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Rough Cut Podcast: Transitioning from Photo to Video

Ed Ou and Amanda Mustard dive deep into the transition from photo to video journalism and more.

Video Consortium

The Video Consortium July 2nd, 2024
Rough Cut Podcast: Transitioning from Photo to Video

Rough Cut Podcast is back! Did you miss us? After a brief hiatus, Rough Cut returns in a new, community-driven format, with alternating Video Consortium members hosting each episode.

For our first episode back, join longtime friends, filmmakers, and photojournalists—Ed Ou and Amanda Mustard—as they reunite in this eye-opening segment to discuss the transition from photo to video, the enduring principles of journalism ethics, and the challenges of sustaining a career in high-risk journalism. Amanda also discusses the release of her first feature-length documentary "Great Photo, Lovely Life," a poignant HBO film about her journey to confront familial trauma.

Episode Host: Ed Ou

Guest: Amanda Mustard

Episode: 56

Publish date: July 2, 2024

All you can do is trust that you've made the best decisions that you can and told the most truthful story. And this was a film that was meant to be projected on and to shake people up.
—Amanda Mustard

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Hi, I'm Ed Ou and I'm hosting this episode of Rough Cut. Joining me today is Amanda Mustard. Welcome, Amanda.

Hello, Ed Ou!

So Amanda, we met about 10 years ago when we were both photojournalists. I think we met in the Middle East somewhere in Egypt. And since then we've been working all over the world. And so I guess what's interesting with both of us is that we both started, we're visual journalists and we've started and worked professionally as photojournalists, and then we've moved to documentary filmmaking and video journalism. You just completed your first feature length documentary, so I'd love to hear about that transition from still photography and that medium to documentary film. It's kind of a long arc.

My film is a personal documentary that chronicles my journey attempting to break a cycle of abuse and silence of my family around the sexual abuse [by] my grandfather. So it took nine years to do. There was a lot of overlap because I started my photo career in 2012 and I started the film not knowing it would become a film in 2014. So it's interesting that there was some overlap there. Photojournalism is very solo, you're doing everything yourself, and I think it was something I couldn't apply that approach to making a film. There's a reason there's all those credits and you really need help.

I think that the medium needed to be different. The story I was trying to tell couldn't just be told in photos. So it kind of started there. I didn't know that it would go as far as it did. I didn't know it would take that long. I didn't know it'd end up on HBO Max. It was a really wild ride and the release of Great Photo, Lovely Life and the end of that chapter really coincided with a kind of personal burnout I was feeling with photojournalism. I love it. I'm good at it. It's just a really hard thing to keep doing as far as sustainability is concerned.

Great Photo, Lovely Life film still. Courtesy of HBO.

I'm curious, and I have my own thoughts about this, but I do get that photojournalism is very solitary, but why is that, do you think? We're in documentary video, documentary filmmaking. We are doing the same thing. We're out in the field engaging with subjects, with people, with participants. Photography is the same. So what do you think the difference is between those two?

That's a good question. I mean, the timeline, the requirements of the project. Photo: I would be sent on a job for, I don't know, a couple days, maybe 10 days if I was lucky. Those long assignments are not a thing for people anymore. And yeah, it's like a one man band. You can process the photos, you take the photos, it's just a kind of, I don't want to say simpler, it's technically simpler and it kind of ends there. You hand the photos off to an editor, or wherever it's going to go, and that's kind of that. Whereas film, there's many more layers to the process, I would say. But one of the things I realized transitioning into the doc space was how few people are working in the doc world with our journalism foundation of ethics. There was a learning curve, but there were a lot of transferable skills. I had really honed a way that I see a certain aesthetic, and I carried in this set of ethics that really shaped how I made my film in every way–from the team that I choose to how I schedule things–just like how I approach consent and deal with participants. So I was really, really grateful for that.

