Interview with Jonah Kessel – China based video correspondent for the New York Times
What kind of education did you do to become a videographer? Can you briefly describe your background?
My path to work in video started from a love for still photography. My love for still photography, was routed in travel. A lot of what I do today is still very much connected to a desire to travel, explore and to try to understand the world we live in.
However, as I got older I become very much addicted to traveling with a purpose. This meant going some place for a reason, typically for a socially responsible reason. To learn about something great or something horrible and then share that with the world. Its very idealistic, but the same ideals I had 10-years-ago, still motivate me now. Of course, it wasn’t an easy or quick path and it included many years of trying, and not necessarily failing, but also not succeeding.
Along the way I did go to a few universities for periods in New Orleans, New Zealand, Australia and eventually I graduated form a journalism program at Saint Michael’s College, outside of Burlington, Vermont. While my formal education was critical to getting where I am today, I think simply making many, many videos and making many, many mistakes over time has been my greatest learning tool. Trying, failing, learning and then trying again. And hopefully once in awhile succeeding. That was the formula for me and its still going on.
Video: 36 Hours in Phnom Pehn
What kind of work are you currently doing with the New York Times in Beijing?
The majority of my work is related to social justice, environmental, development and human rights issues, although I branch out to anything from business to travel from time-to-time.
In 2014, I made short films on a range of issues from a heroin epidemic in Northern Myanmar, to China’s coal addiction, to the resurgence of the Golden Triangle’s opium industry, to travel pieces in Cambodia and Vietnam, to dodgy practices in manufacturing of e-cigarettes to ethnic conflict in relationship to energy and resource extraction in Western China. The variation and amount of subjects never seizes to amaze me.
I have the unique opportunity and freedom to spend time covering stories that, perhaps others aren’t covering. Once in awhile, I’ll have to shoot some breaking news, but for the most part if the wire services or television stations are there – I try to avoid it. Instead I spend my time researching and investigating stories that the world doesn’t know about or might have misconceptions about.
According to you, what is the best project you have been working on, in your career or in your personal work?
I don’t think I can give a single answer to this question. My favorite project or “best” project is constantly changing. If you ask me tomorrow it might be different than today.
However, in 2014 I think my favorite project was an examination of the relationship between jade and heroin. A stone and a narcotic might seem completely unrelated, but sometimes our world can be more interconnected than might seem at first glance.
In this case, as China grows, so does its appetite for jade. But the gemstone’s journey from Myanmar’s mines to China’s consumers follows a trail of addiction, infection, exploitation, war and death. This was a short documentary, about 12 minutes.
I’ve been following that up with a second piece the focuses on the poppy farmers who produce the opium which will go on to make about 25 percent of the world’s heroin. Its a bit of a drugs beat.
What do you usually like in your job ?
I think my favorite part of my job is getting out of the big cities and talking to people in places off the beaten path. Often times I go out to report on a story, but along the way find much more interesting stories to tell. You can do a lot of research in advance, but there will be no better way to learn whats going on in an area than simply going there and walking around for a few days.
For example, in a recent trip to far western China I went to shoot some oil fields on what is being referred to as China’s New Silk Road. If you watch this video there’s a scene in it where the narrative moves into a slum. I had never seen or heard of this place and I only found it based upon snooping around for awhile. However, for me, this was the most interesting, important and perhaps telling part of the story. The spontaneity involved in reporting always energizes me.
Technical question: Overall, for the documentaries for instance, what kind of gears are you working with? Do you think that the « Dslr solution » like Canon5D MII is a good alternative for a videographer who travels a lot ?
Different jobs require different gear. That’s just the basic fact of life. For example, if Im going to film a protest, I’ll want different gear than if Im shooting a feature where I have more control over the environment and subjects. If I’m filming something sensitive I might want a smaller setup. So there are certainly scenarios where a DSLR might be useful but these days if a small camera is necessary, I’d usually opt for a Canon C100 over a 5D Mark III or a Sony A7s or other Mirrorless camera. Lately I’ve mostly been shooting with a Sony FS700. But I also use a combination of other cameras, dollies, steady cams, drones, GoPro’s – really there is so much great technology around and its changing so quickly that whatever I say now, I will inevitably disagree with myself in a year. Some things that have remained steady for me –
I primerily use Carl Zeiss lenses, Miller Tripods and fstop bags. That stuff has remained steady for a few years. Although now with more autofocus technology around, I have been using Canon glass form time to time.
For example, this profile of a man who walks his cabbage was all shot with a C100 and Canon glass. But I knew I would be tracking a moving cabbage all day long. But for the Burma based videos above, they are all shot on Carl Zeiss glass.
Have you sometimes troubles with the authorities to shoot movies? For example, I’m thinking about your documentary «Myanmar Emerge», have you experienced problems or something in Myanmar to realize that movie? I know that some visas were denied in Burma few years ago for journalists…
Security is pretty much a constant concern if you live in China. Often these days its electronic security which is an issue. And while a certain amount of this can be mitigated with security protocols and VPN’s at a certain point surveillance is out of your control. However, I’ve had countless examples of plain clothes police or thugs either following me secretly or not-so-secretly. This can be a problem if those minders end up intimidating sources. This makes getting information nearly impossible.
In Burma I’ve had some issues although things are much easier than they used to be. China is a much more sensitive place these days then almost everywhere else in Asia, short of North Korea. We’ve had constant visa issues with the Chinese government, as well as electronic security issues to name a few. It goes with the territory.
And now, what are your current or future projects with the New York Times in Beijing?
As for the future – I have lots of ideas and stories in the works at all times. The nature of continually putting out content requires one to multitask to high degrees. Normally at any given point, Ill have 5 or 10 projects going on in various stages. That might simply be investigating an idea and research or it could be post production on a different project. In terms of specifics though -you’ll just have to stay tuned and watch!
Thank you Jonah, I wish you every success in the future.
Article and interview by Nicolas Bailleul