Rick Gershon on location. ©Rick Gershon
Breaking In: Multimedia Documentarian Rick Gershon
Rick Gershon on location. ©Rick Gershon
By Aimee Baldridge
/ Published by MOCIf photography is the art of visual economy, multimedia work is an exploration of narrative plenty. Instead of streamlining complex issues into a series of single images, multimedia creators apply a broad array of tools to craft the right combination of video, still imagery, and sound for each story they tell. Brought to life in the online world of the 21st century, multimedia storytelling is still an evolving form of communication. Rick Gershon, an award-winning veteran in the field at the ripe old age of 30, talked to us about his own evolution from photojournalist to multimedia documentarian and explained what the landscape looks like for young multimedia creators today.
Photos courtesy of Rick Gershon. You can view a selection of his work on the Getty Images Reportage website.
Aimee Baldridge: Did you go to college to study photojournalism?
Rick Gershon: No, I went to college to play football. I’m from Texas and I went to the University of North Texas. I played for my first two years there. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and my mom worked at the newspaper there. I was home on Christmas break after my first semester of college, and they asked if I could cover a basketball game because they were short handed. I shot some pictures and did a little article, and the editor called me a couple days later and said, “These are really good. Have you thought about majoring in photography or journalism?” I thought, “That could be cool.”
My first class was taught by the director of photography at the Dallas Morning News. He brought in all these photojournalists who had done amazing documentary work all over the world, in conflict photography and social issue photography. I’d never really looked at photography as a medium to communicate. I just thought it was something fun to do. That class really blew my mind.
AB: How did you get into the field after you left school?
Rick Gershon: I won College Photographer of the Year in 2004, and I also placed in POYi. In journalism, they want people who win awards, so I got hired by the Dallas Morning News. I actually got hired the day Hurricane Katrina hit. I worked on a story on the migration out of New Orleans. I was going to all the shelters. Buses would show up and they’d say, “We’ve got 10 apartments and 30 jobs in Indianapolis,” and these people who had never left the Ninth Ward would get on, and I would follow them wherever they went. During that time, I felt a limitation on my ability to tell stories. I was on my own, without a writer, and the photos weren’t doing justice to the story. I never got into photography for a love of photography, but because of its storytelling ability. I love to tell stories that impact culture. All I wanted to do was change the culture and change the world, you know?
AB: So that’s when you started doing video?
Rick Gershon: Yeah, that was about the time when video started coming on the scene in newspapers. A guy named David Leeson, who was one of the pioneers in doing video at the Morning News, handed me a video camera on one of my trips. I was going to Vegas to meet up with a group of evacuees. It took the storytelling to a whole other level.
We started doing daily news video stories, and then on my bigger projects where I was working with stills, I would integrate video into them. The Dallas Morning News had an epic photo staff at the time, one of the best in the country. We won the Pulitzer for our coverage of Katrina, my first assignment. When you’re new and young on a staff like that, they’re not going to feed you the big, long-form projects, and that’s what I wanted to do. So I saw video as a storytelling tool, but I also saw it as a way to get better assignments. From far above our director of photography, there was a big request for video assignments, because they could put ads on them. So I just poured myself into video editing full-steam, and started getting the assignments I really wanted.
It was intense. I saw the sun come up way too many times in that office. There wasn’t a whole lot to transitioning to shooting video, but learning to edit was a nightmare. But it went really well, and I started winning a lot of contests with my video pieces and getting a lot of attention for them, and Getty approached me about starting a multimedia department. So I worked for them for three years, traveling around the country coming up with cool multimedia stories.
AB: You now work at the highly esteemed multimedia studio MediaStorm. What are your clients there like?
Rick Gershon: Most of my films are for NGOs. And I do some corporate work for clients like Starbucks, and video ads and promotional work for the Discovery Channel and History Channel. I do a lot of that kind of stuff for money, and then I work on my longer-form personal projects that we’re not getting paid to do.
AB: How should young photographers who want to get into multimedia work get started?
Rick Gershon: Attach yourself to somebody who's doing what you want to do. I really believe in the apprentice/mentor relationship. Do whatever you can to get constant feedback from someone you really trust and respect. Most photographers and filmmakers are really willing to help, because somebody helped them. A lot of people helped me along the way. I wouldn’t be where I am now without their total generosity. I was probably just annoying the shit out of them, but over time, I think they appreciated it. I would literally call them every day and say, “What are you doing today?” I’d do pretty much anything they needed me to do, and most of the time I didn’t make a dime. I’ve always had a mentality—and I think a lot of it comes from playing sports—of having to train at your craft. You’re not going to leave college and step into the perfect gig. You’ve got to work your way up.
