There are some things that you can read or hear every day of your life and still need to read or hear again tomorrow. Everyone has a story is one of those things. It may be the most popular credo among journalists, so much so that it’s bordering on cliché, but that does not make it any less true. People have latched onto this idea in recent years in exciting ways with easily accessible new forms of storytelling in digital journalism. The stories of “normal,” everyday people are being told, shared and enjoyed at an exponentially growing pace. Accounts like the vastly successful Humans of New York pop up all the time. What’s charming about this trending technique is its impact while maintaining brevity and simplicity, usually using only photos and maybe audio with short captions to communicate.
Milwaukee is also embracing the concept of giving voice to ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories through outlets like the On the Block section of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and Milwaukee Stories.
Such platforms can provide a more nuanced backstory to someone who may appear a familiar character in city life, or they can introduce the audience to something completely new to them. The New York Times produced their own impeccable version of this type of project in 2009. “One in 8 Million” uses strong black and white photography slideshows complemented by audio interviews to illustrate a variety of 54 different New Yorkers.
As #loweclass begins to embark on the journey that is learning how to produce video content, we went back to the basics to remind ourselves of our fundamental purpose as journalists. That is, doing our best to help others understand the significance of the idea that everyone has a story. We used Al Tompkin’s 10 Commandments of Video as a frame for looking at and learning from the effective storytelling in “One in 8 Million.”
One of Tompkin’s commandments is “Thou shalt focus their story into three words.” The featured stories in “One in 8 Million” effectively embody this through their titles. The flattering and intriguing title each person is given like “The Teenage Mother,” “The Tolerance Teacher” and “The Uncertain Gang Member” sums up each story.
The photography in this project accomplishes much of what video does. It follows Tompkin’s commandment, “Keep thy shot steady,” by capturing glances into the subjects’ lives that the audience can soak in. For example, the featured image at the top of this page creatively illustrates the new way that the subject sees herself now that she has a child.
Other images in various vignettes live out Tompkin’s commandment that recommends using cutaways and sequences by focusing a portion of the photos on things other than just the subject. That same example, “The Teenage Mother,” uses some images of just the baby and other powerful cutaway shots like one of the mother holding her daughter’s hand. It utilizes sequence with several shots of mom and daughter walking outside with the stroller. “The Tolerance Teacher” uses cutaways to show other people that the subject interacts with and influences and the environment that he works in. “The Uncertain Gang Member” makes good use of sequence by demonstrating the flow of the subject’s school day and of cutaways with shots of just the subject’s tattoos.
Some of the most compelling shots in these pieces are so powerful because they follow Tompkin’s commandment, “Though shalt put the camera on the shadow side of the subject.” The photographers use light and shadow to their advantage, and it is especially stark because of the black and white. One of my favorite examples of this was also in the “The Uncertain Gang Member.” The way the subject was juxtaposed between lightness and darkness with a haunting shadow cast over his face enhanced the story in an important and creative way.
What stuck out to me most in all of the “One in 8 Million” pieces was how thorough the reporting was, which followed another of Tompkin’s commandments of “choosing a background that enhances the interview.” Each of the vignettes captured the subjects in different settings that make up their environment, giving the audience a more holistic, dimensional interaction with the subjects’ stories.
Reviewing the “One in 8 Million” package was a way for me to immerse myself in good storytelling, a practice I am making habitual. Pausing to be more conscious of what amazing people might be surrounding me reminds me that journalism can and does happen anywhere and everywhere. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to have the mantra of, “Everyone has a story,” branded in my mind. Without it, I never would have had the courage or conviction to approach a motorcyclist on a street corner as I waited on my bike for the light to change, I never would have learned such wisdom from my friend and I never would have known about one of my eccentric neighbors I run past.
I am a senior studying journalism and international affairs at Marquette University. I am a Milwaukee-dweller and a storyteller passionate about exploring the intersection between community-building and communication. I'd love for you to learn alongside me!