The value of shared experience
By Sanjeev Chatterjee
After completing college in the mid-1980s, I first volunteered and then worked for a non- profit organization in New Delhi specializing in the use of visual media for social change. Although this was a marked departure from my original idea of joining the entertainment media industry, the work turned out to be no less exciting.
The job paid very little, but it afforded me constant travel throughout India and to places deep into the countryside. Fledgling documentaries emerged from that experience as did a thousand stories that I continue to tell to this day. It was a time of great discoveries about my country and people’s lives that I learned to share with others.
Those two years I spent as a junior video producer were extraordinary. I flew on an aircraft for the first time, had my first sighting of an ocean, experienced the aftermaths of a race riot, and sat cross-legged on the floors of village huts across India eating the most basic of meals. I carried video gear high above my head while crossing a rising river, boarded an express train going in the wrong direction. And through conversations, arguments and the exercise of writing, rewriting and editing stories for broadcast and other forms of distribution, I found myself a voice for public presentation.
The awesome discovery of an India I had barely seen before, coupled with the freedom to make sense of it all for audiences made those years particularly stimulating.
In the 25-odd years that have passed since my first job in India, I have managed to remain active in telling visual documentary stories. From my home in American higher education I have had the privilege of creating work for a variety of mainstream and alternative distribution channels.
My life as an academic has allowed me to freely explore media form, content and distribution beyond set formulas. While I remain committed to the idea of sharing true stories of places and the lives that inhabit them, as an artist, I am now more aware of myself as the vehicle for those stories. This is not simply a matter of the camera angles I might pick in my coverage or the details I include or leave out in the editing process. I work under the assumption that the visual media offer opportunities to share experiences as well as information.
In the motion picture One Water that I helped make, there is a sequence in Japan depicting Suneori Amagoi, a quadrennial ritual where a giant bamboo dragon is slain so its soul can rise to the heavens to ask for rain. Like most of the film, this depiction depends on visual sequencing, natural sound and composed music to tell the story. There is no voice-over narration or interviews used to describe the scene other than an initial caption that establishes the ritual and its geographic location for the audience. The idea behind telling the story like this is to focus the point of view of an inquisitive eyewitness – not from the perspective of an expert divulging information about the ritual but as a storyteller recalling the scene to friends.
Visually the experience grows from the sleepiness of the town where the incident is taking place through the build up and awakening of a dragon to its ultimate slaying. In between, during the extreme heat of the day, the community effort of those carrying the weight of the giant bamboo dragon is portrayed as part of an ancient ritual in the midst of a highly technological and digital society. And the rising sounds of conch shells, a momentary gust of wind that parallels a priest chanting are recollections that help define what takes place.
The challenge in such storytelling is to remain true to the experience in its rendition through a montage of visual and auditory compilation.
The stories I am interested in telling are not designed as repositories of facts and figures. Rather, they aspire to establishing the connectedness of diverse human experiences. Life and the phenomena that surround it continue to spawn a commonality of experience that cannot readily be found in the minutiae. This is not to say that it is unimportant to carefully assemble the pieces of a story with details, big and small. But my values prompt me to tap the commonalities of human life and aspirations as the point of departure.
The evolution of my own ideas about visual non-fiction storytelling has, in part, resulted in the creation of the Knight Center for International Media at the School of Communication, University of Miami. The center has allowed a growing circle of students, faculty and media professionals at the university and around the world to engage with compelling visual storytelling of their own and to address common global challenges.
As of the writing of this essay I have begun work on my next motion picture One City that will try to capture the experience of some great cities of today and the common challenges they face. However, this work does not stand alone. Students and faculty at the University of Miami and elsewhere around the world are engaged in telling their own stories about challenges faced by cities around the world. During the first half of 2010, for example, students from the University of Miami, School of Communication worked with students and faculty in seven partner institutions located in cities in Africa and Asia to share stories of urban challenges. This larger project of telling and sharing stories on a common pressing theme is called Our City and the results of the student work can be seen here.
The next chapter in this continuum must, of necessity, be the inclusion of other voices and ideas for storytelling. As someone once told me, it is impossible to clap with one hand. It is the same with shared experiences. You need others to listen, experience your work – and perhaps even to create stories of their own from the experiences they are willing share.
Sanjeev Chatterjee’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.