Category Archives: 2014 Alaska

I am reminded why I teach…

Pic of a girl in Newtok that wanted me to take her photo
Pic of a girl in Newtok that wanted me to take her photo

During the final day with the backpack journalism students, I told them about a time when I used to teach drawing classes. I loved teaching drawing. I really did.

Many beginning drawing students, though, would start off the semester lamenting that they “can’t draw a straight line” and some were even apparently intimidated by my art. I’d always respond, “I can’t draw a straight line, either. I use a ruler.”

Drawing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Regardless, like any other ability, I am convinced that with the proper training and encouragement, anyone can learn to draw. I would make sure they understood that pushing a pencil across a piece of paper was the easy part. It was learning to see and interpret what you see that was the challenge, and I promised I would teach them each how to do that.

After weeks of instruction and progressively more difficult assignments we would eventually arrive at the Final Critique Day. They would hang their final projects and pat each other on the back. The students, those same students that began the semester rendering skewed perspectives of clumsy coffee cups, would bestow giddy praise upon their fellow classmates as they admired each other’s drawings while I watched silently from the back of the room.

Once the class settled into their seats in front of their remarkable artwork hanging on the wall, we’d share a moment of admiration for the work they had produced.

Then, I would usually say, “I thought you told me at the beginning of the semester that you couldn’t draw?”

The smiles on their faces and the pride in their work was always a joy to witness.

These backpack journalism trips are very similar. We would start each summer with a week-long Video Boot Camp where they would experience quick and intense instruction on the operation of audio and video equipment and learn basic video framing and lighting techniques. We’d discuss the differences between apertures, shutter speeds, ISO settings and white balance. It is challenging for everyone, and to be honest, most students get a bit wigged out.

Seriously, go back and read the first posts they wrote before we left for Alaska. The overall greatest concerns were about using intimidating equipment and worrying they wouldn’t be able to contribute good work to the film.

However, video, just like drawing, is less about the tools than it is about learning to see and figuring out how to best capture what they see through the lens. It’s basically about finding a visual way to tell a story through a series of clips.

Some of the students were rockstars because they had already been in at least one of my video courses and had solid previous experience. The less experienced students paid close attention and shadowed the more experienced ones until they felt comfortable taking key roles in each shoot.

While in Alaska, I would give impromptu critiques and advice and remind them of the things we discussed during Video Boot Camp. I can always tell whether we were capturing enough to assemble a film once we return. If we weren’t, I’d tell them to get more B-roll, and they would happily comply.

When we got back to Creighton, we initially had the arduous task of organizing and naming all our footage. We’d split up into a writing group and a video editing group. Then, we’d hammer away for a week until we had something resembling a story.

We don’t end the class with a finished film. We’ve never been able to do that. We do, however, usually end with a rough cut that generally resembles the final film. Watching the film on the final day is something like looking at the drawing students’ final projects hanging on the wall. You can hear them shuffling in their seats, happy that a great shot they captured made it into the film. You can hear the subtle gasps when they see, for the first time, the sequences that their fellow classmates constructed,.

After watching the film, I like to say, “You created a film in just a few weeks. That’s amazing.”

I encourage them to pat each other on the back, once again.

It’s a joy, and at that moment on the final day of class, whether seeing the proud expressions on the faces of the drawing students or the faces of the video students, I am pleasantly content.

I am reminded why I teach.

Develop, stop, fix

I love working with film photography. It is a very methodic process that involves developing the film, drying it, creating a proof sheet, choosing the best pictures and enlarge them by exposing developing paper to the film and then developing that paper. Once I’m in the darkroom, I can stay there for up to 4 to 5 hours and time just flies.

And that is exactly what I did this week.

I took to rolls of film with me to Alaska and went through them until the end of the trip. Working with film is a completely different experience because it involves patience, something I struggle to work on. Unlike digital photos, I can’t just take the picture and see what I got, edit it and share it immediately. There is a process, and it takes time.

The last part of the process, the enlargement, is by far the most satisfying. After choosing a good picture to enlarge, light goes through the film, hitting the developer paper, which is then soaked in developer. This is the chemical that reveals the picture on the paper. Then, I transfer the paper to the stop bath, which basically stops the effect from the developer so that the paper stops getting darker. The last chemical is the fixer, which allows the print to stay on the paper. It literally “fixes” the image on the paper.

