By Stephen Alvarez
‘Nashville: Up From Prostitution’ came about because I was looking for a story to tell that would be very different from the photo essays I normally shoot for National Geographic. I wanted a human-based, in-depth story; something that I couldn’t tell through photographs alone.
I’d learned about the Magdalene Program for prostitutes in Nashville last year – it has a phenomenal success rate and is becoming a template for other programs. So I asked NPR’s Jacki Lyden if she wanted to cover the story with me for the network. We had worked together on an NPR/NGM coproduction so knew each other well. She said yes immediately and NPR got behind the idea of the film. The network’s belief in long form journalism is wonderful.
In all, I shot for about 14 days on this story, in four trips. Most of the reporting was done on two long trips with Jacki. We worked very closely together, splitting producing and reporting responsibilities. By the end of the assignment we were finishing each other’s sentences.
As in all film work the really hard part fell at the end, in editing. I flew to DC and met with my editor Claire O’Neil and we roughed out an edit. Claire was nearly done with the edit when one of the principal characters in our film returned to the streets and was involved in murdering someone. I took a final trip to Nashville for some follow-up interviews and we reworked the film.
I’ve chosen to work in film with DSLRs for the simple reason that I came to this type of reporting as a still photographer. Moving from stills to video is complicated enough so I didn’t want to learn to see again with a new piece of equipment. I’ve spent nearly 20 years learning what my 24mm f 1.4 and 50mm f 1.2 look like. The DSLRs keep that acquired knowledge relevant. There is something reassuring about having a familiar visual tool when you are stepping off into a new medium.
Another bonus is that the 5D MK II gives me excellent low light capability in a tiny form factor. I really appreciate the flexibility to have one visual machine that I can use on a tripod for interviews, on a shoulder support in the field or just held in hand when space is tight, like in the back of an undercover police car.
The camera’s shortcomings are well known. I record sound from a shotgun mike and a lavaliere onto a Tascam DR-100 then send the sound back into the camera with a downpad cord. Of course I am also working with a radio reporter so she records her own sound and we synch everything up in post. The biggest issue for me is the 12 minute clip length. We recorded hours of interviews and 12 minutes in an interview flies past, particularly when I’m paying attention to what the subject is saying and what the next question should be.
Is the DSLR the right tool? Well, TODAY yes. True, there is a whole new generation of large sensor video cameras that have a similar look and fix the major DSLR issues (sound, form factor and clip length). However, they don’t shoot still photos. My 5D mk II, besides recording beautiful video, is also the best still camera on the market.