method

Gaining Access: Case Study on Human Interaction

Lessons from Story Arc 2015.

ByDarren Durlach
Jul 6, 2015

Non fiction storytelling hinges on truth. Truth is obtained when people sense safety. When it’s safe, the spectacle of our tools loses power and our ability to interact with familiarity flows unencumbered gaining access to another person’s emotional and physical space. Cameras, planning, organization, and everything else is meaningless if you can’t help people relax and feel comfortable with you. This is where I’m really proud of my team from Story Arc 2015 in Portland, Oregon.

Team Durlach at Story Arc 2015. From left: Jan Sonnenmair, Darren Durlach, Niki Walker, and Emmalee McDonald. (Photo: Darren Durlach)

Team Durlach at Story Arc 2015. From left: Jan Sonnenmair, Darren Durlach, Niki Walker, and Emmalee McDonald. (Photo: Darren Durlach)

Students were divided into three or four person teams led by a coach who acted as an Executive Producer/Director and each team was assigned a story to tell. The team (crew) was given certain jobs and over the course of four days can dive deep on a story with each person doing a respective job, producing, shooting, audio, editing, etc. That idea alone gives more space for critical thinking about the story’s natural arc.

Coaches are in the field ensuring no one runs into icebergs technically or narratively, and not only are students learning from coaches but possibly even more from each other, how we each interact with people and what works and what doesn’t work to gain access. Access emotionally, surpassing superficial soundbites to something real. True access makes your camera disappear.

True access makes your camera disappear.

Each team made breakthroughs in the process but I think the lessons my team departed with are a case study in managing fear, insecurity, and gaining trust.

Our assignment was to cover the World Naked Bike Ride. We wanted to find a meaningful angle to this event which can so easily devolve into a tapestry of butt-naked chaos. Kind of wish we participated, but there was fear of seeing my colleagues by the coffee maker the next morning. This fear was shared amongst the students as well. I digress.

Cole moved from Michigan three years ago to a place that better fit his lifestyle. Now he can freely rollerblade naked on the streets of Portland. Well at least once a year. This bruise is from falling in last year's event. " alt="Cole moved from Michigan three years ago to a place that better fit his lifestyle. (Photo: Darren Durlach)

Cole moved from Michigan three years ago to a place that better fit his lifestyle. Now he can freely rollerblade naked on the streets of Portland. Well at least once a year. This bruise is from falling in last year's event. " alt="Cole moved from Michigan three years ago to a place that better fit his lifestyle. (Photo: Darren Durlach)

The team did some research and discovered that a breast cancer survivor, Barbara Grover, who had undergone a double mastectomy was organizing a group of other survivors to ride naked. Despite the public nature of the event, it’s extremely sensitive and personal for obvious reasons. Throughout the process from initial contact to wrap we were constantly navigating Barbara’s fears and insecurities. I should note that she’s not at all insecure. She’s a powerful and determined human being. Her anxiety was more about her experience losing meaning through the process of being a "subject" in a story. Having a crew filming her would distract her from fully absorbing the experience. She was also concerned about the other women whom she was inviting to the ride being overwhelmed with cameras honing in on them, something we were concerned with as well. These are fears anyone would feel. The goal is not to coerce her into taking this journey with us. It's more about tapping into our own humanity to gain understanding.

Empathy is a fire extinguisher.

Barbara Grover stands with Critical Mastectomy, the group she organized to ride in the World Naked Bike Ride." photographer="Jan Sonnenmair" alt="Barbara Grover stands with Critical Mastectomy, the group she organized to ride in the World Naked Bike Ride. (Photo: Jan Sonnenmair)

Barbara Grover stands with Critical Mastectomy, the group she organized to ride in the World Naked Bike Ride." photographer="Jan Sonnenmair" alt="Barbara Grover stands with Critical Mastectomy, the group she organized to ride in the World Naked Bike Ride. (Photo: Jan Sonnenmair)

Initial Contact - Search for Common Ground

The first step was writing a thoughtful email to Barbara outlining who we are, why we’re doing this, and more importantly why HER story is powerful and could empower other people who may see it. The goal wasn’t to schedule an interview. That would’ve been presumptuous. The goal was to get her on the phone, not overwhelm her with information. It’s easy to ignore a stranger on email, but once direct contact is made, it gets easier to connect.

Luckily we heard back! Barbara was willing to do it, but we immediately sensed she was hesitant, citing concerns about what the others will think about the camera.

