Interview: Christopher Morris talks about his videos of the American presidents

Obama’s Burden from Christopher Morris on Vimeo.

You probably already know Christopher Morris‘ work. One of the founding members of VII, his conflict photography is unparalleled and his recent work on American politics, including the book “My America,” has redefined visual coverage of the White House. You might not know that Morris has been making videos in addition to his still coverage of American politics. Emotionally resonant and forceful, these videos look like none others produced in the 5DMarkII-fueled push toward moving images in photojournalism. The videos resemble Morris’ still work, but their use of music, black and white imagery, and tone make them something altogether different.  He’s released four videos, all worth watching:

  • The Dear Leader
  • The New Leader
  • Obama’s Burden (embedded at the top of this post)
  • Obama’s War
  • Christopher Morris recently started a thread on lightstalkers to discuss his videos, and the response was varied. Make sure to read through that thread. The discussion there is interesting and touched on many aspects of Morris’ video work not covered in this interview (if you don’t have a lightstalkers account, email me), and I thought Morris’ videos would be a great subject for one of our periodic interviews here at dvafoto. I was delighted when Morris agreed to the interview. The discussion, conducted over email, is below. Our questions are in bold, followed by Morris’ full responses. If you’re reading on the front page, be sure to click through to the post to see the full interview.

    dvafoto: What are you showing us with the videos? When “Dear Leader” first came out, the title (equating Bush with Kim Jong Il) and the tone and the video itself suggested to me a critical portrayal of the previous administration. Now seeing a similar tone in the Obama videos, it strikes me that you aren’t focusing directly on the man in the office, but the office itself and its theater and cultural baggage.

    Christopher Morris: I’m showing you what I feel. Each one of these has a very distinct clear meaning for me. As for the viewer? That’s something I’m not quite sure of. This is the beauty of this whole process. They are whatever you want them to be.

    I seem to remember you speaking or writing about what would become “My America” as appealing both to the Bush administration’s supporters and detractors. From the same photos, one side saw images of patriotism and strong leadership, while the other saw demagogy, jingoism, and blind, wrong-headed faith in a politician. Have you gotten the same reaction from your videos? From your coverage of Obama? How do you feel about this emotional ambiguity? is it your goal?

    Each one of these short films has a distinct meaning for me. I know exactly what I’m trying to convey, what mood and emotion I’m trying to bring out of the viewer in each one of these… The exciting thing about the whole process though… is the emotion that I may want to convey… will actually with some, be the complete opposite or even something that I’ve never even thought of.

    Your lightstalkers thread called your videos “experiments,” why are they experiments? Will they become more than an experiment for you? What got you started shooting video? How do you fit in the video shooting with the stills and deadlines? What influenced the style of your videos?

    Here I’ll give a short synopsis of each of the Obama works and how they really came about. The first one I did was “The New Leader“. I didn’t wake up and think oh I’m going to make a statement about the Presidency today. It really started as I was sitting in the balcony of Capitol Hill while the President was about to step out to address the Nation on his Health Care Reform. I had been loaned one of the new Canon 7d’ cameras to test the day before. So literally 5 minutes before he came out, I decided to attempt to shoot some video of him at the start. Still images from a balcony 100 feet away of someone walking down the center aisle really do not make for great photography. So why now shoot video instead.. Later the next day when I put the clips into my laptop. I was stunned, with the whole quality and the mood of the images. In the next few day’s the President left for Wall Street to make an address on the Economy in New York. Basically here is a man that is trying to sell the nation on Health Care, the Economy, the War. The urgency of everything. This is what I’ve attempted to convey in “The New Leader” short.

    All of this was really just an experiment to test out the 7D. There were and still are many parts that should be edited out. This is why on returning to DC in November, my initial plan was to attempt to record some more clips of the President to re-edit into the film. Then on Veterans Day, Obama was to visit Arlington National Cemetery and deliver a speech. This time using the Canon 5D, I basically shot non-stop from the moment the motorcade left the White House until it returned. Right away during the drive I could sense how visually stunning the motorcade footage was, with the added historical importance of the President’s visit, and that this couldn’t be edited into my earlier video. It would stand on its own [“Obama’s Burden“]. What struck me is that roughly 10 cars in front of me is the President in his limousine looking out at the constant and never ending tombstones of our war dead.

