New Orleans Redemption:
The Platypus Journey
March 2008

by Doug Plummer

Day 1

"In still photography you shoot from your heart. With video you shoot from your head. You have to think it out first."

Why would I ever choose not to shoot from my heart? It's key to everything that makes me a successful photographer. Is this really what I want to be doing? The orientation of the workshop is broadcast journalism, a genre I hold largely in contempt. I'd better improve my attitude if I want to get some value out of this workshop.

Day 2

In the most generous terms, I am in the running for "Most Improved" by the end of the course, based on my output now. No one is starting with their video looking as bad as me.

Our job was to do some vox pops interviews, "man on the street" stuff. Five minutes of tape max. My backgrounds were a mess, my interviewees were incoherent, I mixed up the on-off button, ran tape when I was walking, turned the machine off when I did an interview.

The company I'm keeping for "most remedial effort required" is pretty impressive. There are some longtime, well-known photojournalists here. Those of us with the most experience are having the hardest time getting accustomed to a different modality. The best looking video is coming from the young kids in the group. There is less for them to unlearn.

Day 3

The exercise should have been easy enough. Go to an environment, say a store, and take a bunch of views that tell the story of that place. Each shot should have three different takes, wide, medium and close.

I thought I was being so clever by choosing a streetcar. I wanted something more dynamic than some gift shop on Bourbon Street. And hey, I'm an experienced pro; I can do this.

Typically, it takes me some time to understand what I am photographing, and where my stance is within it. By using the camera, I find what is compelling, and I discover what else I can explore in that environment. I use my camera to deepen my relationship with a place.

Something of the same happened with me and the video camera and the streetcar. It was, however, a disastrous trajectory. My subject is moving. I lose track. I have no idea what I shot close, or wide, or anything except the moment that interests me.

I'm getting footage that is completely beside the point.

It seems that acquiring footage is about acquiring the raw materials for the creative act that will occur later, in post. Dirck uses the cooking metaphor. We're grocery shopping. We're gathering ingredients. We're being taught the skills to find the carrots and the chicken and the oregano. It requires a cold-hearted discipline that is in complete opposition to my relationship with the photographic process as I know it.

I'm at that stage of learning where every day I feel like I know less than the day before.

Day 4

It is beginning to dawn on me that I may spend my entire New Orleans sojourn without ever having had a decent meal.

We begin our days at 8:45 after having scrounged a breakfast from within the downtown hotel dead zone that we're in (our shabby hotel does not provide any food). At 12:30 or 1 we break for our two- or three-hour shooting assignment, during which we scarf down some fuel. We meet for critique, take a 45-minute break, then convene again until 9 or 9:30 pm.

And these are the light days. We're about to go into editing mode.

Day 5

Compliance has its virtues.

This time I followed instructions. Our assignment was to find an activity, something repetitive. Our goal was a one-minute story. Our instructions were to shoot every aspect of this activity from five points of view: wide, tight, over the shoulder, reverse, and a fifth direction of our choice.

The first coffee shop wouldn't let me behind the counter without a call to Marketing, but they directed me to their favorite coffee place around the corner, where the owner let me have free rein. Kimberly gladly made me latte after latte (I only drank one). I stumbled with the camera, struggling with focus, with the on-off button (every time I've taken the camera out I have a long take of my feet, or a ceiling), trying to see the screen through the bottom of my bifocals. And I'm trying to remember my instructions. Which view am I forgetting? Where did my left brain go?

I'm used to the gear being a non-entity in how I connect with my subject. In this case, the gear is everything, since I'm basically incompetent at operating it. I'm in a visual mode, but I don't know how to make the connect between what I'm seeing and how to capture it. I just know that it's really, really hard to do both at once. It must be what every beginning photographer feels, still or video. This course is going to make me a more empathetic teacher.

Day 6

I just got back from shooting for my final project, and I'm strangely exhilarated. I know I made a load of mistakes and missed a lot of opportunities. But I feel wonderful.

If I had been doing a photograph for, say, a magazine profile, I might have spent 45 minutes or an hour, generously. Usually it's a lot less. In, bang, out of there. No reason to hang around. Video takes more time, which means you get more time to connect. We get to know each other, enjoy each other's company, and, if I can pull it off, the final work is deeper.

The other encouraging piece of it is, this pro camera (a Canon XH A1), though bulky, is actually light. Compared to my typical location kit, it's a fourth the weight. And, somehow, it feels less intrusive. With a still camera, I'm making a lot of effort to capture moment after moment, and those moments are marked by a loud mirror flap and a shutter release. It takes awhile to desensitize my subject. Video is silent. There's no state change between on and off, and it feels like I can merely capture. My subjects seem less reactive.

Day 6 1/2

I have now seen my take from the day. I only want to find a six-foot deep hole and pile the dirt on top of me. There may be, just maybe, enough footage for a one-minute piece. Five minutes? I doubt it.

Here's the problem: I went unconscious. In the way I always do with a camera in my hand. That's how I photograph, intuitively, sniffing for the right shot, moving myself around a subject and capturing the moment from that point. And then moving to the next moment, and the next. I handled the video camera as if I were taking stills. I find a shot, then another, then another. The footage jumps and jitters like a cross between a bad music video and the "Blair Witch Project."

If you had asked me earlier, I would have told you I had rock steady long takes, with an abundance of room around them to edit. That was before I saw the footage. I had no idea.

It is a necessary part of achieving artistic competence to absorb and master the feedback loop, the ability to see the final result while you are engaged in the act of creation, through all the processing steps from vision to achievement. In this medium, I lack a feedback loop. And I got bitten.

Day 7

For the first time in a week I feel something like contentment. Fulfilled is more like it. I'm a baby whiz in Final Cut Pro now, at least the .05% of the program I've learned (FCP makes Photoshop feel like a text editor). The piece is emotive, it has a path, and some small complexity in the layering of audio and imagery. It's far from perfect, I know there are problems, and I could use about another two weeks to cut it. The opening and closing waltz, a sweet melancholic number, is going to haunt me for months from so many hours of hearing it. Premiere is in two hours.

© Doug Plummer

Doug Plummer is a Seattle-based assignment and travel photographer. To learn more about him, and to read his blogs, visit his Web site: