Video Storytelling With NGOs

A week after graduating from Columbia Journalism School, David P. Alexander made his way into a Cambodian jungle to shoot a story about illegal poaching for an non-governmental organization (NGO). Though he was not there for a traditional news outlet, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do: he was producing compelling videos about important subjects. 

These days, Alexander can be found filming around the globe or editing from his base in Tel Aviv. He has worked with several nonprofits and NGOs from Lebanon to Israel and Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Central and South America, and across East Africa.

Alexander says he does not see this work as necessarily journalistic, as he gets hired to tell specific stories on behalf of foundations with vested interests, but he does it because it fulfills the reasons he set out to be a journalist in the first place. “I get to travel, meet interesting people, and tell interesting stories with video as the medium. Also, some of my work has resulted in serious investments in the communities I am working in, so in that sense, it is having more of an impact than if I did some average reporting for a traditional news outlet.”

We asked Alexander about his experience with NGOs, and his advice for other journalists seeking to tell similar stories for foundations and nonprofits.

CV: What do you consider yourself these days? A journalist? A videographer? An editor?

DA: My main job is to condense complex information into short, entertaining and informative visual narratives. Sometimes I work as a director, sometimes as an editor, sometimes as 2nd or 3rd camera. I basically wear a lot of different hats in order to make each project the best it can be.

CV: How did you start working for nonprofits and NGOs?

DA: After graduating from Columbia Journalism [School] in 2011, I immediately took a job working with the Wildlife Alliance, an NGO based in Cambodia. Literally within the same week as graduation, I found myself in the Cambodian jungle filming stories about illegal poaching, wildlife trafficking, and eco-tourism. It was hard work and rough conditions, but also a lot of fun.

CV: What was the transition from working at a place like the Wall Street Journal to this?

DA: I had been freelancing for WSJ in New York before working with the Wildlife Alliance, where I realized that I was getting to do the exact same thing I loved about video journalism, but was allowed to be more creative in the filmmaking process. Journalism doesn’t allow for a lot of the fun storytelling techniques you can use when making short films for foundations and NGOs.

CV: How has working for NGOs allowed you to be more creative?

DA: I just think that in traditional journalism you are under a microscope. If for one second someone perceives you as being biased, your whole career is in jeopardy. With NGO filmmaking, it is understood from the beginning that you are working to tell specific stories. Once you put that “bias” out there, you are basically free to do whatever you want to tell the best story. Fun music, color correction, non-linear storytelling… these are all things that are easier to do when working with a foundation. If I was a print journalist it may be different, but for people who work with video, I think there is a lot more freedom outside the traditional journalistic channels.

CV: How many people do you work with? Is it just you or do you have a crew?

DA: It always depends. Sometimes I will be on the road with just a DSLR, operating as a one-man band. Other times we have three larger cameras (Canon C300s) a sound man, producer, etc.

CV: How much direction do you usually get for your pieces?

DA: I work with a strong team. For example, the Senior Executive Director of the Starkey Hearing Foundation is also a filmmaker, so he provides valuable insight into what the foundation needs from each film. There is a good balance of creative freedom, and educated direction.

CV: If you found yourself disagreeing with the policies of one of your clients, would you still do the job?

DA: I would probably try to understand why they are doing something I disagree with, and then address that in the film. If it was really something deplorable I would probably walk away from the project. Luckily, I have only worked for foundations who I believe are doing positive things in the world.  It’s another reason I enjoy this line of work. I have seen tangible, positive changes as a result of the films I have created.

CV: What would you advise to video-journalists who have the desire to travel, meet interesting people, and tell interesting stories with video like you?

DA: It’s different for everyone. When I was 23, I moved to Israel and was working as a freelancer, and I left at age 25 with a lot of credit card debt. When I moved to Cambodia a few years back, it was because I already had a job there. I would say if you are young and can afford to be broke, then just go out there and produce a ton of content, and try to develop a style and make a name for yourself. If you are getting older and need to be more financially responsible, find a foundation you like and approach them. Who knows? Maybe they need an in-house filmmaker for a few months.

CV: How would you advise journalists who are working with NGOs?

DA: I mean, at the end of the day you are getting hired to tell the NGO’s stories, so don’t get all high and mighty about being a journalist. Use your skills to distill their message into great stories. If you think what they are doing is cool, you will probably feel good about your work.

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