Monday, December 29, 2008

Content, style and meshing it up

When talking about visual journalism, one issue continues to pop up. Are we stylizing more than we should and is the content overpowered by the style?

Especially in an age where technology is even more readily available to kids, who dabble around on the keyboard with their nutella-smeared sausage fingers, it's easy to fall into a trance-like state while fiddling with software and become obsessed with making something look aesthetically pleasing. 

But aestheticism is an essential part of documentary journalism... at least a big one. An awfully shot video, home video style with shaky hands and uncontrolled zooming, puts people off and in worst cases, deters from the content. And even aesthetics cannot rescue an image from an audience being unfazed with it because they have been over-saturated with images like that (to name a crude example, a starving child in Africa). 

Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas more or less brings this up in an interview. 

There is an ongoing challenge for us, as documentarians, to be committed and engaged, while at the same time innovative. I fear we have deadened out. [...]
Why aren't people interested in what we documentarians are passionate about? Why are we such a small ghetto?
Doing documentary work is not just building the relationship and shooting. It's also finding the spaces, be they magazine pages, books, or exhibitions spaces, to transform and present the world we see differently. [...]
The interesting question is, will there be a further extension of the vocabulary and the language of documentary? Can we go further than we've gone?
Susan Meiselas in an interview with Ken Light [Traub, Heller and Bell, The Education of a Photographer (New York: Allworth Press, 2006), 42-47]. 

The need to aestheticize your work in innovative ways is challenging and necessary for the sheer financial survival of a visual storyteller as she says. And to extend her theory, the internet forces photographers/videographers not only to be innovative in style, they also need to figure out a way of being innovative within the framing/meshing of a story. Or it seems like their editors need to. 

Meshing it up

One way I have seen some web outlets try their luck in being innovative is in the integration of the image with an interactive graphic, giving the easily distracted online audience a second visual stimulation. In other words, offer your viewer another spectacle to look at. 

In this example, a video piece about Chinese architecture by Travis Fox on the Washington Post the dots on the map track the video content. So when the presenter speaks about a certain building or monument, the respective locations/dots on the map start pulsing to give the viewer an instantaneous understanding of where the video is placing them. 

Eliminating distraction (not necessarily innovative)

A countermove to the aforementioned framing is reclaiming the space on the monitor, also known as real estate in web lingo. Something I have discovered recently is the way in which a lot of standalone projects reclaim the space on your screen by filling up the entire browser, if not even the entire screen. Branding, as you have it with news website through headers and surrounding links, becomes secondary and is mostly hidden somewhere in a corner of the layout. 

Here in, which I mentioned before, the photographer is taking full advantage of the real estate offered on a web browser. 

In another web project,, does something similar with a full screen option that blocks out even other applications (in case people feel tempted to switch to another application).  

Image as a component

Additionally, I believe that animation have done a lot to transform the moving image. 

This video from the New York Times uses still images and audioslideshows intermeshed. The images you see below are placed on a virtual map. once the images come in focus, the voices of each individuals give an opinion about the most recent presidential election. 

I'm sure similar animations have been there before. But this model is, more or less, referring to recurrent features you see in the newspaper, interactive audio features. 

All in all, it feels as if the image has been re-contextualized. It's similar to what happened with images once they were cut out, processed and placed in articles in magazines. Except that now there are much more possibilities of what an author can intermesh an image with. Interactivity and animation programs have infiltrated the realm of journalism. (Whoopie!)

In some ways, the image not only stands alone but can and often has become a larger component of a multi-faceted experience competing for attention with all the amateur-to-professional content the world wide web has on offer. 

That is, if you have a good connection and the proper computer for it (the digital divide is a whole different issue, I will hopefully get into here one day). 

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Vietnam Battles HIV Epidemic with U.S. Aid

A package with graphics, video, Q&As and a story about Vietnam's fight against HIV.

An interactive graphic contains most elements:

Video mini-documentary:
Part 1:

Part 2:


Part 3:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New Magnum project

Not only a very interesting project about a rapidly growing urban population that is forced to live in slums; this is also an interesting and compelling way to use real estate online and photography as a storytelling device.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Train/Bed from Lam Thuy Vo  and Daniel Paul Ross on Vimeo.

