In conversation: Tim Matsui on “The Long Night”

Screenshot of Tim Matsui's The Long Night at Media Storm
Screenshot of Tim Matsui’s The Long Night at Media Storm

Tim Matsui, working with MediaStorm and the Alexia Foundation, has just released a documentary about sex trafficking of teenagers in the Seattle area and it’s streaming free this week. The Long Night, MediaStorm’s first feature-length documentary, explores the stories of two young women–Natalie, who found herself forced into sex work but managed to escape; and Lisa, battling drug addiction and still in the depths of crisis–and also looks at the work of a handful of police officers advocating more just treatment of sex workers, looking at them as victims rather than criminals. You can watch the film on The Long Night website, at MediaStorm, or by clicking the screenshot above. Also, check out the film’s Facebook page.

Last week, Tim and I talked over email about the process of making this documentary. It’s a fascinating piece, presented with no narration and mixing interviews, documentary footage, and graphic-novel-esque depictions of events that happened in the past. Here’s what Tim had to say:

dvafoto: First, could you give a little background on the story, what brought you to it, how long it took you to work on it, etc. I know you’ve done quite a bit of work on sexual violence in the past, but what brought you to these specific stories?

Tim Matsui: I’ve been working on trauma and victimization issues for about 15 years. I started with sexual violence, helping people tell their stories through documentary multimedia. This led to my founding a non profit through which I developed engagement programs and won a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

Small non profits are hard and I eventually walked away, ending up in Thailand on a friend’s couch. There I researched trafficking for sex and labor. Finding it very Disneyland-ish, I hopped over to Cambodia and found a more raw experience. It was there I learned a lot about the root causes creating the vulnerability that traffickers exploit. Returning to Seattle in 2009, I saw a report commissioned by the City of Seattle (PDF) on domestic minor sex trafficking. I thought, “Wow, Seattle is starting to do what I saw overseas in the developing world.” I researched, connected, and wrote grants until I won the Alexia Foundation Inaugural Women’s Initiative Grant in 2012. This began the reporting.

Behind the scenes image from "Leaving the Life," an Alexia Foundation supported project on grassroots efforts to address domestic minor sex trafficking in the Seattle area. - Tim Matsui
Behind the scenes image from “Leaving the Life,” an Alexia Foundation supported project on grassroots efforts to address domestic minor sex trafficking in the Seattle area. – Tim Matsui

You’ve done quite a bit of film/video work in addition to still photography. Is that something you’ve started doing recently or has it always been part of your process? For this story, why did you choose video? What’s are your goals with the film? The festival circuit? Local PBS markets? Frontline or similar? Reaching an audience online?

I’ve always worked with “multimedia.” Remember the days of slide projectors? Video became easier with technology and while it’s been a learning curve shifting from photography to video, it’s definitely another great medium for storytelling and increasingly something clients ask for.

I chose to prioritize video for this story because I wanted the characters’ voices to be heard. I wanted people to immerse themselves in the moment. And I think, when people see the theatrical cut of the film, they’ll have that kind of experience. The rage of a father, the hopelessness of a young woman; to hear and see together adds depth.

At the same time, this is shot with a photojournalist’s ethics and eye. It’s not a typical documentary and it’s not broadcast TV. Most of my personal work is outside the mainstream scene. Really, I feel I’ve just been doing my own thing out here in Seattle.

What I shot this for was the subjects, not only to give voice to their struggle, but to take it a step further and allow the stories to create a shift in cultural and institutional norms. The film comes from my much larger project Leaving the Life, which is geared toward creating change.

Could you explain the creating change part a bit? Is Leaving the Life a new thing or has it been going for a while? Is there a way for others to contribute?

Leaving the Life is a concept I’ve built in my mind the past six years, much of it founded off the community engagement work I did with my sexual violence non profit. It uses story to create broad audience outreach, then engages viewers with specific action. The web platform is in its infancy right now; it’s merely a website with a Take Action page with the most basic of ‘actions’ including social media and donation.

However, I’m incredibly honored to be working with A Fourth Act because they bring their mobile web app Harvis and the “Convenings” we’re creating with stakeholders. Under our Fledgling Fund grant we’re developing this model of participatory media and community co-design. Currently we’re working with local policy makers and front-line people working on this issue. It’s an incredible opportunity to co-create solutions and break down silo walls.

Story begets story so, among other things, we are working on developing a way to support community (and photojournalists’) contributions to the project.

Through partnership, we are building a solid foundation for Leaving the Life and we are expanding our offerings as resources and relationships deepen. You’ll be seeing some great stuff in the next several months.

I was especially impressed by the sound design in the video. Can you speak a bit about what guides you in telling the story with audio/music?

The music choice was purely by the editor Tim McLaughlin [from MediaStorm]. He used a mix of licensed stock music and that of a composer Brian Storm hired for the film.

Music can be manipulative, though…how do you walk the line of guiding the audience without forcing emotions onto the audience?

Yes, music shapes the moment and influences the viewer; manipulates them. But given the broad spectrum of what “Documentary” means, I’m ok with that. Documentary can be scene re-creation or directly telling your subjects what to do. I didn’t tell anyone to do anything, I observed and did my best not to interact with scenes. And the music, I feel, simply elevates the emotional response.

Arrested for prostitution, a young adult woman is admitted to the South Correcdtional Entity. The woman declined to go to the Genesis Project shelter, a diversion from jail. Detectives were unsure if she had a pimp, though they found her postings implying sexual services. - Tim Matsui
Arrested for prostitution, a young adult woman is admitted to the South Correcdtional Entity. The woman declined to go to the Genesis Project shelter, a diversion from jail. Detectives were unsure if she had a pimp, though they found her postings implying sexual services. – Tim Matsui

The graphic-novel-like scenes told through drawings struck me as a bold choice. Why tell the story through drawings? Did you consider other methods for approaching events that happened in history?

Over the past 15 years I’ve done a lot of stories that look back into the past. It’s hard to provide visuals for this. Brian Storm and I bounced ideas back and forth. One that I shared was the graphic novel presentation of Colby Buzzell’s experience in Iraq.

Brian had his motion graphics guy, Joe Fuller, work on Sin City-esque illustrations to Natalie’s story. To create those visuals, he asked me to ask Natalie a lot of intimate questions. Some included location references to which I provided google map points and even a video drive through.

Joe did take some artistic liberties, which I’m fine with, although I do chuckle at how New York-ified some of Seattle’s urban landscapes are in the film.

There are two main stories in the film that at first don’t seem connected at all: Natalie’s time as a prostitute, and the work of the Genesis Project with Lisa in the depths of her drug addiction. What connects these stories for you?

For me it’s pretty simple. Natalie, the survivor, could easily have become Lisa, who is addicted and is still in “The Life.”

While their stories aren’t exactly similar, I feel it builds out a more robust picture of this life. No one story can represent this situation. But Natalie can show us what it takes to enter and leave the life, you see what efforts are being made to shift culture (cops becoming victim-centric), and what it looks like to be struggling far down the road in The Life (Lisa).

There’s no narration telling the basic story of the film or connecting the two main stories…the interviews focus on personal accounts and reactions, and the documentary sections of the Genesis Project are presented mostly without comment. This seems to force the viewer into drawing connections between the various people in the film and to draw their own conclusions about the subject matter. Can you speak a bit about this strategy? What do you hope viewers take away from the film? Are you worried that some viewers won’t get what you’re trying to communicate?

I’m really glad there’s no voice over, but I think I hear you saying it’s rather complex. But it’s real life, literally, and we do need to draw our own conclusions.

To direct part of those conclusions, I’ve been working on an engagement program that creates themed chapters out of my raw content for training, education and community involvement. I won a Fledgling Fund grant with A Fourth Act in support of this work. We’ve designed a participatory media experience with facilitated co-design of solutions which, in real-people speak, means we use these stories to help people work together to create change.

Although MediaStorm took the liberty to cut its own chapters from the film, the film in theatrical or chapter form remains a broad audience outreach tool. The benefit I see in their chapters is it simplifies the stories for the less observant viewer and gets it out there. The concern I have is their chapters lack any kind of support or community engagement; they are merely content to be consumed.

Change requires exposure to new ideas and participation in creating solutions—or conclusions. If the film raises questions, then we’re heading in the right direction.

You can learn more at

Detective Brian Taylor looks around after barging into a hotel room, hoping to find a young prostitute's pimp. It appeared the prostitute was staying by herself and hadn't had any "tricks" in her room that night. - Tim Matsui
Detective Brian Taylor looks around after barging into a hotel room, hoping to find a young prostitute’s pimp. It appeared the prostitute was staying by herself and hadn’t had any “tricks” in her room that night. – Tim Matsui

When I saw that this was about girls on the streets of Seattle, I immediately thought of Mary Ellen Mark and her husband’s work in Seattle in the early 80s, especially the movie Streetwise. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that film…but, thinking specifically of the image of Tiny in an evening gown, that work almost seems to glamorize life on the streets a little while still showing the tough parts of the subjects’ lives. Having never worked in film but knowing a little about the process, I imagine the editing process can have a substantial effect on how the subjects’ personalities are portrayed to the audience. What guided you in that process? Were you worried about making the girl in the Genesis Project section look too much or not enough like a victim? About portraying the Genesis Project people too much like knights in shining armor?

