The Fall Workshop 2013

Last month I returned to my alma mater to help out at The Fall Workshop. Every year for 12 years, graduate and undergraduate students from the Multimedia, Photography & Design department at Syracuse University dedicate 4 days to intense, hands-on production work. For the past two years, the workshop has been based around the theme of "Families," with this year specifically focused on the idea of "New Families." Returning for the second year as a coach, I had the unique opportunity to return the instruction and knowledge that I walked away with during the two workshops I participated in as a graduate student. The Fall Workshop is a fundamental component of the curriculum. Coming only a few weeks into the beginning of the semester, students learn shooting, editing, and storytelling from professionals (mostly Syracuse alumni).

This year I worked with Maura Lisson and Ethan Backer (graduate students), Chris Janjic (a senior undergraduate), and Chase Walker (a visiting fellow from Liberia). Coming from a diverse set of backgrounds each student set off to tell a story about a "new family" in Syracuse, in their own way. 

Ethan Backer was a former freelance photographer in Massachusetts who returned to graduate school to learn the necessary skills for multimedia storytelling. Video was still very new to him where the mechanics and technique were not yet familiar. However, as the weekend progressed, his comfort with the camera grew. He was able to focus (literally), started to see light again, and was able to be more deliberate about his composition and framing. Unconditional is a wonderful story about a family whose love far outweighs its needs. The storytelling is elegant as he slowly reveals the story through deliberate pacing. 

Chris Janjic, a senior undergraduate, began his project on Friday. Typically most students begin the workshop with having shot some of their story, but Chris had the added challenge of starting from scratch on day one. Having just gained access to a halfway house, his greatest hurdle would be to develop and nurture relationships with the female residents in a compressed timeline. Putting away his camera and simply hanging out was a test of patience that ultimately rewarded Chris with an open door into the lives of these women. Halfway There is a sensitive look into three women's lives looking to start over, shared through poetry and deeply personal experiences. 

Maura Lisson, who holds a bachelor's degree from SU's school of Visual and Performing Arts, focused on a middle school cross country team. With a background in fine art photography, Maura wanted to take a non-traditional approach to storytelling. Her portrait of these young girls is both reflective, and active. It is a universal story that we can all relate to: a vignette of the adolescent experience through the lens of team, sport, and family. 

Finally, Chase Walker, a visiting fellow from Liberia and extremely talented artist, hunkered down to explore the story of a Liberian family who have been refugees in Syracuse since 2006. Contrasting the themes of the "American Dream" and the "Liberian Dream," Chase tells the story of a family seeking a better life in America in hopes of returning to their country with this. Through the eyes of the eldest brother of four, Lawson Townsend pursues this dream through soccer for his entire family. 

Reflecting on a week at NPPA Immersion

In mid-May this year, I was invited to participate as a coach in the 2013 NPPA Multimedia Immersion workshop held in Syracuse, NY. For a week, award-winning photojournalists, working professionals, and college students descended on the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications to receive 5 days of intensive training in multimedia storytelling. The workshop prides itself in having one of the lowest student to teacher ratio, where each team of two coaches is paired with four students. The uber talented coaches included hot shots like Darren Durlach from the Boston Globe, McKenna Ewen from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Wes Pope from the University of Oregon. As some of the most accomplished storytellers in the industry, they arrived as volunteers for the entire week to share their knowledge and experience with students and coaches eager to learn. 

It was my first Immersion workshop and was teamed up with veteran coach Steve Elfers, the director of video at USA Today. Coming from decades of experience in photojournalism and video production, I learned a ton from Steve just by looking over his shoulder and listening in on his stories about his early introduction to video. Our team consisted of Peter Taylor, an editorial and commercial photographer based out of Charlotte, NC; John Gastaldo, a staff photographer at the U-T San Diego; Patricia Swan, the Dean of School and Business at Utica College; and Alexa Mills, the CoLab director of Media Projects at MIT's Center for Civic Media.

I primarily worked with Peter and John from start to finish, talking about story structure, the nuts and bolts of interview and video technique, and most importantly: SHOOTING DETAILS!! It was a rewarding experience to work with such talented shooters, where my primary role would really be helping them through all the other stuff they've never had to, or wanted to think about. 

By the time Saturday came around for the final screening, Peter had pumped out a gorgeously shot video about a couple's accidental building of a family legacy. Peter sucked it up and twice drove the 2-hour round trip drive to Owera Vineyard in Cazenovia outside of Syracuse. Although he initially struggled to find the story, Peter pressed hard to tease out the story from his quirky couple, Peter and Nancy Muserlian, and ended up finding genuinely passionate and emotional moments from them. Peter has the ability to see something beautiful, and use the camera to immerse you in its beauty. This story was challenging, but the combination of Peter's determination and vision is what really separated his story from just another video about wine.

Between Peter and John, their stories could not have been more different, but yet so similar in theme. John chased the story surrounding a disabled veteran and single-father, Scott Jr. Brennen, as he fights to provide a better life for his family in Syracuse. In a beautifully shot video, John builds a wonderful story arc that culminates in an emotional moment of pure joy for him and his 4 kids. John was so excited to produce this story that he began shooting before we'd even had the chance to talk about video or audio. However, the footage and moments that he came back with seemed like he'd been shooting video for years. The one thing that always baffles my mind, is that usually when an accomplished photographer begins shooting, his sense of composition and aesthetics seems to go out the door. However, with John, that aesthetic and innate sensibility to capture and stay with moments really came through in his project.

In a nutshell, the NPPA Multimedia Immersion workshop was a tremendous experience. As a coach I learned about new ideas, techniques, and tools to further our storytelling. As students, they took home far too much knowledge and skills that I fear now threatens my own career. Haha! I appreciate all the hard work that everyone put into this week, but I tell ya, I'm glad that it's over. I'm exhausted.