Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

When Assignments Disappear, Do a Film

leave a comment »

My mother being filmed for the documentary "Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight."

My mother being filmed for the documentary “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight.”

This year is an odd blend of short adrenaline-driven adventure and long periods of inactivity. (Future blogs on those adventurous moments to follow!) But my roller coaster career anxieties are overshadowed by the tragedies of this sad year including the disappearance of one Malaysian airliner and the downing of another, continual fighting in Syria, murder of Palestinian and Israel teenagers, bombing of Gaza, kidnapping of Nigerian girls, the Ebola outbreak and the barbaric beheading of journalists. So far, 2014 seems like one of those years where evil dominates. I could barely think about anything. Feeling overwhelmed by the unceasing flow of information through web, television and even print, I felt at times like becoming one of those “end-of-the-roaders,” not caring about anything as long as I’m not bothered.

I can’t do that.

I have skin in this game. My son, a wonderful kind-hearted young man, is serving in Africa in the Peace Corps. He’s far from the Ebola epidemic but closer to some of the terrorist activities than I’m comfortable with. I have a sense of how dangerous things have gotten. Covering global health issues, I’ve been arrested twice by rouge elements who saw a light skinned person with a camera as a good catch to bring back to their leaders. In those situations reasonable minds prevailed and I was released. Kidnapping journalists for public beheadings had not yet become a terrorists tactic when I was working in those regions.

With all this tragedy the need to understand the underlying causes is greater than ever, but it seems that news organizations and non-government organizations are cutting back on hiring visual reporters, relying instead on overworked staff or even, (OMG!) poverty-tourists—those who want to experience the developing world and take a few snaps with that fancy new camera they bought. As a result, I—and many of my colleagues who won’t work for free—find paid work declining.

Assignments allowing the photographer to develop a story and a style seem to be ever fewer and further between. Editorial photography is one of those professions where the day rate hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. I was paid more per day back in the 1990’s than I am now. This might be generational. Young photographers willing to work for less to pump up their portfolio may be getting more assignments. But I suspect that most photographers struggle for every paid assignment.

So where does that leave those of us who built our careers on long-form storytelling and editorial assignments? I’m still trying to figure that out, but in the meanwhile I started working with two colleagues on a film about Japanese War Brides. Our film explores the seldom-told stories of these women through our relations with our mothers.

My mother looking over photographs of the time when she met my father.

My mother looking over photographs of the time when she met my father.

To say that my mother and I have a complex relationship is about as big an understatement as I can make. Motherhood was a duty to her. I guess many women saw it that way back in the 1950’s since so few had control over their reproductive system. I’m convinced my mother was born several decades too early. She would have been amazing as a businesswoman. I think she would have bypassed parenthood completely if she had the choice.

But she didn’t and her children paid for that.

From the 1990, National Geographic story,  Japanese  Woman, a young bride is on  display to her neighbors before she marries.

From the 1990, National Geographic story, Japanese Woman, a young bride is on display to her neighbors before she marries.

I spent all of my life wondering who this woman was. To help find out, I pitched a story on Japanese Women to National Geographic in the early 1990’s. I hoped to uncover a truth or two that could help explain her. The story was accepted and my search for understanding began. Along the way I met Lucy Craft, presently a CBS producer and National Public Radio reporter from Tokyo and Kathryn Tolbert, a senior editor at the Washington Post. These brilliant women share one important element with me. We are all the eldest daughters of Japanese War Brides. Our relationships with our mothers had similarities but our individual stories are very different.

Jump forward two decades.

A housewife carries her children to a tutoring class, from the 1990, National Geographic story on Japanese Women.

A housewife carries her children to a tutoring class, from the 1990, National Geographic story on Japanese Women.

Lucy suggested we work on a film about Japanese War Brides—a very under-reported segment of American history. I agreed to help her, as did Kathryn. For the next two years, we collected information, interviewed our mothers and acquired B-roll and archival materials. We did frequent video chats on Skype, but we all were busy with paying projects and really needed a full time producer to get the film underway. With children still in college I needed income and couldn’t afford to spend too much time on this. Hunting work in the shrinking world of journalism took most of my time.

Things sped up when several colleagues of mine in the video world formed a new production company called Blue Chalk. I had worked with their Director of Photography, Rob Finch at a multi-media workshop. After talking to him about our project Blue Chalk agreed to create a trailer for us to use for a Kickstarter campaign. If that were successful, we’d use the proceeds to hire Blue Chalk to do a 10 to 15 minute film. We’d then shop that film around as the basis to fund a full-length documentary.

Lucy, Kathryn and myself (far left) being interviewed for the Kickstarter campaign. (Screen grab from the film)

Lucy, Kathryn and myself (far left) being interviewed for the Kickstarter campaign. (Screen grab from the film)

To our surprise, the Kickstarter campaign was highly successful. Along with the amazing financial support we connected with a community of people who were either children or grandchildren of Japanese war brides who wanted to share their stories. We reached our Kickstarter goal within the first four days of the campaign, but vowed we’d keep going to make connections with the other War Bride children. The campaign has been over for almost a month and we’re still getting emails from those wanting to share their stories with us. The most exciting part of this Kickstarter campaign is this realization that we three are part of a larger community of kindred souls.

Two weeks ago, on the eve of a partial solar eclipse, shooting began for the short film version of “Fall Down Seven, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides.” The Blue Chalk film crew spent the next week interviewing our mothers and us and collecting massive amounts of B-roll. Looking over the shoulder of Jamie Francis, the new director of Photography for Blue Chalk, I was thrilled to see the beautifully crafted scenes he was recording.

Over the next couple of months, I will post updates on this effort. Eventually we will have a finished long form documentary suitable for broadcast. This exciting project is keeping me engaged and inspired in the breaks between those adventures that are part of the now too-infrequent traditional assignments.

The shooting for the War Bride short film began on the day of a partial solar eclipse in Norfolk, Virginia

The shooting for the War Bride short film began on the day of a partial solar eclipse in Norfolk, Virginia

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: