Finding Subjects for Videojournalism

storytelling with subjects

Run Granny Run: Doris Haddock, in her mid-90s, a true character, explains her motivations to run for U.S. senator of Vermont. (Film by Marlo Poras)

The subjects in a story are often dictated by the nature of the piece. Some stories are about a particular person or family, whereas others are about an issue for which you will choose topics that exemplify the issue you are focusing on. Th e themes that you choose must draw the audience into the story and make them feel a part of it for the entire time. You don’t want viewers to feel like mere observers—outsiders looking in. If you can hunt down truly engaging subject matter, you’ll have a better chance of creating an excellent piece of work.

Three Necessary Keys Before Selecting a Subject

Pamela Chen, a senior communications coordinator in photography and multimedia at the Open Society Foundations says, “Often, we encounter the story of a person whose life journey encapsulates the metaphor for the bigger picture issue. But in order to produce a multimedia story, we need to know:

  • First, is this person actively engaged on the issue and doing work that is visually dynamic?
  • Second, do we have the access necessary to record this action? Is the person willing to show their face and record their voice for the camera?
  • Third, will they allow someone to follow them around in their daily life for an extended period of time?

“These questions are about action, access, and time. They are all three key to the eventual outcome. If this trio of crucial criteria cannot be met, then we must seek another way to tell the story.”

Chat with Your Potential Subject

While preparing to shoot a video story at an event, Evelio Contreras, a video photographer at the Washington Post , says he’ll often casually chat with people at the event before shooting. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows him to understand the story better, and second, he can hold informal pre-interviews to determine whom he might want to interview for the piece he is about to shoot.

Searching for Great Characters

Tim Broekema, a professor at Western Kentucky University, says, “You can’t sit at your desk and speculate: ‘Hmmmh. I wonder where that character might be lurking.’ Captivating characters appear to you when you’re out in the field asking questions. Allow characters to come and go in and out of your life until you fi nd the just right one. Too many beginning videographers get stuck. They settle for a character they think is ‘good enough.’ But ‘good enough’ isn’t going to cut it. Th e chances of finding a great speaker who is also visually pertinent to your topic are few. Characters who grab and hold the viewers’ attention are pivotal. So the process of character search is vitally important. Magnetic characters are just plain gifts from God.”

Look for an Extrovert

On the topic of finding a subject, Darren Durlach from station WBFF-TV in Baltimore observes, “Hopefully a great character is someone who is dynamic, open, and unafraid to say what they think. Viewers generally care more about those extroverted types. Of course everyone we talk to each day is diff erent. But I have learned to use my gut to look for ‘real’ people. The more sincere they are about what they say, the more their message shines out through the television screen. I just jump right in and ask almost everyone who walks by a question or two off camera to put out feelers or lead me in the right direction. Oh . . . and we always try to avoid making leading characters out of public information officers or stiff people in suits because that usually takes us out of the realm of sincerity.”

Excerpted from Videojournalism by Kenneth Kobre ©2012 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved

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