To The Core
I sat with Adis, knee to mechanical knee, as he told me the story of the grenade thrown through his bedroom window.
It was the early 90’s and Bosnia was a war zone, the violence strategically indiscriminate. Like many others, he underwent an ad hoc surgery in an improvised hospital. He was fifteen then. The crude care he received led to multiple corrective surgeries and sepsis years later, which is when they amputated his leg to save his life.
We met at the Bauerfeind Prosthetic Center in Sarajevo as he prepared to receive a new knee—a gift from an international donor. This gift would make it possible for him to play tag and ride bikes with his two young kids.
After a long interview (that you’ll hear more about in our October feature of the Marshall Legacy Institute), I thanked Adis for sharing his story with me, a stranger with a microphone. His reply: “Thank you for being bold in this, for trying to understand our problems, for giving me the floor. No media try to understand what life is like here as an invalid. Thank you for listening.”
His comment, a simple 'thank you for listening', spoke to the essence of what we do: To listen to and amplify the voices of the marginalized. Their stories are the great teachers of our time, their resilience the lessons in wisdom and character we need.
From Abstract to Intimate
"Ultimately, storytelling is the delivery of ideas and truths that should in the end connect us closer to each other," says contributing photographer David Johnson.
Stories have existed since the dawn of time. Through them, we learn about the world and connect with our own humanity. We are storytellers. We elevate stories of good in a world filled with pain, poverty, hunger and war because we believe they possess a unique power to change to open our eyes to new truth.
This month’s issue of BitterSweet is a journey into that story process—a glimpse behind the curtain and into the how and why of storytelling.
As we interview, photograph, script and shoot films, we are venturing deep into dark to find beauty in the human experience and purpose that unites us. Or can. If we wipe our internal slates clean and listen. Really listen.
And that practice is difficult, in different ways, for each of us:
David Johnson, Photographer / “It’s easy to try and recreate the same moments, rather than allowing yourself to see a moment fresh and new for the first time. To pay attention to the people, I listen to the voices and then watch the faces involved. I am usually looking for beauty…not necessarily the magazine beauty you’d think, but the beauty that points to some sort of spark or trace of something divine. Could be someone’s, eyes, wrinkles on their face, a light coming into a room. Just depends. It’s something that usually comes and finds me. It’s always different, but familiar at the same time.”
Jessica Mancari, Writer / “When I first get an assignment or an idea, it’s a complete mess. It’s hard to know where to start or what the truth is. I love the thrill of figuring out how to make sense of the chaos. The most satisfying feeling to me is feeling that I helped create something beautiful out of something that was once very messy or abstract.”
Robert Winship, Writer / “The greatest challenge is to get myself out of the story. Unless I’m writing a real gonzo tale about what it’s like to be a person at an event, then I want the story to reflect the people and places that it’s meant to be about. Overall, I’m focused on creating space for marginalized or otherwise unheard voices, which goes back to ensuring that it’s the subjects and not the author that are speaking in the final story.”
We approach each story eager to be changed by it. We each do our research but hold it lightly. Research leads us to and through the land, but the story emerges through the people we meet once we’re there.
Morning Star is the perfect example, and Dave Baker explains why:
“The team for the Morning Star story consisted of a writer, photographer and filmmaker (myself). Each of us had distinct roles and content we were capturing. Before the trip, I had assumed the story should be about Meredith Toering, international director of Morning Star Foundation. She was an interesting character having transplanted herself in China to help these children with broken hearts. Once we arrived and started to see the activity in the home, I knew I needed to abandon that idea. As I listened to an interview conducted by our writer, Jessica Mancari, it became apparent that the video needed to focus on the relationship between a nanny and one of her babies – and the context would be given by Meredith. This realization was pivotal to the footage that was captured. And as the story was being assembled, the video component fit perfectly into the narrative.”
It was an interview Jessica will never forget:
“I will always remember Lao Wong. I asked her, ‘How does it feel when the babies leave? Do you think of them often?’ Lao Wong paused. Our eyes locked. Tears filled her eyes. I still struggle to give words to the expression on her face. She said, ‘Shou bu liao.’ The expression in Chinese means in your heart, you just can’t bear it.
That’s when I realized what Lao Wong feels for those children is so very deep. The emotion of it all was just big. In some ways, that moment cemented the angle I wanted to take with the story. I will always remember that.”
Like I said, we do our research, but we hold our ideas loosely, hoping for a moment or relationship to turn everything on its head and help us see beyond our expectations:
Erica Baker, Photographer / “It is so important to be a listener first and come to the story with an open mind, but at the same time, some of the best photo stories seem to be made when the photographer feels personally connected to the subjects in the story. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes.”
Dave Baker, Filmmaker / “I think we need to challenge ourselves to become better at seeing, waiting and listening for moments that make us and our audience feel and think deeper and longer – that challenge our perspectives and maybe even shift our thinking.”
Nothing will change until, and unless, we are willing to be changed ourselves.
We believe that we can create better together in large part because we hold each other accountable to get stuff done—we're on a schedule. The story launches on the first Monday of whatever month you're given. It's happening, and you've got to deliver.
So often, pro bono work and passion projects stall because there's no clear deadline or vision for the deliverables (how will they be used and where? what's the distribution plan?). If creatives give dozens of hours to internalize and capture the essence of an organization's work, they want to know it'll be used and seen and bear significance in some way.
“Knowing I have the support and accountability of the BitterSweet team energizes and motivates me to spend hundreds of hours on a piece I’m really proud of, that will benefit the BitterSweet audience and the featured organization,” explains Dave.