Here are some of the pictures that I developed these past couple of days.

Our team setting up the interview in the library for Cecilia. We ended up moving it to the church.
Our team setting up the interview in the library for Cecilia. We ended up moving it to the church.
A river that runs next to the road on our way back from Seward.
A river that runs next to the road on our way back from Seward.
Alasks 2014 on our way to the Kenai Peninsula.
Alasks 2014 on our way to the Kenai Peninsula.

I’m am thankful for my experience in Alaska and I hope that I am patient enough to let it develop in my inner darkroom. Going to Alaska was like dipping the developer paper in the first chemical and slowly start to see the picture come up. Thing started to make sense slowly as we talked to more people and experience the tundra daily.

But after the developer comes the stop bath. I need a break to reflect and meditate on my experience in Bethel. My time back home in Bolivia will let me take some time off to be still and reflect.

Finally, I hope that I can find a proper fixer, a way in which I can make this experience stay with me forever. And I think that that will have to be manifested through a conscious life style. Just like Scott talked about on his blog, change comes one person at the time.

By having a lifestyle that commemorates my experience in Bethel. I will fix the memories and learning in the developer paper of my heart.






Driving through, flying over

Our very last morning in Bethel was magical. We all woke up really early, packed our bags and headed to the airport in three different cars that two two trip each.

I got to ride with Kevin Murphy, Susan’s husband. It was a misty morning in Bethel and one could only see 50 yards away. Kevin’s car was really old and clunky and Willie Nelson was quietly playing in the background as we all silently looked for the Bethel we got to love in the depths of the mist.

Our flight was delayed by an hour. But when we departed, we could not see Bethel at all. Even if we tried, none of us wave goodbye to Bethel from windows on the plane because we just couldn’t see it.

The night before we left Bethel, Catherine, Scott and Tony walk through the misty tundra.
The night before we left Bethel, Catherine, Scott and Tony walk through the misty tundra.

Landing on the lower 48 was a different story. After spending a couple of days in lovely Seward, we were dropped off at the Anchorage airport and took our flight out to Minneapolis. Flying over Minneapolis was a moment of realization for me.

On our way to Alaska, I didn’t really give much thought to be flying over such a big city as Minneapolis, I just thought to myself that this was just another city in the US, with its crossing streets, suburban houses, golf courses, shopping malls and tall buildings. But on our way back, I saw the city with different eyes.

After hearing from Brian and Nelson about climate change, from Cecilia about Yu’pik spirituality and from Ray and Rose about historical trauma, my eyes were changed and now all I could see was a city that had been growing at the expense of the earth. Unnecessarily big buildings, pretzel looking highway intersections, endless numbers of golf courses, two airports, suburban houses that could hold up to 20 people, but may only be occupied by four or five.

What was the need for all of this? I met some of the happiest people in Bethel, and their city was not nearly as big as Minneapolis. How did we get here? I wondered about Bethel’s future and had the short thought that it may one day be that big, because in the end, that is the face of progress for many. Where does it stop? As we flew over the city, the endless suburbs asphyxiated my imagination.

And just like our driving through misty Bethel was veiled by the tundra’s mist, so is our vision of this world. We don’t want to see the alternative and we refuse to see the truth. It hard for so many of us to recognize other’s lifestyle as valid and beautiful.

And at the same time we are fast to affirm our own beliefs as the absolute truth. Just like the clearness sky over Minneapolis, we have no problem seeing our own reality, but hesitate to question it.

Thank you Bethel for opening my eyes to new realities.

A New Dream

Thinking back on these last five weeks, I realized something today. When I first started I was excited for the experience I was going to get in Alaska and for getting to use my video skills on such a big project. I, however, did not expect the experience I got. The people I met there, the things I saw, the stories I heard, the relationships that grew stronger by the day were all part of a wonderful experience I don’t know how to explain.

When the class first started I have to admit I was a little nervous about spending five weeks with people I hardly knew. I had been in class with a couple of them before, but I wasn’t close with any of them. By the end of the first week (or as we all like to call it video bootcamp) I could tell it would be a great next couple of weeks. We all seemed to fit together. This is a great group of individuals and now the class is over and I won’t be seeing them everyday. I am a little sad about this and hope we all stay close and continue making memories.

This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. What we did in Alaska is what I want to work towards after I graduate. Before the trip I was very unsure of my future. When someone asked me what my dream job was, I would answer with “I don’t know. Something in the creative field like design or photography.” Now I can firmly say, “I want to make videos and share stories visually, and I want to travel the world doing it.”  I think that now that I have discovered this about myself I can work towards this new dream and goal. I have always been jealous of my brother (hey Nick! I am finally mentioning you in a blog like you asked me to) because he has known his dream for a while. He has done everything he can to achieve that dream, and now he is getting very close to his dream and I really hope he gets there. I aspire to be like him and do everything in my power to achieve this new dream of mine.

No more amateur documentaries

The crew in action... my keystone for future projects
The crew in action… My keystone for future projects.

Our documentary wasn’t the first video experience for me… Though, I learnt a lot as technique, heavy practicing will improve your skills whatever level of professionalism you had… But what I discovered more was than I am not a professional yet… documentary is more than camera and photographer… This why I won’t film a documentary the way I used to.  Continue reading No more amateur documentaries

Disciples of the holy grove

Today, on our last day, our class ended early. Some of decided to go out to lunch together as a way to celebrate and say good bye to one another. It just so happened that 13 of us gathered around a table and our resident Jesuit, Tony, took the opportunity to recreate the last supper. He took the dinner roll from the salad of my friend Kari, broke it, and passed one piece around to us. As he held onto our piece of bread, some of us couldn’t help laughing at this goofy Jesuit acting out such a sacred, historical scene in the middle of a restaurant.

But as Tony (who will soon be leaving the Midwest to return to his home land of Syria to aid refugees) instructed us to lift the bread for a blessing the mood turned serious when he said, “thank you God for giving us this scene and these people. May you keep them close. May we create your kingdom. And may you allow us to one day meet again.” As we ate our piece of bread my eyes filled with tears.

Tony the christ with his 12 disciples.
Tony the christ with his 12 disciples.

Today in our final reflection our fearless leader, John O’Keefe, mentioned how even though this program is self-selecting , in that we decide we want  to go on it and sign up, it seems as though this particular group of people was drawn together for a higher purpose. Even as I think about our trip and how integral interviews we had not planned fell into place and how welcoming the people of Bethel were, it is obvious that the Holy Spirit has been working as the 21st member of the CUbackpack team.

When I think back to only 4 weeks ago when we were about to leave for Alaska, I was so uneasy. In fact, the whole week of boot camp I could barely eat I was so nervous about being good enough at video or not being able to respond well to surprises or hiccups in the plan, can you tell I am type-A? However, a month later I can say that the highlights of the trip WERE the hiccups. Crawling over a beaver dam with some of my new best friends because not all of us could fit in the boat to go film a village, hacking down a tree after a miscommunication about “free labor,” and even eating at a horrible, abandoned Italian restaurant in Anchorage on our last night (Guido’s, you are as terrible as your portions are large), are some of my fondest memories of the trip!

While I for sure learned a lot about story telling, videography, and editing, what I appreciated most about the trip is that it taught me to let go.

So what is one thing I can do differently based on what I learned? Be a better Disciple of the Holy Grove. 

My mom has a T-shirt with this phrase on it because I think that describes what the Holy Spirit is to me. It’s a realization that life is better lived when you trust that everything will work out, recognize the different “Christs” (Tony is obviously one for me) in your life, and give yourself over to the “groove of life.”

From the team, to the faculty leaders, to the adventures, to the people we interacted with, to the stories they told- this trip had a definite grove to it and I could not be more happy that I got to be a part of it.

Thank you for reading and for joining me on this journey of the person and the  heart.

A Difference Maker

Thank you to Scott Prewitt for capturing this moment.
Wearing my Alaska hat and taking in the beauty surrounding me. A special thank you to Scott Prewitt for capturing this moment.

At the start of this journey, I was looking for adventure. I hoped to learn and grow in my journalistic and video skills. I was excited to travel to Alaska, a new and fascinating place.

Now that we have completed our final day of the Backpack Journalism Program, I can say that I have accomplished all of this and so much more.

I can’t even come close to adequately putting this experience into words. It has far exceeded my expectations, and I feel so grateful for these past five weeks.