I see what you’re saying, that nothing is truly objective.

I have to hand it to the editor Tim Mclaughlin for his work here. I think he stayed really true to the stories that unfolded. There’s a lot of extra stuff that didn’t make it in the film, but over time I’ve come to terms with it as I’ve realized it would just confuse the viewer. McLaughlin honed it down to the essence of each character, to the essentials. Cops like knights in shining armor? If they appeared that way, that’s how it was. I didn’t influence, I just showed what happened. And all McLaughlin had to work with was what he received from the field.

To that end, I did my best to anticipate and be there when things happened, as a photojournalist does. For instance, Lisa is an addict. I’d been asking her for weeks if I could be there when she uses. And I wanted to meet her dealers, etc. She said yes to the using and asked her dealers (you can imagine how that went) but I was having trouble connecting with her; she’s catch as catch can.

One night I was driving the Track with Carey Wagner and happened to see her [Lisa]. Carey was driving so I hopped out. Lisa had just pulled a trick, visited her dealer, and was going to McDonalds for dinner and to get high in the bathroom. I knew it would be hard to film in the women’s bathroom, so when Carey pulled a U-turn and circled back, I introduced Lisa to Carey, vouched for her, and Lisa agreed to let her tag along. I shot from outside McDonalds while Carey shot inside. McLaughlin ended up using that scene in the film, and it’s pretty powerful.

You spoke about showing Lisa using drugs, and you’re right that it’s an intense scene? Why was it important for you to show that? Focusing on the act of drug use always strikes me as a difficult choice. It’s so in-your-face that it risks overshadowing the subtleties of the rest of the story. Did you have any concerns about this?

I think for a lot of photojournalists, both from a personal and visual perspective, photographing drug use is an impactful moment because it can be so intimate. Generally it requires a pretty solid relationship with the subject to get that kind of access.

The importance of showing this in Leaving the Life and The Long Night is it reveals how central heroin is to Lisa’s life. Every few hours she needs to get high. She turns tricks in order to support this habit. It then emphasizes what she says in jail; why, beyond the physical need, she is hooked on heroin.

For me, this moment in jail is even more powerful than the drug use. But to get to this place, the viewer must see her reality.

Thanks to Matt Mills McKnight for putting me in touch with Tim about The Long Night, by the way. And you can read a bit more about the film at the New York Times’ Lens blog and MSNBC.

Photojournalist Camille Lepage Killed in Central African Republic

Camille Lepage, a 26-year old French photojournalist, has died in Central African Republic. The Guardian reports that French President Hollande has said “all necessary means will be deployed to shine light on the circumstances of this assassination and find the killers of our compatriot.”

Camille Lepage leaving a fishing village on the Nile River near Terekeka, South Sudan in September 2012. Photo by Matt Lutton.

I don’t have much to say right now. So read Nicholas Kulish piece on the New York Times’ Lens Blog: “Bearing Witness, Losing Her Life”. He describes how he came to meet Lepage in Juba, South Sudan. I had a very similar experience, and we were both left impressed by this young journalist.

We at dvafoto have known Camille for a couple of years and have been following her work and career closely. We published an interview with her in March 2013, “Notes from the Field: Camille Lepage in South Sudan”. We talked about her decision to move to South Sudan straight from journalism school in England and her motivation to cover seemingly unknown conflicts and the struggles of trying to get those stories published. I urge you to have a look at this interview to learn more about Lepage and see a gallery of her work.

Camille was a hardworking and ambitious young journalist already producing quality stories that hadn’t yet found a wide audience. She was working to bring these stories to more people’s attention. Her future was very bright, and we at dvafoto are extremely saddened by this news.

We will update this story as more information becomes available.

