Reflections is a Bittersweet podcast series formed out of the idea that in seasons of uncertainty we can ground ourselves by recalling past moments of faithfulness—holding on to the hope extended by the good work of those who use their lives to serve their neighbors.
In this series, we ask our contributors to look back over the catalog of Bittersweet stories they were a part of and discuss the how and why of the story that impacted them most.
Hosted and produced by Robert Winship.
Episode Three: Filmmaker and Photographer Steve Jeter discusses “Learning to Walk, and Standing Proud"
In this third episode of Reflections, host Robert Winship speaks with Steve Jeter, a photographer and filmmaker from Washington, DC, who looks back on his contribution to the story of StandProud in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
SJ: “It's really important to always be reminding yourself that the story belongs to somebody else, and I'm really just being entrusted with it and have the responsibility to do it in a way that honors them and reflects their reality.”
RW: Welcome to Bittersweet Reflections, a six-part audio series where Bittersweet contributors reflect on memorable stories. I'm Robert Winship. In this episode of Reflections, we talked to Steve Jeter, a photographer and filmmaker who looks back on a story about StandProud.
Steve Jeter is a filmmaker and photographer who specializes in international documentary projects, having worked in over 30 countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. He is also a contributor to Bittersweet Monthly. Steve, thanks for talking with us today.
RW: You are a photographer and filmmaker, but I want to begin by asking how do you describe your work with Bittersweet to others?
SJ: I actually get a lot of inquiries. People are really interested when I talk about certain projects, like where did this come from? Or, how did this get funded, or who is this for? And so I do end up describing that quite a bit. So, I basically just say, you know, it's a pro bono creative outlet for filmmakers, creative people in general, to have a blank canvas for telling a story and having creative freedom to try to interpret the story for a worthwhile organization.
So, it's sort of covering two of the major factors that I look for in a project, which is getting to work with professional people that I want to work with, and on stories that I think are worthwhile and accomplishing something.
RW: And for the listener, Steve, you've been working with Bittersweet since the very first issue, is that correct?
RW: This series is titled Reflections and we've asked each guest to select a story that they were a part of. Steve, you picked “Learning to Walk, and Standing Proud,” which covers the organization StandProud. StandProud helps polio survivors and youth with other disabilities to be able to walk. And this piece also features a short film titled, “Un Architecte.” What is this story about? And also, why were you interested in telling it, or what drew you into being a part of this story?
SJ: So StandProud is an organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a town called Goma on the border with Rwanda, and they deal with issues of mobility, disabilities with walking, a lot of polio… There was some partial paralysis, bad malaria injections we were told, and a few other issues. So everyone there had some sort of mobility issue and StandProud builds braces for legs, for their legs, to allow them to walk. And those can be as simple as something like a bottom-of-leg-and-ankle brace for one foot, all the way up to full braces that almost go up to the chest for people with more serious issues. But what was great about the organization, and really felt like it was right in the center of our mission as Bittersweet, was that it was run by people who also had the same disabilities.
So, people who were with the same braces, people who had come from that same experience, Congolese, and they were helping other people, other kids, with the issues that they had overcome. So that was really cool. I mean, they're an amazing organization. They have some outside funding and sponsorship, but it's just completely self-contained, on the ground at least. And by Congolese people for Congolese people in their community and people with the same experience growing up with that disability. So that seemed really powerful. I felt like that was just exactly the kind of story and organization that Bittersweet should be doing. And it was exciting to go and, you know, try to figure out how to tell that story, which was challenging, but a really amazing experience.
RW: The previous two interviews we've done for this series have been with writers. You are a photographer and a filmmaker, and on this particular project, you did both. And we'll talk about that specific sort of challenge in a minute, but overall, what was challenging about this story?
SW: I mean, what wasn't challenging about this story! (laughter) I think one of the first experiences that we had there that was a real lesson for us as filmmakers, Brandon, as the lead filmmaker—I was sort of second camera filming and producing and also doing photography—one of the first challenges we, and kind of mistakes we made that I think was actually a valuable lesson for us, was previous to arriving in Congo we had this proposal that was suggested to get the kids to show us how they had been before their braces, before they had their mobility and disability issues solved with these braces. This was part of the plan going in. And, so we went in and we asked them, “Would you mind, you know, we know you've done this before for some promotional materials and just sort of showing the dramatic transformation? Would you mind showing us before and after for this, for how these braces and this kind of physical therapy that you've done has changed your life?”
