What's in a name – do I call myself a photojournalist, videographer or documentary film maker?

By Jonah Kessel

Jonah M. Kessel Showreel 2011: China, Tibet, Nepal, India, The Philippines from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Like so many DSLR shooters around the world, I’m a convert.

I come from a still photography background but as my career and technology have advanced I’ve been transported (gladly) into the video journalism world. While initially this was creating two minute feature videos all shot on a stationary tripod that accompanied a print story and photo, today my technological and journalistic world have been spun right-side-up and I’m making independent short films where I feel like I’ve reached a gray area of video journalism that merges into documentary film.

You might ask yourself: What’s the difference between video journalism and documentary film making? A couple years ago you might have talked about production value and venue of dissemination. However today, given the production value you can bring to news video along with the fact that your target audience might likely be web based, the two forms of visual communication have certainly crossed paths.

In the past I always identified myself as a journalist, photojournalist or visual journalist. Recently, I finished a project with journalist Kit Gillet that received some media attention. In newspapers and press releases I was reading things like “… documentary makers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet found …” I was like “Wow, now I’m a documentary maker. That’s a bit different.”

We made an interactive package for the Asia Society that included a three-part video series, two still slideshows and a digital tour of our subject. Given that you watch the three films sequentially it does follow more of what we might recognize as documentary film style. While I won’t decide if its a documentary, news clip or something completely different, this gray area is certainly a sign of converging media and the converged journalist. So — now the question is: Why does all this matter? Who cares if you are a documentary film maker, video journalist or a photographer?

In my mind, the answer has three parts.

  1. AUDIENCE PERCEPTION OF MEDIA: I think people will perceive things differently if they hit play thinking they are watching a short documentary film vs. a news clip. Perhaps people watch news clip thinking the content is unbiased, or perhaps they watch a documentary knowing that the film makers invested so much time on the subject, they have gained intricate knowledge that a typical journalist on a deadline probably couldn’t get. Regardless of how they receive the information, there is a culture shift in perception, be it a subconscious one.
  2. PHOTOGRAPHER’S IDENTITY: This culture shift also effects how we shoot. Does how you identify yourself impact your photography? I believe if you set into a project as a documentarian you might get a different result than if you were a journalist. In the documentary world, its total fine to take an angle (ala Michael Moore) and go with it. You might have a point and then go and (attempt to) prove it where a journalist would go and record what has happened and then let the audience decide what to take away from it. By calling yourself a documentary maker are you taking more control of the audience?
  3. SUBJECT, PHOTOGRAPHER COMMUNICATION: You will get different types of interviews and quotes if you approach your subject and tell them you are a journalist rather than a documentary maker. During this project, almost all of our sources were found by walking around talking to strangers over and over. Since we were making the films for the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization — we always made it clear we were working for an educational institute and not a newspaper. However, sometimes we introduced ourselves as journalists (mostly out of habit) and subjects would almost always become more shut off and more apprehensive about their words or talking to us at all. When we introduced ourselves as film makers, they were much more open to talking to us candidly.

If our work ends up in this gray area it also transplants us as photographers into a gray area with clear costs and benefits. As DSLR shooters we can end up here pretty easily and a lot of it has to do with the technology we use. These films were shot with (what I would call) a very, very basic kit:

With this small kit and a laptop you can produce a feature film or a 2-minute news clip using the same technology. And in this case our product was a (combined) 18-minute feature, or 3-part Web video series. This project started ages ago, with a single photograph I took of a friend’s former neighborhood after it had been half-demolished. From a photograph, to a photo series, to some video clips, to a video, to a video series, to an interactive package — the content developed over the course of a year. It was just a project in my back pocket for a long time. When the Asia Society jumped on board I grabbed friend and journalist Kit Gillet and we began forming content into what you are seeing here.

It’s obviously ok to be both a journalist and a documentary film maker. Or for that matter a photographer, videographer and a sword-swallowing-carnie: but given technologie’s impact on what we do, I think it’s worth a thought early in the process — it might change what you create.

Jonah M. Kessel is a Beijing-based freelance visual journalist and interactive art director specializing in photography, video, news and Web design.

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