From a Bad Day to a Great One

I never thought I’d hate public transportation so much. It definitely has its high points, but one of them was not Tuesday. We had our shooting planned to a T. We’d be at Citizen by 12:30 p.m. sharp to take the bus up to PDX. Our plan was to film some simple b-roll of Dignity Village and hopefully interact with some of the residents.

I blazed down Michigan Ave that morning on my bike. I was determined to be on time to take the bus. My sixteen minute Google Maps predicted bike ride took ten minutes. I arrived at Citizen only to find out that we had a small hiccup. Well, more like a rather large vomit. There was no equipment, none. Zilch. Nothing. Nada.

Instead of filming some lovely footage, Coral and I spent the better part of four hours on a wild goose chase for a camera and its dressings. Apparently, three other groups had equipment, even groups that didn’t need it. So, upon the news that Emily had our equipment in her car that was about to be repaired, we booked it to the next bus to SE Portland to her apartment.

Of course, SE Portland isn’t close in the slightest to Mississippi Ave by public transportation. So, I languished for over an hour on two separate buses to arrive at Emily’s apartment. I sat trapped in the back of the bus next to two late-twenty-something guys. They just happened to be reliving their high school years as loudly as humanly possible, while hurling spittle into my ear all the while.

We arrived at Emily’s apartment in just enough time to snag the camera before she spirited away to get her car fixed. Everything seemed right in the world for all of two seconds. I could have sworn that I smiled for two seconds. So, our trial by TriMet fire was over, yeah? Nope. After the angels had sang and the clouds opened up overhead to grant us time to shoot the rest of the day we realized, rather fortuitously, that our little quest had been doomed by design.

The camera had no battery. Let me repeat that. We had a one-thousand dollar camera, complete with carrying kit, but we were thwarted by a lithium devil the size of a block of cheese. I’m talking two cheesesticks at most. We ventured back to Citizen and arrived there an hour and a half later (the bus was delayed and an hour ride) utterly exhausted.

Yes, Tuesday was a disaster, but Wednesday was one of our greatest triumphs. For one, we began the day with an interview with Berk Nelson, one of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s chief advisors. Our luck began with him simply agreeing to interview and continued with the stellar interview that followed. We discovered that the shotgun mic on the camera worked wonders and that Berk even knew his way around a lav mic. He gave us all of the governmental input that we so craved.

After the interview, successful yet yearning for more, we called our mentor Michael for a pep-talk. We had yet to choose a main character for our documentary. We debated everything from just sitting and waiting for someone interesting to show up at Right To Dream Too, to just going nuclear and only having our documentary contain interviews.

Thankfully, after a flurry of texting with none other than Catholic charity wunderkind Vahid Brown we learned that Vahid had an exclusive tour of the Kenton Women’s Village. Access to the women’s village was, and remains to be, some of the most guarded journalistic access relating to houselessness. We, two upstarts from China and Richmond, Virginia had that access. The tour itself was scintillating, but our big break came when we met Desiree, our new documentary main character.

Desiree was a part of the tour to represent her houseless tiny house village of Hazelnut Grove to Vahid and some other bigwigs, and represent she did. She wasn’t camera shy in the slightest and agreed to interview with us tomorrow (Thursday) and grant us access to Hazelnut Grove. She could best be described as a spunky grandma, with grey pigtails and a nose for activism, who always wears purple.

Tomorrow we go to the mattresses. We’ll be going to Hazelnut Grove and trying to hammer out the bulk of our narrative around Desiree. Wish us luck! Even though when you read this our filming will have already happened. Who says a bad day has to mean a bad week?

–Jordan Joseph

Exploring Independent Media in Portland Through Zines

This past weekend, I had the chance to check out the Zine Symposium in Southeast Portland. For those who might not know, zines are independent, self-published magazines usually made on a low budget. The first known zine was created back in the 1930s, but zines really started to get big in the 1970s with the emergence of the punk rock scene and the DIY movement. The art has only been growing since, as technological advances have made it easier and easier for people to self-publish more volumes of their work.

