Symphonic Works of Ed Kashi
by Andrew Kornylak for A Steady Drip Magazine.
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A lot of people ask me how I came up with the idea for “Stillmotion,” using a still camera to produce video-like motion pieces. I was first inspired to try something like it in 2006, when I saw multimedia storytelling pioneer Ed Kashi‘s 2006 Iraqi Kurdistan Flipbook.
This wasn’t your ordinary stop-motion piece. In Kashi’s Flipbook, you’ll see that the sequences sort of orbit around a central, final composition. You are following the photographer’s eye as he observes the situation and then, with a snap, extracts the essence of it. Here you get to see not just that critical instant, but also the 2nd, 3rd, 4th harmonics of it, tightly punctuated by music and at a speed just under video threshhold. The result is, as Kashi puts it, a “symphony” of many equally important parts ingeniously blended together to render something somewhat new and beautiful in its own right. There is more dimension here than in a 12-shot photo essay, and dare i say, more material to ponder than in a video. The effect enhances what is already great content – the most important part.
My Stillmotion approach mostly riffs on Kashi’s Flipbook, though the subject matter is radically different. I’ll be giving a workshop on stillmotion and mixed media at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar on December 4, so I wanted to talk to the mix master himself. When his Flipbook came out, there both positive and negative reaction from the bleachers, though it got heavy play at the street level, where it matters most (debuting on MSNBC.com by way of Mediastorm, and by their accounts it was a financial success), and it directed a lot of attention to the plight of Iraqi Kurds. Similar approaches have become pretty popular today in both editorial and commercial media. I wanted to know Kashi’s thoughts on the whole thing.
Ed Kashi is one of the leading photojournalists of our time, a National Geographic veteran of 18 years, and the co-founder of a non-profit multimedia company called Talking Eyes Media. He is also thoughtful and humble. I was lucky enough to catch him before one of his many trips to Pakistan last week to ask a few questions about his Flipbook piece and about multimedia storytelling.
AK: How did you get started working for National Geographic?
I starting working with NG in 1991, just as I had finished my first large personal documentary project. It was a 3 year project on the Protestants of Northern Ireland. In early 1991 I was able to show a very comprehensive body of work and also proposed an idea whose time was right, the plight of the Kurds. That turned into a 26 week commission that took me to 8 countries. I eventually was able to publish a book, When the Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds. It also began my commitment and interest in the Kurdish cause, which was how I came back to that subject for my 10th NG feature, The Iraqi Kurds. And it was that project in 2005 which spawned my Iraqi Kurdistan Flipbook.
AK: What was your inspiration for creating the Iraqi Kurdistan piece? Did you plan the flipbook style in advance or was it more something you came to afterwards?
I did not plan this. It was something I discovered while editing the project for the magazine story and then for my archives. It was also the first time I had shot a large story for NG digitally, so I literally had over 17000 images in one folder and one catalogue. As I edited I started to see these sequences and it sparked my imagination. I also realized my shooting style had changed from the days of a Leica and film. I was shooting more freely and this inspiration was an organic outgrowth from the work I’d been doing in multimedia and video since 2000.
AK: I think the unique thing about IK is how tightly it is synchronized with the music. The sequences seem to orbit around a final, powerful composition that is punctuated by a note of music or a pause. Where did you find the music, and did you construct the piece around the music or the other way around?
When I originally started work on this piece, it was with Lauren Rosenfeld, who was working with my wife, Julie Winokur, in our studio. I asked her to put the initial sequences together and then find music that was appropriate for the subject. Lauren did a lot of research on the internet at Iranian and Kurdish music sites to find the right pieces of music. We then handed a very rough 9 minute piece to Brian Storm and Eric Maierson at MediaStorm. They then turned it into the symphony it became. The coordination of the music with flow of images was crucial and inspired and ultimately the real magic of the piece.
AK: I understand (from hearing Brian Storm talk about it) that you used Final Cut as the sequencing tool. Had you worked with motion sequencing before, and what was your impression of working in Final Cut?
I don’t do Final Cut Pro. I work with people who know it. But from what I can tell, it’s the program of choice and really gives you the keys to the creative kingdom of multimedia and filmmaking.
AK: On the Lightstalkers photojournalism forum, someone posted an early version of IK and there was an amazing amount of negativity. There was all the usual criticism to something novel (“Its been done”, “technique overpowers the images”, etc) but there was also some pretty vitriolic stuff (“inherently fascist” [??]). At some point both you and MSNBC Multimedia Director Robert Hood respond to the criticism. Hood had some really good points about how this piece resonated with young people, and with his colleagues at MSNBC. He just seemed to be talking about the piece on a different level than the rest of the discussion. So, a couple questions here: Do you think there is a disconnect between the work that photojournalists are pursuing and what the media and their audience really respond to? Is this a problem that fresh forms of media can alleviate or do you think photojournalists are just hopelessly out of touch?
I feel the vitriol was for a few reasons; people with too much time on their hands, the size and quality of the web versions (back to that in a sec) and the fact it was something very different and for new (although it’s really a digital version of something that is very old). The work I produce in this form, call in multimedia or short films, is really intended and best seen on a big screen with great audio. It’s a shame to show it on such small viewers, as we are stuck with for now on the internet. I’m sure that will change with time and the fidelity of web players has already improved markedly in the past few years. Also, since we created this piece, it’s been accepted and shown in at least 6 film festivals, at Arles Photo Festival in France and many other festivals and art exhibits including the George Eastman House Museum.
What this shows me is the photojournalism community, or at least as it was thinking a few years ago, is hopelessly out of touch with what we can do and what people want, or at least want they are willing to look at and appreciate. I know I took a huge risk in creating that piece, as I “showed” many less than perfect images. But the point of this piece was not to prove I am a great photographer. At this point I feel vindicated and overwhelmingly appreciated. I have also noticed that so many multimedia pieces now have at least a bit of the “flipbook” sequencing it them. I take that as a good sign that the Iraqi Kurdistan Flipbook opened up a door for other’s to find expanded ways to visually express themselves and construct visual narratives.
AK: Do you think the reaction to IK would be the same had you done it yesterday?
Only if it hadn’t been done yet.
AK: Since IK, you have produced quite a volume of multimedia through Talking Eyes Media. Do you see the flipbook style as a one-off experiment or part of a different thread in your work?
The Flipbook style has become a more concious part of my shooting style at times, and also a tool for visual storytelling in the final pieces. But it is not something we always do or feel is always appropriate. If it is overused, then it loses it’s impact. When it’s used well, it’s very exciting and evocative.
AK: The current trend of convergence between still and motion picture tools has encouraged a lot of photographers to start exploring video more and video shooters to become more interested in still photography. Certainly it is driven by the need to find new revenue streams, but what do you think this trend means for storytelling? For hard journalism?
I am loving exploring the nexus between moving and still imagery and finding new ways to employ that energy to tell compelling stories and excite viewers in fresh ways. My only concern is that I don’t want to lose still photography in visual storytelling. It would be tragic if we lost still images as a form of art, education, storytelling, entertainment and journalism above all else.