bloody years!!! Love the website keep up the good work.

  6. Mark Dobson Says:
    March 29th, 2011 at 12:20 am


    thank’s for your comprehensive and thoughtful response to the debate about your Tsunami Aftermath Video.

    I don’t think anyone doubted your intention to provide an accurate account of the scene in front of your eyes. That’s what being a professional photojournalist is surely all about.

    Where the division of opinion occurs is where you try and convey how it made you feel.

    You compare your film to a journalistic ‘colour piece’ and that for me is where we enter murky waters because you are adding a style, a feel, a treatment to construct your edit. You are making subjective choices about the tone of the piece, you are choosing the music you feel is appropriate, you are creating a mood.

    For me successful journalism is where the journalist removes him/her self from the picture and simply describes what has happened without imposing their feelings on the piece.

    So maybe I’m just not a fan of ‘cinematic jounalism’ in the context of disaster and war zones.

  7. nfunk59 Says:
    March 29th, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    As the individual who may have started this debate off with my comments here I find myself agreeing with a lot of what I read above (mainly from Mark Dobson). I’m aggrieved though that comments from those who have taken this as overt “criticism” (which Rabanour seems to imply – a little too defensively I think) It’s not about old school or new school, Its about journalistic integrity and objectivity.

    I think that overuse of the slider and the addition ‘mood’ music pushes these piece into subjective territory – it imposes a particular mood upon the viewer. This is where it becomes cinema not journalism. It was the fact that Dan’s Japan piece was tagged ‘journalism’ that made me uncomfortable as surely the journalist needs to remain objective.

    As I’ve previousy suggested – could this be a case of ‘we have the tools we’re gonna play with them..?’


  8. Bill Pryor Says:
    March 29th, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    I got into film and video production by way of a newspaper background. There were hard news stories and there were feature stories. I see nothing wrong with a feature story for broadcast. As far as objectivity goes, the only thing different about these images and standard TV news is that these are better. So he used music and no narration. That conveys a feeling about the disaster and I for one greatly appreciate it.

    My only criticism is the over use of the slider. I like some of the moves that go from something in the foreground to reveal the background, or moves that lead the eye into something different But like any effect, when used too much its effectiveness is diminished. Other than that I have absolutely zero criticism of the piece. as noted, there was a hard news story done as well. This is no different from newspapers doing the hard news and a sidebar feature. It is legitimate journalism and has been done for many years both in print and broadcast, and now the web.

  9. fugenie Says:
    March 31st, 2011 at 4:26 am

    I’d like to echo a lot of what’s been said here. I don’t think there’s any question about your intentions or integrity. However, my personal feeling is that the piece wasn’t successful…

    I originally worked as an editor in news, and began to incorporate DSLRs into my worklfow about a year ago. I love the “cinematic” feel of these cameras, but it’s precisely that look that I feel detracts from the sense of reality. A lot of the complaints of DV and other interlaced SD formats of the past was that it looked too “real” and didn’t feel like tv/film. But it was precisely that that made it an interesting tool for news and documentary. That’s not to say progressive, film-like footage doesn’t have a place in news (Ironically, people have been using film for foreign correspondence footage way before they managed to make video cameras practical enough for the job), but some of the techniques (especially the dreaded slider!) detract from the sense of immediacy, and hence I feel the gravity, of the situation. The cinematic techniques that are associated with DSLRs aren’t new, they’re part of the language of film making. But in the same way, Hollywood uses faux verite styles to increase the sense of realism (like for example shaky handheld shooting) rather than using dolly (or slider) shots.

    I’d like to make it clear that I’m a supporter of this website and a strong admirer of the work you produce in general, but I’ve always questioned your tag line “Making the real world look as good as cinema” -if you substitute the “real world” in the title with the name of any major news event, you begin to wonder, is that really the goal?

  10. nfunk59 Says:
    April 1st, 2011 at 1:39 am

    Fugenie’s sign off brings me back to the point I made in the first comment to the original video posting. I commented there that I was unhappy with Dan’s tagline “Making the real world look as good as cinema”. I think there’s the real world and cinema. They’re not the same thing and my feeling is that it’s not the journalist’s job to make them look that way.

    My discomfort is in calling a thing journalism when it’s cinema.

    I’d also like to echo fugenies point re Dan’s integrity – I’m not questioning that…


    • Dan Chung Says:
      April 2nd, 2011 at 11:26 pm

      I just wanted to make clear that when I refer to cinema in the tagline it is a reference to all cinema and not just Hollywood blockbusters movies. It is also everything from silent newsreels from the 1890′s to art house cinema, both factual movies and fictional ones.

      Wikipedia defines a film simply as this:
      A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a story conveyed with moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects. The process of filmmaking has developed into an art form and industry.
      Films are cultural artifacts created by specific cultures, which reflect those cultures, and, in turn, affect them. Film is considered to be an important art form, a source of popular entertainment and a powerful method for educating — or indoctrinating — citizens. The visual elements of cinema give motion pictures a universal power of communication.

      For me the 35mm frame has always been a more ‘real’ version of the world than small sensor video cameras – we readily accept 35mm in stills in journalism, why would this be any different with moving images? Camera movement, depth of field and other cinematic techniques are often used to make a fictional film appear more real to the viewer, not less. I personally have no problem using these techniques appropriately given that I see my role as a visual journalist primarily being to try and give the viewer the best representation of what it is like to actually witness something themselves.

      To second Bill’s point there has always been hard news and feature reporting – both have always been considered journalism. Colour writing has always been a part of journalism – it attempts to bring you closer to a subject through vivid description, I do not see why people feel it is inappropriate to do this with the moving image.

      I do find the objections to cinematic journalism as a form even stranger given that moving image news started as a purely cinematic form with the newsreel. Formats constantly evolve and are not set in stone – in my opinion I should try to use the best method of reporting any given story.


  11. dash2k8 Says:
    April 4th, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    At the risk of sounding like a sycophant, I must agree with Dan. As visual communicators, we’re always trying to present the best image we can to convey a story. That means we adjust the lighting, the white balance, the audio levels to provide good picture and sound so that the audience can see what’s going on.

    Anyone who preaches “hard” journalism is close to being a hypocrite. Does that person use auto-audio gain? Does he use auto lighting exposure? Does he not use an artificial light on a reporter who is covering indoor news? Of course not. If we did that, we’d be no better than the average tourist and their palm camcorders. So why are these professional techniques acceptable but Dan’s techniques are taboo? To achieve “real” journalism, should we all buy $500 camcorders with absolutely no manual controls?

    I have the utmost respect for all who commented here, it’s just that I respectfully disagree with some of the sentiments. After all, this is an art. Journalism cannot possibly be reported from a detached angle. One cannot report about a disaster with an indifferent attitude. That’s why the headlines are so sensational. Nobody would watch a piece with a dull line, right? All media outlets are guilty of this, so of course one’d expect for the visuals themselves to follow form.

    Browse through the major news sites and all their photos are very dramatic. Nobody complains about those being “unreal.” Perhaps video should be treated with the same standard? Just my $0.02.

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