The symposium itself was an all-weekend event, with panels, workshops, tabling, and discussions. I was only able to stop by on Sunday afternoon, when different zine-makers were tabling to promote and sell their work. The event took place in a building that used to be a furniture store. Rows of tables created a loop around the room that visitors could circuit through, with a station of snacks and water for those who planned to stay awhile.

The room was packed when we arrived around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and it was a little overwhelming at first, being surrounded by so many different artists and their work. It was hard to decide which zines to buy—there were too many amazing ones to choose from! Everyone’s styles were so different and covered a vast array of topics.

The zines I did decide to buy were pretty different from each other. One of the first ones I bought because the drawing style really drew me in. It’s called The October Country (Volume 3), by an artist named Sage Howard I talked to for awhile. It is a collection of drawings he made during Inktober, a challenge that artists from around the world participate in each year where they complete an ink drawing every day of the month. Another zine I had to get because it’s so relevant to what we’ve been learning at MISC. It’s called How to Make Radio #2. It’s simpler in design, but has a great structure where it walks you through some basic tips for getting started in the radio and podcasting world. The creator is even a producer on a podcast! Combining zines and audio—how could I say no?

At the symposium, I had the chance to actually stop and chat with the artists I was buying work from, which for me, made it a better experience than just reading the zines online. With the internet, the fact that everyone can make their voice heard can be both empowering and suffocating at the same time.

Putting everyone on the same platform means anyone can put their thoughts, art, content, etc out there for the world to see, but with so many other people doing the exact same thing, it’s easy to feel lost. Being able to actually connect with the people making art and media you admire is such a different experience. That’s why I love that Portland has so many different outlets for people to actually promote and share their work in a way that doesn’t feel like just shouting into a void. I feel like I’ve been exposed to local, DIY types of media and art in Portland more than any other city.

From community-based stations like Open Signal to individual artists hand-drawing zines to trade and sell at the Zine Symposium, there’s a place for all kinds of media-makers to share their work here. When we give everyone ways to actually create and promote their own work, you can actually get voices and stories that aren’t heard as often - the ones we don’t get from Hollywood or other mainstream outlets.

At MISC, we’ve had the chance to meet so many independent media-makers, from Skye Fitzgerald producing his own human rights documentaries about refugees to our radio mentors, Sarina, Phoebe, and Alex, all making their livings as freelance audio producers. It has been really exciting and inspiring to meet so many people involved in the community, and have the chance to make my own pieces to share as well.

–Kienna Kulzer

Just Light

Of all the quick, in-depth, video tutorials that Tim led for us at Open Signal this week, I found the lighting tutorial the most helpful. Where the camera day and the audio day had been borderline bewildering, I think we all left the building on Wednesday feeling confident that we could light an interview.

There was no terminology, functions, or menus to go through and learn. It was just light. We set up the light stands and fiddled around with them under his guidance. The whole class had to participate to make the lighting look good, and it was really cool to be able to use the different filters and dials to manipulate the image (which was being fed from a camera to a large monitor that we all could see). We needed two brave volunteers, Emily and Coral, to sit in front of the camera and have their faces observed in front of the whole class, in varying amounts of light. Thanks to them, we were able to use the time we had to look critically at lighting and figure out what we could do to make it look better.

After that, we still had time to go on a brief tour of the rest of the building. Open Signal is a public access filmmaking and broadcasting organization, and they have a lot of studios and equipment that they rent out to local media-makers like ourselves. Now that we’ve gone through their training, we can check out their cameras, tripods, audio recorders, and lighting equipment to make our documentaries in the next few weeks.

They also let people use their studios, which we had a chance to see during the tour. They have two large, quiet rooms, complete with crane-rig cameras and green screens that are open to the public, so long as they have a proposal and have gone through the training. I think it’s amazing that there are organizations like Open Signal that make media-making so accessible to ordinary people. All you really need is the motivation to create something and you can make it happen.

Theo Morris 

Video Killed the Radio Star (and Radio Killed the Writer)

As anxious as it makes me to think about The Future and What Happens After College, I’m going to be a senior this year and suppose I can’t avoid it forever. Also, Phil and Molly are making me think about it, as we have to give them a description of our dream jobs this week. It’s just an assignment, but it’s led me into a minor existential crisis the past couple days.

