Ed Giles has found producing multimedia photojournalism on assignment immensely satisfying, but it’s not always easy
We were being led through calm olive groves by a young fighter of the Free Syrian Army, somewhere in the close vicinity of the Syrian border with Turkey. Myself and the Middle East correspondent for The Australian, John Lyons, were looking for rebel camps just across the border in Syria, which were reportedly being supplied and assisted by Syrian refugees inside Turkey. I say “close vicinity” because neither of us were sure exactly when we may actually cross the border into Syria, a place that had become extremely dangerous for journalists.
My week’s assignment was to cover the refugee flow into southern Turkey as people fled the increasingly violent conflict in Syria’s north-western Idlib province, shooting photographs for The Australian newspaper and producing multimedia video for the paper’s website and tablet edition.
It was late February, the week after the heavy shelling of the Syrian city of Homs by the Syrian military. Syrian forces were sweeping across Idlib province, brutally attacking rebel-held towns and shelling rebel positions right up to the border with Turkey. Only the day before, Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders we interviewed inside Turkey had told us of Syrian forces shelling and attacking FSA positions in towns and forests that straddle the border itself.
“Here is Syria,” our guide told us in Arabic as we walked downhill across a dirt trail used by the Turkish military for patrols. Both Lyons and I were on edge as we walked across the trail and into Syria on the thin forest track. We had decided that we should work quickly and get out.
Our guide soon brought us to a clearing where roughly 30 young men armed with Russian assault rifles and old shotguns sat around a fire. After a quick round of greetings, Lyons got to work interviewing the young FSA fighters and I began shooting enough photographs and video to produce our coverage of the story.
Our 30-minute self-imposed deadline with the group quickly came around as I pushed to photograph and record video of the rebel camp, the fortified positions and defensive improvised explosive devices the FSA men had placed around their position. In the edit, hours later back in Turkey, I found I had only just gotten across the line with the material I brought back, with enough to provide the newspaper for print output and a strong multimedia edit for digital editions.
This assignment on the border between Turkey and Syria, probably more than any other I’ve completed in my last year in the Middle East, provides a good window into both the positives and negatives of producing multimedia photojournalism in the field.
Our week leading up to the 30 minutes with the FSA rebels had been spent working around refugee camps housing Syrians in Turkey, and with senior FSA figures in a safe house near the border developing the relationships we hoped would provide access to an actual operation by FSA fighters.
In other words, our production schedule was running at a fairly leisurely pace as we developed our view of the story. On our final day of shooting, FSA fighters were given the green light by our senior FSA contacts to guide us to the camps inside Syria and see how they were running supplies on Turkish soil and fortifying positions close to the border. After a week on assignment, most of the photography and video work that I filed to the desk back in Sydney was from our very fast half-hour in the FSA camp.
On a positive note, photojournalists producing multimedia content on assignment are given the opportunity to take on extra responsibility in the way a story is told. The photographer becomes videographer, producer and editor, gaining the opportunity to have a significant input on the journalism, the narrative direction of a story and the aesthetics of photographs and video in a final edit.
A multimedia shooter has more power than ever to ‘write’ the meaning of their images, losing the risk of captions being changed or modified by editors further down the line. This is especially true when working with agencies that distribute the photographer’s work far and wide to news outlets that have no direct contact with the shooter on the sharp end, and therefore may not accurately maintain the original written meaning of the work.
Multimedia photojournalism also presents extremely good value for news outlets, as one skilled multimedia shooter in the field can be tasked with bringing home stills for the paper and scripted, edited video packages featuring a correspondent’s voiceover for digital platforms. Further, in such a new area of visual journalism the photographer has a huge creative opportunity in shooting and editing. In multimedia, very few concrete rules apply other than the application of an outlet’s particular editorial values and of course adherence to the rules of play in producing compelling and ethical photojournalism.
The pitfalls, however, are many. A single operator working in multimedia is tasked with a significant amount of work, shooting stills and video, producing scripts and editing to file content on deadline. In slower moments, this is fine as the shooter can look for the ‘money shot’ photographs and then move on to completing video overlay, pieces to camera by the writer and so on, changing formats as the story requires.
But when news happens and it all really hits the fan, or you’re working in a situation where time is tight and a story is happening right in front of you, balancing the demands of multimedia news production can become a hard task. Multimedia does provide new ground for photographers to ‘write’ the story behind their pictures and be creative in their work, but it’s very important to keep in mind the limitations of the format when working as a sole multimedia shooter.
Ed Giles is a Walkley-winning photojournalist and multimedia producer based in Cairo, Egypt. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times, Time Magazine and The Guardian, among others.