Panorama of New York City as Hurricane Irene approached last Saturday, August 27th.
Click for much larger version.
I'm an aspiring photojournalist. This blog is kind of a dumping ground for my thoughts; there may be opinions here and there, but I hope to aim for a sort of truth in the end.
I hold copyright on all photographs that appear on this blog, unless otherwise noted.
I don't watermark because it looks ugly. Still, please don't steal them.
twitter / josecastillo
Hey guys. Long time no post. But I’m getting back into the swing of things. Here’s a small piece from something I’ve been working on. (~1,000 words, click through to read)
Terry, now 37, grew up in Michigan, in a small town of a few thousand people called Caro. As Terry describes it, being gay in this isolated and conservative enclave was a terrifying experience…
Many of you know Donna DeCesare, documentary photographer and professor of photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin. It was my privilege to recently work on her website, “Destiny’s Children,” a project that has been in the works for a few years now. I coded the website from scratch in Flash, adapting assets that had been developed for the project by a graphic designer.
I could write about Destiny’s Children, but the site is powerful and important and it speaks for itself. No, the thing that I want to write about is the intersection of technology and journalism. Technology and any field, really, but let’s talk journalism in particular. For example: is chemistry is a tool for storytelling? Instinct says no, but if you’ve ever printed a project in the darkroom, you learned to mix chemicals; you ran a redox reaction; you fixed silver salts out of an emulsion. You didn’t learn to turn water into wine, but you learned enough to do what was needed — and at least for a while, it’s a skill that was, more or less, needed.
Another example: the first print layout I ever did was for my eighth grade yearbook. It was a cut and paste affair, literally. We had scissors and glue sticks. There was one computer in the room, a Macintosh Classic with a nine-inch, two-color display; it was only capable of text editing. In high school, we used Adobe PageMaker. In college, we used InDesign. The tools changed, but the fundamental skills needed to lay out images and text did not. Things like visual balance were as applicable to my eighth grade yearbook as to my college newspaper.
Here’s what I’m driving at: somewhere between the college newspaper and working on Destiny’s Children, everything changed. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to know how to balance something visually. Suddenly I had to draw on a whole other set of skills — those of computer science. This was more than making a Flash graphic with a couple of buttons. This was full-on application design.
Making something like this isn’t at all like laying out a page or cutting together a video; you’re writing bits of code in different files, and they all have to fit and talk to each other in a way that makes sense. The image above is something from my notes, from when I was learning the framework I used to code Destiny’s Children. It’s nothing at all like the scissors and glue sticks of my youth.
We finished Destiny’s Children last month. In addition to the stories, Donna developed resources for affected communities and rich supplemental content. And even though my role was primarily technical, I’m proud to have been a part of it. I especially feel proud because it’s precisely the kind of collaboration between journalists and coders that we’re seeing more and more of today.
ProPublica has a GitHub page. The New York Times is engaged in open sourcing their tools as well. Columbia University will soon offer a dual degree in journalism and computer science. What’s more, as next-generation devices like the iPhone and iPad begin to gain a foothold, there’s enormous potential for these collaborations to yield new and amazing ways of telling the important stories of our time.
So it’s been a full season since my last update. Snow’s fallen and melted; I’ve gone ahead and moved to Brooklyn.
I apologize for not posting with greater regularity; of late I seem to have taken a break from shooting to write an iPhone app. It has been a season of significant change.
Over the next couple of posts, I want to catch up with updates on some what I’ve been doing and thinking over the last few months. I’ve been engaged in some really cool work, and I’m excited to share.
Audio Post: Master photographer Dennis Stock, 2007. [MP3, 5:10]
(sorry for the terrible audio quality; recorded on a first gen, pre-app-store iPhone)
NPR is reporting that Dennis Stock has died. One of the most memorable evenings of my graduate school career was of a guest lecture he gave in 2007 at UT, and of dinner with the man himself and a small group of students and professors afterward.
It stands out even more because of this one exchange that took place during the Q&A. An undergrad in the lecture had asked him what he thought about what I can only describe as a judgmental style of photography, a style of photography that “shows who someone really is,” even if that’s not attractive. This five-minute exchange ensued.
Sound Check, The Gatsby; San Antonio, TX; eve of Christmas Eve, 2009.
Dumping a card from the other night, so I can photograph my family while they’re here. In the meantime, looking at the ingest as it goes.
I like this one. It’s Brandon Guerra on the right, who drums in Nick’s band, and his brother Ryan Guerra on the left, in from New York for the holidays, taking to the stage to play keyboard and violin.
Happy Christmas, all.
Rhythms; fifty seconds. No editing save for a fade in and out; call it a found soundscape.