And the kids said, “Absolutely not.” Without exception. And it was one of those things where as soon as they said that we were both like, “Yeah, well, of course, and you're right.” And we probably shouldn’t have asked that in the first place. And maybe I had that hesitation, but it was confirmed by the response we got. And so it was just a lesson to learn of, in a larger sense as much as possible, going into a situation like that where we're such outsiders, to spend the first day, if possible, if you have that luxury, the first amount of time you have with these people, with the people whose story you're trying to tell, with people who are entrusting their story to you, really—not going in guns blazing and going in to observe and going in to earn some trust first.
And so, we basically put our cameras away and we said, “Look, forget about that. Let's start over again.” And let's just hang out, with a notebook and I took some notes. And Brandon and I spent the rest of the day, and I think part of the next day, too, just observing, seeing how they live their lives, what their situation was like at the center. How this organization had helped change their lives.
RW: How has that lesson changed the way that you approach storytelling for stories ongoing? I know you've done more Bittersweet stories after this.
SJ: It was just sort of a reminder and a reinforcement of lessons I had been learning all along the way, but that was a very powerful one. And it just felt like a cap to that phase and really trying to go in to every situation, if you have that luxury, like I said, just going into every situation with a willingness to let people tell their own stories as much as possible. That's easier said than done. You have the responsibility as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, to try to condense it. Just in the beginning at least, it's really important to always be reminding yourself that this story belongs to somebody else, and I'm really just in being entrusted with it and have the responsibility to do it in a way that honors them and reflects their reality.
RW: In thinking about your role on this particular story, both as a photographer and a videographer, I'm interested in the difference for you as an agent of narrative between coming into the story as a photographer and coming into it as a filmmaker?
SJ: Well, I would say the short answer to that is that our primary goal was the film. The photo shoots were kind of secondary in this case, just because the film was such a huge ambitious undertaking, that it became the huge focus for us on the ground, in this particular experience. But along the way, I think starting through the lens of the film and the story we were doing there, the photography—the photo essay ideas that came out of that—were sort of organic. For example, I did the photo shoot on shoes. It just kind of struck me at one point as we were filming how that was a unifying kind of factor… that was this unifying sort of representation of each person's experience. And all these shoes, like there was some, you know, brand new Timberlands versus some really old beat up Air Jordans, versus like, just like everything in between. But each of them had this sort of like metal kind of attachment that stuck out of underneath the sole and stuck up on the side in the back where the heel is.
And that feature was an interesting sort of unifying factor. It was something that kind of reminded, I don't know... It just felt like to me, it was a really concise way to sort of demonstrate this shared experience between everybody—from the level of management, all the way down to the eight-year-old kid who just arrived.
RW: Although these devices can seem cumbersome at times, it's very interesting that they're integrated into daily streetwear.
SJ: Exactly. Yeah. And it's something that a lot of times the guys who had the smaller braces, they would wear them maybe under their pants or something. And you would just see like this indicator that you had to be looking for. You wouldn't necessarily notice it right away. That was how much they had managed to overcome their initial disability. The only indication, if you weren't looking very closely, it was just this tiny little metal bracket that connected to their shoe.
So, yeah, I like how you said that, like it connects to their everyday life, it integrates with their kind of normal routine.
RW: What is the difference between approaching a story as a photographer, strictly, and as a filmmaker, strictly?
SJ: Yeah, that's a tough question actually. I'll just speak to the film aspect a little bit, which one of the challenges from before, was that this was the first time in a Bittersweet story where we were basically trying to create a fictionalized narrative that reflected true events, reflected a real story of one of the beneficiaries of this organization. So that was a very unique challenge to try to be as true as possible to the reality, but intentionally telling a fictionalized story that we could try to tell and finish in one week. You know, so we sort of had to fast forward the process. We had to see the beginning and middle, and maybe not quite the end, of this kid's journey who, you know, in our story just arrived at the center. And it was very real for that kid. It had just happened a bit before. So, he acted a bit and showed us what it was like when he was first using the crutches. And that was the extent to which he was willing to accommodate us. He wasn't going to show us before and after, but once we had earned their trust, we got to a point where he was willing to show us a bit of the struggle at least of like, okay, this is how I used to be on the crutches and I stumbled a bit—but now obviously he was very capable at the stage where we encountered him when we arrived there.
