Producer Notes | TEXT

When I started this project in January of 2010, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I wanted to pursue a story that dug deeper than the stories I had done in the past, to work on something that had news value but was based on personal stories and experiences that I could communicate through multiple media. It is now December and I am finally publishing it.

The evolution of a story

I began this project deeply interested in the cycle of drug use in our country. I planned to look into why people didn’t get the help they needed and were, instead, treated as criminals for their medical issue. As I began researching programs and problems in our area, and even rode along with Durham police officers, my story went in a direction I didn’t expect.

Through many different leads and contacts, I found Open Table Ministry, a program that did something I had never seen anyone do for people: provide outdoor meals and religious services for people who live outside. It is a simple idea, but not one I had seen in action before. I continued to attend these meals each week because the people and the stories I found there were exactly what I was looking to report on, albeit a slight tangent from my original plan.

Many of the men and women I met were caught in a cycle of substance abuse, depression, trauma, mental illness, uncertainty, confusing housing systems and conflicting ideologies enacted by programs meant to help them get out of their circumstances. The drugs or the alcoholism or the homelessness were just details; they are not what make a story. I realized that what I wanted to document had less to do with the circumstances and more to do with the experiences. I learned to let my reporting, rather than my own preconceived ideas and plans, drive the story.

Walking the ethical line

“Transparency is the new objectivity” — Chad A. Stevens, professor of Journalism, UNC-Chapel Hill

I constantly fought with myself to get out of and stay out of my comfort zone while working on this project. That meant mustering the audacity to ask my subjects difficult questions, shooting in very personal situations, often overstaying my welcome or investing 10 hours to make only a handful of pictures, and being angry with myself when I wasn’t assertive enough. Several experiences forced me to consciously balance delicate ethical issues regarding transparency in my work, accurate reporting and the health and safety of my subjects, and also made me confront my own ethical boundaries as a person and as a journalist.

I often found myself avoiding a shoot because I knew that the subject was going to ask me to help him with an errand, such as driving him to the clinic to pick up his prescription so he wouldn’t have to ride the bus for an hour to get there. As a journalist documenting his experiences, I could not help him with that and it was difficult having to remind someone who I spent so much time with that I was not there to help him get around. It took an hour-long discussion before we both got on the bus together..

Other experiences were much more emotional, which makes it difficult to think clearly as a journalist and as a person. One night, for example, I stayed with a subject during a physically and emotionally painful crisis for him. I didn’t know if I would have to call an ambulance, drive him to the hospital myself or just sit there and listen to him, cameras off, but I knew I had to be there. I talked it out with a professor and I went there with a plan: if it came down to me being the only person who could help him, I would film it and be completely transparent in my edit about the role I played in the situation. I saw this person hit rock bottom, I cried with him, and was a person before I was a journalist. I ended up including that experience in the video component of this project, and it was one of many factors in why it took me so long to edit the final piece. Having someone confess deep emotional trauma to you is tough enough; having to listen to it over and over again editing in Final Cut Pro is something entirely different. Although it was a difficult night, that experience prepared me for longer-term, intense experiences with subjects that I would encounter long after that night.

How close is too close?

I spent six months reporting and content gathering for this project. In that time I became heavily invested and immersed in the community I was documenting. The people within the community considered me one of their own. I learned the intimate details of many people’s past lives by spending hours or days hanging out behind a gas station with them or being around when they had no one else to talk to. Spending that much time with a subject, I found, can blur the lines between confidence between friends and a subject sharing information with a reporter.

In writing and editing for this project, I kept reminding myself that the people featured could very well see the final product, and that I had to feel confident that I was representing them accurately, not necessarily favorably.

I often regret that I wasn’t more steadfast in keeping a formal reporter-subject dynamic. I admit that I let those lines blur and that can sometimes be unfair to a subject. As a reporter, I want them to let their guard down, but I want them to do it willingly. However, had I not made that time investment and gained that trust from my subjects, I would not have been able to gather the same kind of moments and experiences.

How do you help?

Based on my experiences in working on this project, I think the most important thing anyone can do when they see people flying signs is to treat them like a person. So many people read their signs and analyze the content, wondering if the facts are true, if someone really did just lose his job, or if she really does have cancer. The fact of the matter is those people are not out there to scam people out of money. They are, more often than not, holding that sign out of desperation. They are desperate to stay in a motel that night, for drugs, for beer, for money to buy food, to pay for the storage unit where they have to keep all of their belongings, to wash their clothes tomorrow, to put gas in the car they live in, to just have something to do.

I’ve been told by some sign flyers that if someone hands them money and tells them not to buy alcohol with it, they will respect that request and put it in a different pocket. I believe that if you are giving someone money, they should be free to spend it however they need to. And, that if you want control over where your money goes, if you want to know that it goes toward shelter or food or clothing, donate that money to one of the many organizations that provide those services to people in need.

At the very least, make eye contact and acknowledge when someone walks past your car. You don’t owe them anything by acknowledging that they are also people.

In conclusion…

I look back at my experiences throughout this project and I have learned something from every single one of them: how to be a better reporter, how to be a person first, how to operate out of my comfort zone for long periods of time, how to invest time and take risks, how to trust a subject, how to be assertive in my reporting and in my shooting, how to find a story within a story, and even to deal with less than ideal content, after the fact. I’ve tried to apply all of these lessons to future reporting projects and I know this is just one step in an endless learning process.