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The Aftermath Of Disaster - Bearing Witness

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Haiti Earthquake Aftermath Montage from Khalid Mohtaseb on Vimeo.

Khalid Mohtaseb was on the ground shooting in Port-au-Prince less than a week after the earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010. His job was not an easy one.

Today, those behind the lens covering the news are rapidly becoming the news themselves.

The recently released dramatic footage of the Reuters' photographer and driver shot in Iraq has focused attention on the dangers those covering news on the ground face on a daily basis. A popular industry blog DSLR News Shooter recently did a post on him that stirred up unexpected controversy.

Shoot the Messenger, an in-depth documentary nominated for an International Emmy Award last year, exposed a shift in the dangers of war reporting; where as once members of the press were considered neutral, they are now being targeted. The result is a rise in kidnappings and deaths of journalists, cameramen and photographers.

I wanted to interview Khalid because for most of us here in the states, the story of the earthquake in Haiti has come to us solely through the images the press has provided. Khalid's piece strives to balance the burden of truth expected in journalistic/news work with the artistic and cinematic beauty we've come to expect with dimmed lights and popcorn.

Yet, time and time again, questions are raised on the ethics of photographing a man reaching out for help or filming bodies piled in the streets. The thing is, someone's got to do it. So stories can be told to the world. So the world, so WE can stand witness.

ALC: I know you had to be juggling time to be able to get the work shots needed as well as shoot personal footage. Can you expand on how the experience impacted you now that you've had time to digest the experience of being in Haiti after the earthquake?

KM: For me, Haiti was not only my first time covering a natural disaster, but also my first time visiting a place with poverty of that magnitude.

I was working ninety percent of the time and I tried as hard as possible to block many emotions to get the work done, but the reaction to seeing a family struggle, for even the simplest form of survival, was an emotion I couldn't block.

I can tell you that since returning, I am much more grateful and appreciative for not only the obvious, but for the very little things that usually wouldn't cross my mind. I think many people here in America take little things for granted and are ignorant to the fact that there is a huge population of people around the world that live in poverty beyond explanation.

Sure, we're taught that in school but being told something is completely different than actually experiencing it first hand.

ALC: I think people forget that a human being is behind the camera sometimes; that it's their job to be in the disaster zones and on the front lines. We watched chaos on the streets at one point in Haiti, with reports of shootings. Did you feel at risk at anytime? Does that even cross your mind when you have a job to do?

KM: If I didn't have a camera in front of my eyes the entire time, I might have been more aware of going into dangerous situations but as a "shooter" my mind is so focused on the shot and capturing everything I can. I'm just in the zone when I am working.

Personally, I felt that main stream media was hyping the looting and violence for effect. I saw it being covered on the news, but I didn't actually encounter any of that when I was on the ground in Haiti.

ALC: Are you surprised or shocked by the deep divide of opinions that seems to have grown surrounding your footage?

KM: I had read several articles in the past about photographers covering man made and natural disaster and how much controversy revolves around them, but I didn't think it would reach this level. I knew what I might be in for prior to going, however what I shot was a conscious decision.

I think anytime someone tries to break a barrier by doing something different there will be those who oppose it. Change makes many people uncomfortable. Some of my favorite photographs and films have created the highest level of controversy. "Baraka" for example, was criticized for its so-called "romanticism" of poverty in an undeveloped world.

ALC: Your Haiti piece seems to have double the audience; those interested in the subject of the film and those interested more in the new HD-DSLR technology. How have those camps divided in their response?

KM: Some of the harshest comments have come from photo/video journalists that are in the business. I posted on Dan's blog (dslrnewshooter.com) because I thought it would be helpful for those that are just as passionate about learning as I am.

I think that worked to my disadvantage. When people saw that I posted the "before and after" of color grading, and listed all the technical specs, they viewed it as being pretentious. I think the fact that it wasn't presented as a traditional news piece also bothered many people but what I saw coming out of Haiti was the same footage being repeated over and over.

I don't think that needs to be the only way news stories are told. The majority of the viewers that are not involved in the politics of shooting/filmmaking found it to be rather moving and emotional.

ALC: I agree some of the harshest critics seem to be camera techies complaining the use of the dolly was exploitive. It is hard for me to believe the average person viewing this footage would understand those terms but would rather feel an emotional response to the moving camera that "comes upon" the subject. Can you explain the story you were trying to tell with your "Montage"?

KM: My intent when creating this piece was to cover the disaster in a non-traditional manner as well as create a piece that can be viewed as a series of moving photographs. I was always a fan of photographer James Nachtwey's work and style of shooting. His work connected with me on so many different levels because of his artistic approach to Photo Journalism.

Whether the dolly shots worked or not is entirely subjective. I believe a moving shot is far more powerful in capturing emotion than a static (not moving) shot, and I wanted movement to play a role in the piece. By no means was I trying to offend anyone nor was I trying to make a portfolio piece.

I wanted the visuals to do the talking rather than have sound bites or interviews. Most of the footage coming out at the time was of the devastation and destruction. I wanted to show that life continued despite incomprehensible odds.

Khalid Mohtaseb is Director of Photography and owner of Next Level Pictures