There was a period when big organizations were hiring as many kids out of school as they could because they had skills nobody else had. These wonderkids could code websites, edit films, and do motion graphics. But now it's saturated. Every university is teaching multimedia, these kids aren't so much in demand anymore, and there are so many of them. And just because you know how to do something that someone else doesn't, that doesn't mean you're the best at telling a story. Ultimately, the skills are tools to tell a story.
AB: Do you think it's critical for people to cobble things together for themselves, as opposed to looking for a career track laid out by an organization?
Rick Gershon: Yes. The traditional staff jobs really aren't there, and I think they're going to go away even more. Things will work more on a freelance basis, because the companies don't have to pay insurance and be on the hook for a salary every year. It really seems like such a Wild West kind of time, when people are trying to figure it out and scrap their way around. The blessing and curse of the Internet is that people are doing their own stories and publishing themselves. That’s really great, but the hard part is people aren't getting paid.
The only way to beat it is to be the best at what you do, and if you're not the best, figure out how to be the best. I do think that in the future, as the quality rises and the demand for good quality is there, people will start paying for it. We're starting to see that more and more. But you've really got to be driven, because everyone wants to be a photographer. Everyone’s pushing multimedia at school, but there’s not a lot of demand for it. The market has not matured yet.
AB: Should young multimedia creators come to New York?
Rick Gershon: It's a catch-22. There are already too many people doing it in New York, so it’s hard to make a living here. But it's also the center of journalism and documentary storytelling. I could go to something every night of the week here that's inspiring. There are so many interesting people, and I collaborate with lot of them on projects. I think multimedia is hard to do by yourself.
AB: Why is multimedia hard to do by yourself?
Rick Gershon: There are so many different elements that come into play—the pacing of the piece, the edit, the imagery, the sound, the narrative, the interview—and I just think it’s too much to manage by yourself. It’s so easy to get really deep in the weeds on a project and not be able to see out of it. You need someone else to bounce ideas off of. Infinitely more decisions are made in editing a multimedia piece than in editing a still photo library or slideshow. I grew leaps and bounds when I came to MediaStorm. I was good, but having the collaboration and structure was really important. If you can't find a way to get that, then build it yourself. I think that's why who many people are forming collectives. It's a very primal need when it comes to being good at what we do. It's hard to be super-creative alone. Where are you going to get your inspiration from if you're just sitting home alone?
AB: What do you like least about what you do?
Rick Gershon: It's got to be sitting in front of a computer, editing. It’s rewarding, but it's like that old line: “I don't like to write, but I like having written.” Sometimes I spend 18 or 20 hours a day trying to cut a piece together to meet a deadline. It's really rewarding, but it's such a beating. I'm a photographer. I want to be in the field, interacting with people.
But it's such an invaluable process to edit your own work. There's no better way to see how much you blow it than when you have to cut your own stuff and build a scene out of your own footage. You learn how you see a scene and how you moved and operated in that scene. If you don't edit your stuff, you're really missing out on a learning opportunity.
Multimedia can also be a lot of work. Video is such a constant process. It's just not as Zen as still photography. You're not sitting there watching and studying a situation. You’re not waiting for that one shot that represents this scene, this moment. It's more like you’re representing every scene that's happening. The gear is bigger and heavier, and there's more to manage. You've got to think about audio and your video, which is rolling all the time. It's athletic and exhausting when I’m shooting video. I'm trying to keep the camera steady. I'm walking like a duck, and my back is killing me. At the end of the day, I can barely stand up when I've shot video for eight hours. My whole body aches. To build a film, to build scenes, you have to shoot a lot.
AB: How do you organize a multimedia shoot?
Rick Gershon: The preproduction process is so much more important than it was when I was a still photographer. I really have to anticipate and storyboard in my head what I'm going to be doing, or I'm just running around, wondering what's going to happen. There's so much more planning. And you've got to find a subject. You're not just shooting images that represent themes. You're telling the story of a character. No matter how pretty your video is, if your character is not interesting or compelling, it's not going to be a strong piece. I need somebody who not only has a great story visually, but can tell that story and is outgoing enough to carry an interview, and has that spark that can make someone connect by just looking at them.
AB: What's the best thing about being where you've arrived?
Rick Gershon: The depth of the stories I'm telling now. I'm always going to be learning and I'm always pushing forward into areas that I'm not great in, but it does feel good to get to a point where you have a really strong skill set down. I now feel really comfortable about telling stories. When I was younger, I would hear photographers talk about developing a personal style. I never understood what they meant. But now I do. You get to a point where you develop a vision and a style in your work, and you can go after that and continue to develop it.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
Category:Interviews and Profiles
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