    And then in December, Obama was to fly to West Point to address the nation on his decision regarding Afghanistan. Hence, “Obama’s War.” The choice of the music here is really interesting. What I do, is while playing one of the clips, I will cycle through some songs to see if anything fits the mood I’m attempting to convey. Having already downloaded some music files from pumpaudio.com, I had something in mind. By mistake I inadvertently played this Russian folklore song called Jolly Talk, by DrevA. For me it was perfect, here was this Russian voice taunting us with her simple words. Taunting us, for now it was our turn to send our young cadets to Afghanistan. The same thing Russian cadets were doing 30 years before. As for the images of the C5A cargo plane, they were shot the same night at an Air Force base near West Point. They are from the window of the helicopter as we taxied for take-off. For me they represented the planes that would carry the young cadets to war. They had almost this coffin like quality to them.

    Your videos feel like a series of still photos. I love the moment in “Dear Leader,” in particular, when Bush’s head barely pokes up above the podium. Does the moving image add something aesthetically/journalistically/emotionally that your still coverage lacks? What does it add (What’s missing from the still images)? What do you feel video lacks that comes through in your still photos?

    I see visually as a still photographer, for that’s what I am… One thing you’ll notice in the films…. is that most of the transitions fade in and out of black, almost like a slide show. In traditional films you would use cuts to switch to the next scene. For me… fading in and out to black…. is about ending that frame, that moment..
    In one of the responses on Lightstalkers was a question about why I don’t incorporate my stills into the video’s. My response to that is that is exactly what I’m doing… Many of my frames in the videos are just that to me–they are still images. You just have to wrap your head around the idea. The last thing I would want to do with these is incorporate traditional stills to films. Many of the frames in the videos, I have the exact moment as a color still photograph. I have experimented with editing them in and it looks very gimmicky, totally predictable and just plain obvious..

    Why so much music and so little audio from the events in your videos? How do you choose the music for your videos?

    I want the viewer to get lost in the mood of the images. To slow down the thinking process so their mind can float through the film. When I was covering Bush, sometimes I would have to sit through close to 20 speeches on my monthly rotation. So I started to tune them out by wearing my ipod. I didn’t do this often, but the few times I did were simply stunning. It completely slowed everything down, opened my emotions up to what was around me. I could stare from quite close as the President would talk. But there was no sound coming from his mouth, just the music. His movements, his actions, all were enhanced by what I would have cued up on my ipod. Basically what I’m doing with these three Obama films, is that I’m putting my ipod on you, for you to see what I see and hopefully feel what I feel.

    How has the response been from editors and publications and readers and the administrations you’ve covered and photographers shooting alongside you in the pool? Much commentary I’ve read seems to feel like the videos are too editorialized. Have you heard that criticism from anyone other than fellow photographers? Is it valid criticism? Does the criticism stem more from the images or the music?

    The original request and posting of the video’s on Lightstalkers were brought on by the response of the Time.com editor. Who told me that he didn’t like my videos and that they didn’t fit what they were trying to do at Time.com. This is what prompted me to show them to other photographers, so I could get some constructive feedback. To check that maybe the Time editor was right, that yes they really were bad videos… That nobody would want to sit through. Which yes, is a very valid criticism! What it’s come down to me is that …like them or not. This is it… I can’t please everybody, nor would I want to. If everyone understood what I’m trying to convey, the work becomes palpable to everyone. No mystery, no questions, no emotion.. Just standard online 2 min video food. That’s what the internet is flooded with.

    How has your coverage of the White House changed with the new administration? What new ground is there to cover that wasn’t there before? Are you tired of covering politics? Will we see another “My America” about the Obama Years? Will it be different from Bush’s “My America”? Why was the Bush administration “your” America? What is Obama’s America to you?

    First you ask why was the Bush administration “My America“. I chose this line because it was the only world I knew and lived for close to 6 years. I lived and worked in this Republican bubble. Was surrounded with constant Nationalism and Patriotism. This was “My America”, this is all that I was exposed to. Was it the real and the total America? No. But for me, It was the country I was exposed to.

    With the new administration, I have not, nor will I have to opportunity to document to the extent that I did under the Bush White House. This is mainly do to the economic factors, that have forced my main employer, Time Magazine, to totally cut back on all White House coverage. Without Time I never would have been able to produce “My America” and all the behind the scenes work on the Bush Presidency.

    For me sadly this has come to an end. The news magazines can no longer afford to do the day to day coverage that they use to do.

    Why black and white in the videos?

    Everything is shot in color, no one is really shooting in B&W anymore. B&W takes the videos out of the daily news. Puts them back into a historical point of frame. Something that with color, you don’t get. Color is today, it is now… It’s everything we see on TV and online… Color is the present. B&W is the past..

