Documentary filmmaker Brett Junvik is only 26, but he’s already traveled around the world telling stories of impoverished people and the international aid groups that assist them. Here, he reflects candidly on his experiences and gives advice to journalists, particularly young ones just entering the field and looking to establish a portfolio, on how to manage overseas travels and connect with the people they’re filming.
A desire for international journalism was rooted in my early youth, but it wasn’t until three years ago that the desire developed into a passion that would take me around the world.
In 2007, I saw a documentary that portrayed the life of an impoverished village in Sudan. Less than a year later, I was telling the stories of the injustices facing children in the same region as a filmmaker with Discover The Journey. Seeing the impact that one story had on my life, and the power it had to move me into action, made me realize that I could touch people in a similar way as a storyteller with a camera.
I probably could not have made a trip overseas if I hadn’t been willing to work a few jobs for little or no pay. Discover The Journey could not pay me a wage or even cover my expenses on that first trip. Frankly, with a passport full of blank pages, I could understand why. What continued to motivate me was the confidence that this was something I could love and do well.
I saved for a year to make it happen, and I will never regret it. As I started to film, I began the most fulfilling work I have ever done: telling heart-wrenching stories of the injustices facing children worldwide, such as AIDS, prostitution, abduction into rebel armies and forced labor.
Because of my experience, and a valuable reference from Discover The Journey, less than a month later I was asked to film for another non-profit agency. This assignment brought me to Haiti, with all my expenses paid for but no wages. It was the incredible story of an American girl, inspired by a desperate Haitian boy to move to Haiti and start an orphanage. I felt a great sense of fulfillment and purpose capturing this powerful story. Despite the lack of pay, I knew this was exactly what I was meant to do.
As I worked hard on the projects I was given, I started to build my portfolio. Word traveled, and a month later I was hired (yes, actually paid!) to film for an organization in Lebanon and Jordan for five weeks. Again, this story was one that I believed in, one that spoke truth about a people in great need, and one that featured those who were doing something to meet that need.
By agreeing to make that first unpaid trip, I was able to gain some experience in the type of journalism I wanted to do in the future. I was telling the stories of non-profits who were working to combat the difficulties facing people in poverty-dominated, war-torn parts of the world. These were stories that did not end on a tragic note, but rather stories that carried the determination of daring people with a genuine love for those in need.
I have been to some of the poorest and most challenging places in the world. I witnessed a staggering amount of pain and suffering; but I met people who are doing something about it. These are the stories that journalists should tell.
When working for a news agency, they choose the stories for you to investigate. As a freelance journalist, I get to choose the stories I want to tell. I can choose the ones that carry great urgency for humanity, not simply those with a certain political slant or that are driven by monetary gain. I believe that makes me a better journalist, knowing that my heart is in the stories I tell.
It has been nearly three years since I filmed my first international story, and I have had the privilege of working in 11 countries since. In all of these places, I have found local people willing to help me tell each story.
However, not everyone is helpful. When our travel plans changed en route from Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda, we had to quickly find another form of transportation and hire a new driver, who we knew nothing about. Not only did the driver try to charge us extra for each piece of equipment, but we also caught his friends, who were loading up our luggage, pick-pocketing us. But you can avoid many of the dishonest ones by doing your homework. I have learned to contact local people as far in advance as I can, limiting myself to people I already know and trust, calling their references whenever possible, especially when going somewhere new.
Some places are obviously more dangerous than others and require even more preparation. In the Middle East, I was able to cross barriers I should not have been able to cross and interview people not normally willing to talk, only because of who I knew. My connections had worked in these sensitive areas for over 10 years and had established relationships with the local people. I was able to enter these regions because of the previously earned trust of my connections, and it proved to be a priceless advantage in gaining favor from the locals.
In Congo, we had to pass several barricades guarded by armed men who didn’t speak English. Without our local contacts speaking for us, assuring the gunmen that we were traveling together, I don’t think we would have made it past the first barricade.
There are scores of stories like these, and I can’t stress enough how important your local contacts are for safety, efficiency and accuracy in your travels. They know the rules, shortcuts, bus stations, best moneychangers, etc. I have depended heavily on local contacts over and over, and have learned to take time to find the trustworthy ones. I like to build a relationship with the locals, even down to a taxi driver. I have been surprised by the information I can gain from the least likely candidates.
There is presently an opportunity for a new kind of journalism, led by the freelancer. This journalism has the power to tell a story from the local people’s eyes, journalism that can even transcend cultures. Who could honestly expect to report on a situation 5,000 miles from home in a few days, surrounded by a culture they’ve never seen, from anyone’s perspective but their own? It can be daunting, but you need to be “on the ground” and invest significant time in the communities you’re covering.
For those looking for a piece to change their career, searching and hoping for the next tragedy, focused more on their camera angle than the human life in front of them, this is not for you. As a journalist, possibly just starting out in the field, it is critical to ask yourself why you want to do this.
I will never forget the looks on people’s faces in the remote villages of Burundi. We were told by our local friends that we were the first white people many of the younger children had ever seen. Some of the people were very intrigued and curious, even excited by all of our camera equipment. The kids were thrilled when I flipped the viewfinder toward them to see their reflection in this crazy gadget for the first time. But others were very upset that we would come into their village without saying a word and start filming their everyday lives, poverty and all. How could I blame them? What right did I have to violate their privacy? I regret filming here because we were just passing through and didn’t have the time to sit down and explain why we were there.
Compared to Burundi, the reactions from the people on a later trip to India, where we spent nearly a month at an orphanage in Kovilpatti, were much different. We were able to establish relationships with the orphans and the people taking care of the children. They knew exactly why we were there and were thrilled that we were sharing their story with the world. Everyone at the orphanage was comfortable giving interviews and spoke openly.
Time, money and the consumer mentality will fight against investing in the people you’re working with. Investments take both time and energy. You might ask, “Why spend a month actually getting to know a culture and people before even writing a word, snapping a photo or pressing the record button, when I can be in and out with my story in three days?” This idea could also conflict with many employers’ time and money commitments, but these are issues that a freelancer doesn’t necessarily have to worry about.
It may be unrealistic to spend a month in the field for every story you do, especially when traveling internationally, but there is an advantage in doing journalism this way. Depth of relationship and investment in community is critical. This is the type of journalism that can affect lives on a global scale.
Brett Junvik is a freelance filmmaker who is passionate about telling the stories of people and organizations with a great need in impoverished and war-torn parts of the world. See his work at BrettJunvik.com.
Tagged under: Freelancing