Storyteller tips before you leave for your coverage

Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 1800, ƒ/5.6, 1/500

Last June I was in Bucharest, Romania teaching the Storytellers Abroad Workshop. In just a few days I will fly to Managua, Nicaragua to teach the same workshop with my friends Jeff Raymond and James Dockery.

Let me give you a few tips for doing storytelling that we are doing this week before the class goes to Managua.

Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 1000, ƒ/5.6, 1/500

I have never traveled for any story that I did not have an idea of who and what the story was before I left my house. You need to go prepared as much as you can and if things change that is OK, but don’t go unprepared.

Each and everyone of the students will have a person/story that they will be given before they leave. Typically for the working professional if you are traveling overseas you most likely will have a month or more time to prepare for your story due to the logistics of traveling.

Once you have the contact information of your subject do all you can to correspond with them as soon as possible. Sometimes I have not had the luxury of working directly with the subject. In those times I was working with the NGO staff person on the ground in that country. Often with church organizations this was the missionary.

Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 1000, ƒ/5.6, 1/500

Most of the time someone with an organization has identified a person and tells you their story. While this often changes from what you hear till the time the story is done, I always use this storyline as a way to formulate questions to help “flesh out” the story. To flesh out something is to give it substance, or to make it fuller or more nearly complete.

There have been a few times in my career that I was able to do so much research before I arrived that the story was pretty much set. I had asked enough questions that I felt comfortable and had even been able to tell the story as I understood it back to the subject to be sure I was on target.

When that happens I have an outline which had the text/verbal part of the story being told and then a visual shot list that I would use as b-roll. In interviews and documentary films it may describe secondary footage that adds meaning to a sequence.

Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 1100, ƒ/4, 1/100

Now besides interviewing the subject I also spend a lot of time researching all I can about the country and the region I will be going. Before the internet this meant going to the library and pulling all the books I could find and periodicals on the country. Today with Google this process is so much easier.

I also love to read if I can find them documentary novels on a culture. One such writer who view history with a visitor’s eye is Sarah Vowell. She wrote Unfamiliar Fishes, which is the short and awful history of Western intervention in Hawaii, up to U.S. annexation of the kingdom in 1898.

Sometimes a novel can really help you feel like you have been somewhere even before you have experienced it. I know many people who have read Pat Conroy’s book South of Broad feel like they know that area of Charleston, SC just from reading the book.

Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1.6 sec

Now the other thing that is cool with Google is when you research a location like Seattle, Washington you can narrow that search to just see images.

This is a great way to get ideas on some establishing shots for the beginning of your story. When I did all this homework before I show up in a city I have already got the street addresses and know what is the best time of day to shoot that skyline shot. It is on my calendar with all the other appointments with the subject before I leave for the trip.

Tips Summary

  • Identify the story/subject before you go
  • Contact your subject and find out all you can before your trip
  • Research the area you are going
  • Find as many photographs of the area before you go