Behind the Scenes: A Family to Call Her Own

editor’s note: some of this is very much directed at Air Force photojournalists, but most of this should apply to most people.

It started as a personal project, a favor to an old friend and a chance to put my newfound photojournalism skills to good use. The end goal and end product changed several times from first inception, but I’m very happy with how the final product came out.

The journey to complete the story “A Family to Call Her Own” (linked here and here) started over lunch. I still remember the conversation well. I had just moved to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, and was catching up with my friend Jamie Meadows-Valley whom I originally met in Misawa Air Base, Japan. Jamie is one of the most altruistic and selfless people I’ve ever known, and she talked about several things she was involved with which later panned out as stories for our office.

Over the course of the conversation, she also told me about her desire to adopt a child with special needs. At the time, she was trying to adopt a little girl with spina bifida from Russia, something that hit close to home for me since my own niece has the same condition. I had completed my largest photojournalism project “Operation Christmas Drop” a few months prior and was looking for my next big story to challenge myself. I knew the story had a really positive Air Force message too, so I asked her to keep me posted as the adoption developed.

Unfortunately, the Dima Yakovlev Act was signed into law, putting a hold on the adoption. It was then she started looking toward Ukraine. The Russian law also reminded me how politically sensitive this issue could be, and that I needed to be cautious in how I presented information. I shifted gears, deciding to approach this as a personal project until I could see how the story panned out. From that point on, I pretty much did all the work in my off time. I still wanted to publish via military channels, but just in case it ended up being too political, I didn’t want to use government time to accomplish it. Besides, as an NCO, I didn’t usually have much time during the day to work on it anyway. Regardless, I let some friends at Airman Magazine and Air Force TV know about the project to see if there was interest; there was.

That fall, Jamie told me she was going through with the new adoption (still fully intending to adopt from Russia as well), and that she was going to Ukraine to meet her new daughter. This child was another with special needs – a congenital heart defect as well as a cleft palate. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to interview her and her husband Ernie at the time because I was going to NCO Academy in Lackland AFB, Texas, but I promised to do so as soon as I got back. I would have asked someone else to do the interview in my stead, but I really wanted to have a good understanding of the story and be able to direct the conversation. I also have a unique shooting style, so I wanted to make sure the footage matched.

Fortunately, Jamie needed to go back to Ukraine a second time before they could finalize the adoption, so I interviewed the couple shortly before the second trip. The interview was a fairly elaborate setup using three cameras, although one of them went out of focus shortly after I began filming (user error). There was a lot of information to cover and I wanted to get the best quotes possible, so against my better judgement, I let them just talk for a while. I ended up with more than 45 minutes of interview footage, multiplied by three cameras. Sadly, because I was only using my own gear due to approaching this as a personal project, I didn’t have a lav mic to record with, so the resulting audio was not as good as I would have liked.

I also made sure to be there when Jamie came through the Boise Airport and introduced Sandie to her new family for the first time. I knew this would be a pivotal moment in the story, and I needed to be there no matter what. It was late in the evening, and I worked that day and the day after, but I knew that if I didn’t catch this at least, my story would have all the impact of story about mowing grass. I wasn’t able to travel with them to Ukraine due to the substantial cost of doing so, so this was the best I was going to get as far as the action of adopting Sandie. It was a really touching moment, and I opted to shoot the video shoulder-mounted to enhance the emotional nature of the reunion.

In general, I made some very deliberate decisions when it came to camera motion. Shoulder-mounted video has a shakiness that causes a sense of overwhelming emotion and immediacy when used correctly. It contrasted nicely with the other footage that was largely shot on tripod, tabletop dolly, or slider. I did my best to make camera moves meaningful, so that they furthered the story rather than simply being a shiny gimmick to sell it. Admittedly, I still failed a little with the excessive use of the Ken Burns effect for the still images, especially while Jamie is recounting her time in Ukraine. Overall though, the movement really added depth to the story, and the closing shot, captured on the last day of shooting, proved to finish the story nicely.

Shortly after Sandie’s arrival, I realized this story could conceivably be a series. I had the idea of having a story about the adoption and arrival, another story about Sandie’s medical problems and what the Air Force was doing to help, and finally a follow-up story a few months down the line to show how she has grown since arriving in America. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way due to a variety of logistical issues, not the least of which was the family moving under the military’s exceptional family member program.

