Interview with National Geographic photojournalist Ed Kashi

September 25, 2008

For my interview, I asked Ed Kashi, a world-renowned photojournalist/filmmaker and fellow Montclair, NJ resident to talk about the first project of his that I saw, entitled, “The Sandwich Generation.” From the project’s webpage, “Julie Winokur and her husband, photojournalist Ed Kashi, expose their personal lives with unflinching candor. Winokur and Kashi uprooted their two children and their business in order to move 3,000 miles cross-country to care for Winokur’s father, Herbie. At 83, Herbie suffers from dementia and can no longer live alone. Winokur and Kashi are faced with difficult choices and overwhelming responsibility as they charge head on through their Sandwich years. It is a story of love, family dynamics and the immeasurable sacrifice of those who are caught in the middle.”

The project is a combination of photography, video, and audio, and is an incredible example of how to use the best aspects of each form of media to create a moving and thoughtful piece. The work was shot for MSNBC and Mediastorm, a multimedia website created by Brian Storm and considered by many professionals to be the best multimedia website on the Internet. The piece can be viewed at:

 http://mediastorm.org/0009.htm

 

Thanks so much for talking to me Ed. I am really interested in the process of how you started, how you made the project. Where exactly did the idea come from?

 

In February 2006, my father-in-law, Julie’s dad, moved in with us. This is why we moved to New Jersey from San Francisco. It had gotten to the point where, OK, this had to happen.  And literally, that’s why they say timing is everything in life. The week he moved in, we got a call from Brian Storm saying, ”Hey, MSNBC.com wants me to do a story on the Sandwich Generation,” whatever that is. Then we realized, this is insane, this is what we just stepped into. We were so overwhelmed with the reality of the change in our lives. It was like, OK we are either going to have to turn the cameras on ourselves, which we had never done before, or we would have to turn it down. There was no way we had the wherewithal at that moment to go and do the reporting and research and gain access, let alone go out into the field.

 

I pushed Julie because I thought it was a great opportunity. So Julie says, whatever, fine, but this is your thing. I need to take care of my Dad. So I said, ok, cool, and that’s really how it started. So we spent the next month or so documenting; 10 hours of video, 5000 stills. I had cameras stashed everywhere in the house. It was very democratic. We capture, and, in terms of my kids, even my daughter had a still and our opere had video in the final piece. I shot 90% of video and 95% of the stills. The idea was, if something important in terms of forming the narrative was happening– critical moments could happen at any time–and since I couldn’t be there all the time, we would stash cameras and just be able to grab and shoot.

When Brian Storm called and explained the project, did you have every intention of doing a multimedia piece?

 

Yeah, that was right at the time when we had…you know its funny…the first thing we did in multimedia was Aging in America (a project examining the socil impact of the xpanding elderly population in the U.S., which turned into a traveling exhibition, an award-winning documentay film, a web site, and a book) over a seven year period. We did the website, and Julie produced an hour documentary. From that inception we had been focusing on integrating stills and video.  Then, as I tried to get work or “multimedia work”, it was going from me being a one-man band doing audio and stills to, in 2005, starting to collaborate with Brian and MSNBC on three pieces, and Sandwich was the third one. They were all consciously done with video and stills in a way that we were conscious of when doing the aging project. But, the first project was naively and innocently done without a clue, and then we started to get into “multimedia”, which, coming out of  the print and photojournalism world, implies stills and audio, and then we started consciously trying to push ourselves using moving images, still, and sound, and the sandwich generation was in a way the apex…it took us to a another level of understand consciousness in terms of using these materials to form a visual narrative where they complement each other.

 

So you’re stashing cameras over the house, was there any sort of shooting schedule?

 

There would be in as much as, well, let me not go into the studio so early today because a doctor is coming, or Herbie is going to the shower or hospital, so there was some of that. But a lot of it was just catch and catch as you can. Which is being prepared.  [for example] Maybe if he had a rough night, one of us would go sleep in his room, so I would have a video camera outside. It was also this whole road of discovery for us. We had documented quite a lot of these things while shooting for Aging, but never quite this intimately, for obvious reasons. And Herbie was also a willing subject, to his credit, he rarely protested the intrusion that was the project.

 

As you’re planning this project, did you and Julie sit down and say, OK, here are specific elements of his life…we know we need to shoot him on good days, bad days, showering, etc…how much of it was scripted?

 

It wasn’t scripted, but it was similar to the way I always work. Research the project, read up on it, which I clearly didn’t have to do for this. But a lot of it comes from the questions we drew to ask each other, because we knew the A-Roll would be the interviews, both me and Julie. We basically asked the same set of questions to each other, you know like, “how did this happen? What does it mean? Who is Herbie?” etc. Kind of break it down between medical, emotional, etc. and from there, get sound bytes that would eventually weave the narrative. And then, things of course came up during the filming that led to other questions which we didn’t have at the beginning. We couldn’t really interview Herbie, because of the situation. Julie tried, but in general it wasn’t working. So we tried to interview our kids, but especially Julie and myself. And then, we said, OK, we have to get him bathing, eating, taking his pills, going out, being put to sleep, interacting with the kids, with Julie, shaving, all the obvious things. And make sure you get a photo of him brushing his teeth, and other things. We had to make sure we could form a narrative of daily life.

