October 25, 2007

The grieving Amish and photography

I always thought about them in their houses or their barns long after I'd visited. What, I always thought, were they doing right now in their curtainless houses? Were they sleeping, resting up for the morning's milking, or praying by their beds?

The Amish have always enamored me. I don't like to think I've been some hokey tourist, but rather an outsider who longs to understand the very real lives they lead. I think many people flatter themselves, like I do.

We're probably just those nosy people at the end of their drives or pointing at them through windows as we pass them in our Jettas.

And as a journalist, I'm even more aware of the divide. I'm currently writing about the murders at Nickel Mines last year. I'm assessing the photographers' and editors' decisions to capture the Amish people's grief in the context of their dislike of being photographed due to religious beliefs.

I'm finding the Washington Post and the New York Times stories most compelling because they both did slide shows, and the Post's ombudsman even commented on the topic. I have a lot for my essay, but my answer is not fully formed.

Some of the photographers in this Columbia Journalism Review piece said the Amish didn't mind, but I keep saying to myself, they didn't really have a choice, did they? The photographers simply "shoot first, ask later," according to one photographer interviewed.

I believe that the story must have been documented, but the slide shows seem almost like an exploitation. The pictures are rationalized by the editors in the stories for their relevance to the news event of the funerals and such, but I think a lot of it was playing up the contrast between the two worlds: ours and theirs. It's bankable stuff, to put it bluntly, and hiding it under the guise of "just the facts" or in this case "just the photos, m'am" reporting is a ready excuse for some really poignant pictures about another world at its lowest point.

Some photographers did tread lightly, but the need to get those shots really permeates this, and I think the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics concerning minimizing harm to those in grief was trampled upon in some cases to get these photos.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at 12:05 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 19, 2007

Lost and...

I contend that losing something is the worst feeling a human being can experience. The loss of a family member, a best friend, a beloved pet, and in a reporter's case, notes.

Two days ago, I was reporting in my Highbridge neighborhood. I was gathering observations or "color" for a profile story I was writing on an organizer. I wrote good notes. Some of the best interviews I can remember to date were in those notebooks. I even got an idea -- and a phone number -- for an upcoming poverty story.

Then I went back to Manhattan, happy and even singing over my success.

I attended class in the afternoon, and then went back to Highbridge for a meeting that was instrumental in building my story about this organizer who had, in fact, organized the meeting.

However, when I got to the school, I opened up my bag, and both of my notebooks were gone. I was speaking with one of the people I interviewed earlier in the day, and she commiserated with me for a bit. I went into the meeting, positively freaking out, took a few more notes about the evening meeting's setting, and then couldn't do anything but go back to school -- an hour away on the subway -- and search. I thought I left them in the ladies' restrooms in the journalism building, but they weren't there. They weren't in the garbage. They weren't in the lost and found. They weren't under desks. Under chairs. On top of cabinets. In Rolodexes.

Gone. Completely gone.

Now, I haven't laid the foundation for this story very well. Since my arrival in New York, I've lost a purse, two mini-DV tapes for class and a script. I was very low when I realized I'd lost yet another important element of my reporting technological enterprise.

But I shouldn't be so hard on myself, right? I'm currently a print/television journalist. I have notebooks and a recorder. I have a thumb drive, hard-drive, laptop, digital camera, tripod, television camera, cell phone, microphones and iPod on me almost all the time. I'm an electronics department.

Things are bound to get lost in the fray, but I was really aching. My notebooks were my story due Friday. An entire morning of work. Tears were shed. I worried my mum and my whole family. I feel bad about that.

But the next day, there was nothing I could do, after missing the meeting (which I still regret not going to), but go back to Highbridge and start all over. I grabbed a danish and waited for the community center to open, and when the first grates were opened, I noticed a lavender folder and a taupe Steno pad and a red notebook, lying there on the seats.

I'd left them there.

And no one touched them.

They were safe. I was safe.

I called my mum.

My story is written. My notes are safely tucked away in my bookbag.

Found. I can't believe they were there.

This isn't the entire story, though. A lot was happening in my head and heart when this all happened. Should I keep going? Should I just give up and go home? I think I found more than some battered notebooks on that chair.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at 9:29 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 8, 2007

Looking for stories? Follow your feet.

Highbridge, my neighborhood beat in the southern Bronx, is not a flat, Manhattan-esque place. The streets remind me of my hometown, Mount Pleasant, hilly with jagged cement. I walked for an hour yesterday on the garbage-strewn streets, looking for something interesting to cover on immigration.

