I am a big fan of the multimedia work MediaStorm is producing. Having heard Brian Storm talk a couple times about their production process, most recently as a part of the Kalish Workshop, I can’t help but be impressed by both their business model and the multimedia clips they produce. Indeed, as I work to organize Storytelling Ministries, I intend to borrow liberally from the MediaStorm way. Over the last six months, I’ve published an ongoing series of posts discussing the MediaStorm business model, and have been candid in my praise.
At the same time, MediaStorm makes no claims they are producing Christian documentary photography. And indeed, I think there are some important differences in approach between MediaStorm and Storytelling Ministries. To explore those differences as well as the MediaStorm storytelling strengths, in this post I will review the MediaStorm clip entitled: “How Will We Feed Them?”
Let’s Start With the Strengths
One hallmark of MediaStorm projects is the enormous effort, and brilliance, put into the overall production. These clips are not churned out in a couple of days, but rather painstakingly developed over a couple of months. The choreography developed in the audio track comes together first, often drawing on hours and hours of available audio content. Then, over that audio backbone, the producers add video and still photography.
The photographer, videographer, audio recorder, producer and narrator were all Brad Horn. I don’t know the reason, but presumably some of that lean staffing was due to the budget for the project. Mr. Horn, though, is obviously a very talented and quite versatile multimedia expert.
The clip opens with some beautiful photography designed to set the stage of rural Madagascar. From there, following the narrative track, we see still imagery of the more unsettled urban spaces in the island nation. We also see some photographs that help narrow the subject matter to farming, as well as give some sociological insight into the culture.
From there, we start to see videos of the family—a mother and daughter—who will be the subject of the over nine minute clip. The video contains a liberal amount of “b role” video footage designed to offer a glimpse into rural life and the agricultural practices involved in growing rice. We also see some wonderful video portraits of the people in the community.
While the narrator, Mr. Horn, provides a significant amount of the audio, the core of the story involves the mother, Moravavy Seraphine, telling her own story about the challenges she faces farming and raising her daughter, after the death of her husband in 2009.
In the year 2009, their total household income was just over $400. In that year, however, they came across an agricultural assistance program that provided them with improved seeds. Using these seeds, Ms. Seraphine earned over $2000 in 2010. We don’t learn much about the actual cause of their improved income, other than it involved he seeds and also opening a small store in their home.
The clip also focuses on Ms. Seraphine’s 12-year-old daughter, Maria. We learn that Maria seems unusually motivated to go to school, and that Ms. Seraphine is unusually motivated to send her there, even though it means closing the store during school hours. We also hear that the future looks a bit bleak in that, for Maria to continue her education to a meaningful level, she will need to leave the region to attend better schools.
MediaStorm produced this clip for a client, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations. As a result, I assume the client drove many of the content decisions, at least a high level. On its webpage, MediaStorm explains that the clip was designed to accompany the release of a new report entitled: “Rural Poverty Report 2011”. To give the clip some context, MediaStorm explains how it selected the family to feature, and some of the goals of the agency’s report.
The Storytelling Strengths
MediaStorm has on its website dozens of clips, and I picked this one to review at least in part because it addresses a subject so dear to many Christians. MediaStorm attempts to explain, in just over the nine minutes of the clip, rural poverty on a global basis and the challenges of feeding the world. That’s a tall order, and MediaStorm does an admirable job.
Many of the still photographs capture the simultaneous beauty of the rural environment, juxtaposed with the frankly primitive agricultural techniques used by most of the world. The clip also features a mother and daughter who visually and vocally create powerful empathy in the audience. I like these people. As a parent, I like, and understand completely, the mother’s drive to help her child succeed beyond their present circumstances.
Recently, I’ve been trying to learn how to capture high-quality audio, and it has caused me to grow in my appreciation for clear audio, well-collected. Mr. Horn captures powerful audio, with little distraction. The mother, while apparently not educated herself, articulately presents her case. The daughter, with an obvious passion for learning, expresses surprising sophistication about her world and the academic subjects she is studying.
The integration of the audio and visual elements produce strong, complementary messages that help me understand some of the global challenges we face, as well as the personal obstacles this mother and daughter must overcome. I understand the messages the UN agency seems intent on conveying, that this situation is urgent and growing more so. I understand, I think, the global context in which this individual story is told. I also feel the painful choices the mother must make between educating her child for the future, and providing for her today.
The UN report focuses a great deal on risk management, and the need for the poor to develop certain techniques for withstanding external shocks. The selected story even addresses that element in that the mother must overcome the death of her husband. With only one of them to do the work, while her daughter’s school, the mother must choose between tending the store and the farm.
As a final strength, and this is characteristic of all of MediaStorm’s clips, the player that MediaStorm developed for these clips is tailor-made for these purposes. While I could probably write an entire post just about the features of the player, it provides a terrific vehicle for sharing content. In that way, the player both eases the experience of viewing the clip, and furthers the business model.
What I Would Do Differently
I was careful to title this section in a personal way because some of my comments will express simply personal preference, while others might be more objectively related to the goals of Christian documentary photography. In a nutshell, I would craft the clip more around the theme of why the audience should have hope, and make a few slight changes in the production decisions.
