What I don’t get to do is tell a story. Last year I determined I would take on and build larger documentary projects and take on more news assignments. The news assignments are beginning to win awards (National Press Photographers Association etc) and documentary funding proposals are beginning to take root and be funded by state and local arts councils.
I can always get the shot, but what I need to learn how to do is to tell a story. Securing projects to cover in Berlin has been a bit of a challenge: Leonard Bernstein’s former assistant is not back in Berlin until the day after I leave, the Mayor of Berlin’s schedule changed, the Berlin Philharmonic agreed to give me access IF I had been able to secure a news assignment which did not happen, access to a protest organizer fell apart when she had an unexpected change of plans, and more.
I searched for a street musician in Berlin through a Berlin Musicians Facebook Group Page and landed on Laura Hoo. Hoo is a Swedish transplant to Berlin who earned her law degree here and threw it all away to become a local musician.
Her days are not easy when it comes to earning a living. On the day we agreed I would meet her in October it was pretty much the end of the season for buskers or street musicians. We agreed to meet at the Brandenburg Gate where as it turns out street musicians are not allowed to perform any more and are asked to leave by the police. She performs now across the street in the park where there is a steady flow of foot traffic but it’s clearly not the tourist area of the Gate where, according to Hoo, revenue potential can be pretty good…30-40 Euros per outing.
Hoo arrives on her bike with guitar and amplifier strapped on the back. It turns out she bartered something for the bike since she couldn’t afford one. She sets up her mini performance area in the park and is immediately beset by gremlins: it seems her amplifier is on the fritz and keeps cutting out in the middle of “Blackbird.” And she can’t afford a new one.
She’s obviously delighted and nervous at the same time to have a camera hovering around her for my project. And I’m even more delighted when she stops giggling and mugging for the camera and gets on with her task of performing and connecting with her audience. Which are few and far between. Tourists and locals stroll through the park and in front of her impromptu stage. But few if any drop any change into her open guitar case.
My goal? I shoot world famous performers on stage or world leaders and celebrities and speakers doing their thing at major universities. But I don’t tell stories. I get the cleanest most technically perfect shot I can get. But I don’t tell stories.
My goal here today with Laura? To tell the the story of her life, her work, her relationship to her audience, and how she makes a living. A few people drop a few coins into her guitar case, totaling 2 Euros at most. Not a good outing by any measure. An elderly Berliner, well dressed, stops to watch, and I think she might even go as far as dropping a paper note into her case. Does she? No. She stops to watch, listens, takes out her cell phone camera for a quick picture. And moves on.
This process of shooting an artists’ relationship to her audience for example, is precisely why I cam to Berlin. Shooting Laura was not an exercise in isolation, but rather an exercise in exploration of relationships with a longer story line and potentially greater value. I have a number of documentary projects in the pipeline for the coming year: an arts council funded project to explore senior’s relationships to their community, a trip to the Mississippi Delta with Berklee College of Music to document the oldest of the region’s blues musicians, the completion and execution of my first book, and a return trip to Buenos Aires to document the poorest of families being pulled from the most difficult and dire of situations through the power of the arts.
It has been my goal to learn the technical craft of story telling to be able to aid my work on these projects for the coming year. I am coming away from this week in Berlin having discovered and explored a new city, met some wild and crazy new colleagues, seen some beautiful new work, learned some amazing skills from someone whom I believe is the best of story tellers in Ed Kashi…and hopefully will be able to advance my personal projects in some way.