Backpack Documentary Expedition: Nicaragua. Los Nicas.

WASHINGTON, DC, 21 July 2011 — This is the fifth in a series of video snapshots, or vignettes, which are unedited but mostly chronological clips that I was able to produce while conducting my “Backpack Documentary Expedition: Nicaragua,” of 24 June through 3 July 2011.

I call it “Los Nicas” because it’s all about the people who populate the Central American nation of Nicaragua. You can watch it on YouTube or on Vimeo.

These snapshots are quick peeks into an extraordinary journey by some 30 volunteers associated with the New York-based NGO, Bridges to Community, who visited Nicaragua to help build four houses in as many days, part of the group’s broader endeavor of community development and strengthening ties between the United States and that Central American nation. The Bridges journey was documented by my two students, Martha Dodge and Paloma Jackson.

The expedition was the first in what I hope will be many journeys to document the work of altruistic citizens of the world reaching out to assist the less fortunate. At the same time, I aim to teach the craft of backpack journalism to as many people as I can.

We are, right now, at an extraordinary juncture in the history of mankind, technology and communication. Even more important than the Gutenberg press, the advances in digital cameras and the Internet provide us unprecedented opportunity. Ordinary citizens of the world now wield extraordinary power. We wield the power to communicate instantly, globally and in a language, the visual language, which supersedes both the written and the spoken word. This visual language knows no frontiers. It needs no translation. It is contingent on no corporate support. It is one of the most powerful tools of our time. And backpack journalism is the embodiment of this visual language. No matter what the new media landscape looks like after the current upheaval, backpack journalism will be an important part of it.

And I am convinced that we can use this methodology as a force for good. As the slogan for our expedition states: “Engage. Embrace. Empower.” This is the mission.

So what is backpack journalism? I define it as the craft of one properly trained professional using a hand-held digital video camera to tell character-driven stories in a more immediate, more intimate fashion than is achievable using a conventional, shoulder-held camera and a team that includes camera person, sound person, correspondent and producer. Backpack journalists do it all and, most importantly, we make the pictures, which are the driving force of visual communication. Backpack journalism is not the 6 o’clock news reported by a single, multi-tasking journalist. It is a character-driven methodology with a specific, time-consuming approach and application that yields unique results and that does not work in all situations.

I made these video snapshots with an HDSLR, the first time I’ve used this kind of tool. I hope you enjoy them. As many of you know, these cameras have some shortcomings, particularly when it comes to sound. I plan to post about a dozen of these brief films over the next several days, so stay tuned. I’d be interested to hear your comments. Please feel free to offer them.


Bill Gentile