At a theological level, being a Christian means having hope. But I want to offer my suggestions at a more practical level. I submit that one of the primary purposes of a clip like this is to mobilize people in support of a cause. This work was client driven, but I’ll bet the client may well agree with that statement.
Unfortunately, though, the clip did not move me to act. So I had to ask myself why? If you indulge me for a moment, and believe that I am not simply heartless, I’d like to offer some reasons why the clip did not reach me in a way that led me to take action.
I recently read a very intelligent and well-researched book entitled “The Dragonfly Effect” by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith. As explained better in that book, in any social enterprise where you want to motivate people to act, you need to give them actionable information. In “How Will We Feed Them?”, the only real action encouraged by the clip is to read the 322 page report the government agency published simultaneously. I guess that is action, and I did read parts of the report, but the only reason I did was because I wanted to write this review. I would not have read it otherwise. I read lots of reports, and the prospect of reading another is not so exciting that the clip led me to do it.
Instead of just setting the goal as general awareness or the act of reading a report, it seems to me most Christian documentary photography would want to move people to take more concrete action, to get involved in the lives of others in a way that frankly helps both of them. Unfortunately, the MediaStorm clip didn’t give me any insight into how to do that. At most, at the end of it, the clip left me with the vague notion I could give money to someone who would provide better seeds to someone in need. And the UN agency didn’t even give me a vehicle for doing that on the webpage where the clip is posted. The only further actions I saw were about a dozen different ways to download the report.
To be candid, I was also uneasy about accepting on face value the notion that these magical seeds featured in the clip had by themselves transformed this family’s life. Rather than a change in the family’s net income, I would have been more interested in hearing about the change in physical yield for the crops. I had to wonder to myself, what would result in such a dramatic change in income? Was it the globally increasing food prices trickling down to the producer, an unusually good year weatherwise, or perhaps the family did a better job of mixing the specific crops they grew to diversify against price fluctuations. Maybe, along with the seeds, the NGO taught them better agricultural practices. In any event, I found myself very skeptical of the implication that merely giving away better quality seeds, by itself, had produced the bonanza. It might have happened that way: I just wasn’t sure. Honestly, a one-year comparison in income is not terribly meaningful, as agricultural incomes fluctuate widely in any given year.
So what would I have done differently? I don’t know the facts of Ms. Seraphine’s specific story, but I would’ve looked for a story where I could highlight what two people can do together. We never saw the face of the NGO. I found myself wanting to know whether a conscientious agricultural aid expert had worked selflessly with Ms. Seraphines to produce the better outcome. I wanted to see if there’s a policy option that I could get behind and support that shows what caring about others can produce, not just that she perhaps received seeds in the mail from some faceless bureaucrat. I wanted to see whether there’s something I could do, or others could do with my help, to be part of the solution. I didn’t get that from the clip, and as a result at the end I felt depressed and helpless. It took inspiration away from me, rather than giving it to me.
Apart from that conceptual difference, I also have a very personal suggestion regarding the production. I recognize, in offering this suggestion, I am in a minority, or maybe I’m just showing my age. But I hate video. I would’ve used more still photographs and less video. Mr. Storm made an important point to me in his recent workshop: he said the use of video makes the stills more powerful. His logic, and I agree with him, is that to do a clip of any real length requires an enormous number of still photographs, far more than any photographer could do well. So video becomes almost a filler, allowing the producer to be more selective in the still photographs he uses. I get that. But that’s overdone in this clip.
The still photographs in this clip are very moving. The video is not. As a matter of personal preference, I like to linger over a still photograph, studying it to appreciate things I would never have time to comprehend with a video. While still photographs have become almost ubiquitous, at least I have the chance to pass over ones that don’t move me and dwell on the ones that do. With video, I can’t edit it myself as I view it. Yes I can fast-forward, but that’s at the expense of nearly all comprehension. With text and with still images, I can speed up or slow down, while still maintaining comprehension. For entertainment video is fine, but for education, for me personally, it’s a waste of perfectly good bits and bytes.
Further, in contrast to many other clips MediaStorm produces, this clip relied way too much on narration, rather than using the voices of the people in the story. I recognize the client must have wanted certain specific facts and figures added in. And, to cover some of that, the clip employed text in some of the still images. But the narration cheated me of the opportunity to hear these concepts explained by the people who live in the very circumstances the clip was meant to highlight. I thought there may have been a role for a scholar or a person working at the UN agency to at least use their own authoritative voice for some of the higher-level concepts.
I’d like to end where I started, offering the view that I would like to incorporate many of the MediaStorm techniques into the storytelling I’m trying to do. Unfortunately for me, that takes some talents I don’t possess. People like Mr. Horn are gifted in many ways, and I’ll need to partner with such people to pursue storytelling of the quality MediaStorm now routinely produces. The clip “How Will We Feed Them?” tells a compelling story of global challenges in eradicating poverty and feeding the world, in a very personal way. That is quite an accomplishment.