The Backpack Journalism team traveled to a place at the world’s edge, often unseen or forgotten by the lower 48. There we stayed in the small but welcoming community of Bethel where we learned about the Yup’ik culture, the people’s connection to the land and the effects of climate change. I was amazed by the openness of the community and how willingly people shared their stories with us. If they had not taken the time to be interviewed and filmed by us, the creation of our documentary would not be possible.

After learning about how climate change is affecting Alaska, this trip allowed me to reflect on my own life and how I live. Over the years, it has been easy for me to be critical of others who do not believe in climate change or chose to ignore it. But because climate change is a collective problem, I am as much a cause of this environmental crisis as anyone else. I recycle and walk to school, but I still drive a car and feed into the consumerism that is much of the cause of climate change. In the next few months, I will make the changes in my life necessary to live more simply and reduce the amount of energy and resources that I use.

Because of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I also gained a sense of confidence in myself and my abilities. I feel that I can now take on any challenge in life, which will be especially important as I begin my senior year of college and look to the future.

The memories I shared with my team members will be ones I’ll cherish forever, from watching the magnificent sunset during a boat ride on the Kuskokwim to the beautiful tundra walks to the countless games played in the social hall. The perpetual laughter of our group, no matter what the circumstance, made this experience unforgettable. The amount of joy that I have felt in the last month has renewed my spirits and inspired me to continue fighting for what I believe in.

I already miss the people and landscape of Alaska, but soon I will miss spending time with the 19 incredible people on the Backpack Journalism team. Thankfully we will always have a connection to each other and Alaska because of this film-making and community-building experience. Even though it was our last day of class today, I know that the journey is not over. We still have a great deal of editing to do on our documentary, and then comes the most exciting part of this project: sharing our film with others.

I feel blessed to be a witness to a part of the world that is hurting but still lively, rich in culture and appreciative of the land and community. I can end this five-week experience feeling as though I made a difference in some way, but I know that Bethel has made much more of a difference in me.

Learning to Live in the Moment

Yesterday, we created a small B-roll team to go shoot some footage around Omaha (it makes sense for the documentary, I promise). Myself and five others squished into Hannah’s vehicle, excited for the chance to take the cameras out again. We quickly realized something though: here in Omaha, people are terrified of cameras in public places. Everyone was very paranoid about our presence, and our filming was nearly always halted by security guards and managers.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but the greatest thing about Bethel was how open and accepting everyone was.

It seemed like everyone was willing to help us with our film. And we were able to take cameras everywhere: stores, public buildings, neighborhoods, wherever we needed, basically. And everyone we interviewed was honest, open and willing to share their stories. It was incredible.

Coming back home, it’s easy to see how differently we live as opposed to the people in Bethel. People here don’t seem as open or friendly. Everyone seems very closed off and in their own world. In Bethel, no one hesitated to ask about our cameras, our purpose, our background. Yesterday while we were out, no one cared what we were doing. In fact, it felt like everyone just wanted us to leave. Everyone was too busy moving onto the next thing they had to do, or walking around absent minded, distracted in the world of emails, texts or Twitter.

And I myself, am included in this. It’s very hard to break habits.

In Bethel, as you probably know, we didn’t really have cell service. For short amounts of time, we were able to connect to wi-fi, able to connect to friends and family. During the day, we were completely disconnected though, and sometimes it was really nice. We were present, we were observant, we were living in the moment.

Before our trip began, I had a feeling that we would learn a lot from this experience. I never knew how much it would teach us about the way we live, however. As I said before, it’s really hard to truly be present in the moment. I’m honestly terrible at it, craving a glance at my Twitter feed or needing to eliminate notification icons immediately.

I don’t want to continue these habits though. Bethel taught me how important it is to simply pay attention to your surroundings. When you step away from the problems of your own life, that’s when you gain the most from the world around you. That’s how you learn about the people around you. And that’s how you learn the most about yourself.

Breaking the Fellowship

“Tomorrow, we’ll answer any final questions and have a reflection,” John O’Keefe said on the second to last day of class.

“Then, we’ll break the Fellowship.”

That line stopped me in my tracks.

I immediately thought of this.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is my all time favorite story. The journey of the Fellowship speaks to me on many levels, providing much of the foundation upon which I built my worldview.

If you haven’t experienced this brilliant work, start here.

John’s words resonated with me. My heart began to ache when I realized they were true.