Music by Nattapoom and Lam (thanks Nattapoom!)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Dubbing vs. subtitles

A nun leads me through a 10,000 square meter shelter, which lies within a grid of red-sanded roads. Juicy tropical plants surround this fenced-off miniature village outside Ho Chi Minh City. She introduces me to the AIDS patients who live here, points to the 15 orphaned children who spend their days here going to school, painting the little metal carousel and ripping the weeds out of the front courtyard while awaiting their nearing death. 

The nun  shows me the ad hoc operating room. A faded baby blue statue of Maria stands guard as volunteer doctors come here to perform surgery on patients who suffer from AIDS-related sicknesses. Then she points to the crematorium where the remains of patients are burnt if they have no relatives that could take care of them.

She lifts her hand, her finger wandering from urn to another in the glass cabinet that is embedded into the crematorium wall. 

"This one died after a year."
"This is the mother of the girl you saw earlier."
"Look at the date here. She came in one day and died the next one,"
she said. 

In Vietnamese. 

This is where my problem begins. 

The colors were rich. The children's eyes large and dark brown. The male patients skin and bones. Fifteen kids chanting a song together. The grommet of the metal playground swing squeaks faintly in the background. 

And then a tonal language that makes no sense to most people who might see this video. 
Subtitles are like yet another element.

There are interviews, sound, visuals and now text. As someone who grew up bilingual and was forced to learn three more languages in her life, I tend to think that subtitles are friendlier, less intrusive and leave in the voice of the character. 

But subtitles are running commentaries, slight interpretations because there is no such thing as a translation. They are another factor, they are content. An additional, intellectual content that imposes itself on top of other visual and aural information. Full immersion in a story cannot be interrupted by white text trickling down on a screen, can it? 

And then dubbing? Dubbing brings in a whole other element. You need to find a different voice to add on top of the original voice of your interviewee, corresponding in gender and - to create the illusion of authenticity - in ethnicity. It's a way of making a story flow, of getting the audience to stay on the topic. 

So comprehension of a story, flow of a story therefore overrules authenticity?
There's no one rule (and looking for answers from other news media like the Washington Post or even on our own site seems to confuse me even further). 

But in a story where the content of the speeches is as important as the visual and aural understanding of a place, I guess, I'd go for dubbing. 

Any comments much appreciated. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008


My job is to be a videographer. Translated from jargon-heavy web lingo to everyday speech this means I shoot, edit and script videos and one day possibly even slideshows. 

Whenever I pitch a story package, however, I extend my job description. 


The problem with this is not that you have to suddenly present a story in three different formats. That's just having to juggle different software and taking into account a lot of production time. What killed me was that I realized (possibly too late) I had to report on three stories about the same theme with slightly different angles. You see, components have to complement not re-iterate. And that's where it got icky. 

So here are a few lessons I've learned from this and I hope some of you will find it useful:

  1. Preparations: The key to all of this seems to be pre-reporting. Finding your story angle for the print piece in advance will help loads. So once you've got that pinned you can see what's missing or under-explored. The misconception I had was that I could predict which part would play which role. I thought I knew in advance what I would need for each component. But interviews always change your angle on the story, ever so slightly. Hence, figure out the print component. Then the additional components will crystalize when you realize which parts you weren't able to explore in the print story and are important to get the whole picture.  
  2. Material: That's a biggie. Not only does the article need a still image. The video needs about 10 images of what you couldn't get on tape while filming the office of your interviewee or visiting a space where an event took place. And the best graphics have great visualizations of data you need to get from your source or have crisp and beautiful images that are cut out or processed in one or another way. So a grocery list while reporting multimedia-style might be: a few photos (for article), images from things your interviewee talking about (for video) and illustrations/3D models/powerpoint presentations/stills/data (for graphic). 
  3. Time: Unless you have a team of people working with you, you might want to do this sort of reporting only for enterprise stories.

Suggestions and comments welcome!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New photoshop-like software out: Phoenix

It's an image editor that works just like Photoshop. It's got magic wands, layers, masks, blend modes: the whole enchilada.

And according to the photo-tips newsletter site Photojojo this is why we should like it:

It's web-based, so you don't have to download any software or use up space on your hard drive. You can use photos already on the web, too: Flickr, Facebook and Picasa all work.

There are 40+ free tutorials that range from beginner to advanced, so you can learn how to use all them fancy tools.

There's a very good free version, as well as a souped-up hotrod version that's actually worth paying for.

Find a demonstration here:

Reporting with two cameras dangling off your neck, pen and paper stuffed into your pockets and the line "would you put on that mic" in mind

So reporting for every format possible sucks. But what sucks more is not reporting at all. And if I gotta report in all sorts of media to get my stuff out, I will. 

Here a few things that have worked for me so far while trying to report for a package, i.e. a print article that needs video and photography as well (I'm not an expert, there are a million ways of doing this):

1.) Basic video and photo equipment: 
  • a camcorder/camera with a wireless microphone attached on top, mounted on light tripod that you can easily fold up if you need to walk a couple of steps
  • an SLR with a good zoom lens, autofocus, possibly a bounce flash attached (if dark)
  • pen and piece of paper stuffed into your pants pockets
  • a good backpack that fits all this and cushions it
2.) Reporting methods:

The interview: 
  • BEFORE: you get in take 15 mins to get broll of the building, some interiors, anything you think could help introduce the interviewee visually. Is he an architect? Find some model buildings in his office, film him working on a project on his computer, etc. 
  • DURING: I like to do the general print interview without the camera, that gives you an opportunity to warm up to the person and you can jump in when the interviewee is veering off topic/not answering your question. While the person is talking take some notes on WHAT s/he's talking about and write down a little list of things/topics/etc covered that you might need on tape to illustrate your story; THEN TURN ON THE CAMERA, by now and even before the 'print interview' you should have found your story angle. Ask questions directly related to the story, 4-5 important ones and get them to give you a succinct answer, even if they might have answered the question before (helpful: jot down the time code for that quote, that'll make editing much faster)
  • AFTER: Now that you're done with getting interview content, both for video and print, get out your list of things/topics/etc  that you wrote down while talking to the person and go on a scavenger hunt for the stuff. Back to our architect, he spoke about a certain building that s/he's working on. Ask him to show you models on his computer or even miniature models that s/he might have lying around. Get shots of those things from two different angles and three different views (wide/medium/close-up)
A few things that could also make life easier:
  • Ask people for their name, occupation and where they're from and tell them to spell their name to you on camera
  • Time codes can save you lots of time. If you can sit down while your camera is on a tripod, write down a note and the time code. That way you can get the exact quote much faster.
  • Separate video time from photo time. If you need both, get video with clean and undisturbed natural sound 
  • Use wireless mics during Man-On-The-Street assignments. You can control ambient noise much better and won't have to hold camera and stick mic at the same time. 
  • Breathe. Stop. Take your time. Video is most powerful when you have a strongly framed image in which the objects in the image are moving, not you. Shut up (very important when gathering natural sound), let the camera do its work while resting on a tripod and gather your thoughts for the next shot.

Things I'd like to have/need to buy: 
  • A fanny pack - where I can stash the wireless microphone I'm carrying around when doing a general survey among people on the street (and where I can keep my pen and paper and some business cards)
  • A mini-tripod that I can rest on tables, book shelves and even my chest
  • Small bags to organize my stuff - good batteries, empty batteries, tapes, etc. When you have 10 minutes with the CEO of some company you'd better be prepared
Anyhoo... I'm putting this out because I train reporters in this and have thought about this for quite a while. Comments much appreciated. 

In your wallet

More "wallet" videos at Apple vendor and Tibetan immigrant Weser Dorjee tells us why he has two wallets and what he keeps inside both. (Oct. 19)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cultivating the Perfect Farmer's Tan

Celebrating the end of summer, farmers at the Williamsburg Greenmarket farmers' market show off the fruits of their hard labor -- farmers' tans. WSJ's Lam Thuy Vo reports. (Oct. 1)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

About lowbrowse, a new plug-in for mozilla that helps people with uncorrectable low vision browse the internet.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Philanthropic genocide

Admitting Karen refugees from the overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand by the ten thousands the U.S. is committing cultural genocide, said a Karen Burmese political asylee and a volunteer Karen translator from New York.

She says so because she believes that many of the newly arrived refugees will lose their Karen identity over the generations. That the language of this small ethnic minority, whose population is estimated to be between three and six million, will die out as refugee children and parents adapt to their new surroundings in the U.S. That the Karen will not be able to sustain, breed and evolve their cultural heritage in exile. That the Karen culture and heritage might be extinct if there is no political intervention in Burma. 

The Karen are an ethnic minority mostly living in the slim Karen state that is nestled between Thailand and the Southern tip of Myanmar. They are also an ethnic minority that has been purged by the Burmese military junta for fighting for independence since 1948. The Karen National Union, a group of ethnically Karen rebel troops, is considered a terrorist group by both the military junta and the United States.

In the past years, thousands of Karen refugees are now finding new homes in places like New York City, Fort Wayne, Indiana or Elizabeth, New Jersey. Many of them had been living in refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border for up to 20 years. They fled persecution in their homeland; rape, murder, arbitrary taxation, displacement. For up to 20 years they have been waiting to return to their home country but, alas, the junta is as stubborn as it was twenty years ago during the student protests that were crushed with gun fire and tanks.

To a certain extent U.S. has accepted this sad fact. They have accepted that the 150,000 refugees living along the Thai-Burmese border might not be able to go back to Myanmar in the foreseeable future. And so, one year ago, the Bush administration committed to taking in up to 20,000 Burmese refugees per year from Thai refugee camps.

And that, to the asylee, is cultural genocide.

She echoes a sentiment often expressed by several Myanmar refugees. Many lament that thousands, both well-educated activists and poor farmers, are leaving the country, shifting a successful coup against the junta out of reach by exporting any potential opposition leaders or cultivators of ethnic cultures.

She also hints at the dissatisfaction that many in and from Myanmar feel with the international community. In a recent article in the New Yorker about Myanmar, one interviewee said:
"The only solution is for the U.S, to drop a bomb on Naypyidaw [a city in the heart of Myanmar]. That's the only way!"

What has been done after more than 45 years of a Myanmar under military regime is that the U.N. moved Myanmar onto the top of their agenda in recent years. Yet, as the restricted access for aid to reach Myanmar during the Cyclone has shown, this administrative move has done little to change the situation.

But what can be done? Economic embargos on the country by Western countries seem ineffective when other Asian countries are still doing business with Myanmar. And placing the burden of a(nother) military mission to bring democracy to a dictatorship on the U.S. might be a lot to ask, considering the current economic crisis and the political struggles that come with that.

And though the asylee's comment is extreme she poses an interesting question:
How do you continue to foster and develop a culture that has been exiled from its breeding ground?

Can you resuscitate a language, an ethnic identity, a way of life that is more and more solely existing in the past?

And to come back to those people that the Burmese Karen asylee was speaking about:
How can those, who are beginning a new life somewhere else, carry on traditions, manners and beliefs on foreign soil without a critical mass of their own people and without access to the homeland that provides exposure to their ethnic group?

Fashion video

A fashion video I recently edited. 

Monday, July 28, 2008

The new role of the image...?

Someone talked to me recently, told me that it'd take very long to take a great shot. You wake up before dawn, he said, you go on top of a tall building, talk your way in, if you have to. Or you schlepp yourself from street to street, the body of your camera dangling off your neck, the strap grinding its way to your bladebone. A quasimodo-to-be, ten years from now. Or you swarm around troublemakers, a parasite digging invisible, needle-like arms into the open pores of their subject/object. 

You get the right angle, turn a little wheel on your camera, correct your lighting, click, you got your shot. 

It sounds like an idealist's ode to the photojournalist. And yes, there seem to be a few great photographers out there, who seem to be able to live for a month on one photo's earnings. 

But the viewer clicks on. To photo slideshows, photo series, photos tagged in albums, to interactive maps and graphics. And so a photographer either goes on a scavenger hunt for the next interactive map, running from one building/person/event to the next; or has to take mug shots of 50 people who give representative opinions, Man-On-The-Street polls on the elections, Britney Spears, Detergent; or is s/he is one of 40 random photographers who work for Getty Images, the AP, Reuters, Corbis, who contribute namelessly to a larger project. 

It slaps the photog ego in the face, which is sort of satisfactory to me. It takes away from Walter Benjamin's prediction that photography politicizes/is inherently politicized due to its fake objectivity, its need for a verbal framing. Now the multimedia framing negates its singularity. Takes away from its wordlessness. Contextualizes the photograph for the consumer, while s/he is just as capable of re-contextualizing the image through posting it on facebook/blogger.  The image has become a free-floating currency. The iconic image mutates into a malleable (both in size and meaning) broche, worn, traded, bought, lost, sold. And it loses its charisma, or to use Benjamin's vocabulary, its aura, once more. 

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mao and me


So here are some observations I've made about life in China:
Some cleaning personnel like to mop carpeted floors here. 
Some little boys piss on the railings of the Forbidden Palace. 
Many people don't give a flying rats ass whether you've been waiting in line and will try to take the spot in front of you. 
For a two-month-period before and during the Olympics, Beijing residents will only be allowed to drive their cars on either even or odd-numbered days. 
Oh, and they are shooting missiles into clouds to make them disperse.  




Friday, July 4, 2008

From Olympics craze to multimedia craziness

Cheerleaders presenting their skillz at a press conference organized by the Olympic Committee

I'm experiencing the (physical) pain of being a multimedia reporter. I've been lugging about all sorts of equipment, amounting to about half my weight. I photographed, videotaped, interviewed, even tried to do a stand-up today and will also write a story on these lovely, pompom-swinging girls (while working on six other videos).

So this is the life of a multimedia reporter? I sometimes wonder whether this is just a temporary stage, a transitional phase that will pass and after which a time will come when reporters will once again be able to choose between being photographers, videographers and writers. I wonder which part I'd take and whether being a jack of all trades will have become a habit, a way of life that will both exhaust me, cripple me but also exhilarate me to the extent that I would prefer it to a one-tracked profession.

National Opera
The inside of the National Theatre in Beijing, taken while on a shoot for a video about architecture

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir. Almost everyone in the business has been lamenting this change. Job cuts here. More unpaid web filing there. Journalists are bearing the burden while media business models are STILL adjusting to the age of mouse-click readers.

But this sudden web-panic has given us 'youngens' a leg-up in this profession. I'm 23, got a well-paid job at one of the big ones and don't feel completely inadequate amidst these Pulitzer-prize-winning reporters because I have a technical fluency they don't (don't get me wrong, I still know that I'm an unworthy minion in comparison to them, but at least I can be of use to them). All the while, I'm getting great journalistic training while on the job with the crop of the creme. And I know that many of my fellow new media majors have gotten great jobs with big companies because they have these skills on top of being good journos. I guess, a little bit of back pain, is a small price to pay for these perks.

Beijing Architecture
Beijing traffic from the Arup office, a company that helped constructing the CCTV tower, taking as I was setting up a camera for an interview

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Beijing - Olympics craze and everything surrounding it

Beijing Athletes

It's bizarre what a sports event can do to a city. You'd never have thought that the arrival of hundreds of athletes would cause the government to shut down entire factories, ban people from using their cars on every other day and cause a construction boom to plonk donut-shaped mammoth buildings onto the cityscape.

Beijing Athletes

Athletes are worried about pollution, causing the government to sprinkle clouds with weird-ass chemicals. A rectagular building layered with gigantic bubble wrap is only one of many avant-garde architectural monuments that have been built to impress the incoming sportsmen, -women and spectators. People sell live goldfish in plastic key chains.

It's weird what one event - one where thousands will see seemingly senseless and purely entertaining physical activities - can do to a city.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lam in 'Nam


Strange new world

I've arrived in a hustling and bustling city that is rapidly changing. Even I, who was here only a year and a half ago, can now say:
I remember the times when we didn't have to wear helmets while driving mopeds; when the only thing clogging up a street was a cloud of little mopeds honking the living bejeebus out of you. Now cars snake their way through the streets, like big bugs amidst a swarm of ants.

Construction islands interrupt the flow of traffic. Street lights are now in place where they weren't and people are suddenly following traffic rules. Before that common sense gave chaos order. Ca phe (coffee) is scribbled in neon writing on every second restaurant front. Cranes tower over brittling house facades and malls mushroom out of the ground.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Off soon

I am leaving for Vietnam soon (afterwards heading to China). In just four days, I'll be lugging about my camera and my macbook in more tropical climates, probably dehydrated and grilling in the sunshine that blankets Ho Chi Minh City. I've spent the past few days acquiring miniature packages of Pepto-Bismol and Advil, light summer clothing and fit-in-your-pocket-sized travel guides in hope that those bibs and bobs will end up saving me from diseases, heat strokes and other minor catastrophes.

I can finally follow what a good friend of mine calls "the tug back home", though Vietnam is a homeland that I have never really gotten to know. In my naivety, I hope to be able to report on HIV among injecting drug users in Vietnam, possibly make a difference there. Mostly because my 25-year-old cousin is just that.


I don't even know his full name. I haven't seen him since 1998. I was in Ho Chi Minh City that year, a 13-year-old, wearing shorts that were too short and having just discovered hair dye. I was an estranging, colorful eye soar in a brown and dusty city, infested with honking, clattering mopeds. 