That's one side; the other is the creative chemistry of collaboration. Everyone has autonomy over their medium (be it film, photography, written word, music), but everyone’s pieces will eventually be woven together to form a cohesive whole, so discussing angles and approaches is essential.
At least that’s my perspective as an editor. Our creatives think a bit more deeply about it:
David Johnson / "Collaboration speeds the creative process, because your vision is extended past your own individual ability to see."
Dave Baker / “Collaboration keeps us true to the story – keeping our assumptions and bias in check. When you have a few sets of eyes watching and listening and acting as a sounding board you have a better chance for success. There is a lot going on when you have a small team on a production, a lot of details to keep track of – story, context, crew, gear, travel logistics, meals, relationships, cross-cultural sensitivities, etc – collaboration keeps us on the right track. Much of the creative process is internal where we can get stuck in our heads, but collaboration draws us out of isolation and enriches the end product.”
Jessica Mancari / “Writing can be a somewhat lonely process, but at BitterSweet, the entire story team is brainstorming from the beginning. We share ideas, talk about angles, and challenge narratives. We have to because the products of the writers, photographers, and videographers have to complement one another. But collaboration also sharpens ideas. I usually get to the point in my writing where I can’t wait to get it off to an editor.”
Over the past several years, dozens of creative professionals have contributed their time and talent to tell BitterSweet stories. From photographers and filmmakers to designers, writers, and musicians, we embark together through a collaborative process to craft a counter narrative.
This narrative, I’d like to think, can change the world, if only by celebrating those who already are.
Every story we tell is oriented toward a vision for engagement and support of the work featured. “Part of how we change the world is by letting people know about the impactful change already taking place. I think it promotes the responsibility to get up and do something in your own community,” says David.
And this is exactly what happened after David’s first contribution opportunity—BitterSweet’s story on Crusher’s Club, a boxing club and refuge for kids growing up in the most violent neighborhood in the most segregated city in the country—Englewood, Chicago.
Prior to the story, founder Sally Hazelgrove and the Crushers Board had said a new van was one of their biggest, most urgent needs—critical to their ability to transport more kids to and from training every day.
Six-weeks after publishing “Crushing Hopelessness in Chicago’s South Side,” BitterSweet had introduced more than 25,000 people to Crusher’s Club and raised enough funding for the organization to purchase a van.
Not every story told on the BitterSweet platform results in such a tangible, quantifiable impact, but no less important are the anecdotes we hear of readers appreciating a story so much that they reach out to the organization to begin volunteering. Hannah Estifanos comes to mind—she first learned of Free Minds Book Club (a penpal and poetry writing program for incarcerated youth) through BitterSweet six years ago and has been volunteering and hosting ‘Write Brunches’ ever since.
Not surprisingly, our contributors are the most inspired: “I think of the refugee who underwent several reconstructive facial surgeries after a bomb crushed her home—killing her husband and family. She is now building a life in a completely new country and culture. Or the maintenance worker who recently got clean and secured employment after decades living under a bridge. I think of the eighteen-month-old orphan in Beijing, fighting for his life after open heart surgery. I find the fight for hope to be incredibly inspiring,” says Erica.
No doubt we are inspired by these stories ourselves, but ultimately our hope is that YOU are inspired by them as well…and not just for a minute, but much more deeply than that.
“Whether it’s creating economic opportunity for recently settled refugees in Rhode Island or mending baby’s hearts in China, I get to play a part in telling these stories and hopefully bring a little inspiration to the lives of the BitterSweet audience. They may share the story with a friend, and that friend might share it with another, until maybe, just maybe, some other one experiences the story and is able to gift that organization what they need,” says Dave.
Eventually each story always leads to you—the reader. I hope that you will participate with us in this seeking of the good and essential—the type of living and loving that will keep the world and our country from dissolving further into a toxic mess of selfishness.
Help us counter the narrative and tell us of any organizations you think would be worth a feature. We welcome your ideas!
The story BitterSweet Monthly did on Project Hope is without question the single most effective piece that we have. It is thoughtful, strong, unapologetic, specific and beautifully curated and written.
Jennifer Friend, Executive Director, Project Hope Alliance
Where It's Leading
Monthly stories are just the beginning. Eventually, we'd love to publish collections of stories in print and produce related feature films and host gallery nights and listening/learning events in a brick and mortar of our own. We're nearly ten years in and just barely scratching the surface.
But for now, we'd like to get our 2019 story slate nailed down, which means we need your nominations!
All of our stories are nominated by our readers. In September, we'll collect all the nominations received throughout the year and with our core staff and contributors, we'll go through the list and collaboratively narrow down the slate.
Know an inspiring organization?
Narrowing is very difficult, as you might imagine, but we’ve developed a matrix that helps us evaluate the organizations and rank order our instincts. Each nomination is analyzed according to the following criteria:
Compelling / What problem is this organization trying to solve? Is it both urgent and important? Does it lend itself to a naturally dramatic story arch?
Unique / What differentiates this organization's work or approach from all the others in their field or issue focus? Is there anything that is particularly innovative or interesting?
Effective / Has the organization's impact been clearly measured and sustained for a trustworthy period of time (at least 5-10 years)? Have they been recognized by other third-party entities or validators? Have they successfully scaled or published plans to?
Feasible / How straight-forward is access to the locations or individuals we would need in order to craft compelling original content? How expensive would that trip be, if travel were required for a barebones crew?
Impact / Does this organization need storytelling help? Would our contribution of time and talent be a valuable and significant investment for them?
Stories don’t hang heavy like facts, but open space in our souls for compassion and connection. It's the raw and unresolved, the why behind the what, that speaks universally and transcends every division we (as humanity) have invented.
And I can't help but feel like it's as important as ever to tell stories that orient us toward one another, not away.