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The Reel Truth

Challenging Your Comfort Zone: Ed Ou's Approach to Controversial Stories

Exploring the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking.

Michael Werner

September 6th, 2023
Challenging Your Comfort Zone: Ed Ou's Approach to Controversial Stories

Welcome back to The Reel Truth, our dedicated space where we delve into the world of video journalism and documentary filmmaking via in-depth interviews with VCers working around the globe. This month, we have the distinct pleasure of presenting an insightful conversation with renowned video journalist Ed Ou. From the tumultuous war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 to the riveting scenes of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Ed's fearless pursuit of stories has taken him to the heart of some of the world's most significant events.

His deep dives into subjects like the legacy of colonialism in Canada, the harrowing drug war in the Philippines, and the unsettling rise of extremism in the US are a testament to his dedication to unearthing the truth. Join us in this edition of The Reel Truth as we discover the challenges and complexities of reporting on difficult and dangerous subjects.


Ed Ou covering a rally for racial justice in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in June 2022. Photo by Brandon Bell

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Werner: You have a wide array of skills, and you've worked on a diverse range of projects. So I'm curious, how do you view yourself? Do you see yourself as a video journalist or a documentarian? Or does identity not matter?

Ed Ou: I would say I'm a journalist, first and foremost, and the medium in which I work shifts depending on the best way to tell the story. I started out as a photojournalist, then transitioned more into video and documentary. At its core, the fundamental nature of what I do is reporting truth in whatever medium and showing the world as it is.

At its core, the fundamental nature of what I do is reporting truth in whatever medium and showing the world as it is.
—Ed Ou

I started out in the Middle East, based in Jerusalem, Sanaa, and Cairo. I worked in Iraq after the US invasion and covered different stories from the Arab Spring protest movements in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. During that time, I was brought up in a relatively old school background of wire journalism, which values finding objective facts, a neutral perspective and simply bearing witness to the truth. That was relevant in the Middle East, because that idea of journalistic neutrality was something that I felt is what kept us safe and gave us the ability to weave in and out of oftentimes dangerous situations.

As I transitioned into video and documentary journalism, I’ve brought that mentality to everything that I have and continue to work on. I always approach journalism with the mind of asking, “how do you tell people's stories in a way that shows multiple layers and complexity and that also challenges people’s preconceptions?”

2015: Ed Ou films a landscape in the Faroe Islands. Photo by Elise Coker

Michael: You have a history of tackling difficult stories — everything from war reporting to humanitarian crises to political extremists — that often put your personal safety at risk. How do you protect your mental and emotional health when you're working on difficult projects like this?

Ed: It's really hard to do because the quality that makes you a good journalist, the ability to immerse yourself in people’s lives and situations, is the same thing that really hurts you and leaves you sometimes emotionally broken, physically harmed, and just troubled at the end of it. A large part of the trauma I have, both physically and emotionally stems from coming too close to any situation and getting injured, or becoming too enmeshed into a character's life.

2020: Ed was among many teargassed journalists while covering Minneapolis protests.
Ed Ou injured by law enforcement in Minneapolis while covering a rally. Photo by Chandan Khanna. (Minneapolis, 2020).

The lines between our personal and professional lives are incredibly blurred, especially when you're doing longer form, in-depth documentary journalism. You're essentially living in a story or a subject matter for months or years, possibly. And I know I don't draw boundaries and separation for myself with the characters that I follow, because that rapport is what you need to build trust and be there for important scenes. It's the same thing that lets you understand and tell the most nuanced story. But oftentimes, their traumas and pain can morph into your own weight to bear. Simultaneously, there’s a dynamic where you as a journalist have an incredible amount of power and control over their narratives, with a potential to do harm by the way you tell their story. So it can be a very complicated responsibility.

When I come back to New York after a shoot and I'm editing my footage, everything that I'm dealing with blurs back into my home and my office. And for some stories, it's really helpful to have a bit of a buffer. I remember I once flew back from reporting on white nationalism, and I landed in Newark Airport, feeling really unsettled. I almost checked into an airport hotel for myself just so I would not have to go home just yet … because I didn't want to bring the shoot home and have it affect my personal life and my relationships.

