Rick Gershon and MediaStorm did not set out to make a feature length piece when they went to Houston. Gershon was there to shoot client work for Neighborhood Centers, but then he met the Greer family. Marilyn Greer, the 58-year-old matriarch of the family, had recently been diagnosed with dementia. Gershon recognized the opportunity to turn a shorter client piece into a longer story, Swan Song, which documents the struggle of two young daughters who have to make hard choices in the face of their mother’s debilitating disorder.
“It’s just a situation where you stumble on a story like this, and everything falls into place,” Gershon said. “Timing is really everything. It would have been a completely different story if I had met them a month or two months later.” Now a freelance photographer and videographer in New York, Gershon’s experience includes winning College Photographer of the Year, and working for the Dallas Morning News and Getty Images. This piece for MediaStorm is the 3rd Prize Winner in the Online Feature category of the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia Contest, and is currently featured at the Brown Institute at Columbia Journalism School.
Columbia Visuals interviewed Gershon about making Swan Song, and he gave us some advice about how to navigate sensitive situations and empathize with characters in your piece.
Columbia Visuals: How many hours did you spend with the family?
Rick Gershon: It was quite a bit. I think I did three different trips of two to three weeks each. I can’t remember exactly, but it was a lot of time. Honestly, most of the time was spent not shooting, and just being with them: getting to know them, earning their trust and learning the situation and their story so I could naturally represent it. It’s not an easy thing as a big, tall, guy to fit into a small house with four women. It just took a lot of time to be there and show them I was harmless, and they could trust me.
CV: What advice would you give to navigate establishing trust with subjects?
RG: It’s about people first. Your goal coming in is to have the mindset of, ‘I’m not here to make my film and leave. These are peoples’ lives.’ It’s my goal to go in and see it as a gift; these people are letting me into their lives. They’re revealing their most intimate moments – probably the most difficult experience of their entire lives – and they’re allowing me to be around for that.
I think first and foremost, you need sensitivity to the fact that these are humans going through real stuff, they’re not just subjects for my documentary. I think just being a human first and putting the camera down and getting to know them.
Rick Gershon setting up a camera in Houston. Photo via MediaStorm’s Instagram feed.
CV: What kind of camera did you use, and how many people were shooting?
RG: Most of the film was shot by me with one C100 and a 24-105mm f4 [lens]. I was testing it out for Canon, and I pretty much just shot the whole film straight out of the box with a shotgun mic on the camera and that one lens. I did use a wider lens inside the house; I used a 16-35 mm because it was such a small environment with so many people.
Caitlyn [Greene] was super vital to the process as well. She played the role of field producer, though she wasn’t in the field the whole time. She came out the first trip and some of the second, and the rest of the time she was back in the office editing and producing the story. She could look at the footage and see what was missing, and she could communicate with me on the ground about what how the story was developing. We were able to cut the piece as we were also shooting it. She didn’t shoot a lot, but she did help with the interviews.
But the rest of the time, it was so sensitive and intimate that being there with one camera was key to the process. There are times when having another shooter is really helpful and awesome, and there are times, with that type of story especially, when it’s so sensitive and personal, that it’s hard enough for me [shooting alone] to allow things to be normal.
CV: How did you deal with the sensitivity of the issue you were filming?
RG: We had a deal from the very beginning of the project, the sisters and me. The deal was that if at any point they were uncomfortable in the process, ‘You just tell me and the camera goes off. There’s no ifs, ands, buts about it. This is your life and you’re in complete control.’ It was really important for me to have that with them because I wanted them to feel in complete control of the process, at least of their intimacy and what they were revealing to me.
CV: Can you tell me more about the moment in the piece where Lisa tells you she’d rather you not film?
RG: That was a moment where Marilyn was getting really agitated. It’s sad that she’s reverted back to this state and she’s losing herself there, but it can also be kind of scary and dangerous for the girls, and that was one of the things I had yet to capture. It’s a sensitive thing. I didn’t want to take advantage of them or do anything for shock value, but I also wanted to show just how difficult it could be, as a daughter, for your mom to become violent or out of control.
So in that situation, the daughter [Lisa] was worried that Marilyn was going to become violent, and so she said she wasn’t comfortable with me filming it. I turned the camera off and went into the other room, and five or ten minutes later she came in and said, “Look, I’m so sorry. It’s not that I don’t want you to film. I just didn’t feel comfortable.” I reminded her, “Hey, that’s what this is about. I told you from the beginning that you’re in complete control.” I think it helps a lot with the process, just knowing that. They need to feel completely comfortable to deal with this in their own home.
We decided, in the end, to put that moment in the piece. Mostly I wanted it in because I thought it broke down the wall a little, so the viewer could know the subject is aware of what was going on and they were in control. That was a moment when she wanted us to stop what we were doing, and I think it was a moment where I wanted viewers to feel a little uncomfortable as well, like this is really personal and intimate. That’s what that was about.
Rick Gershon with Marilyn Greer, one of the subjects of the film. Photo via MediaStorm’s Instagram feed.
CV: At what point in the process were the interviews done?
RG: We did two different rounds of interviews. It’s hard to remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure we did the first round of interviews toward the tail end of the very first trip, because we had gotten a lot of initial coverage and had an idea about what the story was and where it was going, and we wanted to capture that in that moment in time.
This was spread out over several months that we covered this, maybe two or three months total. It spanned over time, so we did the first round after the first trip and then second interview was at the very end of my last trip, after they had gotten their mother into the home and they had moved on and the one sister had moved out. I wanted to do an interview that was at the very end of everything so we could cover what we missed in the first interview and have our wrap up quotes and feelings
CV: How many hours of footage did you end up capturing?
RG: Not as much as you would think. In this situation especially it’s really important to balance the amount of shooting you’re doing with what they can handle, and where it’s putting you in the relationship with them. You have to pick your battles. It’s a lot for people to go through something like that, and have someone with a camera in their face the whole time. It’s a constant decision-making process. You ask, “What is important to shoot and what do I not?” A lot of times, the most important decision you make is what you decide not to shoot.
The last thing you want to do is fatigue your subjects because you were not focused and mentally prepared for what you were trying to do, or you didn’t have a plan of what you’re trying to capture. If you’re constantly in their face rolling on things that don’t really matter, then it’s just you in their area and taking their energy. It’s really important to balance that, I think.
You can see Swan Song at the Brown Institute, screening at 5:12pm and 6:52pm. More information on the World Press Photo Multimedia exhibition can be found here.