So, that was an interesting challenge just in terms of filming. I'd done plenty of documentary stuff, but this was an interesting blending of documentary storytelling and fiction. It was like historical fiction in a way. So, that was uniquely challenging. The challenge between that and photography, I would say for me just to really boil it down…it's a big question… but for me, the challenge between filmmaking and photography is with photography you have the opportunity to participate more, I think, when you're on the ground, when you're working with an organization like this. And in filmmaking, you really have to, just in terms of raw number of hours that the camera's on, you just have to separate yourself more from the scene. I think you really have to be outside of the world a lot more as a filmmaker. Yeah. Photography- it's more of like a pure art form. It's like you're literally endowing this incredible amount of importance to a millisecond of time. You're giving like a fraction of a moment the responsibility of explaining an entire day, or month, or year, in a way. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer in the early 1900s used to say, “the decisive moment." You sort of have to wait. And so to me, it's this distillation. And this may be kind of obvious, but it's sort of like you're distilling everything down to a single frozen frame. And so, easier some ways, harder some others, you know? I think it's just really a different kind of challenge. And I like them both, but it is really hard to do and kind of impossible to do both on the same trip really well sometimes. It's just a different way of looking at things.
RW: You talked about, in creating this film, “Un Architecte,” that you were using as an actor a young man that had recently come to be a part of the community there as an actor, as well as a number of other people as sort of actors, but kind of reenacting their actual experience. They’re playing soccer and you have the architect creating these fittings for this kid's leg. What is it like to use otherwise untrained actors to recreate the story of their lives, or to create the one story that kind of incorporates their experiences?
SJ: Risky? (laughs) Untested young actors in another country, you know, within a very short timeframe. It's a lot of pressure. A lot of ways things can go wrong and they usually all do.
I would say even larger than that, not only did we rely a lot on these kids to really give us a truthful performance and take direction and really accommodate us in an amazing way, we relied on the people around us to help us. You know, it's just me and Brandon, it was two of us on this shoot. It was kind of an impossible job to do with two people. So not only the obvious assistance in terms of translation and people getting us around, drivers, fixers, that kind of thing—but we had people, you know, holding boom mics and cameras and lights and reflectors and all kinds of stuff. Like, kids at the center and some of the adults, as well. And we were just sort of having everyone participate out of necessity.
But, also I think this was one of those experiences that I had on this trip in particular that really stuck with me, which was how that can go a long way in terms of… I think it's really an important part of the process is involving people. It's almost like a physical manifestation of what we were trying to do ideologically, which was to allow people to have this agency in telling their own stories. And so it was a way of doing that in terms of crew, as well. Like you're actually helping to film the story, handing somebody you know—even if it's something simple as a light or a boom pole—but it also goes a long way in terms of demystifying this gear for people in a country like the Congo where they don't really have access to anything like this.
So, we showed up with, you know, Ronin stabilizers, we showed up with a drone, we showed up with a lot of equipment. And maybe for us it was less than we use in some situations, but showing up there, it was probably the biggest film crew that had ever been there. I mean, maybe… definitely at the center. And, so I think that goes a long way in terms of demystifying the equipment and breaking down this barrier between you as the foreigner, in this case, as a white foreigner, who's coming to an African country. I've got all this stuff, all this gear, just the representation of wealth from the society and background that I come from. I just feel like it's a really important step of showing, like, “You could do this, too,” and I know there's a barrier of access to this kind of equipment, but maybe this is a chance to get someone interested in that type of world.
RW: That leads me to one theme I've talked about with other contributors—empowerment, as it relates to both the subjects of these pieces, as well as the writers and filmmakers and photographers who cover them. How do you empower through storytelling?