A couple of weeks ago, when I finished my site redesign, I rewarded myself with a book. For at least a year and a half now I’ve been on a nonfiction binge, and I really wanted to read a novel. So I ended up with a book called “House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski. It’s developed something of a reputation for its occasionally esoteric layout and multiple frenetic voices, but at its core it’s a good read. For me it was one of those books you can’t put down; I devoured it in two days. I also think it has some very important implications for photographers, journalists and anyone interested in conveying information — but more on that later.
Ostensibly written in the tone of an academic paper about a (nonexistent) film called The Navidson Record, there are at least three “authors,” who tell their stories concurrently in footnotes that comment on and argue with each other. If you flip through it in the bookstore you might end up on a page like this, with a list moving forward and another backward, footnotes right side up and upside down, a note from the editors disclaiming responsibility and the story itself relegated to a small corner of the page, where it sinks into the book’s gutter. “How is someone supposed to read this?” you might wonder.
In truth, it looks more difficult than it is; subliminally, the book teaches you how to read it with every turn of the page. At one point I was doing acrobatics around the book on my kitchen table; the text was set at a 225 degree angle. The thing of it is, it’s not without reason. The author’s choices change the way we read the story. For example,
if this sentence
had been set on just one
you would have read it
an author can put you in a maze, force you to stop and look around. He can change your relationship to the text by playing with your relationship to the medium.
I was struck by an old interview with Danielewski, which I read after I finished the book. The interviewer asked him about the unconventional structure of House of Leaves. Here’s what he said:
Really the only thing challenging about my book is the idea of a book itself. Older generations — despite the fact that they’re multi-processing their morning breakfast, a train wreck in India and thoughts of an ailing friend — will find House of Leaves difficult because they’re prejudiced. They’ve been taught what a book should look like and how it should be read. Ruler-wielding didacts have instilled in them the notion that a book must start here, move along like this, and finish over there.
But books don’t have to be so limited. They can intensify informational content and experience. Multiple stories can lie side by side on the page. Search engines—in the case of House of Leaves a word index—will allow for easy cross-referencing. Passages may be found, studied, revisited, or even skimmed. And that’s just the beginning. Words can also be colored and those colors can have meaning. How quickly pages are turned or not turned can be addressed. Hell pages can be tilted, turned upside down, even read backwards. I’d love to see that. Someone on the subway spinning a book as they’re reading it.
But here’s the joke. Books have had this capability all along. Read Chomsky, Derrida, Pinker, Cummings. Look at early 16th century manuscripts. Hell, go open up the Talmud. Books are remarkable constructions with enormous possibilities.
What notions are we holding onto? Are there ruler wielding didacts in our heads, telling us what a photo essay should look like? Telling us that a a well-written story needs to start here and end there? If so, we need to exorcise those demons, because new forms are the only thing that can save us. Apple, for example, is trying to liberate the liner notes from the CD case. A flash designer named Jonathan Harris is taking the biggest thinkers of our time and letting you mash them up. What new forms can emerge when we liberate creative work from the confines of comfortable forms?
Answer that, and cool things start to happen.
OK, as promised, a brief overview of the cool thing I created for the site. It’s the thing at the bottom right of the website, a little widget called SoundBoard.
SoundBoard is a controller for sounds; it can fade them up and down, it can remove them and add them, load them, etc. The reason I like it is, it reveals something visual about what you’re hearing; it takes an invisible design element and turns it into something visual, something that offers information. For a while I even experimented with having my movie projects do this; a prototype still exists at this link, where if you allow it to load, it will actually play you a video, and show you the individual activity of each track.
As it turns out, while this is possible, it’s not really advisable in that form. Anyway, the more exciting use for SoundBoard isn’t just showing things. It’s reacting to things. I’ll give an example:
In part 1 of the India story, I start out writing about the Dhobi Ghat, then move on to other globalizing forces in Bangalore. Later, I transition back to the Dhobi Ghat, with an image of one of the dhobi wallas scrubbing a shirt. SoundBoard can detect that the reader is nearing that point, load and cue the audio of the man scrubbing, fade it in as the reader approaches that image, and fade out other sounds.
It could be used just to put sound behind something, but I like to think of it like leitmotifs for a story. By fading in sound from the dhobi ghat, I can subtly bring the reader back to another place. And it’s totally dynamic; it’s not like I have you on a linear timeline, you can take the story in at your own pace, and the sounds will follow you.
I spent a lot of time at News21 imagining new ways of telling stories, new tools. I think this is new; I’ve never seen it done before. Anyway, there are two more chapters of the India project coming in the next few weeks. Stay tuned…