 

Basically, we broke it down, figured out the visual elements, and made sure we got them. Then of course there are surprises, moments, that you have to be prepared to capture.

 

You interviewed your kids and each other…how did you deal with the issues when working on a project of your family? This was the first time you turned the camera around, purposely invaded your own privacy. Did that add yet another lay of stress onto what was already happening?

Yeah, well its interesting. I think you know that what Julie said was, fine we can take this gig, but don’t count on me to do any of the shooting, other than asking you the questions for the interview, because I want to be involved in making sure he’s OK. And then, within a week or two of him moving in, he fell, we had to take him to the hospital, and this drama [occurred] where we couldn’t even anticipate what could have happened. We actually thought he was going to die.

 

I really tried to shield Julie from the extra stress of doing the reporting, so in a sense all the stress she had to deal with was being a subject. For me, I think it was a way to process what was going on, even made it easier. On the one hand, I was doing something uncomfortable, observing and documenting, but because it was about my personal life, it gave me a different angle into it. In a way, I stepped back, instead of having my head in it. And I thought about that over the course of it, thinking, god, is this even therapeutic, maybe even for both of us? [We had to] think about it in an objective sense, not just losing ourselves in the drama and emotion and stress.

 

So you had this equipment around the house, any lighting equipment?

 

All ambient, maybe a little flash on the still ones. Occasionally I would use flash.

 

 You shot for about a month in total. You have all this video, all these stills…how did the editing process go?

 

Well, everything gets transcribed. Then Julie reads through transcripts, and from there, creates a script. She marks important passages, and that’s how the narrative is formed. Then you import the clips into FCP and start stringing it all together. She probably strung an hour worth of stuff and then edited down to the closer length.  The way we were working then, when we were doing collaborations with Brian, Julie would take it, say, 80-90% of the way, get the music, lay down the script, import the stills and video. Then she would meet with Brian, and they would work for a few days to take it to that last 10%. He would put his image editing touch on it–help shape or change the narrative, make it cleaner, basically be like a top editor.

 

Was there any sort of idea in terms of the ratio of stills to video?

 

No.

 

Whatever fit the narrative best?

 

Exactly. And then there were discoveries we made, like the scene where she was doing yoga, and the inclusion of the movie and still worked perfectly. So I was shooting the video of her doing yoga, then my daughter came into the room. I put down the video camera and took a still image. And, you know, [since] the beginning of integrating [different multimedia], how do you create a visual narrative when switching back and forth between movie and stills? To take advantage of the power of stills, which make you pause, meditate. Then, how do you use video to keep the dynamic and capture these things that a still picture cannot capture. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned while doing multimedia is that, there are things that incredible audio [has] that a still picture will never do justice to, what’s called the moment, but of course a stills a still, when it works there nothing like it. But then there’s video, [which] has a knack also to describe a situation that might be great [but] when trying to shoot stills of, it would be totally uninteresting.

So you’re of the camp that the still isn’t going anywhere?

 

I really don’t want to see stills go away. I can’t control this; I can only control my own situation. I think it would be a tragedy if stills went away. And so that’s why, what were doing is, maintaining and also being commissioned to do this [multimedia] work, which really sets the standard for us in terms of video and stills. So, as long as we can find clients or find money to do it ourselves, to produce stories in this way, we can to continue to pursue that. We find it very engaging and exciting. If I have my choice, as a still photographer, if I have to be with someone else, who’s doing another platform, it’d rather have it be a video camera. You can still get the great audio that you would get with a recorder, but you also have this visual material to work with. For me, obviously my life has been dedicated to still photography for the last 30 years,…it would be tragic if the still went away. But, I’m also a realist…this is the way the world is going…photography will always be there…but it could shift in how it is used, and who uses it, and what are the best uses of it, and you know, it is what it is right? Try to keep the medium going by doing great work. Ultimately, what its about is, if we do great work in still photography, there will be interest. It’s going to come down to the work.

 

Thanks very much, Ed.

 

About Ed Kashi:

 

Ed Kashi is a photojournalist dedicated to documenting the social and political issues that define our times. A sensitive eye and an intimate relationship to his subjects have become the signatures of his award-winning work, and his complex imagery has been recognized for its compelling rendering of the human condition.

Born in New York City in 1957, Kashi graduated from Syracuse University in 1979 with a degree in photojournalism and has since photographed in more than 60 countries. His images have appeared in National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, Time, MediaStorm, GEO, Newsweek, and many other domestic and international publications.

 

About Mediastorm:

 

MediaStorm’s principal aim is to usher in the next generation of multimedia storytelling by publishing social documentary projects incorporating photojournalism, interactivity, animation, audio and video for distribution across multiple media.

In 2008, MediaStorm won an Emmy, two Webby Awards and Best Use of Multimedia in the Pictures of the Year Contest. In 2007, MediaStorm won an Emmy, took first place in both the Best of Photojournalism Contest and Pictures of the Year, and won the Webby Award for the Magazine category.

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One Response to “Interview with National Geographic photojournalist Ed Kashi”

  1. […] visuals, video and storytelling. After following a related link from my post to Ben’s webpage and reading the interview on the making behind “Sandwich Generation”, I was compelled […]

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