SJ: I think about this a lot. There's a bit of self-importance that I see out in the world in this arena that feels like you might be giving yourself a little bit too much credit for solving the world's problems. And, so I think going into a story like this with a realistic sense of what's achievable and of the scope of the project you're trying to do is really important. Just not ascribing too much power to yourself, in a way. But that being said, I think there is potential for this kind of thing to be empowering. I think empowering in the sense of bringing attention to worthwhile organizations like Stand Proud in the Congo—that could be empowering in very practical terms, like in terms of fundraising, finances…
But I thought that, like I was saying earlier, just putting camera equipment into the hands of the kids we were working with. I don't want to break my own rule by ascribing too much importance to the things I was doing while in the field, but I really felt like that was an important step, not only in building trust with them and establishing relationship and rapport, and helping them to understand that we wanted them to participate in their story, and in the telling of their story. It really felt like a unique chance for them to see us, point the cameras back at us, and see how this is just a tool. And me, and Brandon, people like us, are very fortunate to have it, and to be able to do these stories and to take these trips, but at the end of the day, it's just a tool that someone like them could use. And who's to say they couldn't. I don't know. I felt like that was one of the facets of the ways in which we were empowering people. It's not just about coming back with a great story that's going to get them a lot of funding and a lot of social media traction. I felt like our interaction with people while we were there on the ground, through the process of filming was equally important in a way. I think in a lot of cases it's easy to just burn through that filming production phase and feelings getting hurt or not, doesn't matter, we just got to get this story… And I know where that comes from. I know that motivation, but I think it's just one thing that we've really tried to do, as hard as it might be, is to make the time to have relationships, to demonstrate while we're in the country, while we're on the ground, while we're with the people we're filming, to just demonstrate to them that we actually do care about their story. And we care about trying to share it and also honor and value them on a personal level through the process as much as possible.
RW: Is there anything that you can pull through from the Stand Proud story that you feel is relevant now, maybe to you personally, maybe to Americans, but something that sticks with you in the sense that you're reflecting on it in our current time?
SJ: Yeah. As I'm thinking about the current health crisis, the current situation that we're in—there are a lot of travel restrictions. For filmmakers like me, it's a time of trying to reflect on, and plan, and strategize for how to continue to do this kind of work, which definitely won't look the same going forward. But I feel like it's a confirmation of that lesson I learned in the Congo and I've been learning for a long time and trying to figure out how to better accomplish for a long time, which is how to empower local people to tell their own stories. How to rely more on people on location then just doing it myself.
And it's kind of sad even to say that, because I know that I might be putting myself out of a job with these kinds of projects. I might be talking myself out of participation in a project like this, but I think it's just the reality that as much as possible, we need to continue to transition towards letting people locally, or empowering people locally, whatever that looks like—I'm not sure exactly how that would work, but finding ways to empower people locally, to do this storytelling and to participate more and maybe take over. Like maybe we need to be traveling less, you know? The role of the international filmmaker needs to sort of be scaled back a bit. And it's funny to say that, because that's me. That's a very broad sentiment and I'm not exactly sure how it's going to look, but that is something that I've thought about a lot. And I continue to think about, especially under the current circumstances.
SJ: I think it's been really amazing experience working with Bittersweet. You know, it's always a new challenge. I feel like we walk into these scenarios almost kind of daring ourselves to fail in a way. I think there's that challenge that comes along with the appeal of having creative freedom. There's that challenge of, all right, this is now completely on me. I don't have a producer I can blame this on. I don't have as much structure or these constrictions that I wouldn't like in other projects, but now with this complete freedom it can be intimidating. And I think that's what I like about it. It keeps, just on a purely practical filmmaking level, it keeps me on my toes. It's a good way to experiment and challenge myself. And at the same time, hopefully, the goal is to tell a story that's worthwhile, that's helping a local organization and giving back to the community in a way. With the Congo story, we had all kinds of ideas. We were going to go all kinds of different directions. There was a different character at one point. So yeah, it was really like an amazing experience of stretching yourself creatively in every way. And then fortunately, you know, coming out with something amazing in the end.
RW: You can find this story, including the film, “Un Architecte” at bittersweetmonthly.com/stories. It was originally published in November of 2015. And you can see more from Steve Jeter at stevejeter.com.
Read the Story
Read the full story about StandProud for Bittersweet Monthly, Issue 012 Learning to Walk, and Standing Proud, here.Read
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Visit StandProud's website to learn more about the organization and their work.Connect