That's one thing I have found, that as journalists or photojournalists, we start out with this really rigid set of ethics of neutrality–how to not get involved with people's lives and just how to be a fly on the wall. And one thing that I have found in that transition in working in documentary film is that we're not competing, but we're sharing spaces with people who will just stage things. Who will work under less rigid ethics than we would ever have in the journalism industry. And I've often found that tension to be a little bit strange for me to navigate. How have you done that, especially with such personal work with Great Photo, Lovely Life, that is a very personal story, which is hard to be objective and neutral with.

It was weird. It's very weird, and I feel really lucky. I did a lot of advocacy work in the press freedom space and I'm on the board of the Photo Ethics Committee. So all of these considerations were really, really a part of my core values. So I was thinking about these things a lot, and really doing the best that I could. Which is at the end of the day, what the ethics protocol should be. Every situation is going to be different. There isn't always a correct answer. And I had a role in this story. My process was kind of denormalizing myself to the normalization that I had been raised in a family where child sex abuse, and my grandpa being quote un-quote creepy was just a fact. And I'm trying to go through that personal process while wearing a director hat, working with my family members who are still kind of entrenched in that normalization.

And that was really tricky. I just kept trying to meet them where they were at, and I really tried my best. And of course it was an emotional process for me. And I did give myself space to feel what I needed to, which is kind of captured on film. But ultimately, it was about giving them the space to process and share what nobody in my family had ever talked about before. And that was kind of the point of the film, just giving a space for acknowledgement and talking about it for the first time. But yeah, it was tricky, but I still stand by all of the ethical decisions that I made. One of the most important being, if you didn't want to be a part of the film, you were not a part of the film. There are some very big characters in the story at large that are not even mentioned in the film because I have the utmost respect for their privacy and their wishes with this.

Amanda and her sister. Courtesy of HBO.

I think to what we were talking about as journalists, we're so used to taking ourselves out of it and approaching things with a bird's eye view. What was it like making that transition from photojournalism, where you do need to be this fly on the wall, to diving into something that is so incredibly personal that involves your family, involves your childhood, involves the people closest to you?

It was intense for sure, plenty of panic attacks, it was really challenging. But for me, I was really propelled by the fact that nobody else had really acknowledged this in my family. And I had experienced a sexual assault in my early twenties that really opened my eyes to the reality in my family in a totally different way. And in a way, this film was the process, my own process of denormalizing. It was like, actually, let's talk about this. And it was as simple as just asking people, how do you feel about this? There wasn't a particular agenda, it wasn't driven for legal accountability because everybody that could, within the statute limitations, report him, didn't want to. So that, despite me kind of poking at that, that wasn't really an option.

I think it's interesting when you're talking about the subject of trauma and vicarious trauma and dealing with these really heavy subject matters. I think when we were starting out, what was really not talked about was PTSD trauma, and the toll that what we witness, and what we bear witness to, takes on. And part of that for me, shifting away from photojournalism, is that I found that industry to be kind of toxic, where we couldn't talk about these things. I have found that to be a little bit different with documentary film because of the collaborative nature of this. But I'm curious what your experience of that was, kind of seeing the difference between these two industries.

Yeah, I mean I think both have their toxicities for sure. Photo I entered at a time when it was the height of the Arab Spring. That's where I started my career, and my own journey through that. I think I have maybe been one of the people that has been a little more outspoken. At what cost, I don't know. But working in Egypt as a woman during that time was really difficult. And sexual assault was just kind of a guarantee to some degree in your day-to-day, or at least the anxiety anticipating it. And at 24, I was kind of drinking the photojournalism juice, just plowing ahead, getting the shot, bearing witness, all these things. And then at 24, I had a small stroke. I had a transient ischemic attack as a result of all of the stress and trauma that I wasn't dealing with.

