Covering Protest in Ferguson: “I didn’t expect it to feel like war.”

Salima Koroma didn’t think her first first out-of-state assignment would be the historic protests over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. She’s been producing video for Time’s online video team for just about two months, and last week they bought her a one-way ticket to Ferguson, Missouri.

Before starting at Time, she graduated from the documentary program at the Columbia University Journalism School, where she produced her own documentary, Bad Rap, and was a producer for NowThisNews. Columbia Visuals talked to Koroma about her experience producing video from Ferguson.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Columbia Visuals: How did you prepare for this assignment and what were some things you were aware of before going to Ferguson?

Salima Koroma: First of all, I didn’t have time to prepare (laughs). I got here on Friday, and that evening I was in my rental car, and I’m driving down Florissant, to go to the Quik Trip that had been burned down the night before by a looter. I get there and I’m on the street, and there’s a lot of traffic and people are there, protesting.

I knew once the governor placed the curfew, I was going to have to go out there because people would be angry. I knew people would say, ‘Oh, they’re going to put a curfew on us? We’re going to stay out later.’ I’d been there the night before, and I could feel the frustration and hopelessness.  We [the journalists] knew that something was going to happen. I didn’t expect the police tear gas; I didn’t think that they would really do it. I didn’t expect it to feel like war. I didn’t expect it to be so scary.

CV: How did you decide which protestors to film?

SK: I put my camera on people who are already saying something. There were arguments on whether or not to leave at the 12 a.m. curfew, and I put my camera on them and watched them have that conversation. To me, that tells a bigger story. It’s a more valuable story to see those things in action, rather than saying, ‘I’m going to interview you about what you feel about the curfew.’

CV: What was the shooting and editing timeline for ‘If You’re Scared, Go Home,’ your piece about the curfew?

SK: I got to Ferguson at 8 o’clock on Saturday night, and I sat in the car and made sure all my equipment was in order. I got out and started walking and talking with people. I stayed there until about 1:30 a.m. Then I got back home around 2 a.m. I started ingesting all the footage, and I went to sleep around 3:30 or 4 in the morning. I woke up at 9 a.m., which is pretty late, because in New York that means it’s 10 a.m. I got the video done at 12 p.m., so I spent three hours on it and usually something like that would take me five or six hours. I got there [to the protests] Saturday night at 8, and the story was up on Sunday afternoon, around 3 p.m. or so.

CV: What gear did you use to shoot this video?

SK: A Canon 5D Mark II, with a Rode shotgun microphone. The first day I was here, I had an external Tascam recorder, a fancy Tascam that has a whole bunch of buttons that I never touch because I’m scared to touch them. Saturday night when I was recording all the tear gas and protesting, I put the Tascam away, just because I knew I was going to be running all over the place. I put the Rode mic straight into the camera, which is really risky because I can’t see anything. I went into my menu settings and brought the sound down manually. I would not recommend doing that. (laughs).

In this situation, you don’t want to really use a light, even though I have one. It’s so imposing. People say, ‘I can’t even be as angry as I want right now, because your light is shining in my face.’ So I like to just use the 50mm because I can get a lot of light with that. The problem with that is sometimes I want to zoom in, I want to pull back. So I’ve also been using the standard 24-105mm and the 50mm.

CV: What’s been the reaction to the media from the protestors and police?

SK: There is a lot of distrust from protestors toward the media. When you’re talking historically, about how the media has covered African-Americans, it has not been great. Think of what the media shows of African-Americans: we are portrayed in the media as thugs, as gangsters, as poor, without talking about the root problems.

I am a young, black woman. A lot of people have been a little more trusting of me, especially because I don’t have these big cameras. I have a [Canon] 5D, a Rode mic, and maybe a light, sometimes. I’m very low-maintenance. I’m a one-man band. Whereas you have these big news organizations: a lot of them are white, a lot of them seem to not really care. There are times when the protestors will say, ‘Get that camera out of here. You guys don’t care about us. You’re just going to go back home.’ and to some extent, that is true. I try to film what people are saying as individuals. I think that humanizes the situation, and I think that they trust me a little bit more.

CV: What is it like to work alone in a situation like this?

SK: The advantage to being a one-man band is that you’re not imposing. I can shoot two people talking about something, and they won’t even see me because I have a small camera, I have a small shotgun mic and I’m just chilling. And maybe I look like I’m just taking a photo.

The biggest disadvantage is I only have one pair of eyes, so I don’t always see everything. I don’t have a partner to say, ‘Hey, let’s go get this.’ Everything I see is because I happen to see it, not because somebody is helping me. It would be good to have a partner with a second set of eyes.

CV: Do you feel safe?

SK: I feel safe, because I feel that protestors won’t take my camera (laughs). They want to support me because I’m a young black journalist, and they don’t see that out here. And I’m a woman.  If anything, they even want to protect me. I had one guy on Saturday night who said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I got your back.’ It makes me feel like there’s solidarity.

They know I’m trying to tell the story from their perspective. I have more access to them. I don’t have very much access to the police. Last night was probably the most violent night of this situation, from what I’m hearing on the news from both protestors and police. Most of our reporters couldn’t even go to West Florissant, where all the protests were happening. I couldn’t go in last night because I was told specifically by Time, ‘Do not go over there because they’re shooting, people are getting arrested and it’s scary.’

CV: What’s been the most challenging part about this assignment for you?

SK: Finding stories that are different. Every night it’s been: wash, rinse, repeat. Every night there’s going to be curfew, it’s, ‘Are people going to stay out or not? What’s going to happen after midnight?’ That’s what the challenge has been- finding a different story every time. I would like to embed with the police and I don’t think that’s possible. I would like to follow one person around but that’s very difficult amidst all this chaos.

Now people are even angrier. How do you distinguish that from the anger that they felt the day before? I think it’s about depth. It’s about the feeling or emotion. That is important, and it’s something you can’t get from a report on CNN or NBC or FOX. It’s not just “This is happening,” but how are people feeling in the midst of this? What are the feelings of frustration and hopelessness like? Anger, sadness, vulnerability, all of that. What does that feel like? And that’s very hard to get on CNN.

CV: What is your advice for people covering conflict and protest?

SK: There have been many times where I felt, ‘Oh, my God, I’m missing everything. I’m doing everything wrong. What am I supposed to do?’ And I would say even the most veteran reporters feel that same way all the time. Sometimes I’ll call the [Time] photographer and say, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ And he’ll say, ‘I don’t know, I’m just going to see what happens. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be talking to.’

Don’t feel as if you’ve lost because you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not going to know what you’re doing until something happens. In this kind of situation, you just have to go in and catch the best footage that you can. Think about how you can do it in a way that no one else is doing it. If that’s what you focus on, and that’s your goal, then everything will be fine.

This is Part 3 of three posts on Covering Protest in Ferguson. You can read about David Carson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch here, and Brent McDonald of the New York Times here. You can read more about Salima’s documentary here.

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