He was a meagre little portion of a teenager, a cheeky grin painted across his round, stretched face. He mistook my braces for jewelry. He played a bamboo flute that had holes too large for him to cover with his stick fingers. 

Then, eight years later, I was told that he got into heroin. He might have contracted HIV and was sitting in jail, my mother said with a sententious voice. Then resentment: He had gotten so much financial support, a broken family is an explanation, but not an excuse, so many people tried to help him getting over the addiction, it serves him right, poor boy, he deserves it, it's such a pity, sigh, hrmpf, sigh. 

Periodically, I received random updates from my mother and my aunts. But the bits of information about Tam were randomly inserted into phone conversations about my school grades, my current boyfriend and my daily diet and so they dangled around like buzzwords without contexts. I was left puzzling together a mosaic of facts. 

In a culture where the 'Western import'  HIV is kept hush-hush, asking questions of fact-seeking nature is rather frustrating. A sound wall of uncomfortable laughter deflects any serious attempts to dig deeper into an issue like this. Then sometimes in whispered conversations fragments of the entire picture are passed on, delivered in an eerily gossipy fashion. 

What was a possible infection in a cell phone conversation in 2005 became awful, awful and untreated HIV in prison during the summer I was at home from college and turned into full-blown Aids by Christmas December 2007. At first he was incarcerated for burglary according to my mother, later the crime was re-cast; he got jailed for stealing a bike or a moped. Four years of imprisonment turned into two years for good conduct. Or maybe the director of the prison felt sorry for him because he had Aids. Whatever it was, he got out, had rashes all over his face, was crying, was jobless, was alone and had to start anew in a society governed by a communist government and traditional values. Aids was written in prickly letters all over his skin.

Then the poor sucker, the asshole, the nice young man turned bad because of circumstances messed up again, dealt a drug of some sort and got locked up again, a choir of female relatives told me in a staggered canon. And he's still there.  

So what can a girl do? 

I decided that reporting within family circles to get the anecdotal story of my cousin might not suffice to emerge myself from the helplessness in which I am swimming. I want to help. I'm denied access to my cousin. Physically. Bureaucratically. I try to think of what I can do with my new-learned skills and my uselessness in scientific research. And I came to the conclusion that I just gotta go now and go and do and go and speak to and produce and see and write and educate (?) and do. And maybe find a CD player I can send to prison. Some chocolate, too. 

Friday, June 6, 2008

SUV time...right now?

A quick video I did with another reporter at the WSJ. It's quite bizarre to be looking at cars that eat up so much gas, when gas prices are so high. But apparently car dealers have been offering rebates on those metal monsters as they've not been selling too well.

I guess the most telling quote in this was: "The majority of people who come in for this, the last thing on their mind is gas mileage."

Monday, May 26, 2008


port authority

A while back I discovered this poem while walking along the underpass from Port Authority to Times Square. Ever since it has brightened up my day each time I got to see it.









We graduated....

Two fellow graduates (no, this is not me).

Ten intense months of working, working, smoking, working and drinking went by in a whirlwind. Lee Bollinger, Columbia University's president, waved his magic wand and made us 231 blue dots in a sea of blue dots graduates.

Now people are slowly dispersing into all directions (well, some are still drinking): a friend is off to Kenya for a year to report , five are heading to India, my soon-to-be flatmate is in Syria for a month and another one is going to be interning in Mexico City with the AP.

And though tomorrow is my first official day with the Wall Street Journal, I hope to follow my peers' examples and head to Sichuan soon to do some video reporting with some of their reporters for a fellowship. More to follow on that here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Monks Funnel Money Into Myanmar

We have been very involved with the Burmese community in New York and decided to start up a blog to get the latest news about Cyclone Nargis out there.

We also started working on finding stories surrounding this topic. While my Master's Project partners Divya Gupta and Karen Zraick made a video about protests in New York that was published on Here is a piece I did for the Wall Street Journal (the first one I pitched, produced, shot and edited):

As NGOs are having trouble getting into Myanmar, a group of Burmese monks in New York has raised more than $2 million, which will be sent directly to monasteries in disaster-stricken areas.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Returning to the family with a camera - this time for recreational purposes

See the little baby in the middle? That's Aung He, who's staring at our Master's project with his big, dark eyes. He was still in Linday Ko's belly when we filmed the video project about their family.

It was a great relief to seem them laugh at what we did and we'll hopefully be able to give them a few DVDs, which Linday said she'd send to her mother in Thailand.

Finally, I feel free to hug her without thinking I am compromising my journalistic 'objectivity'. Though I do not believe there is such a thing as complete distance from your 'subject' when you're reporting on them for so long, it's much harder to report on someone whom you greatly care about.

There were always these question: If they need someone to speak to someone on the phone should I jump in? Should I help pregnant Linday with basic tasks or even try to help when their children are having difficulties in school? Should I get involved, insert myself into the story when I notice that bills, taxes or similar issues are not being taken care of? It's a delicate balance between doing what is only human and doing what you need to do to get an accurate portrayal of your characters.

I had to go against my natural instinct a lot and am glad I can simply bring by a box of chocolates now without having to second guess it. In some ways this reveals my sympathy for them, which of course has been somewhat counterproductive when it comes to getting the real picture. But I was very grateful for having good editors and excellent, smart Master's Project partners who'd caution me to film the little mischief Lulu too much and concentrate more on the oftentimes reserved and taciturn Taw Ko.

In any case, I've grown to like this family a lot and hope that they might have found a liking in me as well.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Learning about visual vocabulary

As nerdy as it sounds, my favorite class this semester has been Graphics in the Newsroom with Hannah Fairfield, a New York Times information graphic illustrator. And hey, seeing that the infographic has made a big comeback thanks to the internet, I am maybe even right in thinking that this skill might make me that much more employable in the world of journalism.

We've had a guest lecturer with the almost aristocratic name Bradford Paley come in to speak to us. His work is currently rubbing frames with that of Flash God Jonathan Harris and other computer graphic designers at the MoMA's "Design and Elastic Mind" exhibition and exhibits quite a different approach to reading of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland .

So the question is: Who the eff cares about a bunch of colorful lines that tie togther words used in Caroll's drug-glorifying fairy tale? Well, how many literature and creative writing majors are there in the world who've gotten stupidly excited about interpreting the written words of their idols?

Let's back up: Mr. Paley's Text Arc is a visual representation of the occurence and frequency of each word used in Alice in Wonderland. The round frame of the image is made of the entire text of the book. The words inside the cirlce are sized according to occurence frequency (the more often the words appear the larger they are) and are placed onto the graph according to how often they appear at that point in the book. It's almost like elastic bands that stretch throughout the circular layout of the text pulling each word a certain direction.

The most interesting part about this is that the word "Queen" for instance appears at several points in the book before she even appears in person in the fictional storyline. The word in the Text Arc is positioned very close to where she actually appears as Carroll uses the word "Queen" more often when she is actually present in the plot. But the red strings show you where else in the book the Queen has been mentioned and shows how Carroll foreshadows the Queen's final appearance throughout the entire book.

Visual languages

Now that in itself might be nice and gimmicky, but what I found 'stupidly exciting' about this was that Paley created this visual vocabulary or information narrative structure which takes advantage of instant visual recognition of patterns. True, the structure is like Hebrew to a native Chinese speaker at first and has to be learned. But once you get what exactly he's visualizing, basically once you learn how to read this sucker, you can quickly pick up patterns within the data.

We learn how to read bar charts and line charts and by interpreting them formulate certain hypotheses about what this data could mean. Immediate visual impressions give the viewer the opportunity to concentrate on understanding the larger meaning of a complex set of data, rather than get lost in processing invidual words, numbers, etc. And while that is nothing new, Mr. Paley's Text Arc gives you the opportunity to apply this generally numerically driven concept of information visualization to a freaking book. Powerpower!
Nerdy end to a very long day.

Multimedia musings that seem outdated now

Conceiving a multimedia project is quite the challenge but encourages you to really go nuts with the tools at hand. A white screen is what you have at the beginning and with Adobe Flash, there is almost no limit to your creativity.

This degree really gave us the time to explore various questions that I've heard reiterated in larger newsrooms here and abroad: What the heck do I put in a video; how do I best convey numbers and who still cares about words?

So here are some lessons worth $50k in tuition fees and a lot of sleepless nights in a smelly computer lab: Text matters cause most net media consumers are bored office workers who love to procrastinate around lunch time (when the number of site viewers peak) and they don't want to be caught by their bosses combatting their boreout. Text is still the most effective way for getting you information quickly.