I’ve always been an indecisive person. While most people switch their major maybe a few times in college, I’ve changed mine no less than eight times before finally settling on my current degree, Cultural Anthropology.

Growing up, I loved to read and write. I always had some novel or short story I was working on. So naturally, I started college as a Creative Writing major with the dream of becoming a writer. The thing is, it turns out I really hate English classes. I just felt like I was going nowhere. How was I going to actually make any meaningful change in the world by taking apart the rhetoric in Gilgamesh? (Not to say anything bad about English Lit folks—it’s just not my thing). That question took me on a prolonged detour with Public Health with plans of doing the Peace Corps and working in women’s health before finally settling on my current degree. Anthropology does, in an unexpected way, combine a lot of the aspects of the two fields I’d previously been torn between.

So fast forward back to week two of MISC, where I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I want to shape these new realizations into a career path for myself. And that, finally, brings us to the world of audio.

Hearing our mentors talk about radio and working on my own audio documentary project this week has made me think a lot more about pursuing it as a career. I think it’s both totally unexpected and totally natural that audio has made such a significant comeback in the 21st century. While it’s an old medium, not as flashy or immersive as film maybe, what it does is cater to is the go-go-go mentality we currently have as a society. It’s a rare form that you can consume while multitasking.

As a full-time student with two jobs, I don’t have a lot of free time to watch TV or read anything not related to school. But I do have time for podcasts. It’s the only kind of media I can consume consistently everyday, on my morning commute, as I deliver mail at work, as I make dinner, as I do dishes, as I fall asleep.

With NPR programs like Radiolab and This American Life leading the way, podcasts are increasingly becoming a source of entertainment and news for Americans. While the audience of podcasts still remains behind that of other media forms, it is steadily growing. As all of our radio mentors have talked about, the great thing about audio is that it’s much cheaper and more accessible to create as a solo freelancer. Audio lets you include more emotion than print without all of the people and equipment necessary for a professional-quality film. Audio requires only a journalist, a professional recorder, and editing software.

One of the main benefits of audio I’ve noticed during my own project is how you’re able to capture people’s emotion and personality more than you would be with print, while still being much less invasive film. The organization I’m working with serves weekly meals to women who have been affected by homelessness, poverty, the sex industry, and domestic violence. Not everyone wants their entire identity to be associated with a period of hardship they are going through.

Many of these women I interviewed are in very vulnerable positions and having their face on film could put them at risk. I feel I was able to have real conversations with all of the women I’ve spoken with, and I’m not confident I would have been as welcomed or given that same authenticity if I had a video camera in their face. It’s easier to forget about a recorder, which allowed us to have better conversations and also gave me a way of providing some of the women the anonymity they needed for their own safety. But I was still able to capture their voices and the overall feeling of the space in a more vivid way. It’s one thing to describe a scene, but it’s another to be able to actually hear the specific sounds in the room that made it feel so warm and welcoming- the dishes clinking, the doors opening, the conversations happening between old friends.

I’m much too indecisive to settle on any one medium just yet, but audio has definitely stepped up as my number one this past week. It’s an exciting and accessible medium that gives me a way to tell stories that matter in a creative and impactful way. Is it what I’m committing to for my whole life? I don’t know. But for this next week at least, that would be my answer.  

–Kienna Kulzer

Group Dynamics, Competition, and Confidence in Journalist-Activist Spaces

I have spent the past week trying to find my footing as a student in a new program, a guest at a new home, and a stranger in a new city.

Immersing myself in this new space has brought up quite a bit of reflection. What do I hope to gain from this jam packed summer? Why do I want to be a journalist, and how do I hold on to that? Meeting with successful mentors in the field, and hearing them discuss their paths to success, has provoked a sort of gut check that cannot be achieved when I am merely sitting in a collegiate journalism class, hearing my professor drone on about “the real world” and the lucrative “job market.”

There are students across the country pursuing jobs that all eleven of us would like to obtain, but there is something more specific than our desired careers that brought us to Portland this summer. Yes, this is a media institute, but the key phrase here is “social change.” We are aspiring journalists, but we are also activists, and that will always be a difficult line to walk.

