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.
Every other 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 across the United States. 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 scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
As the two white Creighton vans pulled out of the McGloin parking lot this morning, it was and still is difficult for me to fully comprehend what’s ahead. Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. This past week has been amazing and surprising and I’ve learned so much but we’ve only scratched the surface.
A big part of me still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be doing this. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: I have an amazing opportunity to capture people’s lack of opportunity. In my first ever college journalism class, the first thing my teacher emphasized to us was the centrality of storytelling in journalism. Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with this idea of long-form, narrative journalism. In my first ever Creighton class, my theology teacher emphasized to the class the importance of using your degree for social justice. That is also something that has stuck with me. That’s why I find it so incredibly humbling to use the power of storytelling to hopefully do some good in the world.
It’s scary to be actually moving forward with this work because it’s something that I care so much about doing in the long-term. It’s also incredibly exciting. I feel confident in what I’ve learned so far, but I’m definitely nervous about applying this knowledge in a real and meaningful way.
Going into this course I was skeptical of the ability to connect the documentary process and theology. However, the separate discussions of church and how to shoot and cut video have mirrored each other in unexpected ways.
Church is a model. It is a human representation of a mystic religious experience.
This is an interesting parallel to the camera. The camera does not present us with reality. It presents us with a representation of light somehow reflected into an image… I honestly have no idea how this works but I know it is not what happened. Instead, it is a representation of that moment. Each of these models or representations is prone to human error. The camera can lie.
There is an assumption of truth with video. There is a forgetfulness that just like a piece of writing there is an author making conscious decisions about the composition, especially when it has the tagline “documentary”.
Though we are discussing video in class this also applies to photography. An infamous series of photos, How the Other Half Lives depicts urban slums in 1890s America. When looking at these images it is easy to be preoccupied with the poverty and forget the conscious decisions made when making these photographs. The photographer of How The Other Half Lived was a police officer that purposefully created a photo series to associate fear with adult males in the slums and sorrow with the children. Though this is not unethical it is easy to forget that images are representations that can be molded.
This is similar to models of God and faith. These models are human constructions and in return can be changed and usually are adapted based on human thought, whether this is positive or negative.
Creating documentaries is a responsibility I am continuing to learn about. Whether this is learning how to use truthful trickery, editing diverse shots, or not taking quotes out of context. A large part of this is understanding the negative and positive implications of visual representations. This has been most apparent watching videos in class. It has become more and more clear conscious editing and filming decisions dictate the honesty of our models.
I hope to continue to grow in my ability to acknowledge human adaptations and models so I can better understand the difference between reality and representation in both filming and theology.
When something looks or sounds simple from the outside, it may seem boring or just ordinary. On the other hand, when something is found to be packed with a variety of aspects and meanings, not only will that item become more valuable, it also becomes more dynamic and influential.
While I’m not sure I can actually explain the craziness and dynamics of this past week’s “bootcamp” I can for sure tell you how valuable it has been. Mentally, we’ve had our brains packed with all kinds of information from settings, story ideas, interview practices, F-stops and ISOs, laughter, and preparation. It’s been great seeing how everyone is playing their strengths, packing what they’ve learned, and really seeing the team come together.
In a similar way, I’m becoming more and more excited about our immersion into the Yup’ik culture and its people. The Yup’ik people effectively pack meaning and importance into their culture, and I want to learn about them. The way they see meaning in such simple and beautiful actions and words astounds me; Words like “ella” that come together to mean weather, the Earth, and the universe. Compressing so many different meanings into one word just makes me want to learn more!
The fact that we are leaving for Bethel in just a few days is daunting to me. I know that time will move quickly, with how busy we’ll be. Therefore, I want to be sure to pack my Alaskan experience until I have to jump and sit on the case to be able to zip it all tight.
Rolled up somewhere in my sleeping bag are the things I’m worried about and my hopes for the trip. I want to be an active contributor to this project and my team. I don’t want to mess up, but I want to challenge myself, and learn something new. I want to really get to know my team members as well; I mean some of us only go as far back as bootcamp. Establishing a community with this group to continue on after this month is really important to me.
Now while my personal packing (like actually putting things in my physical suitcase) is lacking, I know Sunday and this experience will be here before we know it. I just hope I don’t forget something.#PackingAnxiety.
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!
The things I learned are too numerous to offer a complete list. My teachers in middle and high school always discouraged using the word “things,” it shows a lack of creativity and specificity. But I cannot anchor down what I learned with one description. Below is a highlight of those “things” in no particular order.
– The world is a small place and getting smaller. Distance is becoming a harder excuse to use for ignorance and indifference.
– Journalism should tell the stories that need to be told with an aim at the truth.
– The people who went on the trip are amazing individuals.
– Theology should be more evident in every day discussion. It also should be more apparent in worship.
– Answers are not always the most important part of the question.
– It was reinforced in my mind that the world, both nature and mankind, are worth fighting for and loving.
– Real truth comes in helping others.
– Communication is not just verbal language.
– You do not need to speak the same language to make friendships.
– Journalism serves the world. The world does not serve journalism.
– Theology is not just and ideology for the spirit. It is an ideology that can manifest itself in all parts of life.
– You are never too old to be a child. You are never too young or wise to listen to someone older than you.
– Truth and reality come from experience.
– Journalism is not just for those who write the newspaper.
– The rich want to be more like the poor and the poor want to be more like the rich. Those who are busy with work want more time for themselves while those who have the time for themselves and no work want to be busy with a job.
– I learned again that we are never done learning. The day I stop learning is the day I stop living.
Thank you to the people of Uganda and my classmates who taught me so much.
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.
I think I learned more about the world and theology than anything else on this trip. I’m already a journalism major so I had the whole blogging part down – ask Carol. To be honest, the theology part I was only really doing for credit, I didn’t expect that I would actually learn more by living through the experience while learning it.
When I envisioned this trip I thought I would learn more about shooting video by experiencing Uganda first-hand. Shooting video is kind of one of those things you have to learn by actually doing, not just reading a manual or a how-to book.
Theology is not my strong point by all means. Even in a normal class setting my attention span is limited. But in Uganda, learning theology made sense. And okay, maybe reading about the models of the church was a bit dull, but reading Katongole, discussing a new vision of the church in Africa and talking about the option for the poor and the “crucified people” definitely made more sense through experiencing Ugandan culture and lifestyle. I think I learned more in the sense that this is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life and not just something I get tested over and conveniently forget about.