Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
I asked the students to write a blog post about what they are learning in our whirlwind week of video, theology and feature writing. It made me realize how much I learn every time I embark on this adventure.
I learn how deeply rooted Jesuit values are in these students and I am thankful for that. I learn how quickly a community can form, one that is accepting and open and really funny.
I learn how glad I am for Father Daniel Hendrickson’s Creighton Global Initiative. Backpack Journalism received one of the grants and I am thankful for that. But this year I am thankful that A.J. Olnes was on the committee AND decided to join Backpack Journalism. I’d call that Creighton Global Initiative in action.
I learn how generous and connected the Backpack Journalism alums are as they read and comment on the blogs and show up for our reflection send-off.
I learn the power of saying yes to things that challenge and scare you.
Thanks to all who are helping me learn this important lessons.
Though, by this standard, I am not the quintessential image of a storyteller I am participating in the Backpack Journalism program to Arizona and Mexico to better understand the skills needed to responsibly tell others’ stories. The fictional character of the grandpa in The Princess Bride demonstrates the success of storytelling. For him, the story is already there, all the grandpa does is illustrate the book so that his grandson, who was originally reluctant to hear the story, empathizes with the plot and characters. That is what we are trying to do in the next five weeks. Through this experience I hope to gain more knowledge on genuinely telling other people’s stories in a way that allows for the audience to be interested in the process and outcome of the story. I want to work to be able to make conscious decisions that better a narrative.
This skill of constructing a narrative connects my collegiate studies. I am studying history, graphic design, and dance. At face value, these fields seem random and not intertwined. However, in reality, storytelling is truly one of the main things that unite these programs. History is the telling of certain narratives to support an argument and when done correctly uses narratives often forgotten or originally omitted. Graphic design is visual communication—telling a story without an emphasis on text. Lastly, dance is storytelling though physical movement. Storytelling connects my interests but its significance is much greater than that.
Storytelling allows for voices usually ignored to be heard, for forgotten stories to be shared, and when done right works to inform its audience on the truth while creating interest and empathy. I chose Creighton as a place to explore different mediums to present these narratives and on the Backpack Journalism trip to Arizona and Mexico I hope to work toward becoming a more skilled visual storyteller. I am participating in the Backpack Journalism program to Arizona and Mexico to start the journey to becoming my version of the grandpa from The Princess Bride (a storyteller).
Crouched on the ground, his forearms rest on his knees while a monopod stems from the bottom of his camera. His hands fold over the body as he pulls the camera to his right eye. Wrinkles form at the corner of his left eye as it closes relinquishing his full attention to the viewfinder and the scene the lens holds before him.
His left hand cradles the lens, sliding the focus ring back and forth ever so slightly before their faces become sharp. His right hand grips the camera’s body as his finger fidgets with the shutter speed dial. When the exposure is right and the aperture is set, his index finger hovers over the shutter button.
Nico Sandi captures a moment shared between three children on their bikes in Bethel, Alaska.
Nico can be found all over the world with a camera in hand.
Prior to his trip with Creighton’s Backpack Journalism program to rural Alaska, his past two summers were spent on other backpacking trips: a trip though Europe with his sister and a solo trip to Patagonia.
“I love traveling. It’s when I’m most comfortable. I considered myself to be someone who lives a simple life. I don’t like to carry to many things, traveling with a backpack is very much me,” Nico said.
The Backpack Journalism project is just the very beginning of Nico’s summer video adventures. He is also working on a video about the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador for RSP classes this fall and will be traveling to his home country, Bolivia, to film a documentary about Jesuit missions with Don Doll, SJ.
When forced to choose a medium, he prefers video over still photography because he can focus on the story instead of being bogged down by photography rules.
“Video is just a series of photos put together. In video, you can tell a bigger story in a more compelling way than a picture,” Nico said.
With his love of backpacking and video, it was as if Backpack Journalism project was tailored precisely to him.
“It’s basically what I want to do with my life. I want to go and do backpack journalism—travel around the world and find interesting stories and find a good way to tell them through video or photography,” Nico said.
Nico is a storyteller; instead of using a pen and paper, he uses a camera.
“I really like to tell stories about people. I want to do meet people, find what their story is, and show that to others.”
It’s been a wild week. It’s included lots of late nights and early mornings, trying to listen and absorb seven hours of information a day, leaving the classroom with my head spinning and wondering how I ever survived high school without drinking a single cup of coffee.
I left the classroom this afternoon after a week of bootcamp with both a feeling of excitement and nervousness. One moment I’m ready to get on the flight, get to Alaska and start meeting the people; the next, I’m anxious about packing and embarking on a trip which will force me to step out of my comfort zone.
I touched on this in my last blog post, but I’m most excited about the chance to meet the Yup’ik people and learn about their culture and way of life. We’ve talked a lot this week about what we know about the Yup’ik. We know they treat nature and especially animals with a lot more respect than we often do. We have also talked about the people’s experience of cultural trauma, caused by an age of modernization and a desire to respect tradition. These conversations and topics have been interesting, and I’m excited to hear about them first hand.
I’m also thrilled to have the chance to be a part of a documentary film team and know at least a little about each aspect that goes into making a documentary. I’m so excited to work with our group. Each member has so much talent to bring to our project, and throughout this week we’ve become a little family.
With all the excitement comes a little fear. I’m nervous I have yet to pack, I’m nervous about squeezing everything into one big suitcase, and I’m nervous about living in a place for two weeks that I’ve seen once or twice on a map.
In terms of documentary film making, the video equipment terrifies me, even more so now that I’ve learned the basics of video in a matter of five days. I’m imagining a moment during this trip when we’ll have an interview to do and we’ll have to set up cameras and I’m going to forget how to focus the camera or set the shutter speed or f-stop. Luckily I’ve got a dozen other people who have my back.