For starters, the ethics of journalism nearly juxtapose the ethics of activism. The journalist’s job is to interpret, contextualize, and convey nuances of an issue. Creating an informed debate is at the heart of journalism, while the job of the activist is to have a seat at the debate table, and to advocate for certain sides of an argument.

Furthermore, journalism is a profession and a livelihood. Activism is not so compartmentalized, and in many instances, it can be a way of life. This code of ethics reaches beyond the professional arena and impacts our relationships and our social interactions. So, how do we choose to look at the world if we are both? How do we as a student cohort choose to interact with each other this summer? Are we professional aspiring journalists who are competing for praise, for success, for airtime, and eventually for jobs? Are we also activists, who are working collaboratively to lift each other up, to dismantle systems of injustice, and to repeatedly check ourselves when feelings of capitalist-driven competition creep into our psyches? The lines are continually blurred.  And maybe we don’t have to pick one.

Most of us in the program this summer are all too familiar with competition-oriented academia. We are aware that the job market will be no different, and we would like to be prepared. At the same time, we recognize that the ethics of activism such as collaboration, respect, and awareness can often result in better journalistic content. This summer, when we gather around the table at Citizen to share our projects, I hope to feel supported by my peers, not fearful of their judgement and comparisons. Media making is an art form that requires vulnerability. It calls for creativity, for excitement, and for openness. That part of my brain tends to shut down when competition is at the forefront.

I feel that my peers this summer do agree with my previous statements, and hope for a similar group dynamic as I do. It is a conscious choice that we all must set an intention to uphold. Are we going to support each other when things get difficult? Will we center our interactions on concepts of inclusion and respect? Will we call on our activist mindsets, or will we revert to the competitive tendencies that we have spent most of our lives being trained to uphold?

Only time will tell.

–Madi Stapleton

What The Babadook Can Teach Us About Social Justice

I have to tell you that I am deeply, fundamentally not at all a horror movie person. My horror meter peaks out at Stranger Things and that’s really pushing it. But somehow, after much poking and prodding from Atlas and Lucy (our cohort’s horror connoisseurs), this week we all sat together and watched The Babadook (2014).

The next morning, squished up next to one another in the living room before a seminar, Molly (MISC’s coordinator) teased and asked, “What can the Babadook teach us about social justice?” Now, we’re less than a week into the program, with 500 things flying through the air at any given time, but I can’t seem to escape one facetious comment. In this brief time I’ve found myself thinking deeply about a whole lot of things: well-told stories, systems of injustice, mobilizing meaningful change through media, and—bafflingly, of all things—The Babadook

If this is sounding a little wacky, let me backtrack for a moment. On Tuesday, Outside podcast’s Peter Frick-Wright led us through a storytelling and audio production session. “At its most basic,” he began, “a story is a conflict and a resolution.” During the break, Isa prompted my favorite conversation during our time at camp with one probing question: how do you resolve a conflict about an ongoing, entrenched social issue?  

This warrants a quick summary (spoiler alert, sorry). Essentially, The Babadook follows a mother and son and their midnight hauntings by a shadowy, scythe-fingered creature called the Babadook. While the boy acknowledges the monster’s presence and prepares himself to fight back, the mother—who, after seven years, is still mourning the death of her husband and struggling to support her oddball, outcast son—dismisses his fears as childish ravings even in the midst of accelerating signs and bumps in the night.

“The more you deny me, the stronger I get,” the Babadook tells her via the world's creepiest, most disturbing children’s book. Denial leads to full-on Babadook possession and soon she’s chasing her son around the house with a massive kitchen knife. The climax takes us to the basement where the boy’s booby traps force his possessed mother to confront the monster head-on. “You have to let it go!” he yells. She vomits up a stream of black sludge. “I think this is a metaphor for grief!!” a member of our group shouts mid-scene during our viewing. Evidently. The Babadook closes out with mother and son gardening in the sun-saturated backyard. After gathering a bowl full of worms, the mother makes her way down the basement stairs and sets the bowl down on the concrete floor. Something shifts in the shadows and the bowl slides from the sunny patch of floor to the shaded corner, pulled by phantom limbs. She hasn’t defeated the Babadook, we’re meant to understand, but she has carved out a space for it. She is healing her grief by accommodating it.

