At a time when so much of journalism is quicker, shorter and hyped to grab the public’s presumed short-attention span, the documentary—with its slower pace and meandering moments—is finding receptive audiences in many old places and some new ones as well. In radio, documentary producers tackle society’s most pressing issues, and on the Internet, there are homes for documentary exploration. Photographers linger in communities to document the lives and places they encounter. And though documentary films are not as visible on network and local broadcast stations as they once were, on public and cable TV and in theaters, the documentary form is thriving.
In this issue of Nieman Reports, we’ve asked those who document our world to explore how their work converges with ours. How is what they do related to journalism? And what does the documentary form allow its adherents to do in reporting news or exploring issues that other forms of journalism do not?
Stephen Smith, managing editor at American RadioWorks, begins our inquiry by raising—and responding to—a familiar question: “What the hell is a radio documentary?” Joe Richman, producer of the “Radio Diaries” series on National Public Radio, describes how his documentary “reporters,” who are untrained in journalism, capture moments that journalists never could. Two of these reporters write about their work as radio diarists. At 360degrees.org, documentary photographer Sue Johnson uses Web technology to merge voices and images to create an interactive opportunity for people to explore the day-to-day experiences of prison and to gain understanding about topics of criminal justice. In an interview, radio documentary producer David Isay shares his views and experiences about the points at which his work intersects with that of journalists and where it diverges. Jay Allison, an independent broadcast journalist, begins with “Life Stories,” a diary series he began in the 1980’s, and ends his article with a description of his newly developed Internet site Transom.org—“a combination library, master class, and audition stage,” where producers and citizens gather to talk and learn about radio documentary. Producer Sandy Tolan reminds us of the power of first-person radio narratives as he retraces his experience in making the award-winning documentary, “The Lemon Tree,” and Johanna Zorn at Chicago Public Radio alerts us to an October festival where radio documentaries will be featured.
Photographer Denise Keim used her camera to document life in Poland during the year she spent there. “With documentary work,” she writes, “I stretch the boundaries, nurture the subject matter, and communicate critical thinking on many layers.” Photojournalist Peter Howe, who directed photography at The New York Times magazine and Life, describes the crossroads at which photojournalism now finds itself, a place in which technology, culture and economics will determine its future. Photographer Antonin Kratochvil draws distinctions between what he regards as photojournalism and what he believes is documentary photography. They are, he writes, “identical mediums, but conveying very different messages.” Alongside his haunting photographs, he speaks about what motivates him to tell stories in this way. Eli Reed, a photographer for Magnum, takes us along as he immerses himself in the community of Eau Claire, South Carolina to document moments that bring residents together. Robert Coles, editor of DoubleTake, a documentary magazine, and a teacher at Harvard University, returns us to the words of those who inspired him to create DoubleTake. “Pictures and words, both, is now our refrain…” he writes, in tribute to poet, artist and physician William Carlos Williams. Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins’ photographs reveal what he found in Afghanistan, a country cloaked in secrecy. His mission: “to commit these people’s sufferings, their crazy ways, their grace and culture to film.” And photographer Andre Lambertson focuses his camera’s lens on the enduring plight of poor, black children growing up in decaying neighborhoods of urban America. “I wanted my work to help me and others understand why these neighborhoods continued to devour their children, how children who lived there saw themselves, and where they found hope,” he writes.
In the early years of television, producer Robert Drew used his Nieman year to ponder how the documentary method of storytelling could flourish in this new medium. By the early 1960’s, he pioneered what he calls “candid” documentary. Unfortunately, in recent years, documentaries have nearly vanished from broadcast television, as Philip S. Balboni, president of New England Cable News and a juror for the Alfred duPont-Columbia University Awards, attests in his article exploring why this happened and the consequences of their absence. “Frontline” is one of the only reliable outposts for documentary journalism left on television, and its founding and ongoing mission are the topics of producer/director Michael Kirk’s article. Cara Mertes, executive producer for the public television series “P.O.V.,” talks about how personal storytelling, told subjectively, finds links to journalism. Ellen Schneider, executive director of “Active Voice,” which includes a new media model called the Television Race Initiative, writes about trying to use the documentary form to inspire collective action within specific communities. And Margaret Lazarus, an independent documentary filmmaker, speaks to ways in which her own advocacy intersects with her filmmaking and, in turn, how her films intersect with journalism. Robert Richter, the last producer from the Murrow/Friendly “CBS Reports” unit still making documentaries, explains why the long-form documentary can’t be replaced adequately by the ubiquitous newsmagazine. “The reason: To make what is complicated able to be understood, and potentially acted upon, eats up valuable airtime.” Independent filmmaker Chris Hegedus uses the “cinéma vérité” approach to documentary filmmaking to take viewers into places like Bill Clinton’s 1992 “War Room” and the offices of a young entrepreneur’s dot-com start-up (it fails) and keeps her cameras running as the story-behind-the-story unfolds. Is this related to what journalists do? “I’m not sure,” Hegedus writes, but she explores ways it might be. Finally, Michael Rabiger, a founding member of the BBC Oral History series “Yesterday’s Witness” and author of “Directing the Documentary,” describes the methods of documentary filmmakers and how their decisions and actions influence the story the film tells. He supports documentarians who have decided “to show not only the result of their work but how they created it.” Such transparency, he argues, “is encouraging since, as with journalism, the more the public understands how a story is constructed, the more likely they are to ascribe fairness to it.”