For difficult stories, I try as hard as I can not to work at home. When I was working on a neo-Nazi documentary or a recent film about people who torture monkeys, I would go out of my way to edit it in a different space, like a cafe. When I worked in the Middle East, I spent a lot of time working with ISIS videos and executions. And what I would do is I’d go out of my way to wear uncomfortable clothing that I would change into to watch these really gruesome videos. And then, when I would go back to my house, I would change, take a shower, and just really try to, like, erase that part of myself and limit my hours of thinking about that. I try to compartmentalize things as much as possible, so that these lines don't get blurred. But it’s really hard. It was actually easier to separate this when I was younger; I find the more time goes by, the more the toll it all takes on you, and the harder it is not to feel burdened by the weight of everything you experienced.

There are definitely irresponsible ways to cover difficult topics and groups, but we absolutely need to try to do our best.
—Ed Ou

Michael: How do you feel about the current state of journalism when it comes to covering controversial topics or polarizing figures?

Ed: People don't seem to want to do the work to really see nuances in people that they disagree with. I've been told by editors in the past that it would be irresponsible of me to cover anti-vaxxers, anti abortion activists or Trump supporters because it would give them an unchecked platform. I disagree with this because it impoverishes the pursuit of truth, understanding, and seeing the world through the eyes of people with differing viewpoints. There are definitely irresponsible ways to cover difficult topics and groups, but we absolutely need to try to do our best.

Ed Ou films in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Avra Fialas
Find stories that make you uncomfortable.
—Ed Ou

Especially in the US, people need to get past their incredibly partisan lenses in which they see things. Find stories that make you uncomfortable. If talking to someone who voted for Trump makes you uncomfortable, that probably says more about you as a journalist than that other person. And that works the other way around too. That’s exactly why this country is so divided right now.

Michael: Do you worry that journalism has lost its public service mandate?

Ed: Yeah, I really do worry that it has. I got into journalism because it does have this mandate to be a public service. People need to see what's happening so that they can be informed citizens and voters. So they can hold their government to account. That’s entirely the point of journalism: to show an unbiased truth so that people can make their own decisions about what they want their world to be. And that's a privilege that we have in these open societies; we get to have these discussions.

Unfortunately, journalism is now becoming hyper-partisan, where news reporting is indistinguishable from opinion and punditry, especially broadcast television. The capitalistic part of this equation is that outrage gets money, whether it's Fox News or MSNBC. And I think that's a really big problem.

The U.S. is a big country and has such a beautiful diversity of opinions, a lot of them opposed to each other. What makes it so fascinating is that we can have these debates and we can have these really specific disagreements on certain values. But that needs to start from the basis of some kind of objective facts. And I think the more we approach things as activists, the more we muddy the waters as to what those objective facts could be, and that's a problem on both sides of any issue.

Ed Ou films atop the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland for a story about a group trying to save glaciers by putting blankets over parts that are at risk of melting. Photo by Dominic Nahr

Michael: There's a lot of talk in the industry about representation and identity and who's qualified to tell other people's stories. Having spent as much time as you have working in foreign countries and exploring subcultures, what do you think about this?

Ed: There needs to be a lot more diversity in the people telling stories in this country and worldwide. Newsrooms and journalism and the documentary industry traditionally have had a really white Western gaze. And that’s something that absolutely needs to change.

That said, I personally dislike this idea that you have to have the exact lived experience of the story that you're telling or that you need to be from a certain community, because I think the beauty of journalism and documentary is understanding cultures, situations and contexts that are not your own. Don’t get me wrong, there should be a push for communities to tell their own stories as well. In a perfect world, we would have many people from different parts of the world telling stories about other people who aren't them. The way it is right now is that it's usually a white person going into a historically misrepresented community to extract stories from people.

If we could get to a place where there are more filmmakers and journalists in the Global South who have an equal voice and who get to tell stories and aren't pigeonholed into their one identity, that would be a really beautiful thing.

To me, diversity in journalism and documentary is when a journalist or filmmaker from Palestine is assigned to go to Mexico to do a story there, or someone from Mexico is given an opportunity to cover stories in China, as opposed to everyone who is white from the US being sent off to different places to do stories about brown people. That needs to change.

