by Jym Wilson
Many years ago, while working as a photographer at Gannett News Service in Washington, DC, I unsuccessfully tried to persuade a colleague to write a story on listening. A few years later, while working at USA Today, I tried again, and again I had no luck. I told myself that this was irony defined: I couldn’t get anyone to listen to my ideas about listening.
In my work with Carbon Trace Productions, I find myself once more thinking about listening. What makes a person a good listener? It’s more than sitting quietly and occasionally nodding while someone talks to you. It is knowing that they are talking with you. It’s more than understanding what they are saying. It’s empathizing with them.
“Listening is a form of loving. It requires us to shift the focus from ourselves to the hurts, emotions, and experiences of another person…The willingness to spend time listening to others expresses to each person that we sit with that they are seen and that they are heard.”
Who are good listeners? We hope that our family and friends listen to us and hear what we are trying to communicate. We need our doctors to listen as we explain symptoms, aches, and pains carefully. We expect our elected officials to listen to us (but are not surprised when they don’t appear to hear us). Musicians and music lovers are good listeners.
Who else are good listeners? Talk show hosts can be. Think about the difference between David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon. Letterman’s long pause as he mulled over a guest’s answer before he asked another question was the sign of a man listening. Fallon always seems to be waiting for an opening to insert a joke as his guests talk.
Reporters listen for a living. In my career, I have worked with truly great reporters and with some who, well…not so much.
Once I arrived early to cover an event (because when you’re on time, you’re late), to look around and size up the scene. When the reporter arrived, I told her who I had already photographed and suggested a few people she might want to talk with. “Oh, I already know what I’m going to write,” she told me, “I just need to find someone to say it.” Not a good or even a willing listener.
On the other hand, I was enthralled as I watched a reporter roll his wrist and quietly say to the woman he was interviewing, “Say more.” It was an act so graceful and filled with empathy that it took my breath away. That was great listening.
The story I proposed years ago came from my suspicion that even though there seemed to be a lot of people talking, no one seemed to be genuinely listening. This was during the early years of talk radio and shock jocks. Years before Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram were considered valid sources for journalists. I recently heard someone say they had given a magazine article a “grad student read.” By that, they meant they had looked at the piece and absorbed some of the meaning but perhaps not the nuances. As we face the daily deluge of information overload, are we giving life a “grad student listen”?
Recently, two of my Carbon Trace colleagues and I visited the small town of Eminence in Shannon County for a pre-production interview for our film A Portrait of the Ozarks. During our time with Crystal Creek Ranch owners Bill and Bette Byrne, Bette told us, “If you ask someone about themselves, they will think you are a good listener.”
I might be reading more into her remark than she intended, but that seems to be a low bar. However, by asking, she is taking the essential first step of offering to listen.
How does any of this apply to the work of Carbon Trace Productions? All documentary filmmakers need to plan and prepare for their interviews and filming sessions. But by the unscripted nature of the medium, they must listen with finely tuned ears to what people are saying at the moment. It is then that great listening is as critical as a good camera and right mic.
There is a philosophy that photojournalists moving into video production were taught to embrace — in the video, audio is far more important than visuals. As a visual journalist, I’m afraid I have to disagree with that assumption, but I accept the premise. The clarity of people speaking and the quality of ambient sound can engage viewers or turn them off. Proper audio techniques, equipment, and engineering can resolve or ease the obstacles of producing excellent sound. Good listening will create better stories.
Planning, as I recently wrote, leads to success. Part of our planning process will be to arrive prepared to listen. Christie Love told me, “Everyone desires and deserves to be heard.” Filmmakers who are good listeners will hear good stories and tell them well.
As documentary filmmakers, we will be listening without prejudices and preconceptions. Words matter. They really do, and when people like the residents of Shannon County entrust us with their stories, it is incumbent on us to listen and tell that story perfectly.
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