    Has shooting video opened up your client base? Have you tried approaching television networks? If so, how has the response been?

    I’ve had some requests, but nothing major. Nothing worth mentioning.

    Will we see any videos outside of the White House? To go along with some of your non-political coverage? If not, what about politics or the White House got you interested in shooting moving images?

    I will for sure be attempting to continue with films outside of the White House.

    Talking with other photographers, we’re all a little annoyed that you’ve made such a definite statement on the American political system with “My America.” You’ve ruined the subject for the rest of us (in a good way). I see it as a bit like Frank’s “The Americans” or Delahaye’s “Winterreise” in that it has spawned or will likely spawn many imitators. Is “My America” the definitive statement on the Bush years? on American politics? Is it your definitive statement on the Bush years? on American politics? How are you pushing your coverage in different directions with coverage of the Obama administration? What more is there to say that wasn’t said in “My America”?

    For me America has changed, it’s what I call the “New America”. Something that I’ve been attempting to capture… Which is not so easy… As it was with my Republican world… We are a very diverse country… It’s not so easy, attempting to formulate a style that will convey the sector of society that you are documenting. But I love trying.

    How is VII weathering the current media apocalypse? The big partnerships with NGOs have been interesting, will we see more of those? Will video and multimedia play a bigger part in the future of VII?

    VII is surviving, we all have to survive.. We’re adapting to the changing landscape. NGO’s have been a part of this. They have actually always been there, even before the purge of the magazines. Also I’m sure video and multimedia will be a bigger part for everyone. I’m excited about the potential for the media companies to exploit the new Tablet that Apple is introducing this year. Both Conde Nast and Time Inc. have announced they will have paid subscriptions to receive their issues on the Apple tablet. The main difference here, what you will have is paid subscriptions with advertising. Advertising that will be interactive. Advertising that you can just turn the page on, like you do in a traditional magazine… Not like these annoying, counter productive pop ups that we now have online… I really feel this could help pull our industry out of rut that it has been in for the past few years. I’m actually very optimistic.

    You’ve written recently online about the value of VII’s new Network and Mentor programs. How do the VII Network and the VII Mentor program fit in with VII as a whole?

    The Network photographers at VII are some of the most talented photographers working today. Many of them are even better than us, the full members… The way we are set up is that the full members are the owners of the company. There are many factors involved being an owner of a company…I won’t go into that here…….
    To become a Network photographer is just as involved as becoming a full member/owner. At our meetings we look at work and have some fantastic discussions on who we should bring in to the Network… Trust me It really is a fantastic and exciting process.

    The Mentor program, is something we wanted to do way back in 2001 when we started VII… It just took us time to get the whole thing worked out…. Any one of the members, can suggest a photographer that they would like to Mentor. But with this… all the members will look at their work to see if there is a talent there. If the work is… liked then the photographer will be assigned to one of us. For us to provide a level of mentorship that we hope, will help further… that photographers potential.

    A question we ask all of our interview subjects: What photography/photographers/journalism/books/movies/news is getting you excited right now?

    Adam Ferguson, Donald Weber, also saw the William Eggleston show at the Corcoran last year… which was visually stunning….

    Make sure to check out other dvafoto interviews, and if there’s someone you’d like us to interview, tell us about it.

    4 Responses to “Interview: Christopher Morris talks about his videos of the American presidents”

    1. Worth a look: VII magazine | dvafoto

      […] of the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, a look inside Christopher Morris’ book My America (previously interviewed here at dvafoto), John Stanmeyer’s coverage of fires in the Amazon, and […]

    2. Pete Brook

      Thanks guys. First class inquiry again…

    3. private rentenvorsorge

      Eine aufmerksamkeitsstarke Diskussion ist Wert kommentieren. Ich fühle mich , die sollten Sie schreiben mehr auf dieser subject, es nicht ein Tabu subject werden jedoch Regel Personen sind nicht ausreichender zu sprechen auf solche Themen. Um die nächste.

    4. Upcoming – VII’s free online Visual Journey Seminars | dvafoto

      […] VII have just announced a series of 5 free, online seminars with member photographers: the Visual Journey Seminars. The first of these will feature Seamus Murphy–one of my favorites,check out his website–speaking with Brian Storm of MediaStorm about his past work and recent videos for PJ Harvey. Other seminars, scheduled for 2012, will feature Ron Haviv (previously interviewed on dvafoto), Jessica Dimmock, Venetia Dearden, and Christopher Morris (also previously interviewed on dvafoto). […]

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