In conversation with Ernesto Bazan about his life and his new book ISLA

Ernesto Bazan - from ISLA
Ernesto Bazan – from ISLA

Last week, I spoke over skype with Ernesto Bazan from his home in Veracruz, Mexico, about his new book, ISLA, and about his life. Bazan’s work often flies under the radar in the world of online photography. His CV has some information, and this interview with American Suburb X has more. Bazan was asked to join Magnum Photos at the age of 23 in 1982, but left a few years later. Born in Italy, he was based in New York for a number of years but moved to Cuba in 1995, where he lived until 2006, when he was forced to leave the island. He has released two previous books on Cuba: Bazan Cuba (on amazon), a collection of black and white 35mm images, and Al Campo, a collection of color 35mm images. His new book, ISLA (←pdf teaser), completes the trilogy with black and white panoramics. He quit assignment work around 2002 and now funds his work now primarily through self-produced, intimate shooting workshops in a handful of locations around the world. The books have all been self-funded and -published, though over the years he was received countless awards and fellowships, including the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, the Mother Jones Foundation for Photojournalism, World Press Photo, the Alicia Patterson Foundation (two stories: Education in Cuba and El Periodicio Especial in Cuba) and the Guggenheim Foundation. I first met Ernesto in 2012 when he was staying at a friend’s place in Boston during a workshop. I fell in love with his book, Bazan Cuba. As his latest book begins the final stages of publication, I asked him to talk about this new book, his process, and how his life and his work intertwine.

Here is our conversation, transcribed from the recording:

M. Scott Brauer: Could you give a little background about the book and how it fits in with the trilogy? Is there one unifying statement that fits all of this work together?

Ernesto Bazan: I can only say that I believe that having gone to Cuba wasn’t just another trip to a foreign land to discover and take pictures. Cuba, as I’ve said in the past, was one of the most important chapters in my life, both as a man and as a photographer. Why? Because if somebody would have told me when I first set foot in Cuba that I was finally going to find my mate in life, that I was going to be the father of twin boys, that Raul Castro was going to allow me to photograph the Cuban army or that I was going to finally–after attempting 14 times to get the W Eugene Smith Award–get it thanks to my pictures in Cuba in the same year that my twin boys were born….I would not have believed any of that. But all of that, I can happily say, has happened. Going to Cuba was part of my destiny. And the most beautiful things about the trilogy is that when I was living and working Cuba, I had no clue that I was taking pictures even for one book.

“Going to Cuba was part of my destiny” -Ernesto Bazan

What happened in 2001 is that I started carrying three cameras with me instead of one, because one curator had asked me to take some color pictures in Cuba for a book, which then came out. At the same time I was offered a second-hand panoramic camera, which I tried and loved. But you see, I had no clue or idea that this was going to become a trilogy, but it just happened. That’s the best answer I can provide you with.

I had no idea that you were shooting all three of these books at the same time.

Well, the first one was shot starting when I arrived in Cuba in 1992. The last two books, Al Campo and ISLA, were shot from 2001 to 2006, the last five years I was in Cuba.

Was it a lot of work, mentally, to switch between black and white, color, and panoramic. What makes you decide to shoot an image in one format? How did you juggle three cameras at once?

That’s a good question, and it requires sort of a long answer. I’ll try to keep it short. Basically, I think I was only able to do this totally insane switching from one camera to the other thanks to the full immersion I was able to be in in Cuba. I’ve tried to shoot three cameras at the same time in other countries, and I’ve failed miserably. At best, now, I can do black and white 35mm and panoramic, but I can not do color at the same time. It was very schizophrenic, because, you know, you have to think in three different ways, which is very difficult, and then decide in a split second which camera I would use first. Sometimes I also felt that I could take pictures of the same situation with maybe two cameras. In the end, what we’ve been trying to do with my students during the editing of the three books is to put the best photographs of all the possible photographs that I have. That means that I do have, in certain situations, pictures in both color and black and white, or color and panoramic. We spent two years, at least, editing, and we decided that in order to make each book stand out, we couldn’t really have the same situation twice, even though both pictures are good. And you know, if you start comparing two pictures, you always find which one is best between the two.

I’ll give you a good example of that, which you will only be able to see once you see ISLA. I had the opportunity when I was photographing one of the farmers’ families in Cuba to take what I would describe as intimate portraits of some of the family members, including Juana Margarita, who is the mother of two sons that are my friends. I remember one day I was walking around the house and she was lying in bed, and she looked beautiful and, I would say, sensual, even though she was already in her sixties. So there I was and I ask her if it was okay to take a picture and she said yes. So I took the picture first with color film. It’s a beautiful, novel portrait of her just lying in bed, but then I picked up the panorama camera. All of the sudden a little puppy came out from under the bed and started barking at me. So I was lucky enough to incorporate the puppy in the panoramic photograph. When we compared the two photographs–even though we liked the color portrait of Juana Margarita in her bed–since we were going to do a panoramic photo one day, we decided to use that one picture. [MSB: You can see this image in the ISLA teaser pdf.]