[col-sect][column]Part 1: Know why you are going before you go.
This applies to everything you are doing as a storyteller, and it can help you stay ahead of the ball in a variety of circumstances. It’s mostly about perspective and is so basic that I think a lot of us miss it.
As I was prepping for Kosovo, my advisor (I was still in School) asked me why I was going. I explained how I had taught English in Kosovo two years earlier and loved the people and the land and felt like I was drawn to talk about the issues that resonated with me photographically.
“Because, what I think.” He said, “Is that really, you want to go over to take nice pictures and hang out in Kosovo.”
“No really,” I said, “I want to go over to try to talk about these issues.”
“Listen, I’m not going to keep you from going, but I think we need to understand each other.” We talked more, and I convinced him that he had misread my intentions by convincing myself of the same thing. This all proved to be a really lousy thing to lie to myself.
I didn’t realize this until I had gotten there, was three days into my trip, anxious to start, and had I lost my fixer and only real contact in the region.
Let’s call him Sammy. Sammy was everything that you want in a fixer, his English was excellent, he was a good driver, knew the whole country and all the back roads, and even better, he had street cred. Sammy was about my age and a bit of a national hero. He was in one of the more epic brigades of the KLA during the war and had done some crazy things during that time. Not horrific, just insigne. People knew this guy, or at least knew of him, and better than that, they respected him. We had a mutual friend and after a few conversations we became friends. Sammy was eager to show me his country and help me break a few stories. As an interesting twist, part of my comfort in working with him came in the fact that he had experienced a bit of a spiritual awakening in his life and had come to regret and repent from some of the things that he had done during the war. I felt like I could develop a balanced understanding of the issues with this guy.
So I didn’t worry about the REAL issues with my story, I just worried about how to prepare myself for the country, the travel, and the experience.
The story that I pitched was going to be about the life of KFOR soldiers (NATO’s military presence in the region) and their relationship with the Albanian people in Kosovo.[/column]
[column]Did I worry about HOW I was going to gain access to a patrol of soldiers? No, Sammy will help me figure that out when I get there. Did I have a plan B? Well Sammy said he knew a few of the mine sweeping units that where working in the hills and he could set me up there. He also said he could help me do a story on guys our age and what it’s like to live with what they lived with. Excellent. Where would I stay? Sammy. How would I get cash? Listen, Sammy is going to help me figure all this stuff out! He knows people….
So you can imagine how it felt, three days in country, when Sammy told me that he couldn’t meet up with me because his father was being held in house detainment for the next couple of weeks as the UN War Crimes Tribunal figured how what this epic Brigade really did during the war. Now his dad was dropped from all charges and they are fine, but I was screwed.
I went sideways. I jumped from idea to idea, I scrambled to make connections and figure out logistics, but mostly I failed.
I had set up expectations for some one on the other side of the Atlantic, but had a different understanding about my own experience. My instructor was expecting me to be sending him a true journalistic photostory, and I had set myself up to be carried by someone else because I mostly wanted to do travel-log photography.
I realized all this in-country when I ran into Brian Wytcherley. Brian was a fellow Brooks VJ student who was a bit ahead of me. As my instructor saw my project falling appart at the seems, he recommend that I make contact with Brian to get my head strait. As soon as we started talking shop I knew the difference. Brian knew why he was there, and what he had to do. He had made his contacts before he came and had back up story ideas. The man traveled by any means necessary (he mostly hopped trains) to get to his locations. He learned Albanian and Serbian phrases to explain himself. The man had a mission. Brian won CPOY and NPPA awards for his work in Kosovo that year.
I got a few great images, but NO essays, because I didn’t really go there to get essays. If I was honest, I wanted to earn my “living and taking pictures in a foreign country off the beaten path” merit badge, not my “post war photo essay” badge.
Why are you doing your next big assignment? Why are you taking time away from your friends, your spouse, your kids and hulling of to God knows where? Is it for you, or is it about something bigger? There’s no right answer, but you better know. The more you reconcile all of that before you start work, the better you will be when things fall out from under you.[/column][/col-sect]