Despite all my worries and fears, during our reflection today I heard some really good thoughts. Two graduates who had gone on previous Backpack Journalism trips came to sit in on our reflection. Matthew Dorwart went to Uganda on one of the Backpack trips, and his advice was to be present in the moment. We shouldn’t worry about what we’re doing tomorrow, or the 10 page paper we’ll have to write when we get back. Be present or we’ll miss out on the big and little moments, on the setbacks and breakthroughs.
Something that also struck me was Nico Sandi‘s reflection. He mentioned that it’s important for us to be respectful and keep in mind the community into which we are about to enter. We’re 20 (sometimes obnoxious and loud) students entering a community about which we know little, and they don’t know much more about us. Learning about the community and helping them tell their story is what is most important, the ultimate goal of this trip.
My goal is to keep an open heart, let the experience touch me, and pack as lightly as possible.
The second I learned about the Backpack Journalism trip I wanted to go. I did not care where in the world we were going, I just wanted to go. But why? Was it the video aspect that drew me in? Or was it the theology aspect that caught my attention? I’ve always loved making videos and taking photos. A couple of months ago I was going through some old video tapes I found. About half of them were my sister and I goofing off, but I was always the one behind the camera and my sister was always the star. In eighth grade each student in my class was asked “What will you be doing in 20 years?” The answers were recorded in a memory book, and I said I was going to be a photographer. There I am again behind the camera. I’ve just always loved capturing moments and sharing stories visually. This is why I chose to be a photojournalism major, and possibly why I so badly wanted to go to Bethel, Alaska this summer. There is also a possibility that the theology aspect appealed to me. I’ve always loved to help people and volunteer. Being there for people and putting a smile on someone’s face by just doing simple things to help is a part of me. It is who I am. And sometimes the only thing you can do to help is share a person’s story/ There are so many stories in the world that deserve to be heard. The story of the Yup’ik people is only one of these stories and I hope that I will enjoy this experience enough to continue sharing stories after this trip. This will definitely be new and exciting for me, and I cannot wait!
Whenever I think about myself in terms of what I know (or at least, what I assume I know), I always think of trees.
Trees are fascinating structures to me. Most trees have more than one branch, and from these branches there can sprout more branches, each as unique and complex as the last, and having its own ability to sprout mor branches. As these branches develop, they make the tree larger and more complex, continually growing upward with the sky as the limit.
One of my favorite topics in Computer Science had to deal with Binary Trees, and how we make use of systems in traversing trees. Since then, I have become fascinated with the conceptual understandings of trees, particularly in terms of knowledge.
When I think about knowledge, I imagine my mind as a series of branches each representing a topic or skill. Some are larger and more complex than others, some have other branches sprouting off from it, yet each branch and sub-tree contributes to the overall structure of my mind and how my mind processes all the complexities I view with my senses.
With the Backpack Journalism trip, I like to think I have grown a few branches while growing out branches I already had.
Theology Branch: this was a branch that was already extremely well-developed having gone to Catholic school for most of my life, and from studying philosophical theologians such as Aquinas in various classes. This branch became stronger however, as I learned many things about good and evil while in Uganda. Throughout my time there, I was incredibly disturbed by the fact that there is so much evil in the world, that there is bloodshed, violence, starving children, torn families, and people struggling to survive. I was also incredibly excited by the good we saw there, by individuals like Father Franzelli, Mama Angelina, those involved with Radio Wa, and by the many stories of the people we met. Through our travels, I feel my theological branch is stronger because I understand things like God not in terms of armchair studying and boring discussion, but through the people at work in the world.
Journalism Branch: when I was in Uganda, I had a period where I seriously doubted myself as a journalist. I love journalism and the opportunity to hear and write the stories of extraordinary people. I doubted however, my ability as a journalist, and whether I was indeed a good writer, a good reporter, or even cut out for the cutthroat and relentless world of journalism. Through this self-doubt however, I found that it didn’t matter how good of a journalist I am at present, what matters is that I absolutely love the world of journalism. With that, I know that whatever gaps in knowledge I have at present can be filled because that love, that passion, fuels my desire to become a better journalist.
Technical Branch: this is a branch that actually sprouted a new branch, to push that tree metaphor as far as humanly possible. Specifically, I learned tons of new things about cameras, photography, video, and video production. These are skills that I enjoyed learning about, and I now think these will have to be a part of my future career in some way.
Life Branch: This is my fourth class where I’ve had to keep up a blog, and any of my teachers know that my last blog tends to be pretty flowery. So here goes: the life branch, which I imagine as the branch in one’s head that is an amalgam of one’s character, beliefs, and personality characteristics, is the one that gives foundation to the entire tree. Without it, the branches cease to grow and the tree can not grow tall. The life branch is one that is the unshakeable will that is in every one of us, and the stronger the life branch is, the stronger one’s ability to grow tall. My own life branch grew in many ways during this course. I found myself challenged intellectually, personally, and in many other ways. There were moments where I saw things that were way outside of my understanding, things that I couldn’t even begin to describe now. These are things like personal strength, the ability to see past what is on the surface (like what I saw in Abia), the ability to recognize moments of pure goodness (like Radio Wa), the ability to understand the stories of others (like in Ave Maria).
In short, I have learned many things during these last five weeks. Some are things I did not want to learn, others are things I learned easily. Overall, I have gained an experience that I will never forget, never take for granted, an experience that has given my life shape and myself understanding. In my first blog I talked about how I see the world as one giant system made up of all the people, cultures, and ideas living within it. I think this experience has helped shaped my understanding of that colossal system, and how I plan to be a part of it.