This year, students at the 37th annual Mountain Workshops chronicled the lives of people in Somerset, Kentucky. Here are four intimate stories from multimedia participants Maya Sugarman, Andrea Wise, Catherine Spangler and Mimi Schiffman.
Maya Sugarman is a staff photographer for the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif., and a photo/multimedia journalist based in Southern California. She has interned at the Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, Santa Monica Daily Press, and East Bay Express. She is a recent graduate from UCLA, where she was a senior staff photographer and photo editor at the Daily Bruin.
What brought you to Mountain Workshops?
A friend of mine, John Adkisson (who did the workshop in Murray, Ky. in 2009), first told me about it and highly recommended it. I choose to do the multimedia workshop because that is the direction in which photojournalism is heading. The line between still and moving pictures is fading quickly in journalism, which I find very exciting because video is a whole new realm to explore. I didn’t have very much experience in video, I just started testing the waters this past summer. I came to realize that at it’s core, doing video is not that different from the thinking behind still images, and that moving pictures can tell a story better than stills in some situations. I wanted to learn more about every aspect of video production, and from theÂ impressiveÂ work I saw from years past, Mountain Workshops seemed like the perfect opportunity.
My assignment was originally about a nature photographer, Charline, who has had to overcome a disability toÂ pursueÂ her dream. Charline’s disability wasn’t specified, but theÂ assignmentÂ did mention that she lives with her mother, Pam, and that they are very close.Â Initially, I wasn’t sure how to represent this story visually â€“ how do you photograph a photographer in a visually-compelling way? My first reaction was also that I didn’t want the piece to become too focused on Charline’s disability as the main struggle, and I hoped that I could delve deeper than those two sentences on my slip of paper. From those two lines, I felt that there were many other avenues to explore, such as the relationship between Charline and her mother, or Pam in relation to her role as a caretaker (perhaps, as I didn’t know what type of disability Charline had).
The most rewarding part of the project was the relationship built with my subjects. Over the course of four days, I became very close with Charline and Pam. They came to trust me and talk with me very openly in a matter of days. I couldn’t have produced that piece without their honesty and trust, and I am so appreciative of them for letting me into their lives, especially in such a short period of time.The conversation with Pam that led the final piece happened on Wednesday morning. She revealed a difficult part of her past less than a day after we first met.
Andrea Wise is a photographer and documentary filmmaker originally from Rockville, MD. She graduated with Honors in Studio Arts from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in May 2011. In school, Andrea’s interest in psychology and art led her to independent work in multimedia storytelling, ultimately producing a 45-minute documentary film for her senior thesis. Since graduation, Andrea has been working with one her mentors, Shana Sureck, on a number of still and multimedia projects in Hartford and Western Massachusetts and she has been freelancing regularly for a variety of clients, including The Hartford Courant, The University of Hartford, and The Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Andrea is particularly interested in multimedia storytelling for non-profit and community organizations.
What brought you to Mountain Workshops?
I knew a couple people who had attended the Mountain Workshops in previous years and they all raved about what an amazing experience it was. I went into it expecting a really challenging and intensive learning experience with few hours of sleep. I was hoping to meet some people, get inspired, and learn to be a better storyteller.
Describe your assignment and your initial reaction to it.
We drew our assignments from a hat. My slip of paper had my subjects name, his occupation, and his phone number on it. I was really excited about telling a story of someone who works with animals.
What was most difficult about shooting your piece? What did you find most rewarding about the story?
This was a really difficult project for me but my subject was awesome and my coach (Wes Pope) was really supportive and helpful through the whole process. It was challenging to show, visually, a man whose work is to rescue injured wild animals, rehabilitate them, and then train them to survive in the wild (i.e. be afraid of strangers… like myself). The animals wouldn’t come anywhere near me, and wouldn’t even go near him if they could so much as smell my presence. It was really a lesson in thinking of creative solutions to overcome a visual challenge. I tried borrowing a GoPro to get some footage without having to physically be in the area, but I’d never used one before and somehow ended up not actually recording anything with it. I learned that in documentary work, the conditions are never ideal, and you just have to find a way to work with what you’ve got.
The most rewarding part was definitely when Alan (my subject) released the baby deer. Alan is such a loving, selfless man, and getting to witness that moment of the release was really incredible. I’d gotten to know him well enough by that time to know that the release is the moment he lives his life for. That’s a really precious and intimate moment for him and I was moved that he welcomed me to share in that experience. I’m still amazed by how open people can be in sharing their lives with us.
What was the most valuable lesson you took away from the workshop?
By far, the most valuable lesson I took away from the workshop was to “Embrace the Gap,” as Eric Maierson said. It’s the creative gap that Ira Glass describes between your taste and the work that you produce. That gap can be really discouraging and disheartening but Eric put that all into a perspective that I hadn’t seen before — that feeling disappointed in your work can actually be a reassuring feeling because it’s confirmation that you have good enough taste to eventually close that creative gap if you’re willing to, as Ira Glass puts it, “fight your way through”.
Cath(erine) Spangler is a Master’s student and Roy H. Park fellow in the Journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A radio producer by trade, Cath is currently studying multimedia production to broaden her storytelling arsenal. If you force her to answer the question of what she likes to report on best, she’ll probably reply with something ambiguous like “what it means to be a human in the world.” She considers herself a collector of moments and a professional eavesdropper.
I am seriously afflicted with a love for the whirlwind workshop experience. There’s something about having no dawdling, no sleep and no excuses that can fuel great storytelling.
The slip of paper that I drew from the hat described a third grader named Katelyn Collins. Katelyn has trouble seeing, hearing and walking, but never complains and has a great attitude. I was immediately excited to be able to work with a family, which can be a very surprising and intimate experience.
That we all experience fear, doubt and disillusion about the work we do. The key is just to keep working, keep marching on.
Mimi Schiffman is pursuing her Master’s Degree at UNC Chapel Hill to learn to better tell the human story using the full pallet of media available to journalists. She pursues her work in the interest of informing people about one another, and moving them to be more actively engaged in their world. She holds a bachelorâ€™s degree in Community Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz.
What brought you to Mountain Workshops? Chad Stevens. He’s a huge inspiration, mentor and professor here at UNC and he’s been talking up the workshop since I started last fall.
Describe your assignment and your initial reaction to it. My assignment was a little blurb from a newspaper article about Hanna Young, a woman so dedicated to her job as a teacher that she came out of retirement as soon as she went into it to be back where her heart was, with the students. I came back and transcribed my first interview, stopping occasionally to talk to my coach Wes Pope. About an hour into the transcription and reflection I walked away from the computer with an idea. “Hey, Wes,” I said “so there’s this one thing. She did mention a ghost that her dad created when he was working at the school with her.” He lit up. It was that moment. You always have to share your ideas with a couple other people to see what interests them. Wes was totally sold and went into deep brainstorm mode with me. The whole thing came to be during that break.
What was most difficult about shooting your piece? I think the shoot was challenging, mentally challenging as I went into it knowing I had to shoot for horror, which was definitely a first for me. But it was also a huge blast. The bigger challenge for me was in editing; employing new tools in Final Cut and getting deeper into mood.
What did you find most rewarding about the story? Relationships. This piece was so fun for me because Hanna Young was so invested and so open. She lined up the kids to come talk to me and got the whole school talking about Charlie. Also working with Wes Pope and Eric Maierson on structuring this and pushing as hard as I could to make something new for me and having fun while I did it. I’d say I was laughing for about 40% of my editing process.
What was the most valuable lesson you took away from the workshop? Be open, be juicy, be ready to shift outside of your comfort zone.