And that was such a scary wake up call to me that I left the country three weeks later and moved to Thailand and started a significant healing journey, both with myself and my relationship to the work. There is this expectation of, and kind of attitude of, it's not about us, don't make yourself a part of this, you're just there to witness, that I wholly disagreed with. It's kind of put your mask on first. We both know colleagues that have died doing this work, and it's a pretty hard conversation to have about is that worth it? And that's the attitude, and the expectation in that world. I'm not sure as much today just because the landscape has changed a little bit, but I'm not sure the conversation is carrying on because what that would look like is editors taking more care and offering more support. And that is kind of not what's happening. We're just getting less and less support, less money, less check-ins, less communication as things go on. Whereas film, I don't know, I thought it was bad in photojournalism, but I do feel like in some ways it's worse in doc. It's mainly the stories I've heard, because I haven't experienced it firsthand, but just because the budgets are higher, schedules are tighter, you have more people on board, thus more at stake.

There's productions that really put people through the ringer in a much riskier… I mean, I don't want to say riskier, because it's different risks. It's different risks, but I don't know if it's better. I think it's different. I mean there's more of a mental health conversation starting to happen, but in the work you do, do you feel like you are supported in that way?

It's weird. For me, I guess I've become very, maybe this is very personal, but I feel like I've been so colonized in my own head with this kind of old school way of if you want to survive. I feel when it comes to mental health, I feel a lot of guilt sometimes for feeling that I even have the right to say that things are affecting me, because it feels like I'm oftentimes trespassing on the grief or the pain of the people I film. And I asked myself, well, what right do I have to feel anything when the person in front of my camera is probably going through something much worse? And I feel very privileged to be able to go in and bear witness to something and then be able to leave and not have that a part of my reality.

I think that's where a lot of the guilt comes in with me, of not knowing how I should feel. And I think a lot of that from a journalism standpoint is when you, and I think this also translates to documentary, is that if you film something or you tell a difficult story, I'd like to think it's because you believe that if you tell that story, you can hopefully change things or you can make the world a better place. But then, I think the parts that have gotten really dark for me are when you realize that no, you actually work for a business, and this business does not actually care about what you believe in. It just cares about making money, or getting clicks, or that bottom line. And I think for me it's that realization, that it's like, wait, so what's the point of me putting myself through all this? For what exactly? And I'm curious how you square that working within the industry?

Thanks for sharing all that. That is real. And I really think I used to feel that, and I would stuff it down and just kind of be like, I'm hoping that this work changes something that would avoid whatever we're witnessing moving forward. And I don't know, I think that that partly came with my burnout. Well, when I had a small stroke, I was like, oh, is this worth it? Is this worth my health? And I decided that it wasn't, I stopped doing conflict work, and I was also pretty early in my career, so I wasn't particularly feeling too effective.

And that was how I always squared things up. Like, okay, if I have a client that I'm shooting for and this is going to be seen by people, I will put myself out there and take more risks as far as mental health goes. But if I wasn't, I wouldn't, and that's out of respect for not sticking a camera in grieving people's faces unnecessarily. I would always balance out, where is this going and what is the potential impact? Yeah, it's kind of story to story.

But I also, I don't know, this film that I've done, the personal film is so heavy that I am really drawn to fun stories right now. I need a break. And just being honest with yourself. And I think that is also something that's been a huge part of this career transition for me, asking myself, what actually do I want to do? I think I spent a lot of time in photojournalism doing what I thought was expected of me story-wise rather than getting in touch with what does Amanda Mustard, what is she the best at? What perspectives can she bring that other people can't? It took me a really long time to get in touch with that. And I'm so happy that I'm here and it is drastically changing things in my life. And sometimes I get sad that it's taken me so long, but I don't know if that's just my own journey.

Amanda with co-director Rachel Beth Anderson at the World Premiere of Great Photo, Lovely Life.

We are in an industry where we're always comparing, we only have other people's careers, docs, and success to compare ourselves to. Right now, you're on the tip of the rollercoaster, you just had this amazing documentary come out with HBO and it's been quite a success. And I imagine that from the inside it might not feel like that because it's so intertwined with the personal everything that it took to get there. Can you just talk about that?

I might answer in a different way. I kind of want to share a little bit about what it's been like, because I had the film on the festival circuit all of last year, and it was really harrowing to see how tough the industry was and how tough the market was. And I often was the only person at a festival that had distribution. So I was acutely aware of the privilege and gratitude that I had for my situation. We happened to sell the film in 2021, right before a lot of things changed, and I'm so grateful that HBO took a risk on us. I'm not sure that that situation would've happened now, but that being said, there's all these expectations, and ideas that people tell you of like, oh my God, people are not going to stop knocking at your door, and this is going to be crazy, and you better strap in.

And really, very little has changed. A lot's changed, but very little has changed. And I just think that we all just need to maintain a kind of humility, and in terms of the expectations of career growth, or this and that. For me, I'm really, really proud that I've finished the process, a process. I really didn't know how I was going to make it through personally. So when I picture locked, that was the celebration for me. It wasn't HBO, it wasn't all these other things. It was just like, oh my God, I survived this. I thought this was going to go on forever. So yeah, that's kind of where my values were. And it has been a little weird with so many people celebrating the film and being like, your life is going to change, and it just hasn't, and you still have to hustle and you still, you're never going to not have to completely. It feels like these meetings I'm having, in general having an HBO film is the bare minimum. They're like, oh yeah, okay, cool, and you move on. That's something I'm learning and realizing, okay, you're always going to have to work your ass off to do whatever you want to do. I don't know if that answered your question.

I think that's a great lesson and reminder to all of us. And I think that's the thing is that with any industry, I think especially in video journalism, documentary filmmaking, is that the medium changes every few years. The landscape changes every few years, and you're constantly having to, not reinvent yourself, but you're always having to evolve along with it. And I think the industry evolves in this really specific way. Who knows what it’s going to look like two years from now, or next year.

But I'm curious from a mental health perspective, you've been working on this one really specific story and now that it's out, it's almost like that experience was locked in place in this feature length film. Yet the experience, and your relationship with your family continues. So I'm curious what that's like, to have this really specifically personal moment locked in place in terms of the documentary, but then having the inertia of everything else still move forward.

Yeah, it's, well, in my specific situation, I would say, if I'm completely honest, I started out the process thinking like, oh my God, this is going to fix my family. And what I learned over many years, and a lot of therapy and the making of this film, is that very little has changed in my family. And in a way, we've all kind of taken a little bit more space from each other, just because we needed it. It was a lot. And I personally feel an enormous amount of relief with it being done. Everyone that congratulates me, I'm like, I'm just so glad it's done. I'm so glad it's done. It was really an Olympic level mental health challenge for me, and I treated it like that. Going through, I was like, okay, I'm going to equip myself with all the tools. I'm going to really treat this like a marathon. And even so, somebody like me who's been an advocate for mental health historically in the journalism field, and I am extremely equipped for this, it was still incredibly difficult.

And yeah, it's also just so rewarding that I get so many emails, even now, I get daily emails from people who have watched the film and they tell me how much it's made them feel seen or change something in their perspective. And being reminded of that is the, what's the word, the neosporin for the suffering of all of this.

Not great at anecdotes there. But yeah, I feel really, it's really beautiful to then just watch it live a life of its own. And it can be this tool of change and education that I no longer need to be behind the driver's seat of, which is super, I love it. If I didn't have that, and I'm really grateful for HBO for that, if I didn't have such a wide audience continuing to watch it, I might be in a different place emotionally and mentally with kind of like, was this worth it?

What was the point of that?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it's been really just healing, every email I get, just being reminded like, okay, this did make a difference to somebody.

Amanda and her mother. Courtesy of HBO.

It's interesting because a lot of the, as a journalist, a lot of the guilt that I sometimes feel is, especially with subjects, and I use the word subject very precisely in this context because in a lot of ways I know...

Participants, whatever,

But actually I think there's a place for that word. And the reason why is you take the people that you film, and oftentimes it's probably at either the worst moment, or the most complex moment of their life, which is what brings you there in the first place. Most of the people I meet, those are the participants that I film. I'm probably not there with a camera because something good happened. And that's this guilt that I do feel, because then the moment you put that out there, you're kind of locking someone's story in this one really specific infinity of the piece that you did, for better or for worse. And the people's lives evolve, but the document that you made of them stays the same. And that's a lot of guilt that I feel when it comes to the people I've filmed. And I'm curious for you, you are the subject of your own film, and so what's it like to be both in control of your narrative, but know that once it's out there, the world will think exactly what they want to think about it? And you have no say in this. I'm curious what that experience is like.

