It turns out that I’m not very good at murder. I don’t know if it comes more naturally to some people than others. But instead of taking the kill shot, I went all chainsaw massacre. It’s messy. I don’t recommend it.
It’s my second week settling into Kathmandu, Nepal. And I’m making good on my story research. Today, I’m watching the PRI series on Ira Glass. Ira talks specifically about the challenges of finding great stories and how it's the storyteller's responsibility to know what stories to kill.
Ira says that he kills fifty percent of his stories. And I hate to point this out but…he’s IRA FRICKIN' GLASS! He’s been creating stories since he was eighteen years old and runs what is arguably the best radio storytelling outlet in America. I don’t know how that pans out for the rest of us, but I think I’ll borrow O.J. Simpson’s gloves and start plotting my next murder.
My last story didn’t go so well, but there is always room for improvement. Last year, I decided that I wanted to add a maternal health project to my portfolio. I do a lot of work around women’s issues and seemed like a natural progression to the work I had already done. It doesn’t hurt that my mom is a midwife and a mother of seven, and that maternal health has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Creating this story was deeply personal to me. I threw myself into research and found a grassroots organization helping Rwandan women who had little access to quality care. I met with the founder. I made a plan. I wrote a photography brief.
I even went so far as to show that photography brief to my photography hero, Ami Vitale, at a portfolio review to get her take on it. She was excited by the thought of project and asked me to keep her posted on my progress. The stakes were high! And I was pumped to get the party started.
I shot once a week for three months. I wanted to identify one or two women whom I could follow in their daily lives and document the care they received. I spent a fair amount of time getting to know the women before making my move. But then I ran into a road block. And then another. And then another.
I was on a short timeline before I was due to leave the country and the project was falling apart. Did I do the right thing and put the story out of its misery? Absolutely not! I NEEDED the project. I had very important people to impress. So I propped it up that story Weekend at Bernie’s style and demanded that it become what I wanted it to be. I edited and re-edited. I tried to get back into the organization to shoot more footage. Despite my best efforts at resuscitation, my maternal health story breathed its last dying breath and face planted.
It didn’t become the story I envisioned. And I spent countless hours on a story that simply wasn’t that interesting. There wasn’t a charming anecdote, no compelling series of events to intrigue my viewers. I ended up with a lot of pictures of women waiting around on benches, having basic checkups, and few nice portraits.
The truth was that I should've shot down that story executioner-style within the first month. It was an ok idea that had limited narrative support. Ira is right: life is too short to make mediocre stuff. So when it turns out you're working on a story that isn’t interesting, let it go. Move on. Failure is a big part of success.