Robbing our subjects or helping our audience? Jonah Kessel on voice-overs

Guest post by Jonah Kessel:

LEAVING THE LAND: Urban, But Left Behind from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.
SUBTITLED VERSION: Urban, but Left Behind

“In the end, we didn’t reach an agreement. They got violent and took me away from the villager’s home. They hit me in the head, slapped my face and pushed me down the stairs. Then they forced me into the car and kept hitting me … They Forced me to meet their leader. They took me there and pushed me out their car and I saw the office of their leader. I thought I would be safe, but it wasn’t true. I was pushed into the office and I saw him sitting behind the desk. He was just staring at me. Then the thugs poured hot tea on my face and body. He just started at me in silence.”

Getting quotes like these is very difficult in China, especially when it comes to land rights. It’s even more difficult to get people to say it on camera. If a subject says something like this to me, on camera, they are risking even more problems for themselves. But in the video above, you won’t actually hear the subject say this in Chinese; instead, you’ll hear a voice-over in English.

I often wonder who I am truly making videos for. Am I doing it for the subjects in the videos, to give them a voice? Is it for a cause that needs more awareness? Am I doing it for me?

There is some truth to all of those answers. But the most important part of the equation is actually the audience that views the videos. If they aren’t watching, what’s the point? As news shooters, we dedicate our lives to entertaining, enlightening and hopefully creating greater awareness of the issues which affect our communities across the globe.

However, as video journalism continues to migrate from television to universal availability across all platforms, I often question some habits that we have brought along from our televised forefathers.

One of those habits is the use of voice-overs within international video journalism.

For the most part, all of my work for the New York Times contains voice-overs. And with every video, as the subtitle layer comes off and the voice-overs get overlaid, I sink a little lower in my seat.

VOICE-OVER VERSION: Urban, but Left Behind

To make a decision on whether voice-overs are a good thing or not, its best to first understand why we use them. So what are voice-overs?

They are easily consumable voices overlaid on subjects within a video who speak a different language. Voice-overs are said in the audience’s native language and relieve them from the apparently arduous task of reading subtitles.

My fear of the wide spread use of voice-overs in main stream media is that we are training our audiences to not have to think while simultaneously robbing our subjects of their emotions and identity found within their actual voices. The very people we want to give a voice to are stripped of their ability to give emotion as they share their stories. Instead, an interpretation of that emotion is given by a likely middle-class American or European. Meanwhile, our audiences are not required to interpret the sound of these people’s voices and the meaning of their words, and instead are left to simply trust the voices they hear representing the characters.

I’m currently working on a three-part video series on China’s massive plan to urbanize the country. The government here is rapidly moving over 250 million people from the countryside to cities. While reporting these stories, I’ve come across a diverse range of subjects: former villagers who have lost their way in newly constructed cities, nascent urban citizens who love their new lives in the city and a range of scholars, lawmakers, developers and thugs who make this country go round. These people all have told me stories that help build an understanding of this transformation.

However, in this series, they don’t tell these stories. Voice-over artists do. So what happens when a lawyer who was beaten up for defending a village has his voice taken away? What is gained, what is lost and should we care?

LEAVING THE LAND: China’s Consuming Billion from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.
SUBTITLED VERSION: China’s Consuming Billion

There are two versions of ‘Urban, but Left Behind’ in this post. In the Vimeo version, you can hear the anger and pain in his voice as he recounts a story of being beat up, pushed down a staircase and then had hot tea pored over his face by land developers. Even if you can’t understand his words, the power of his voice is very important. But in the New York Times version, we hear someone else interpreting this anger. I believe this makes the video less powerful.

Furthermore, in trying to remain true to our subjects and audience by showing the most accurate portrayal of society possible, something about this method intrinsically bothers me. If we say the voice over with emotion, we are interjecting our opinion. If we say the voice over in an emotionless state, the voice doesn’t fit the tone of the words.

But from the newspapers standpoint, there is no choice. The fact is, people click away more frequently on videos with subtitles. More importantly, so much of this media is consumed on mobile phones that subtitles can be difficult to read while on a moving subway or bus.

This brings us to a cross roads in digital journalism: if we are making our videos for the audience, we should make it easily consumable on whatever device they are on. However, by doing so, we actually create something that could be defined as less truthful. Something that is steering away from the very ethics that led us to talk to these people in the first place.

VOICE-OVER VERSION: China’s Consuming Billion

As I said in the introduction: the most important character in my videos might actually be the audience. And if they are consuming the media I create on mobile devices I need to cater to that. However, by doing so I am going against what I believe is the right thing to do, journalistically and cinematically speaking.

On a cinematic level, I find voice-overs to be jarring and pace killing. Pacing is one of the most important parts of creating powerful video and by adding in an invisible voice, energy, tempo and pace can be seriously damaged.

Looking forward, I believe new solutions are needed to create a media atmosphere that helps tell stories in the truest possible manner, while at the same time being available to a modern and mobile audience.

One realistic solution that could at least improve the situation could simply be making different versions available. To have mobile devices point audiences at versions that contain voice-overs while web sites point users to subtitled versions.

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, the fact is: the web is not television. We don’t sit at our monitors from the same distance we watch television at and we don’t interpret the information we receive from these devices in the same way. So why should we use the same methods of communication they did?

Instead of blindly following our predecessors’ practices, perhaps we should rethink our methods and help create a smarter audience.

LEAVING THE LAND: Articles in this series look at how China’s government-driven effort to push the population to towns and cities is reshaping a nation that for millenniums has been defined by its rural life.
• PART I: China’s Great Uprooting – Moving 250 Million Into Cities
• PART II: Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City
• Part III: Picking Death Over Eviction

Jonah M. Kessel is a freelance visual journalist and cinematographer covering China for the video desk of the New York Times. In 2012 he was the field video journalist for the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series the iECONOMY. Follow him on Twitter here or visit his web site here.

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