This entry is in response to the 4 months or so I spent reporting on ‘Caught in the Gray Zone’ with my good friend Samantha Schmidt with our partner Julie Kennedy.
Read the whole story here.
In early August, I got dinner with my friend, Heather, at the Laughing Planet. Besides obsessing over our quesadillas, we spent a lot of time talking about our goals for the fall. I definitely remember saying to her at one point, “I want to help tell the best story I ever have.” She asked me how I planned to do this and I mentioned our class, Words and Pictures: The class where three people partner together on one story for the entire semester. Cue Heather’s complaints about group project work. “Group projects are the worst,” she said. And at the time, I agreed with her. Just last spring I had worked my way through a group presentation that ended up being a lot of me wrangling together my partners. By the time of Heather and I’s dinner, I knew I was paired with Sam and Julie; two people I respected; but, at the time, was worried about working with for the duration of the project. Never before had I embarked on a collaborative effort such as this. I was used to going solo. I liked going solo.
“What’s the story going to be about?,” Heather asked. I told her that Sam wanted to do a story about sexual assault. Definitely not normal dinner conversation and definitely not an issue I felt like I understood well enough to be pursuing—or photographing—at that point. How was I going to find a source? What the hell do I even take pictures of? “I know I girl,” Heather said. They weren’t friends, but Heather had worked with Emily the previous summer and thought she might want to talk. I thought; well, I had to start somewhere.
What followed was the most in-depth, important project I’ve ever worked on. For the next several months, I tried to get as close to the issue of sexual assault as I could. The combination of photojournalism (an area I had only dabbled in) and team collaboration on such a complicated issue was a brand new challenge for me. I faced ethical questions I never anticipated. I connected with my sources in an entirely new way. But I felt focused. I knew where the story was headed (most of the time). And now that the story is out for the public to see, I’m looking back at the mistakes, successes and trials I had throughout the past three months while working on this project.
I’m proud of my team. I’m proud of the story we produced. I’m impressed with the maturity Sam and Julie demonstrated throughout our entire reporting process. I’m also surprised with how well we communicated throughout the semester. Sam and I were already good friends before we began, but I had never worked with her on a project like this. Every step of the way, we shared our setbacks, successes and asked each other questions. We made sure the other was on top of his/her game and never once did we fall off course. I felt comfortable sharing my insecurities and, in turn, Julie and Sam shared theirs’ as well. If I wasn’t sure about a portrait shot, I’d get their opinions. I got to observe first-hand the poise and skill it takes to interview vulnerable subjects. Interviewing our sources with Sam was priceless. We’d de-brief after intense interviews with Emily (similar to our daily meetings in Uganda this summer). It was the perfect environment to learn because I got to work with other reporters in action. I hope to work on teams as open as this one in the future.
From the beginning, we knew what we were looking for: a victim who would talk on the record. This agreement between our team members was critical because it formed a foundation for us to work off of. I felt confident pursuing sources and that our project was legitimate and important. This confidence kept us on track and ultimately allowed us to publish a story by the end of the semester.
Another success was finding Emily. Not only was finding her a success, but after a while it became clear that she would become the main focus of our narrative. We could see how draining the process of remembering the night was for her. She cried a lot during our interviews, which was hard to see. But because we felt so prepared and were so open with her about our ideas, the incorporation of her story into our final presentation felt seamless. We were up front about what we wanted from her from the beginning, which made it easier to ask her for details and photos later in the project. This story was the first time I really felt like I established a rapport with my source. She would text us when events were going on that might be good to photograph. We’d ride in the car together. I feel like we got to the “hidden place” I hear so much about. This helped us a lot with the ethical questions that we faced near the end of our reporting. She was the brave woman we needed. Her story and willingness to work with us was an incredible asset.
In addition to my wonderful team experience and source relationship, I feel I developed an entire new skill set as a photojournalist. Looking at this story through the lens helped me visualize the story arc much better. This was the first time I really dug deep with a photo project and I’m stunned by the impact the images made on our narrative. By the end of the reporting, I felt like I had captured every part of Emily’s life that I was able to. I learned how fun and happy she was. I learned how badly she wants to help other college students find their place on campus. Ultimately, I think I got across a point that Sam couldn’t have in her story: that Emily really is just another college student. She has the same stressful homework and grad school applications many of us have. But she also pushes herself to be involved on campus. There wasn’t room for that side of Emily in Sam’s writing, but I felt I was able to portray her that way through my pictures.
Technically, I feel much better about using a camera in the field. I know there were points that I failed (I’ll touch on those in a minute), but I feel much more confident about my photography now. I have a better understanding of the types of lenses I need to use in certain situations. It took me a while before I realized the longest lens isn’t always the best for every situation. I’m still learning and evolving my skills as a photographer and to do that, I just need to keep shooting. And I want to. My appreciation for photography and photojournalism grew throughout the semester. After seeing the powerful images of Mary Ellen Mark and of my classmates, I now think of photographers in a much different light (pardon the pun/cliché). We are also reporters. We are just as much storytellers as writers are. I no longer think of my colleagues as simply “writers” or “photographers.” I think of all of us as reporters.
Our final product was a success, but there were times when I wasn’t sure it would work out. There were times when I couldn’t sleep because I thought we messed up our relationship with Emily. I was afraid of pushing her too far or making her uncomfortable. I was afraid of publishing something misleading about her or her case. We asked for so much from her and she gave us everything. I was honored by this, but also scared of it. I’ll never forget her telling us her story about the night she woke up in her own bed with a man on top of her while she was literally sitting in the same bed. I kept replaying the night in my head. Having been in her room, I could picture how everything happened. Why should I be allowed to know this? It was early in the process so it was hard to me to understand what the final project was going to look like. I felt bad for her for a while, for everything she had to go through. But then I felt bad about feeling bad because if I were her I wouldn’t want someone pitying me. That’s not what she deserves. I definitely let the story get to me a little bit because of how much I cared about Emily. To get the story right we had to spent a huge amount of time with her. I knew in the back of my mind that other reporters who wrote or photographed subjects for a story about sexual assault probably didn’t go to their source’s horseback riding lesson with them.
The ethical questions we asked ourselves came as a surprise. When we finally got to talk to Phil, the man who had sex with Emily, I assumed his entire story would make it in our story. After we interviewed him my mind was blown. He filled in (with his perspective) the night that Emily didn’t remember. I thought for sure we’d have to publish it in the story, along with his picture. But we didn’t. Our professors wisely suggested to us that we not include his full account and picture. Ultimately, I think this was a good decision. How was it fair to give his side when he wasn’t willing to share his name or face? Was it fair to Emily? Whose perspective do we share in the story? Questions like this helped shape our story into a very well-rounded account of Emily’s case. When it came to my photo story, however, I decided to include the silhouetted image of Phil. Since the only way I could represent him was through the anonymous image, it made sense to me to include it in my story. His perspective showed us a different perspective on rape. It came across to him as a simple misunderstanding, which is definitely not the way I viewed it before meeting Phil.
I struggled a lot with my technical skills. Many of my photos were out of focus or overexposed. It was very frustrating to me because I recognized my mistakes but still had trouble fixing them. There were entire takes that I couldn’t use because of how bad the images were. I would try switching lenses and working with Jim to get better, but I came to realize that photography is something that simply takes time and practice. I knew coming in that I didn’t have the same level of experience as the other photojournalists in the class. I wasn’t used to thinking like a photographer. I hadn’t held a camera as long as they had. But I kept trying and I can see how my images improved throughout the semester. I now look for the light when I enter a room. I’m seeing scenes from different angles. I’m carrying my camera with me more. I discovered while I was looking through my pictures that photography is such an important thing. And it’s even more important to know how to do it right. Before, I undervalued the amount of patience and work it takes to get great photographs. Now I know what I need to do to take my skills to another level. I need to practice my focusing technique. I want to make sure my main subject is in focus. It sounds simple, right? It is, but I noticed my consistent mistake was that someone other than Emily would be in focus in my pictures. This was most likely a result of my lack of experience with following a particular subject in busy environments. This realization is both frustrating to me (because of the pictures I couldn’t use) but also exciting because I know I have something to work on in the coming months.
Our Monday class sessions helped so much. I loved sitting around and talking about our projects. It gave me an opportunity to share my concerns or questions. I can’t imagine another scenario where I’d be able to learn from as many talented photographers at one time. When Glory talked about getting her portraits of the parents for her story, it gave me the confidence to ask Emily for a portrait. Even though we had spent a lot of time with Emily already, I was worried about how she’d react to a portrait in her bedroom. I asked her and she was fine with taking one, just not in her room. It occurred to me how important just asking is. If I want something I need to open my mouth and ask for it. Whether that’s help from my classmates or a portrait from my source, asking will always get me somewhere.
The most educational part of this experience was putting together the project at the end. Sam and I were together most of the weekend before it published in the IDS. I’ll always remember it as a time where I was completely engrossed with something I knew mattered. I was totally aware of where my project partners were at all times. I barely slept. We had a back and forth text message feed between us and Emily fact checking final detail changes. It made me really appreciate the talent and effort that my peers were putting in to completing the project. I realized how powerful teamwork can be, especially when pursuing a story so relevant to our culture as college students. When everyone covers their responsibilities on the team, the story emerges more powerful and complete. None of us had to worry about the other getting his or her job finished. This is the kind of work I want to be doing with my life. The work where the people involved are undoubtedly dedicated to what they are doing. It was so perfectly challenging and fulfilling at the same time. I’m so grateful to have been paired with Julie and Sam. Not only did this project teach me the skills I needed to become a better journalist, it taught me the work and dedication required to complete any project in my life. It requires consistency, communication and initiative. It also requires the ability to recognize when you find even the smallest bit of luck, which is something I’ve learned over and over again here in Ernie Pyle Hall.