On May 7, we reconnected with close friends and Apolis Nomads Jason Motlagh and James Hall, cofounders of Blackbeard Films, at Apolis: Common Gallery, in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles. In early 2013, our friends at the Pulitzer Center introduced us to Jason, an award-winning writer, photographer, and filmmaker. We heard that he had an upcoming reporting project in Bangladesh, and we asked him to visit our women’s cooperative and document the story behind our Market Bag, Garden Bag, Wine Tote, and Standard Tote. Since this first interaction, both Jason and his partner, James, have become heroes of ours for their tenacious desire to share under-reported stories across the globe. Thanks to Jason and James for humoring us while we recorded our conversation over coffee and a tour of the Arts District. We asked the two men the following questions to help all of us better understand the life of a documentary-media company in the fast-paced industry of news.
What would be your advice to an aspiring photojournalist or filmmaker entering the field today?
Jim: Don’t wait to be asked. Just GO!
Jason: The first time I went overseas, to West Africa, I didn’t have a solid assignment. I bought a one-way ticket and packed my bag. Within a few days of arriving, I stumbled into a military coup and was the only Western reporter for miles—one of my first breaks with a major newspaper. If you feel strongly enough about a project, just get after it. Luck has a way of finding you.
Where will your photojournalism be in ten years?
First of all, the photo and journalism industries are becoming more fluid, so your skills need to be as diversified as possible, including video and multimedia. There are so many ways to tell a story (pictures, video, words) and new tools have helped level the playing field. Secondly, it’s very important to promote your work creatively and build an audience that respects what you do. Ten years from now, the relationship between reporters and the public will be more of a conversation, less of a lecture. Which is a good thing.
What are some of the most exciting projects you have worked on in the last few years?
Jason: I went to cover a forgotten war in Afghanistan, at a time when Iraq was the focal point. When I arrived, there were few journalists and I could move freely and write in-depth stories to raise awareness about the war’s impact on civilians. I always find that the hardest part is trying to convey the toll and emotion of conflict to a Western audience.
Jim: For me, working in Burma was very complicated and interesting as a photographer. Here was a country locked in a “resource war,” where civilians were being targeted, all while the U.S. is dropping sanctions and building ties with its government. Access was tricky and things on the ground were unpredictable.
Explain to us your involvement in JR’s Inside Out Project.
Jason: We were doing an investigation into the garment industry in Bangladesh, which culminated in a long-form narrative on the Rana Plaza collapse and its aftermath. My girlfriend Susie connected with JR’s team because we were looking for new and innovative ways of using art to tell the story. We linked up with a group of young Bangladeshi photographers and decided it was time to show the bold and powerful faces of garment workers, writ large. We printed oversize images and mounted them on the walls and roofs of the slums. It was an incredible project to be a part of. Now we have an ongoing partnership with JR that helps us draw more attention to our projects around the world, putting important issues more viscerally into the public space.
What are your quick, simple travel tips?
Our advice would be to keep things as open-ended as possible, travel light, and don’t bring a guidebook. When you leave room for serendipity you discover more, you hear the stories of locals, and you may be lucky enough to get lost. Bring a few quality items (which may or may not include Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap). And, as much as possible, travel overland, taking the slow route (car, train, chicken truck…) to see the landscape, interact with people, and absorb life at its natural rhythm.