What Went Wrong (and Right) with the Cluster Bomb Diaries?

Posted on January 18, 2008. Filed under: independent journalism | Tags: , , , |

Remnants of war

The first project I started as an international, independent journalist was what I hoped would be an insightful, exceptionally produced piece (or series of pieces) that spliced together audio of interviews with cluster bomb victims in southern Lebanon. G, a photographer I met on my third day in Lebanon (about two weeks after the war between Israel and Hezbollah ended), and I got to talking about doing a project together, sound and image. I’d produce the audio and she’d provide the images. We did the fieldwork in October, November, and December of 2006, but we didn’t come close to producing the work we’d imagined. Why?

There are many reasons, lack of resources and time together being key, but frankly, in retrospect, the most debilitating factor was our lack of the forethought. Somehow, despite all my experience to the contrary, I was able to delude myself that just being here, in Lebanon, was enough. We agreed on a topic and then barreled forward, much in the same way that both of us ended up here in the first place. She had dropped teaching a summer photo course to document the injustice, and I had cut short a vacation with my family in Cyprus to hop on a UN boat to Beirut.

We were both horrified by the stories we heard everyday about men, women, and children returning to their homes only to be maimed or killed by cluster bombs and we were both drawn to try to tell them. But before we could start, G returned to the States for a month to do a photo workshop, while I stayed on learning what I could about the weapons by meeting with deminers and reading up on the weapons themselves. When G got back to Beirut in late October, we started to work, still without much of a plan.

We used newspaper articles, a list published in a preliminary report on the situation, and an excel spreadsheet with all the victims names and locations. We started by visiting hospital emergency rooms around Nabatiyeh, because a lot of the injuries and deaths had occurred in or near this city in southern Lebanon. Our other option was to work in and around Sour (Tyre) in southern Lebanon, but because it would have required more driving (and I was the one with the license), we opted for Nabatiyeh, which was only, as it turned out, marginally closer.

We met an ambulance driver, Dahesh, who lived in the town of Zawtar ech Charqiye, where a lot of cluster bombs landed. He invited us to stay at his house, and his daughter, Nidaa, became one of our volunteer translators. (The opening photo is of a windowsill in Dahesh’s house. The hands are his and Nidaa’s.) We also had a piece of paper explaining our project in Arabic, which was helpful.

Eventually, we got into a rhythm of visiting about three victims a day, when we were out, and we often made repeated visits to the same homes. In all, we probably met with around 20 in the six weeks or so that we were working together. G took hundreds of photos and I recorded audio with my little Edirol R-09. We managed to get some exposure for our work, but we made a lot of mistakes that, in my opinion, has kept the end product of our time together from meeting our expectations of what it should have been. I want to jot them down here so that they might be of use to others who find themselves in similar situations.

Mistakes were made

We shouldn’t have made them—they’re media production 101—but they are what happens when you leave the classroom or the computer screen and go into the field, where controlling your environment is implausible at best. They’re also the result of working independently, without having an editor or a producer backing you up and helping you anticipate what you need in terms of raw material, B roll, length, angles, etc. Working independently at its scariest means not having anyone but the people in your story and the people reading, listening, or looking at your story to answer to. Add inexperience, a new partnership, and a foreign language to this equation and the chasm you’re looking at is close to impossible to bridge.

Here’s a breakdown of what I would do now and wish we had done then:

  1. We didn’t know what we were aiming for. Without setting foot in a victim’s house, we should have had a clear idea of what our final format was going to be. We thought we could collect the images and audio and then assemble them into what we wanted them to be. We were thinking broadly, it could be a gallery installation or a radio narrative with pictures or a blog, which we actually tried. We weren’t thinking in terms of producing 8 to 10 two-minute SoundSlides narratives, covering several victims or phases in a victim’s recovery. Granted, I didn’t know what Soundslides was till a year later, but still we tried to case too wide a net.
  2. We didn’t discuss our expectations before beginning the work. We managed our travel very fluidly, and while we’re still good friends, there was a lot of conflict throughout because while G was gone in September, I had started school and taken on another project. I wasn’t able (and didn’t want) to just take off and be in the field for days at a time the way she wanted to. I needed to come back to Beirut for work and for convenience, to decompress a bit. I knew I was staying in Lebanon for a while, but she felt pressed for time. Regardless of our individual preferences, we should have discussed our expectations for each other before we started working. What we did do was apply for a grant. We didn’t get it, but I think we substituted this process for discussing our expectations. We shouldn’t have.
  3. We didn’t document our process consistently. Part of discussing expectations and determining the scope of our project should have been to agree on how we would document the project for ourselves. A writer, I instinctively started keeping a journal of where we went and who we met, asking to G to help compile this information from our brains to the computer every day. But as things got more hectic, we slacked off. I also started an Excel spreadsheet for our expenses, but this too was abandoned and while we managed our expenses fine, we didn’t document them consistently.
  4. We didn’t download and organize our material every day, part 1. G was working with a 35mm Canon and film, so we had to wait until we got back to Beirut to get her film developed. They would develop the negatives and give her back low-res scans with only numbers for file names on a CD so she could see which pictures she wanted to print. G didn’t have a computer so she would download her images to mine, in no particular order. As we worked on special projects, a calendar, a set of postcards that was never printed, some of the negatives were printed and scanned at higher resolutions. The files became a shambles. So, a year later, after I had sorted through the same folders umpteen times, I found myself organizing them by subject and by resolution, because some of the negatives had been scanned at high resolution for a calendar project we were working on. What I wish we had done: Created a file-naming hierarchy and stuck to it.
  5. We didn’t download and organize our material every day, part 2. I was working with the Edirol R-09 digital audio recorder with a built-in stereo microphone, a 1 GB memory card, and 16-bit WAV files at 44.1 kHz. I could record about 70-80 minutes before needing to download, which I did whenever I could and always in Beirut, but if we were out of town, we were less likely to have electricity or I didn’t bring my computer or, or, or… I should have bought the 2GB memory card at the outset and/or purchased a spare. I missed very important sound at a funeral of a man who had died the day before when a cluster bomb exploded on a work site. As if that’s not bad enough, I never learned how to name files in my Edirol on the fly and sometimes I’d wait days before listening to them and transcribing them. This should all be done as soon as possible, because a) it makes the audio less daunting to listen to and b) you can identify and correct your mistakes.

What We Got Right

Surely, there are other things we could have done better too, but for now, these are the five main ways in which we sabotaged ourselves and our work. I’ll add one caveat, though. Blogs have grown up a lot over the past year, and as I mentioned before, I didn’t even know what SoundSlides was a year ago. We tried to start a blog with our material last year but Typepad was cumbersome for us, and not only because the Internet speed in Lebanon sucks. We weren’t quite up to speed on how to organize pictures, and I hadn’t found the Internet Archive or figured out how to compress and upload audio to it yet. Our meta problem, you might say, was attempting to scale too many learning curves at once.

Which is not to say that the attempt or the work was wasted. Not at all. G had a show of her photos in Maryland, I have published the audio I have produced on the Public Radio Exchange and the Internet Archive, where it’s been downloaded a few times. I also used it as the basis for an independent study for my media studies program and incorporated some of the raw material and lessons learned into an online journalism workshop for Arab journalists here in Beirut.

We partnered with a local mine awareness organization and helped them produce a calendar to be distributed to families living in cluster-bomb and mine-affected areas. Another collaborative move we made was to share everything we created. So G is welcome to use all my audio and I can use all her pictures. We credit each other, of course, and vice versa.

Another good thing we did, though totally unintentionally, was to pick a topic that is, unfortunately, evergreen. But 2008 looks like it might be a big year, with the negotiations for a global cluster bomb treaty (minus the US, Israel, China, and Russia, and a few others). I still have the photos and audio and the desire to transform my disappointment into something useful and something I’m more proud of. It’s time to hatch a plan.

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