That's a great question and it's a very weird thing. It's something I've just kind of had to accept, especially when I have a screening and people take in eight years of a journey and growth and challenge, and then you walk out and they just feel it. You just feel like they're not seeing the entirety of you, or not realizing how much has changed. And there's a lot of moments in the film that I'm not proud of, but I knew it was important to put in there because it was showing my own growth. It was showing where I was starting in this process, what does it look like when a family has never talked about the rampant abuse that everyone has experienced and you fumble, this is a story of me kind of doing my best and kind of fumbling. We're all kind of fumbling through it, but that was reality. So I was really committed to that risk of being so honest and authentic, and it's weird, people project all kinds of things on you, and I've just had to kind of look at it like that. Anything that anyone's feeling is a reflection of how they are feeling, or themselves rather than me. So I've just gotten really grounded with where I'm at, and people are sometimes kind of confused why I'm upbeat or bubbly, or I've had a lot of weird looks. But I don't know, it's not my business that they feel that. And I can't let that bog me down. And I don't know how it's going to change. It's only been a couple months. It's only been five months since the film's out, but all you can do is trust that you've made the best decisions that you can, and told the most truthful story, and that's all I can do. This was a film that was meant to be projected onm and to shake people up and leave people feeling really complicated things, whether that's towards me or other people in the film. That was the purpose. That's what we all consented to doing. So we kind of all knew what we were signing up for. But how it evolves, I don't know. It'll be interesting.

With everything that you know now, when you're dealing with really heavy subject matter, like Great Photo, Lovely Life, I am curious, what advice would you give to filmmakers on how to prepare yourself for a journey like this, and how do you deal with this emotional journey of dealing with such a heavy subject matter in general?

Just having as many mental health tools and being in touch with your own process and needs as much as you can. I talked to a lot of other filmmakers, anyone that I could to ask, how did you guys navigate this? And I think just kind of forming that community. I talked to the twins from Tell Me Who I Am and Sasha and Joseph Neulinger who did Rewind, was my mentor through the process. I connected with Madison Hamburg of Murder on Middle Beach. And really just, there are so few people that experience and go through something like putting a personal film out there, especially on a platform that big. And yeah, I just kind of asked for advice and formed a community that way. And they're some of my closest friends now, which is really cool. There's kind of like a little pod of us who have become really close friends that have made personal films, including Reed Harkness who did Sam Now, which is such a fantastic film. His was over 25 years, which is next level. So yeah, just make sure you form a community. Don't be afraid to ask for help and advice and just trust the process. I really wish I would've read The Creative Act by Rick Rubin before I did this. I read it afterwards and was like, oh my God, that would've helped me so much in tuning out the noise of what wasn't important and what was, and just building that trust in my own intuition. I think it would've been a lot less hard.

Sam Now, directed by Reed Harkness.

Amanda, what's next for you?

So I am working on a short film actually for the New York Times Op-Docs with Luke Malone, and writer of Great Photo, Lovely Life, Joseph Bebe, actually talking about and sharing some thoughts about the reaction that there's been to the film and how we deal with child sex abuse. So I am still carrying on the life of Great Photo, Lovely Life, and I'm doing speaking engagements to use the film as an educational tool, which is really cool. And then I'm producing an amazing doc by Isadora Kosofsky, who is another photojournalist turned filmmaker. And it is the unconventional journey of a woman, a senior citizen, to redefine what aging looks like, and it is her journey getting into the porn industry. So very different needs for that film. And I'm also spending a lot of time at this neo burlesque queer creative dream of a venue in the Lower East Side. And I am developing some really creative ideas and collaborations with some of the performers there that's really pushing the boundaries of how we can tell docs. That's what I'm most interested in, is really creative, unconventional ways we can tell stories that still remain ethical.

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