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Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter


Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter

©by Lei Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Since first picking up a camera in the 1960s while ministering to residents of Sioux reservations in South Dakota, the Rev. Don Doll of Omaha has become a well-traveled, award-winning photojournalist. The Jesuit priest is perhaps best known for chronicling the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people’s attempts to integrate traditional ways in nontraditional times. Two acclaimed books, Crying for a Vision (1976, Morgan and Morgan) and Vision Quest (1994, Crown), depict the suffering and resurgence of these Indian cultures through his haunting pictures and his subjects’ stirring words.

For a pair of National Geographic spreads he lived with Yupik Eskimos and Athapaskan Indians to record the daily rituals of native societies far outside the mainstream. For the Jesuit Refugee Service he captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. For yet more assignments he went to Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic and other remote locales to document the disenfranchised.

“I’ve thought of myself as giving voice to people who normally don’t have a voice,” said Doll, a fine arts professor at Creighton University, where he holds the Charles and Mary Heider endowed Jesuit Chair. “My work has generally been about other cultures — about how other people live and work. It’s been about telling people’s stories and breaking some stereotypes. As a priest, I’m formed by the faith I’ve grown into and one of the foundations of that faith is to have special appreciation for other people. And I think when you point a camera at someone it should be a loving look at that person.”

A master still photographer, Doll’s images are notable for their clarity, power and depth. Portraits, like the enigmatic ones for Vision Quest, are among his favorites. “I love making insightful pictures of people that reveal something of their character, but leave a question mark. I think any good portrait has a bit of mystery and ambiguity in it. Without raising that question, it becomes boring.”

A New Path
Major publications have long sought Doll’s talent, but he has remained selective about the projects he takes. Until recently, he used a 35-millimeter Leica to tell his stories. Now, at 63, an age when most artists slip comfortably into a safe niche, he is reinventing himself as a videographer.

While far from abandoning still work, he now mainly works in digital video and, along with writer Elizabeth O’Keefe, a former student of his who is publications coordinator for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, he is beginning to make waves in this new field. A story he shot and that he and O’Keefe edited and produced appeared on ABC’s “Nightline last year. The story, “Finding Ernesto,” grew out of a report the pair prepared in El Salvador on the efforts of Jesuit priests to reunite loved ones separated during the civil war there. A second story by the team — this one chronicling a Jesuit priest who is a kind of Martin Luther King figure in India — is being considered for future “Nightline” airing.

The El Salvador and India pieces are installments in a larger, multi-media documentary project by Doll and O’Keefe called The Jesuits: Two Thousand Years After Christ, which illustrates the Jesuit order’s mandate of working toward social justice and respecting other cultures. Additional stories for that project include a biography on Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius, which sent the filmmakers to Spain and Italy last spring, and a look at the Jesuit presence on the reservations, which brought Doll back to his old stomping grounds.

How he came to photograph old friends in video after portraying them in stills is emblematic of his need to find new means of expressing himself and his faith. The ever-inquisitive Doll attended intensive professional workshops on Web publishing and DVD production. Part of his motivation to learn new forms was to introduce his students to Wed design, a class he has taught at Creighton, and to gain more personal expertise making CD-ROMs.

“I began to learn that just having pictures and type on a page is not enough. You also need sound and video. I saw people multi-purposing their material — interviews, photographs or whatever — and publishing them in different media.” Attracted by that idea, Doll incorporated his Vision Quest work, both the images he made and the sound recordings of interviews he conducted, into a CD-ROM but found many interviews unusable due to excessive ambient noise. “I resolved the next time I did any project the sound was going to be outstanding.” Under the instruction of veteran videographers Doll not only learned state-of-the-art audio but, much to his surprise, developed an affinity for making moving pictures.

Making Moving Pictures
Transitioning from the still to video format has meant learning a whole new set of techniques, realities and assumptions.

“Video is a storytelling medium. It’s more about the words than it is about the pictures. Before, I was making good pictures that almost supplanted the words,” he said. “Now, I’ve had to learn how to shoot a sequence — with a wide shot, a medium shot and a close up — and how to cover sequences and how to do interviews and how to put it all together. The guys who have been doing this for 20 years know a lot of tricks I certainly don’t. But I think the advantage I have is the compositional, lighting, and story skills I bring. I’m aware of every visual detail in the frame. I know how to layer a picture with meaning in every corner.”

Overall, he described as “exciting” his adventure in video. Gone, however, are the days when he could quietly insinuate himself into a scene and be an inconspicuous observer with only his small hand-held camera in-tow. Now, he lugs around a big, clattering batch of audio-visual devices that require more set-up, more cooperation, more planning.

For his first video project Doll chose a familiar subject — the reservations. Today, after completing several pieces, he feels he is hitting his stride. “I think I know how to shoot good video now. I’m getting some nice stuff. And I’m finally feeling comfortable editing, which is a whole other skill dealing with time and sound and pacing. The audio cut goes down first and then the pictures are dropped in, which is just the complete opposite of how I worked before. Have I found my voice totally in this new medium?  I’m not sure. But the beauty of digital video is that you hear people talk — in their own voice — with real fervor and passion. That’s a powerful tool for people who have something to say.”

Just Doing It
The new technology also allows anyone with the ability to bypass traditional media paths and produce Hollywood-Madison Avenue quality video on their own home studio set-up. Doll shoots with a Canon XL-1 digital video camera-sound system and edits on a dual processor Macintosh G4 (“my souped-up personal computer”) with Apple Final Cut Pro software. “We produced a program for ‘Nightline’ on it, and they were blown away,” Doll said. “Now, you can conceive a project or story or idea and, with a few thousand bucks, actually go out and do it. You can produce professional videos or movies or broadcast television programs. DVD technology is going to be really big. We’ll see a whole new generation of filmmakers.”

Currently on a leave of absence from teaching, Doll plans wrapping-up the Jesuit project (to be released as a DVD) by July and returning to the classroom next fall brimming with new ideas. “That’s how I’ve always done things. I teach for three or four years, then I take off to go do something and then I reflect on that and bring it back to the teaching experience. It’s a mutually enriching process.” As for new photo shoots, he said, “With this endowed chair I have the resources to go photograph anywhere in the world I want if I find a story I want to cover. I have the luxury of going where my heart is. It’s kind of sweet.”

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