This is a long-winded, but I think useful way to get at the intrinsic challenges of fusing media storytelling with social justice. Isa’s question—“how do you resolve a conflict that has no obvious ending?”—points to a fundamental question that I hope to wrestle with for the rest of the summer: do the formulaic demands of storytelling ontologically diverge from the messy, entrenched realities of injustice and oppression? “Your story can’t solve poverty in America, so how do you resolve a story about poverty?” Peter’s answer went something like this: to find resolution in an ongoing conflict, pivot. “Find a seam or an avenue in the story that will get you to the landing your audience needs.” Essentially, look harder—things aren’t always what they appear and resolutions will rarely look the way you’d expect them to.

What can the Babadook teach us about social justice? Sometimes you have to pivot in unexpected directions for your story to find its natural resolution. Sometimes instead of killing the monster, you let it shack up in your basement.

–Emily Curtis

Seen, Heard, and Felt by Others

As our MISC time at camp came to an end, I was filled with this new sense of warmth and togetherness with my fellow aspiring media & change makers. Never have I been around more dynamic, intelligent, and hilarious conversations about films, music, documentary ethics and even reality television.

From sharing a house together for five days, to recording one another’s thoughts and wild moments to prepare for these audio postcards, to making food together, and sitting around bonfires together, so far my time spent with everyone in MISC has been super chaotic, inspiring, tiring, and rewarding all at once.  

When we arrived back to our home base Citizen, I couldn’t help but feel this rush of excitement and anxiety for all the experiences and growth that will come our way in this space throughout the next six weeks. I believe it’s where the magic will happen as well. The “magic” of media making which occurs in the process of making ideas and visions which only exist inside of our minds at the moment into a tangible product that can been seen, heard, and felt by others.

However, what’s even more special about these projects we are now embarking on this summer is that they are being crafted from a place of passion inside all of us for empowering, fueling, and inspiring social change. Whether that may mean changing someone’s mind about a stance they held on a specific social issue or creating a platform for someone to express their personal truth that traditionally would be silenced or influencing a political policy affecting an entire city, state, or country.  

Tomorrow marks the first official day of beginning the early stages of our audio documentary project. While I have some experience over at Skidmore College combining visual and audio elements to help tell a story, never have I tackled purely using sound to do, like we required to do when making our audio documentary pieces.

I'm curious to experience both what may feel limiting without delivering visual information as well as the new possibilities audio documentary storytelling will bring! For this media pursuit, I am hoping to work with a Portland non-profit organization called The Women’s Beat League, who work to empower women and female-identified individuals who are interested in djing and production work as well as cultivate a community for them. I’m very excited to potentially work with them and see where this incredible MISC opportunity will take me as an aspiring media maker and social rights activist.

–Amanda Peckler

An Unconventional Summer Camp

I almost mistook a side alley for my home for the next six weeks. I was on the way to the Media Institute for Social Change meet-up and had just bumbled through my first use of Uber. I attempted to be dropped of at 3636 N Mississippi Ave, the program’s headquarters, but instead somehow managed to set the Uber to the Mississippi Ave a street over that was just a dilapidated alley. I trekked my bags a street over to the headquarters: Citizen. There I met with the ten people who I would soon travel what was supposed to be two hours to a cabin in Gearhart. After introducing ourselves several times as other program members arrived, I had my first foray into the Portland food scene.

I ordered a burrito bowl and awkwardly sat at a picnic table as everyone else sat and watched me eat while drinking fancy ginger lime Agua Fresca. Soon after my culinary extravaganza we all piled into a black rental van that somehow fit twelve people and twice as many bags.

We passed the car ride playing Heads Up and jamming out to our roadtrip playlists. I got to know a few people along the way. I learned that there were two of us (Lucy and Theo) who went to Carleton College and studied media studies. I also learned that three people all went to Western Washington University (Isa, Kienna, and Madi).

We hit traffic on a windy mountain road surrounded by droves of trees. Being trapped in a van with near-strangers while playing Heads Up, doing horrendous accents, and attempting to mime making a bed was interesting, but altogether enjoyable.