Shooting was still progressing, and I was able to get some cool shots that made their way into the final edit. The shot where Sandie is following the camera, crawling on the floor, was me making the best use of what was in front of me. I noticed that Sandie was really curious about my camera the first time I was shooting, and constantly tried to crawl over and touch it. I decided to use a tabletop dolly on the floor and let her chase it, getting the footage seen in the final piece. A little post-production stabilization helped smooth out the bumps from the carpet, and it became an effective shot to show Sandie’s zest for life and inherent curiosity of her new surroundings.

Finishing the story remained elusive, largely due to the fact that I was doing most of this in my off time, and before I knew it, it was March, and I was heading to Ft Meade to observe the Military Photographer of the Year judging and participate in the DC ShootOff. Both events gave me access to some incredible photographic minds and mentors, and I took full advantage of it. Showing the unfinished story, I received some vital feedback that ultimately shaped the final edit of story.

Up until then, it felt like something was missing from the story but I wasn’t entirely sure what that something was. Master Sgt. Jeff Allen was the one that really helped me see what was missing – context. As photographers, we often get so wrapped up with photographing our subjects that we forget to photograph what’s going on around them. Jeff reminded me what my title was, “A Family to Call Her Own,” and suggested I look at what visual cues tell me about what makes this group a family. I started thinking about their house, and remembered license plates on the wall from all the places they’ve been (a true sign of a military family), magnets on the refrigerator, and portraits on the wall. I went back to Idaho with a renewed sense of what my story was and what I needed to say with it. As I captured the imagery and added it to the story, I really saw the depth of the storytelling grow.

Another thing I noticed was missing was additional points of view. As I mentioned, Jamie and her husband are incredibly loving and caring people, but I knew I couldn’t get them to say that themselves (and it would have come across as conceit even if they did). I chose two friends of theirs, the Tschampls, to do an additional interview. They ended up being incredibly good interview subjects and gave me the exact sort of quotes I was looking for. Their house is beautiful, so it made for a nice backdrop, and I used a $70 tabletop dolly to add some pizazz to the shot. The audio came out a little more echoey than I had expected, but overall came out well.

Speaking of echoey audio, as I was editing, I noticed that I had placed the microphone way too far away from Ernie during my interview with the Valleys. I was able to use audio from him a little, but one clip in particular was really bad. Between the echoes and the background noise due to bumping up the gain so much, the audio just sounded really bad and was distracting. I decided to bring him in to re-record that one quote in a sound-treated room. The resulting audio actually came out too clean, and I had to apply reverb to it to make it match the rest of the audio better.

Throughout the production process, I noticed another growing problem, I was missing some connecting pieces to the story. I had great quotes all around, but I was still needing some background information to give context. I debated abandoning my typical non-narrative storytelling style and doing a voiceover, but I felt it wouldn’t work the way I wanted to. The solution came during a conversation with the immensely talented Russ Scalf, who suggested I check out ESPN’s story #Longshot. The story uses text over detail shots periodically to provide narration and background information. I ended up using this method, even using 3D motion-tracked graphics at times to make it more immersive. I think this style also helped set the tone of the story, keeping it a bit more quiet and informal.

By April, the story was starting to look like something ready to be published, but I was still having trouble with one aspect – the music. I’m a composer as well as a photojournalist, and usually score my own films. I had composed a piece that seemed to work really well with the story and worked great for the climax, but just didn’t seem to work as well in other sections. On top of that, I was drawing a complete blank as far as what to write for the rest of it.

For reference, here’s the original music:

I finally had a musical idea for the opening. It was a simple piano motif with a delicate quality that built both hope and tension. The problem was that it really didn’t fit with the music I had already written for the climax. It wasn’t even in the same time signature, let alone the same key or feel. I had a decision to make, either abandon the original music altogether, or continue to try and mash the music together.

I ended up abandoning “A Song for Sandie,” and went with entirely new music. In the end, it was the right move. The new music, composed linearly from the beginning, had more development, more chord progressions for variety, and had an equally powerful climax, but with a more sophisticated sound. I credit the new music with giving that final yank on viewers’ heartstrings, sending the emotional quality over the top. The first time the mother saw the video progress with the new music, she cried, and the video itself was not much different than the previous time she had seen it. From that point on, about half of the people I showed it to shed tears to some degree after watching it.

