The fifth edition of our international conference brought on stage amazing writers and editors, award winning visual storytellers and artists, audio magicians and story-innovators who shared craft tips, story-wisdom, personal stories and insights into their work process.
Here are the main takeaways from the first day:
Jacqui Banaszynski opened by talking about the lessons she learned from reporting stories from all seven continents.
• All reporting is foreign reporting. If I go to Romania, I’m in a foreign country. If I go next door to sit with my neighbour, that’s also a foreign country for me, because that’s not my life. So what I learned by reporting in other places has helped me report better back home because I need to always do what you do when you’re a foreign reporter: translate, listen, hear, experience and not judge.
• We must marvel at what is different, and be open to it, but we mostly need to marvel at what we share, and look for it.
• Writing for me is like going into coal mines, but it has always been my way of paying the price for what journalism gives me, which is the licence to go into other places and other people’s lives and experience other worlds. I use my notebook as a passport to cross borders, as an invitation to walk into other people’s shoes for a bit.
• Somebody said the most powerful feeling in the world is not love, it’s the desire for home.
• Choose details that don’t just describe, but reveal, and really look hard. Don’t just asusme it, see it.
• Be aware, pay accute attention. And always, always, try to see through fresh eyes and through the eyes of another. Try to see lives to the eyes of those that you are writing about, not your own.
Carmen Bugan then talked about the power of writing to transform history – her personal one and of the collective history of her country, Romania.
Bugan, the author of an internationally acclaimed memoir on life under the communist regime, left the country 26 years ago, together with her family, after her father had been arrested for “propaganda against the socialist regime” several times. Much later, she received access to files that were kept by the Securitate during her father’s various rounds of prison terms.
Now back in Romania for #Story15, she discussed the process of creating literary work out of personal testimony.
• Reading my personal biography in the secret police files sends me back to a self I’ve always recognized and I don’t, creating another place of writing, which I wouldn’t have imagined before.
• I’m caught in a conflict between the free, fluent language of memory and the shackled, impersonal language of surveillance reports.
• The Securitate portrayal of my youth writes over my memories and into my memory gaps, turning me into a palimpsest that combines the public voice of the documents with my private experience.
• Writing about the secret police narratives in my life in Romania started as an attempt to detangle myself of this extra narrative. However, lately it has turn into a process of questioning whether memory can rescue and rebuild a sense of personal and indeed artistic identity out of the surveillance records.
• We are all versions of the past, ours and of the others. The past of our countries and of our languages.
Leslie Jamison charmed the audience with an honest keynote on personal writing. “Personal experience is infinite, but I also believe there are many kinds of infinitudes,” she started off. Leslie said she was drawn to essays that follow the messy threads of grief and remain ragged.
She also wondered whether empathy could be taught and how personal experience and specificities could link to abstract inquiries. Leslie discussed the notion that confession can often be associated with “oversharing” and how society can shame such manifestations. “Are you making yourself vulnerable? Are you asking for too much? Are you asking for anything at all?”, she asked the audience. Still, what we receive as a response for confession might be worth it: “Sometimes we receive absolution, and sometimes we receive more than that”.
Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi showed some of his work and discussed how “making art in a dictatorial society means you have to invent a language for a space that isn’t free.”
Dan started his speech by telling us he is „more into story-drawing than storytelling”, so we will let some of the images speak for themselves, just like he did:
“This presentation will be a metaphor of walls.”
“I try to make an entire novel in one frame.”
Wendy MacNaughton, the next speaker on stage is also an amazing visual artist that mixes art and journalism. “I tell stories using pictures and words. The pictures are often drawn from life, and the words are often of the people whose stories I’m telling.”
Wendy described her path to illustration, one that took her from art school to advertising, then to drawing an educational campaign for the first free elections in Rwanda, back in the States for social work studies, and finally to drawing people’s stories.
She showed us some of her stories related to place, like Meanwhile, the San Francisco Public Library, and then examples of her work that illustrate how journalism works:
“This is a portrait that can tell a story quickly”:
“It takes a lot of time to coordinate these colors.” Adrienne has lived in Brooklyn all her life. She misses the old bus transportation (“they don’t pull into the curbs anymore.”) and she has a rescue dog named Bridgette who might have been in a drug ring. “A lot has changed in the neighborhood in 11 years.” *** I met Adrienne on President Street in Carroll Gardens. I’d seen her the day before in Rite Aid wearing the exact same thing (except different socks), standing near a tower of green Heineken boxes and a bin of lime soda and I snapped a photo. Running into her the next day nearby seemed fated, so i stopped and told her how much i admired her outfit and the obvious effort it took to put it together: the green clip in her hair, the green belt, the socks, the American flag pin on her dress and tiny flower pin on her shoe. She seemed stunned, as if nobody had ever commented on her style before. We talked for about 15 minutes. After she agreed to let me draw her I asked how i could show her the result – email? She said no, no room in the apartment for a computer. But she was sure we’d see each other again. I hope that’s true.
She closed her keynote by showing drawings of her aunt who recently passed away, drawings that were never seen before.
“For me, drawing is an opportunity to look at things that might be uncomfortable. Drawing made it possible for me to spend time with her and learn about death. I am afraid of looking at pictures of death, and I’m wondering if maybe through drawing we’ll be able to look at things that we might turn away from.”
After making us all take a picture with our phones, as a way of breaking resistance, superstar photographer Richard Koci Hernandez shared some of his tips for creating visual stories that are meaningful and unforgettable, no matter what medium used:
• No more selfies, no more pictures of your cappuccino or food. We need to point the phones outward.
• Get close. Don’t crop. Instead zoom with your feet. Be close to the story, invest, be close to the subject matter.
• Garbage in, garbage out. The movies you look at, the books you read, it all matters.
• Style and authenticity develops through work.
• Do what you love. Don’t think, just shoot. Practice, practice, practice.
• Don’t steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style.
• The only way to kill the inner critic is to honor that impulse to create.
• Observe things. Don’t look at life like you look at the internet. Look at people, stare, be creepy. Look at things that interest you for a long time. Look at the world.
• Give all your secrets away. Share, that’s what all the people at this conference are doing. If you do that, you’ll have no more secrets and you’ll have to go look for new ones.
• The greatest stories are in the here and now and where you are. You don’t have to trace the world to find a story.
Panel: ”Why and how to do creative work”
We witnessed an amazing discussion between veteran journalists Jacqui Banaszynski and Robert Krulwich. They talked about the start of their careers in journalism, what motivates them to keep going and improving and what their advice to young storytellers are.
The conclusion: Fall in love with what you do and be stubbornly insistent each day.
After watching Toto and His Sisters, a heartbreaking story of three kids trying to escape the grip of drugs and poverty and growing up without a family, director Alexander Nanau engaged in a discussion with the audience about how he made the film. Here are some of the things the Q&A reveal:
• I wanted to do a purely observational film from a kid’s perspective, because I kept trying to imagine how and who would I be had I been born in this situation.
• I didn’t know if it was going to be a story or not, it was just a gut feeling there might be one if I stick long enough with the kids. That’s how I start most of the projects. I don’t have a story, I have a character.
• For me documentary film making is a way of living. I go from a gut feeling, but I know what I do will change me, it will expand my personality, my way of looking at the world.
• I wanted to tell a story that would make even a racist feel for these kids in the end, identify with them, even if for 15 seconds or 15 minutes. It was a process of growing and finding out how do you make people not only sympathise but even identify. How do you transform the people in a film to be bigger than life?