TECH FrameS Per SecoND
Famed British journalist and tV interViewer lynn BarBer once
noted that “the best interviews, like the best biographies, should sing the
strangeness and variety of the human race.” easy for her to say: she had
just a pen and notepad to worry about. For photographers and videogra-phers, coaxing the strangeness and variety out of the human race in an
on-camera interview can be a bit more demanding.
“interviews are inherently contrived situations and it’s the photographer’s job to make them feel organic,” says portrait photographer
michael lavine. doing so requires a mix of skills—some technical, some
emotional and intuitive—that may not always come easy to photographers accustomed to letting their images do the talking.
“it can be a real challenge, because in your mind, you’re worried
about your stills too,” observes shooter Ben Baker. “i had an editor tell
me, ‘we don’t hire you for two average things, but for one great thing.’
that really stuck with me.”
nevertheless, it’s increasingly common for photographers to be hired
to deliver two great things. and while every interview is as unique as the
subject being interviewed, there are some general lessons that can be distilled from experience. interviewing is equal parts science and art.
© Jenn ackerman © tim gruber
how an interview is executed depends largely on the number of as-
sistants on hand, says photojournalist ed Kashi, who has taught many
multimedia workshops. while it’s “hard to find the intimacy” with a large
crew, Kashi says, having someone operate the camera frees the inter-
viewer to closely monitor the audio or use a second camera for close-ups
and unique angles. “i would use the second [canon] 5d to focus on a sub-
ject’s hands or mouth—just to gather some interesting footage that we
could cut to during the editing,” he notes. “ideally it’s a two-person job,”
he adds, with one person operating the camera and monitoring audio,
and a second person devoted strictly to asking the questions.
also ideal: two sources of audio—one from a lavaliere mic pinned to
the subject and the second from a boom or shotgun mic in case the lava-
liere source fails. “everyone backs up their photos, and you need to be just
as diligent with your audio,” says photographer tim Gruber, who, along
with his wife, jenn ackerman, has won awards for videos on u.s. prisons
and a beauty pageant.
the logistics are a bit more complicated for those who, whether by
necessity or choice, are shooting alone. “it can be tricky, particularly
when traveling overseas,” says maisie crow, whose multimedia work
on the chernobyl nuclear disaster earned her an overseas Press club
of america award. to economize on packing, crow would use a Zoom
recorder, often with a shotgun mic, while simultaneously asking questions and monitoring audio as a stationary canon 5d recorded video.
“i’ve used a boom pole before as well, but doing that alone isn’t really
graceful,” she says.
For the lone shooter, simplicity is key, says lavine. with a canon 5d mark mounted on a tripod, he would slide a Zoom recorder close to his subject, ensure the environment is as free of ambient noise as possible and “have a conversation.” the Zoom
wouldn’t necessarily be the audio source of choice for a broadcast piece, lavine
notes, but it’s appropriate for the web.
Finessing a great interview also entails plenty of homework. it’s not simply
a matter of dutifully drumming up a list of questions, photographers say, but
Top: In a still from “Serving Out: Aging and Dying Behind Bars,” Charlie Coffey, 65, gets a haircut
from a fellow inmate. Bottom: Tim Gruber interviews an inmate.
understanding the subject matter of the conversation as deeply as possible. you
can’t get good answers if you don’t ask good questions, and you can’t ask good
questions unless you really know your stuff, Kashi says. Besides, he adds, “People
appreciate when you’ve done your homework—it leads them to trust you more, and
the reactions you get can be incredible.”
doing your homework also means understanding the over-arching story
you want to tell so that questions produce relevant, usable sound bites. “i’m