The final music:

During all of this, I was also putting together the written story. I was trying to go with a more magazine style story, breaking away from the quote-paragraph news format typical of AF stories. The result was fewer quotes leaving more room for narration and storytelling, using quotes solely when I needed an opinion, perspective, or to emphasize a main point.

By the end of April, I had a written story, photos, and video, ready to go. I finally had a product worthwhile, so it was time to publish.

I had been in contact with Airman Magazine this entire time, and forwarded them the final product. I received some excellent edits to the written story from them, and they posted it.

I also posted it to our own website. AFPIMS doesn’t have much in terms of built-in functions to embed photos or videos, so I had to do a bit of code work. HTML is not an overly complicated language if you know what you’re looking at, so I highly recommend anyone in the public affairs community to learn as much about HTML and CSS as they can.

The embedded images were the biggest change I made that took a little bit of work. Below is a simplified version of the code that people can use in AFPIMS. I’ve highlighted items in blue that are placeholders for other information. The placeholder “left” can be changed to “right” to make the image show up on the right side of the text rather than the left.

<a href=”absolute or relative link to the full-size image” target=”_blank”><img border=”0″ hspace=”10″ alt=”put your caption here” vspace=”5″ align=”left” width=”width of the image in pixels” height=”height of the image in pixels” src=”either an absolute or relative link to the embedded image” title=”put your caption here too“></a>

An important note about doing this, make sure you’re not using the full resolution images as the embedded image; only use full resolution images as the linked image (first placeholder). For the embedded image, use the address of the thumbnail size image that AFPIMS generates. You can find that by going to your media gallery, right-clicking on a thumbnail (the slightly larger one that pops up when you hover over an image works best), and click “Properties.” The full URL will be there. The rest of the code above should be relatively straight-forward.

Embedding the YouTube video was a bit more straightforward, merely copying the html embedding code YouTube offers in its “share” option.

The last part of this, one that’s often overlooked, was marketing the story. A lot of this was handled by posting the story to The Defense Visual Information Distribution System, or DVIDS, is a primary outlet for getting content out to civilian media. Working with them, they pushed the story to many hometown and national news outlets, and we were able to set up some follow-up stories and interviews. In many cases, civilian media members are reluctant to simply take handout stories and images from the military to avoid acting as a propaganda puppet, but if you give them an opportunity to have access to your subject and let them create their own story, they’re much more likely to run it. I definitely recommend engaging with DVIDS and civilian media as much as possible, and as early as possible, giving them a chance to get access to the subject of your story, not just the story and content itself.

So, what did I learn from all of this?

  • Do personal projects. No only will they expand your capabilities as a storyteller, but you will always do your best work when you’re doing something in which you have a personal interest. Both you and the organization you work for can benefit from this sort of situation.
  • Talk to people and listen to their stories. You never know when you’ll find those incredible stories.
  • Be flexible. The story and circumstances may change rapidly while you’re doing your story, so roll with the punches and let the content dictate how you tell the story.
  • Seek feedback and advice, and not just from those at your office. Bonus, keep an open mind when doing so. There are many people in the Department of Defense and even in the civilian community who are more than happy to lend you their advice based on years of knowledge and experience. If you’re only getting minor edits from people at your office or base, seek better editors from other agencies from time to time. Let them help you, and see your projects grow.
  • Look for context and details. Often times, that’s where you’ll find the heart of your story.
  • Don’t be afraid to abandon a bad idea. We get invested in our creations and sometimes have a tough time letting go of them due to the amount of time we’ve invested. However, once you let go of something that isn’t working, you have room for the real story to grow and develop. Mistakes are how we learn, so realize that you have to make mistakes to get better, and it’s okay to admit when something’s just not working.
  • The right music can make your video soar, while the wrong music can break it entirely. Choose wisely.
  • Market your story and work with media to give them access. Swallow your pride a bit and don’t take offense if media wants to conduct their own interviews. Ultimately, it’s still a win because it puts the story in front of many more people than it would have been otherwise.

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