Videos are often not consumed in their entirety for the same reasons but are generally more powerful when it comes to telling more individualized stories. Slideshows are a little work-friendlier. Clicking away on the internet - from afar that looks like clicking away on a excel sheet, right?

And Interactivity. What can I say. Over the past year, I have fallen in love with Adobe Flash. The Flashplayer, that thing you have to download from the Adobe homepage when you're on an old, old PC, is what makes things beam in, move from left to right or click around on maps, photo galleries, etc.

Interactivity, if done properly, draws in a lot of people. Big time. Maybe not for longer than 30 seconds, but as the Internet is seen more and more as a resource to personalize and filter information according to one's own taste, the interactive feature that combines a lot of useful/interesting information with a compelling and easy-to-understand design wins. The LA Times did a crimewatch interactive (google map AIP), recording each murder that happened in Los Angeles. This data base is constantly updated and sorted by name, I presume daily. This lends it longevity that videos or slideshows might not have. Constantly upgraded, constantly renewed data.

To end on a good note:

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

About learning flash and being spat on while filming a little refugee boy

After about 6 months of reporting and an additional month of production, we have finally published our Master's project on Burmese refugees in the greater New York area,From Burma To New York.

Packaging for multimedia

How do you tackle a project like this which is both politically sensitive and multi-layered. How do you convey the complexity of the resettlement process without boring people? How do you elevate the individual's story from a sea numbers? And how do you construct a project that will encapsulate all dimensions of the resettlement process?

Our answers to these issues consisted of three main mini-documentaries about three individuals, each at a different stage of their resettlement; four interactive features that visualize the larger context; and complementary elements, such as slideshows or short video clips.

Each element was assigned a job: the mini-docs were supposed to bring color into our project. We Se, a newly arrived refugee who used to be a teacher in the refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, finds solace in his belief in God and dreams of becoming a Christian pastor one day. Taw Ko, a one-armed father of four, lives in an all-Burmese building where his neighbors and fellow landsmen translate letters for him. Myra Dahgaypaw is doing a Bachelor's degree and is working for the Burmese government in exile several years after her arrival in the U.S.

Taw talking to his son Lulu
Taw Ko and his son Lulu in their house in Brooklyn.

A graphic illustrated how many people had fled Burma and were now living in refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border (151,894 according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium) and how atrocious the situation was there, which eventually led to what we illustrated in another graphic, namely the sudden admission of about 14,000 Burmese refugees to the United States in the fiscal year of 2007 (an eightfold increase from the year before when only about 1600 were admitted).

Graphic of Thai-Burma Border and the concentration of refugee populations inthe refugee camps there

Moral decisions in reporting on refugees

But all this tech and editorial training was nothing in comparison to the reporting lessons we took home. Not only were we speaking to and taking the time of people who have have lived through gone through some pretty atrocious situations. On top of that, a large number of them have lived in refugee camps for more than 20 years and, before coming here, had no concept of what a key was or how to use Western toilets (the International Organization of Migration actually teaches some of them how to use toilets, among many other skills that are essential for living in the U.S.) and that means that many of these refugees might not have a clear understanding of what it's like to have your face plastered on the global platform that is the internet.

Now, many of these refugees have been ethnically persecuted for being Karen, an ethnic minority in Burma that has been fighting for independence since Burma's independence from British colonial rule. Many Karen Buremse refugees are still facing the same situation. We have encountered many refugees from Burma who have had worries about getting their relatives in Burma into trouble by participating in our project. And in some ways, someone who is struggling with using a microwave might not fully comprehend what it means to partake in a project that will be posted on the internet.

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very interesting column about this issue:
As a reporter, I always feel a tension between the interests of the broader community of refugees — for the most compelling individual stories possible, so the world will pay attention — versus the interest of the individual victim, who often wants privacy and doesn’t want to risk getting in trouble by telling her story.


And the refugees have no concept of what it means to be in a major newspaper or network broadcast, so you can’t just let them weigh and accept the risks themselves.

That is not to say that we should take away people's agency and presume that refugees aren't at all media savvy. Yet, we had to carefully assess each time whether the people we interviewed really understood what we were doing. We also had to deal with communication problems which made it even more difficult to clarify to our interviewees what were doing.

I guess I'll see what they think when I visit the Ko's on Sunday. Linday Ko, Taw Ko's wife, gave birth to their son Aung He in February. I haven't seen the little boy yet and am mighty exited. I'll have my camera with me. Finally for recreational purposes.