Now that Iâ€™ve posted a definition of backpack journalism, the next question might be, â€œSo what does it take to be a backpack journalist?â€ Here are the requirements, not necessarily in the order of importance:
VISUAL TALENT: The backpack journalist needs artistic talent to recognize compelling images. Images are the engine inside this medium. Edward R. Murrow reportedly said once that television is nothing more than radio with pictures. He was wrong. Good television, as well as good video on the Internet, is powerful images that drive the message and that are complemented by clear natural sound and connected by intelligent narration. But itâ€™s images first.
TECHNICAL SKILL: The successful backpack journalist must know how to make the camera produce on tape or on a computer chip the images that his/her mindâ€™s eye sees.
PHYSICAL STAMINA: This craft presents a physical and an intellectual challenge. Even with the lightweight, hand-held digital cameras of today, working the craft properly demands a significant amount of physical stamina. You canâ€™t practice the craft effectively if youâ€™re not in shape.
COURAGE: And Iâ€™m not talking about courage under fire, although in some instances the backpack journalist might need this kind of courage as well. What I mean here is courage to practice a fundamentally intrusive craft despite what may be a lack of understanding or cooperation â€“ or downright opposition â€“ from people who just donâ€™t want to be filmed.
WRITING AND VISUAL NARRATIVE SKILLS: To quote one of my earliest journalism professors, â€œGood writing is clear thinking made visible.â€ Stated differently, if you can think clearly and know how to use a typewriter, or a computer, or a pencil and pad, then you can write well. The successful backpack journalist not only can write well but also has the ability to visualize and tell a story with pictures.
Esther and I are spending our last night in Ecuador and, here again, is the view from our hotel. A fitting image, I think, with which to end our journey. Once I get home to DC and catch my breath, I’ll have a couple of new posts to wrap it all up.
ISABELA, Galapagos Islands — Our group of American University students, faculty and guides, pose for a group shot on the pier of Isabela island on the Galapagos, the last stop before heading to Quito and home. It was a great, unforgettable trip. Photo by Esther Gentile.
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS — American University students race with their colleagues in the boat rising high on a wave in the not-so-distant background from Santa Cruz to Isabela on Thursday 21 May 2009.
American University School of Communication (SOC) Professor Bill Gentile (that’s me with the black shirt) and School of International Service (SIS) Professor Simon Nicholson (far right) review material generated by students Lauren Demko and Jon Malis at a park on the main street of San Cristobal at nearly midnight. Photo by Esther Gentile.
Below, American University students work on their film as a sea lion sleeps in the foreground at San Cristobal island in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. Above, Danny Ledonne films giant turtles on Santa Cruz island as teammate Suzanne Taylor looks on.
Iâ€™ve been deeply impressed by the studentsâ€™ tenacity in going after these stories. With very few exceptions, theyâ€™ve been relentless about pursuing the material they need to put their projects together. Two members of one group have gotten up every morning to shoot time-lapsed clips of the sunrise â€“ and theyâ€™ve waited out every sunset to do the same. Others have used underwater camera cases or waterproof plastic sacks to shoot the turtles, sharks, sea lions and other species that inhabit this archipelago. It hasnâ€™t been easy, especially in the heat that descends upon these islands most afternoons. Some interviews have fallen completely flat. Some subjects declined to be filmed. More than one student suffered a stomach ailment. And some students have made mistakes in the field. And we, the faculty, have insisted that now is the time, while still in university, to make these mistakes â€“ and to learn from them. So that when they go out to the field as professionals, they wonâ€™t make them over again. So the students persist in their work. They are determined. They should be enormously proud of themselves. I certainly am.
It occurs to me, particularly after much talk about the subject and my most recent blog, that a definition of “backpack journalism” may be in order. So, backpack journalism is the craft of one properly trained professional using a hand-held digital camera to tell stories in a more immediate, more intimate fashion than is achievable using a larger team with camera person, sound person, correspondent and producer. We do it all and, most importantly, we make the pictures, which are the driving force of visual communication. (There’s a reason they call it tele-VISION.) In the field, a backpack journalist shoots, acquires sound, produces, reports, interviews. Once back from the field, we write the script. In some cases we even narrate the piece. Depending on circumstances, we either edit the piece on our own, or we sit side-by-side with an editor assigned to the task. Backpack journalism is definitely and absolutely not “citizen journalism.”
Itâ€™s not exactly backpack journalism. But our students are learning how to tell stories on the run with hand-held digital cameras, which is a key component of backpack journalism. The 24 students are broken down into four groups of six. The film making responsibilities are distributed among them. The kind of material theyâ€™re looking for depends on the project they designed back at American University. Only one of the projects, about shark fishing, is what I would refer to as traditional documentary film making. I accompanied this team on a trip with local fishermen who discussed their profession and the difficulties involved in practicing the profession. The other projects include a hosted show about sustainable living. Another is a series, with student actors, about environmentally friendly tourism. And the fourth is a game about the process of natural selection. The key to this class is that students learn not only the fundamentals of film making, but also the science and the international dimension of the subject matter theyâ€™ve chosen. And in this, they have been successful. They can decide later whether they want to stuff all these skills into a single backpack or distribute them among colleagues.
These American University students are working on a series of documentaries about alternative power sources in the Galapagos. Here, on San Cristobal, they shoot one segment about wind power.