But I think the thing that I find to be very unfair is that as a non-white person, I end up getting put in this really specific box in which I'm told that, you know, if I'm a Chinese speaker, then the only place I can work is China or that's the story that I need to cover. I find that to be incredibly unfair because all that does is that it keeps people who are not white in a separate box in which they're expected to only cover the things that they've been typecast into. Meanwhile, white people in this field still get to go wherever they want and no matter how much we think has changed, this moment of reflection has led to an industry in which non-white people become even more tokenized to check these boxes.

Ed films during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Palestine.

Michael: Do you see any solutions?

Ed: The first push should be just diversifying newsrooms and diversifying the pool of filmmakers and journalists, period. We need to then work towards dismantling the underlying racism embedded in newsrooms and the industry, where there is a clear tendency of white people getting preferential treatment in terms of credibility and opportunities. And then we can talk about who is the best person to tell what story and their gaze and what they bring to the table.

I think a lot of the time it doesn't need to be someone from that community or of that ethnicity who tells the story. Fostering diversity means not putting people in a box and making them cover one story or topic. To give you an example, I was born in Taiwan. I was raised in Canada, and much of my life I worked in the Middle East. I don't personally have much of a connection, emotionally or intellectually to China or Taiwan. But I am often asked to do stories about an identity that I personally don't really feel much of a connection with, just because of my skin color.

A lot of journalists that I know, who are people of color, are told to work only in their own communities. But white journalists and filmmakers aren't asked the same thing. And I think that's where it becomes really unfair.

If you want to do really good work, you should absolutely go out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to spend time with stories that you find difficult and with people that you possibly disagree with because that's what makes you a good journalist and a nuanced storyteller.
—Ed Ou

Michael: Given these challenges, what do you think are the implications for budding journalists and filmmakers, especially in terms of how they approach stories?

Ed: It feels like new journalists and new documentary filmmakers are being taught to really play up their personal backgrounds and really let their identities determine the outcome of their beats, coverage and careers.

But the other thing that you really have to learn is to identify and empathize with people who disagree with you because inevitably, you're going to meet people who hold different opinions or challenge your viewpoints. And that's the beauty of human interaction. And I don't think we're training the next generation of journalists to be ready for that, to be able to go out of their familiar and tell stories that they maybe aren't comfortable telling. But maybe that's what they should be doing. And if we can diversify newsrooms, and the documentary space at all levels, we will have a more well rounded perspective to look at other people's stories beyond our own.

Ed pets a dog while working on a story about the search for the lost graves of indigenous children in Canada. Photo by Nilo Tabrizy

If you want to do really good work, you should absolutely go out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to spend time with stories that you find difficult and with people that you possibly disagree with because that's what makes you a good journalist and a nuanced storyteller. But what's happening now is that we're conditioning people to express themselves and their identity and make stories about themselves. We just end up preaching to a very specific choir of those who already agree with us and want to consume content to reinforce their views. And I think that's actually quite problematic, because that furthers the divide as to what impartiality and objectivity means. And it also doesn't give journalists the tools to go out of their comfort zone so that they can be sent on stories that have nothing to do with their identity.

I do understand that a journalist’s inherent bias and gaze is infused into their work, despite all efforts. That’s why I feel strongly about having a diversity of people telling the stories; the net result is a more well-rounded narrative of our world.

Ed on a four wheeler coming back from filming a hunt in Nunavut, Canada.

Michael: Speaking of exploring different perspectives and challenging preconceptions, you did a story a few years ago about white supremacists that really epitomizes that. How did you approach such a challenging and emotionally charged subject?

Ed: I don't think I approached that story any differently than any other story I covered previously. As a documentary journalist, you are likely going to be covering people whose views differ from yours. And it’s important to understand what drives people – What are the insecurities, fears, aspirations, circumstances, hopes, and prejudices that form a person’s or a group's worldview that may clash with yours?

With that particular project, the first thing I tried to do was to find a way to relate to the people on a human level. My skin color will not change; I will always look Asian and not white. And spending time with white supremacists, the thing I really tried to emphasize was that I'm a human being, too. You find really specific ways to relate to someone so that they see you as you and not you as the person that they think you are.

But it works both ways, and I had to see the humanity within them and relate to people on a personal level so that you can have the type of relationship where you can ask those difficult questions. And I think that's true for every culture or country you work in. With every character I meet, I try to quickly find some kind of a common ground and any thread that people can relate with, talking about universal things like family, food, culture, fears, hopes and dreams.

Ed out on the land in Arviat, Nunavut, Canada - where he has been working on a feature documentary with fellow VC member Kitra Cahana.

Michael: With a story like this, do you try to empathize with the people you're filming? Or are you more distant and objective?

Ed: I gravitate towards telling stories of people who I really want to understand, and as a result, I have a habit of getting close to people very quickly. It gets quite complicated when you personally disagree with someone's views, but need to be objective and portray them with complexity and nuance.

It's actually quite difficult because you will spend a lot of time with people in their homes. In many cases, and in this story in particular, the reasons that bring me into someone's life often stems from something bad that happened, usually a tragedy of some sort, unfortunately. But if you're able to find a way to relate to people, you see the good in everyone. And I find that sometimes I will forget what brought me there in the first place. I don’t mind that because we need to be careful not to define and represent someone's entire life by one incident, condition or opinion.

And it all just comes from having an open mind. And just knowing that no one is inherently good or evil. People are capable of doing amazingly good things, or shockingly evil things in the same breath.

But it really does take a toll on you. Because for me, the goal is always to reach a level of depth and intimacy with people and their stories. But by doing that, you do expose yourself to some troubling things, things that you wish you could unsee or wish you could not know.

In order to get close with people, you have to put yourself out there and be a human being. And it's difficult to detach yourself from someone, even a neo-Nazi or a militant extremist in the Middle East or a criminal. Emotionally I find it to be exhausting, but really rewarding at the same time.

It was also difficult editorially balancing the personal connections I made, and my responsibility to present subjects authentically and impartially. I had to account for my own identity as an Asian person because it was in complete contradiction to the overarching truths of their ideology. This really took a toll on me, the editor, and everyone who worked on this project.

Ed covering the aftermath of a Russian drone strike in Kyiv, Ukraine in October 2022. Photo by Luke Mogelson

Michael: With so many challenges in the industry what makes you feel hopeful about the future of journalism and storytelling?

Ed: The thing that makes me feel hopeful is that I do feel like everyone in this field is striving to reveal hard truths so that we can elevate our understanding of the human condition. To me, that is the nature of journalism and filmmaking – to be this sustained mirror to remind us of who we are and what we stand for, and to question ourselves.

I feel hopeful that technology will narrow the gap in understanding among us – Most people in the world have the ability to be completely connected and also film truth at any given time, whether it's seasoned journalists or ordinary citizens with smartphones, because to me, journalism is an act. It's an impulse to share something important as it transpires. Whether it’s Darnella Frazer filming while helplessly witnessing the murder of George Floyd and catalyzing an international movement for racial justice, or someone profoundly captivated by a double rainbow, driven to share the world's beauty with anyone willing to listen and appreciate it. Our role as professional storytellers is to grasp these innate urges, to authentically encapsulate the human experience and gain deeper insights into ourselves. I do feel hopeful that technology is enabling that.

A selfie from a drone in Grants, New Mexico while a project investigating the millions of tons of uranium waste that mining companies and regulators have allowed to continue polluting rural areas.

Michael: One last question that we ask all of our guests, what's the best piece of advice that you've received in your career?

Ed: One thing that people always told me was to find a community that supports you in what you do and ignore the people who like to discourage you or write you off. That doesn't mean you shouldn’t take difficult advice, but instead it means gravitate towards the people who inspire you and support you. And I think that's true for both your professional career, but also just in life. For as many people as there are, who would put you down, there’s even more you can find who would empower you and who legitimately want you to succeed. Gravitate towards the orbit of people like that.

Michael: I genuinely appreciate your candor in talking about these issues, Ed. The industry needs more voices like yours, which question the status quo and aim for a more inclusive and truthful approach to journalism. Thank you.

Ed: Discussions like this are crucial for our field. Thanks for providing this platform.

Have an idea for a Reel Truth guest? Send Michael a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.


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