A Photographer Finds a New World of Expression in Film

Shaul Schwarz for TIME
Shaul Schwarz for TIME
"I now really believe in photographers transitioning to becoming filmmakers — that's the main idea behind Reel Peak films. I took what I learned from making a feature documentary (Narco Cultura) and applied it: getting access to places and subject, often putting ourselves at personal risk to push the envelope editorially. Photographers are like the ultimate surfers, but they don't necesarrily have the resources to channel their talents into making a film. Reel Peak gives them these tools to become filmmakers." -Shaul Schwarz

Pictured: A photograph taken during the filming of Red Border Films' "Rise." Ironworkers stand on the communication rings above the roof of One World Trade Center, Jan. 30, 2014. A portion of the 405-foot-tall spire is visible at left.

“Magazines are hungry for video,” says Shaul Schwarz, a still photographer who has been interested in film since 2006. Schwarz — who recently directed both Rise, Red Border Films’ story of the people who built One World Trade Center, and Narco Cultura, the 2013 full-length documentary that grew out of his photojournalistic account of the drug culture on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border — is fascinated by the notion that photos can do more than merely illustrate a story. Schwarz is attracted to the way film can provide image-makers with a voice and, in the editing, a level of control over the narrative that’s rarely found in still photography.

In light of the growing demand for quality visual storytelling from media organizations, Schwarz has set up Reel Peak Films, a production company combining photojournalists and filmmakers. With photographers and directors like Maisie Crow, Uriel Sinai, Christina Clusiau, Gillian Laub, Yoni Brook, Leeor Kaufman and Jared Moossy — along with editors Jay Sterrenberg and Bryan Chang and sound specialist Juan Bertran — Reel Peak Films is a network of highly skilled freelancers formed with the aim of producing high-quality films of around 10 minutes in length (for example, Schwarz’s film CremationPeter van Agtmael’s piece on Bobby Henline, a badly wounded Iraq veteran-turned-stand-up comedian, both of which featured on LightBox, and Christina Clusiau’s Black Rush Life).

“We’re not just taking pictures and doing audio,” says Schwarz, while also acknowledging that Reel Peak is not inventing a new visual form. Reel Peak’s priority, he says, is focusing on the film component around which a larger story and presentation can be built. Schwarz’s hope is to connect the collaborative model that large film projects demand with the journalistic ethos of his partners’ photography backgrounds. “We can go further and deeper into the story,” Schwarz maintains, combining “old school journalism’s hard-hitting perspective and great access” with strong, cinematic aesthetics — an approach very different from, say, that of TV crews.

Schwarz works in the field with a small footprint: no rigs, just a DSLR, and occasionally a sound person. This intimacy, Schwarz says, means “most people don’t even realize I’m doing video.” Reel Peak Films is emblematic of a major shift in the media, as disparate organizations increase their online presence and produce more programs and stories. The past year has seen broadcasters and magazines set up documentary film units, including TIME’s Red Border FilmsThe Atlantic started three video series, the New York Times expanded its output, placing its videos outside their pay wall; and the Washington Post opened a political channel.

As we concluded in the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project I directed, the intersection of broadcasters, magazines and newspapers in digital space means there is no such thing as traditional media any longer. While there will continue to be print platforms, the screen has become the primary access point for most news and information, and media outlets have to be cross-platform. An encouraging feature of this new media economy is users’ demand for compelling stories. Ooyala, a company that runs 1 billion video streams per month for media organizations, including The Daily Telegraph in the UK, analyzed the viewing habits of nearly 200 million unique viewers in 130 countries, and found long-form video (i.e., more than 10 minutes) very popular. MediaStorm reports very large audiences for their stories, with users viewing them years after the original release date, demonstrating that quality storytelling enjoys a long life online.

With distribution partnerships in place, Walter Astrada’s Undesired attracted a six-figure audience in the first week of its release. The online audience for a story like Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Driftless can quickly be 20 times as large as for a print publication, and has the potential to replicate print run numbers on a daily basis. More than half, and often two thirds, of those viewing MediaStorm pieces online stay with them to the end, even with running lengths up to 20 minutes or more.

None of this new and compelling information, of course, should be used to shore up simplistic arguments or proclamations about the imminent “death” of photography. Schwarz continues to shoot stills, and has recently completed a National Geographic assignment. In fact, paradoxically, he finds that he is now able to take more time with his still work — producing book projects, for example — now that he no longer looks to print media exclusively to make a living. Schwarz describes his photographic work as both “solitary and fun,” but when he wants to tell a complex story, he turns to film.


David Campbell is a writer, researcher, lecturer, videographer, multimedia producer and project manager. He directed the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project.


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