The next day on the phone, Barbara was getting a little warmer and speaking directly with her gave us some extra tools to work with. We learned that she had a friend with the same Major in college as my student, Emmalee. Conflict / resolution. It was a big discovery for making us a little more human and relatable. Barbara demonstrated a clear emotional shift after that. Still open and willing but clear trepidation about the whole process. We listened a lot and reaffirmed that her story could inspire so many, an idea that continued to resonate with her. The phone call ended on a positive note.

Another instance was at Barbara’s bike store where we interviewed her and gathered footage. Jan Sonnenmair, the most experienced student at the workshop and an accomplished professional still photographer in Portland has spent years documenting sensitive subjects and began relating beautifully with Barbara. Jan is a cyclist and searched for opportunities that they might have a mutual friend in the biking community, which they did. Jan has known people with breast cancer as most of us do. She's simply someone who, like all great storytellers, looks for clues that can lead her conversation in ways that she can relate.

First Meeting - Leave it in the Car

The day before the ride we went to her bike shop to meet her, interview her, and gather footage. The first thing we did was leave the gear in the car. We introduced ourselves and spent a few minutes chatting about anything other than why we were there. It feels like an extra step when you don’t have much time but went far to set the tone off right.
We probably spent half an hour chatting and loosening up before we even took out the camera. Of course listening attentively but at the same time scoping out the place for an interview location. Always working with two sets of eyes.

Interviewing for Maximum Emotional Access

Try not to ask for an interview. Say you want to talk implying it will be on camera. An interview makes me think of a police station. In fact try to minimize any technical language while "on stage," ear shot of your subject. Keep their experience through this as sacred as possible. Get your audio levels while your talking about the weather before you start filming; get a white balance without asking for a white balance, if possible. When I’ve got a great relationship with a photographer or if I’m the photographer, I start rolling and give a signal that we’re ready instead of making a show of the fact that we’re getting ready to record "so everyone hush!" The person knows they’re in front of a camera and usually they know they are being recorded.

We found a private place to talk with her where she didn’t feel like anyone else was listening. Not easy at a small store but we were able to go in a back room and use some natural light through the window. Very small room and not ideal but it was so important for this interview to be intimate.

In our preproduction meeting we came up with bullet points of topics we wanted to touch upon. Typical human interaction doesn’t happen through a sterile list of questions but more through organic conversation and we took time asking open ended questions, appearing engaged, using eye contact, asking follow up questions related to Barbara’s answers, indicating we were clearly listening as opposed to waiting to talk. The questioning should start off with softballs and the subject matter should get more intense as it continues. You wouldn’t ask a complete stranger at a coffee shop about their breast cancer on the first question. Barbara was amazing and took us on the full range of human emotions.

Being Flexible

Even though we were off to a great start, the work of gaining access was still in full swing. We realized while we were filming at Barbara’s bike store, her anxiety was growing because of the amount of people we had following her. Four including me, not typical. She was increasingly anxious about us filming at the ride. Immediately we suggested that only one of us would be with her at the event, a gesture that followed with immediate relief on her face and helped continue to build trust.

But more than the amount of crew there, her biggest concern was the other women who might’ve been joining her. She didn’t want to lure them into an unsafe situation with a strange camera crew. Something that without question was our concern as well. I don’t usually do this, but told her that at any point if her experience or the experience of others felt threatened, she could call the whole thing off. I just had one request. Barbara had to give us the opportunity to have a conversation (off camera) with the other women. It felt right in this situation and she sincerely appreciated it.

As we predicted the event was full of thousands of happy, naked people. Once everything got rolling, Jan posted up with Barbara and, as she does, became invisible by humanizing herself and speaking to each woman who arrived as part of Barbara’s group. The rest of us gathered footage of everything from naked acrobats to people dressed as yetis except they were missing the part that covers peni. Is that plural? Not sure how to say many, many peni.

{% include image.html image="post-story-arc-lessons-naked6-body.jpg" photographer="Darren Durlach" caption="The World Naked Bike Ride in Portland was a chance to show the world that not having breasts is nothing to be ashamed of and these women have no problem giving cancer the finger." alt="The World Naked Bike Ride in Portland was a chance to show the world that not having breasts is nothing to be ashamed of and these women have no problem giving cancer the finger." %}

The next day Jan wrote to Barbara thanking her and Barbara wrote back a text that says it all:

"Hi Jan! Thanks for everything. I feel that this week, culminating in the ride last night, facilitated such tremendous personal growth. Having to figure out how to integrate being profiled into that process added to that. But, only because of the respect, sensitivity, and guidance, you all brought to [this] process ..."

I'm inspired. Let's get naked.

We’ll update this post in a few weeks with the finished video. Stay tuned!

For more about the workshop itself, check this out our previous blog post.

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