Our crew is a Fellowship, each member bringing our own strengths and weaknesses to the table. This is a common theme among many blogs on this site, mainly because it’s true. I think most would agree that this has been the most dominant theme of our trip.

Before we embarked, many of us hardly knew each other. Yet, over a five week period, we became an extremely tight-knit unit.

This is part of the Journey. You leave one person, you come back different.

I can honestly say this is true for me.

I can’t even begin to explain all of the ways that I have grown in the last two weeks, but I can try to distill it down.

Story: Stories are not abstract, They are tangible. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Stories exist in the world independent of storytellers. They can be touched, tasted, and smelled. They can be loved, hated, nourished, and killed. Most importantly, they can be felt. It is our responsibility as storytellers to do all of these, rather than observe from afar. Only then can we craft a true narrative.

Pressence: We spent the majority of our trip without cell phone service in a place where the sun sets around 12:30 am. Our sense of time and digital connection were severely impaired. Furthermore, we spent most of every day focused intently on the tasks before us. We spent every day with the same people. As a result, we were very present. I was able to focus on what was going on exactly at that moment and enjoy it for what it is. A lot of the time back home I felt like I was only half experiencing life. Now I know that I can experience all of it. All I have to do is be present.

Conscience: I saw a lot of things in Alaska that I had never seen before. Many of them, particular the effect of climate change on individual people, were difficult for me to reconcile with things I formerly believed to be true. I know longer have the excuse of ignorance. I have a responsibility to use my knowledge and experience the best I can. I have to be conscious of what is happening around me, even if it is not pretty.

Communion: Between spending every moment with the Fellowship and interacting with the community in Bethel, I learned to a great degree what it means to live in communion with others. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I always think of the reflection we had right before we left Bethel. We sat in silence, eyes closed, and just existed with each other. I am not an island. I am a part of a whole, a totality.

Spirit: I found grace in action and in the environment. There are many modes and mediums of spirituality. I saw God (whatever that means) in the midnight sunset over the Kuskokwim. I felt the humanity of another human at Rose Dominic’s. I felt harmony and peace with my own spirit walking on the tundra.

John said we would break the Fellowship. I don’t think that will ever really happen. We are bound to each other through experience. We will always share that.

To close, I quote J.R.R. Tolkien,

“It’s a dangerous business, walking out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

This is Scott Prewitt, Scotty P, Mr. Panasonic, signing off.

Think Like a Journalist.

Its amazing how far this group has come five weeks later. It seems like yesterday we had our first class where we were first learning what B-Roll was, ISO, aperture, and various camera settings that still haunt me today. At times these past few weeks I sometimes catch myself “thinking like a journalist” by always asking questions and following up on them by digging deeper into my questions and the person I am asking them too. Its amazing that when we first started I had no idea how to use any of these settings. And if you were to hand me a t5i today I would be able to go out and start shooting film or take pictures. You think I would know how to use some of these settings considering my mother is a photographer and she has cameras and pictures allover the place. And now I find myself looking at and experimenting with all her old camera equipment. It definitely makes me more happy that I can now have this experience under my belt and have a greater appreciation for the photography field.

The night we had to sleep in the Anchorage airport and every night that first week we were back I was constantly thinking. I could not sleep because so many thoughts were running through my head about my experience in Bethel. In Bethel and with this class experience filming a documentary, I had a sense of purpose. This “vacation” was unlike any other vacation I had. While others were relaxing, this one was meaningful and gave me a sense of purpose and drive to do something for the Bethel community. As I was processing this, I kept thinking how can I keep this sense of purpose and drive with me when I return to Omaha? It was difficult to think about, but when the answer dawned on me it seemed so simple. Even though I’ve been born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska my entire life, there is a community that I still have yet to explore parts of. That is my new goal not just for right now or for a small while, but something I can become a part of for the rest of my life by helping out, serving others, or just enjoying. Its amazing what Bethel had to offer which really opened my eyes to see what my hometown, Omaha has to offer. That is definitely something that I will carry on with me, knowing that I can make a difference not matter where I am at in this world.

Thank you to all for this experience. It is one that will stick with me the rest of my life. I wish everyone could have the experience I had. My advice to all would be to stay engaged in your community, constantly know that everyone has a story waiting to be told, take chances while you have it, know you can do this anywhere in the world, and think like a journalist.