The artist as journalist: Meet Jennifer Crandall creator of ‘Whitman, Alabama’
Blag, Samantha, Cathy and Brandon Sullivan pause outside their home in Mobile. Cathy Sullivan, who is the mother of Samantha and the aunt to Brandon and Blag, passed away from lung cancer before their video in the “Whitman, Alabama” project debuted. Photo by Jennifer Crandall.
With a master’s degree in journalism, gigs at the Washington Post and Salon on her resume, and awards from the Online News Association, the White House News Photographers Association and the American Film Institute, “successful journalist” seems an apt description of Jennifer Crandall. But the 43-year-old filmmaker, who will speak at ivoh’s media summit and retreat next month, says she never felt like the journalist label “100% fit” her.
Friends often told Crandall that her process was more akin to that of an artist. So, in 2015 when Michelle Holmes, vice president of content at Alabama Media Group, invited Crandall to become an artist-in-residence for the company, she was game. Serving in this unique position, Crandall created “Whitman, Alabama,” a project that interweaves poetry and documentary to illuminate the connections among Americans. The experiment also offers lessons for media practitioners on the value of breaking disciplinary boundaries.
For the past two years, Crandall and a team of producers have traversed the state of Alabama, meeting locals and inviting them to read — on camera — verses from Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself.” The result is much more than a polyphonic recitation. Standalone videos for each of the 52 stanzas are being released weekly on AL.com, accompanied by written narratives about the orators. Glimpses of the participants’ personalities and milieus are included in the videos: a granddaughter makes silly faces while her grandmother reads from verse 46, a pilot rolls his plane victoriously after reciting verse 29 from 2000 feet in the air, and a teenage dance crew beat boxes before performing verse 21.
The poem itself speaks to themes of both individual identity and universalism — topics that Crandall, who grew up in Pakistan and is part Chinese-Vietnamese, part white, has often explored through her filmmaking. She first read “Song of Myself” as a teenager, and “it immediately resonated,” she said. Around 2012, Crandall began pondering how to incorporate the poem into a media project.
When the Alabama opportunity arose, “it just seemed perfect,” she said. “Whitman is a white Yankee, but he wrote the poem for Americans. The idea of pairing his voice on the page with the actual voices and the actual witnessing some of the lives of Southerners was a cool way of (reaching) that notion of bridging people and showing connections.”
Though Whitman’s writing is the backbone, Crandall considers the brief documentary moments the most important parts of the videos.
“It’s where hopefully things seep through the surface about who these people are,” she said, noting that she wants to include enough personal details for the viewer to feel attached to the speaker, but not enough that they can put that person in a box.
“I think that’s what we do every day. You can look at someone and say, ‘I know that person. I know what they’re all about,’ whether it’s because of the political party they belong to or the way they dress or the accent that they have,” Crandall said. “The bottom line (concept) for this project is that people should get to know each other better.”
Though filming for “Whitman, Alabama” began well before the divisive 2016 election, viewers of the series have sent emails sharing how timely and important that message feels, according to Crandall. The need for people to get to know one another was also central to the onBeing videos that Crandall created at the Washington Post in 2007, and she said that she’s become more ardent about the subject over time.
“It’s a skill to be able to speak to someone you don’t know,” Crandall said. “For as good as social media is and as good as cell phones are … we’re not sharpening and advancing and evolving our skills at getting to know other people, so the fabric of our society is weakening.”
Crandall and her partners accrued a lot of practice with such skills while producing “Whitman, Alabama.” They connected with dozens of strangers in unfamiliar places throughout the state. Sometimes they simply picked a road and talked to whomever they found along the way. Crandall tried to approach people with curiosity, not an expectation that they might fit into a certain gap in their growing collection of verses.
“Often times in journalism, it’s like, ‘Here’s what the story is. Go out and find people to either support or refute whatever that is,’” she explained. “For me it’s always been, ‘Why don’t we go see what story comes to us, and we’ll be the vehicle for it.’ ”
That inverse process is part of why the journalist identity never quite fit, Crandall said. Then again, “artist” wasn’t exactly right either. It’s the blending of the two fields that she finds compelling, and which holds lessons for other media practitioners: “We get in our lanes too much, and that can be good for efficiency … but that’s fundamentally boring,” she said.
Crandall added that experimenting with different forms and methods isn’t the same as abandoning ethics: “I wouldn’t want to do anything where, because it’s poetry I can edit anyway I want to … journalistically, I still want to stay to the truth of something.”
Journalists need not switch out of their lane entirely, she said, but perhaps, “just broaden it, so there’s more to work with.”
Editor’s note: Jennifer Crandall is a speaker for ivoh’s 2017 media summit and retreat.
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