I'd already done a profile on an immigrant's life with my first documentary piece, so for the print class, I didn't want to write the same thing and watch the class's eyes glaze over if he read something from my work that they already watched. So, this meant a little walking around, a little chatting with people on the streets, and a little chastisement from one store customer for writing in a shop. Yeah, people are super paranoid about people doing anything but buying things in stores. He wasn't even a shop employee! I explained that I was just writing down types of foods in the stores, like beans and plantains, but he wasn't satisfied until I gave him my "card," which currently consists of a torn sheet of notebook paper with my phone number and name scribbled on it. I have business cards in the mail, though.

But back to my search. I'm not a wanderer. I like to find a story based on information provided online or through phone interviews, and then pursue it in the environment. However, the local newspaper didn't have much and phone interviews really aren't an option at 5:00 on a Friday when my class ends. So, that left Sunday to make my first foray into immigration story hunting. The train ride from Brooklyn Heights to Highbridge is one hour each way, so when you get there, you know that you have to do great work or you have to come back. The residents are hard-working and have little time to spare for a reporter, so I do my best to be as thorough and as quick as possible. It's quite a challenge, particularly if I forget to get their address or phone number, but it's getting better.

Anyway, I got off the train at 161st Street and Yankee Stadium. Then I took a bus to Ogden Avenue, the main street in Highbridge. After scoping out the grocery stores and meandering down the streets, I found a lady and two men sitting in lawn chairs in a driveway. The woman was holding a kitten that looked like my cat Samson, and a big caramel labrador retreiver sat at her feet. Bingo, I thought. Something to talk about, and she's in no hurry.

We had a nice chat. She's a second-generation child of an immigrant family from Puerto Rico. Fascinating stuff, but I had doubts by the end of the interview that I could find enough second-generations that are over the age of 10 in less than a week of reporting. So I kept walking. I checked out another grocery store (where the man said he wanted to know why I was writing down names of the products), and then I started back to the train station, feeling rather dejected.

Then I noticed a red awning with "live animals" written on the vinyl fabric. WHAT? Yes, there is a live animals market in the Bronx in New York City. I went in and discovered a smell I haven't whiffed in quite a while. Chickens. An incredibly unique odor, and an incredibly bad one. I asked the man at the door if they really do have live animals there and if the clientele is immigrants, and he said yes to both. He told me then that I was talking to the owner.

I couldn't believe the warm reception and the incredible sights I saw there. Such color! (Mostly red.) My editor a.k.a. professor was thrilled with the idea I pitched. I can't wait to start talking with the customers.

Stories, I learned, don't always have to come from official sources or something already established, they can come from anywhere, even a walk on the street. I'm amazed.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at 8:51 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 2, 2007

An Avid fan

Perseverance is a word I don't use often. It's one of those words that fits handily in goals statements and reports, but doesn't actually find a place in everyday life. Until yesterday, I hadn't thought of that word as a way of life, but I do now.

I chanted perseverance. I nearly cried perseverance. I taped and edited and saved perseverance. Yesterday was one of the longest and most challenging days of my academic life.

For a sixth grader, that's probably not saying much, but after four years on a college newspaper staff (I'm not going to say more), and those weird Macs that we didn't have administrative privileges of, I think that's saying something.

Before yesterday, I had very minimal editing experience. I used editing software for a while in a media productions course in my undergrad experience, but we used very limited packages like Windows Movie Maker.

Today, I am using the most advanced news editing software out there: Avid. This program is Windows and Mac compatible, but we're using Windows right now, and to say the least, the top-of-the-line Dells can't handle this much media running around on its servers and drives. I wanted to scream, just waiting for the program to load.

I will not go into details about the day, because it's just not worth revisiting, but there's something to be learned from hitting the wall at every turn. You learn. You learn by trying everything and asking questions and being the tech guy's pain-in-the-arse. You learn what not to do and what to do if you face issues again, and you learn to have compassion for others who face the same circumstances. You learn to take time out for others.

Avid is difficult and a little bit crazy and has given me a paranoia that rivals the one with Quark (that I developed during my college newspaper experience). But it's a powerful tool, and one that I'm ready to have another go at mastering. I can't wait for this to all suddenly streamline. It's going to happen; I can feel it.

I can write, but this is what I came to NYU to do. Diversify, be challenged, face my fears. I'm doing it every day, on the streets and in front of the computer.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at 10:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack