While trolling through my blog archives I found a bunch of posts which I wrote months (in some cases, like this one, years) ago, and never got around to publishing. So I might drop a few of them onto the site from time to time. This one was originally written in September 2010, when I was deployed managing an emergency response program in Niger, and had spent a few days with a TV news team filming a couple of pieces. I thought it would be good to share. Seeing as I wrote it and all.
If I were to want to tell you about my week filming with a foreign media team and wanted to use pseudonyms, I might flippantly call my reporter ‘Mike’ and my cameraman ‘Cam’.
In a twist of truth being at least as amusing as fiction (and frequently far weirder)’ these are actually their real names. ‘Mike’ is correspondent Mike McRoberts, and ‘Cam’ is news cameraman Cameron Williams, both of TVNZ in New Zealand. They’ve been here in Niger putting together some pieces about the current emergency, and about aid workers, and I’ve had the privilege of keeping them company for the last four days while we’ve bounced around the central Nigerien countryside.
(Here, of course, ‘bouncing’ is not simply a euphemistic reference to the extent to which we travelled across the far reaches of rural Maradi, but has a visceral tangibility best experienced in the back seat of our Land Cruiser troop carrier…)
Over the years I’ve found that the professions of aid work and international journalism (particularly war journalism) tend to attract similar personalities (albeit with certain key differences as well). The contexts and activities to which we’re drawn are similar, the situations we put ourselves into providing a similar kick to the system. They’re high-stress jobs on which driven people with an experientialist bent tend to thrive. They’re drawn by the opportunity to make unique contributions in unique locations, and the added risk factor is often an appeal.
Mike and Cam both fit that bill, and the rugged and frequently confronting context of Niger, the world’s poorest country and in the depths of a tragic nutrition crisis, seemed to excite rather than daunt them. I felt quickly comfortable with them. They were personalities I could identify with. The war-stories they shared were like those I’ve shared with dozens of relief colleagues in bars the world over. And to top it all off, they were consummate professionals.
I’ve dealt with the media a fair bit over the years now. Most of it has been more remote- phone interviews from garbage-strewn streets in central Niger and hotel rooms in Colombo jump to mind. Around the time of the Haiti earthquake I also did a few TV interviews with the Australian press, including a particularly daunting live appearance on a daytime chat show, which I have no desire to repeat. So the chance to watch a couple of experienced hands put together some foreign correspondent pieces was a chance to observe the process from both sides of the camera lens- something which as a photographer I found fascinating.
Mike and Cam were making a couple of news slots, as well as a longer in-depth piece about aid workers, and were in-country for about 5 days. I, with a couple of our media staff, accompanied them to the field, and took the opportunity to combine the story-gathering work with an assessment of how our emergency programs are functioning in the bush.
Reporting on these situations is always a challenge. Article 10 of the Red Cross Code of Conduct insists that in their communications material they present beneficiaries as survivors with dignity, not helpless victims. Media has its own internal guidelines- driven mostly by the integrity of the individual reporters and producers (and I’m happy to say that Mike defines himself as a Humanitarian first, a journalist second). Just like NGOs are wanting to have an emotional impact to encourage people to donate, the media wants to have an emotional impact to encourage people to watch the show or buy the edition. This can lend itself to a tendency to focus on the shocking, at the expense of balance and dignity.
It wasn’t hard to find shocking stories, of course. We were all particularly struck by the plight of a 9-month old boy who weighed roughly what Mike’s own son had weighed at birth, with skeletal limbs and a bulbous head. We spent time returning some women to their village who had walked more than 30km that morning to be at the distribution site. But so too they focused on the positive- the children whose weight can be seen improving over several weeks of treatment, the agricultural work helping farmers diversify their income and food intake, the schools offering children who have fallen through the cracks of the educational system a second chance at building a future for themselves.
I enjoyed watching Cam at work. Like me, he’s a student of light and form, and he’s at the top of his game (shortlisted as he’s been for a cameraman of the year award in New Zealand). He took great care not just composing his frames, but also ensuring that the light worked for the image he wanted to capture. I speak from personal experience when I say this is no mean feat in the Sahel. Sunlight during the middle of the day is harsh and washes out features, burns out backgrounds, and casts unsightly shadows. During the magic hours of dawn and dusk, when the light is soft and warm and beautiful, the angles change rapidly as the sun moves quicker in the tropics, presenting unique challenges for a documentary attempting to capture some stability in the light.
Like photography, putting together a piece for camera is a blend of science and art. We spent time finding locations and sometimes having to reshoot when circumstances undermined the quality of the work we were doing (one such instance involved a generator ten feet from where I sat giving an interview which, 20 minutes into the piece, decided to roar to life after the main power-grid failed; it took us an hour to find another location, and we had to restart the whole thing from scratch).
The visit captured yet another aspect of why aid work is a fascinating profession to be involved in. I doubt I could have had the experience of being so intimately involved with the creation of current affairs news in many other professions, but aid allows you to cross a lot of different paths. It was an enjoyable learning and fun to be a part of. But most of all, like so often happens in overseas postings, it was just a great opportunity to meet a couple of really good guys, share some fun, unique experiences, and more than one hearty belly-laugh with guys that get it.
Mike, Cam, thanks for good times on the road.
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