Once we got to the cabin we were assigned rooms and Atlas and I were relegated to the basement to share a bunk bed as the girls shared rooms full of double beds and Theo got his own queen size. We were all assigned meal crews and Atlas and I got the only two-person group. Later that night had a dinner of impromptu pizza made by the first meal crew. Afterward, we did personal interviews of other program members.

The next day we shared our media self-portraits we made with the group. People made everything from a compilation of snapchat videos to a layering of sound bytes from the past year. Then, we had lectures from Phil on interview questions as we listened to This American Life and Fresh Air.

In our free time we explored the beach. The beach was like a dessert with fragments of desiccated branches curling out of the sand. It was like a graveyard for trees and sea creatures. We even found the skeleton of some sort of animal and an intact crab exoskeleton. Moira brought the crab back to the cabin Lord of the Flies style, speared on a stick. The night concluded with us all covering our eyes during a screening of The Babadook. I could have sworn I heard the Babadook’s knocking that night.

On the third day of camp we got through Phil’s lectures on storytelling. It wasn’t so bad because we got to listen to clips from Radiolab on Orson Welles’s "War of the Worlds." We ended the day by watching My Own Private Idaho at Phil’s behest. It wasn’t what we expected, but it was a good movie nonetheless directed by prolific and also extremely strange director Gus Van Sant.

On Monday we had to go to Astoria and interview a stranger. I interviewed a mother who was sitting alone in the ARC Arcade close to the river. She told me about growing up in a poor family, being separated from her husband while he toured in Iraq, and having her newborn baby. It was nerve-wracking finding someone who looked interesting enough to interview and who was approachable. Mostly it was just scary to approach a stranger.

Yesterday we had the pleasure of meeting with local Portland media-maker Peter Frick-Wright. He taught us about storytelling from a radio perspective and the tricks of the trade to recording good audio. We messed around with Hindenburg and listened to This American Life. He taught us how to duck audio under an interview, layer audio, and use reverb. Probably the most important lesson I learned from Pete though was to always unplug people’s fridges before starting an interview. He said to leave keys in the fridge to remember to plug it back in after an interview. Note to self: popsicle keys are better than bad audio.

–Jordan Joseph

My Private Oregon

For the next six weeks, our Summer Documentary Program students will be taking the wheel at the blog. In our first student post, Lucy Stevens (Carleton College 2018) reflects on her time at our "summer camp" orientation in Gearhart.

At MISC’s coastal summer camp, one might describe the learning curve as ‘experimental.' Sunday afternoon, as one giant mass, we put on our headphones and found our training wheels together. It was simultaneously hilarious and enlightening; here we were, tottering around on sleepy beach-town back roads, extending out our new microphones towards the environment the way eccentrics comb the local beach with metal detectors.

Unlike most of the students on this program, as a native Portlandian, I grew up going to the Oregon coast and have actually spent a lot of time in and around Gearhart. However, I was surprised as the familiar roar of the ocean and titter of birdsong, fed to me through my earbuds, took on a different quality, becoming more crisp and intimate. Suddenly, each crunching gravel footstep, each peal of laugher, became potential material for my audio postcard, one of our current assignments.

Though the tiny device in my hand, the native soundscape was becoming creative material. I began to interview the others intensely, almost tongue-in-cheek, half searching for sound bites and half wondering at the power of my Zoom H1—and entirely certain that most of my recordings were going to be drowned out by audible distortion of the coastal breeze. But that was a minor concern; after nights of enjoying creatively scrapped-together meals, watching scary movies, and sharing anecdotes about our different lives across the country, it was exciting to be making our own content together.

By Monday morning, after a somewhat bewildering (but entertaining) screening of My Own Private Idaho the night before, the time for tinkering was over: our MISC group was taking Astoria to test our interviewing skills! It was really interesting to go back to a town I’ve hung around in the past to interview a complete stranger. I ended up having two conversations with people from two entirely different walks of life, but I think that I ended up with a much more fully fleshed-out impression of Astoria as a permanent residence and as a brief stopping place.

Afterwards, everyone seemed to have peeled back some interesting corner of Astoria through each of their interviews. I’m so excited to read more about the stories they uncovered! 

–Lucy Stevens