Q&A and Photo Essay from Filmmaker Bill Gentile
Bill Gentile is a photojournalist who teaches at Kent State in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. In recent years he's been working on a series of documentaries that trace how single commodities production, trade and use can weave together people and cultures around the world. We talked to him about his background and what he looked for in Cuba to make images help tell a complex story.
Bill Gentile narrates our photo
essay about his recent journalistic journey to Cuba.
Q: What's your background in filmmaking and journalism?
I've had the great good fortune of working in all facets of journalism. I started out in 1977, right out of graduate school, as an intern reporter/editor/photographer at the MEXICO CITY NEWS, Mexico's only English-language daily newspaper. I worked there for about a year before freelancing as correspondent and editor for United Press International (UPI). I had always enjoyed photography, mostly as a complement to writing, but during the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua I took over as UPI's primary photojournalist covering the conflict and really got hooked on pictures. In 1981, I moved from UPI's Foreign Desk in New York to working as "stringer," or freelancer, in Nicaragua. I wrote stories for the BALTIMORE SUN, filed radio spots for NBC and made pictures for UPI Photos. I began to send pictures to NEWSWEEK Magazine. In 1985 I signed on with NEWSWEEK as Contract Photographer in Latin America and the Caribbean. I subsequently covered Nicaragua's Contra War, the Salvadoran Civil War, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Haiti and every other trouble spot in the region. In the early 90s, after having moved to Miami, I spent four months covering the Persian Gulf War for Newsweek. I began working with pictures that "move" in 1995 when I took a job at Video News International (VNI) the now-defunct precursor of The New York Times Television Company. My work as video journalist has taken me across this country and to other places around the world, including Africa, Afghanistan and, most recently, Cuba.
Q: How do you teach photography, videography and storytelling together? Is this the "convergence" that we hear so much about?
I teach photojournalism and videojournalism as separate, but connected skills. Photojournalism can be either a craft unto itself or, as in my own case, one step in a progression toward videojournalism. And this is not to say that one craft, or skill, is better or more effective or more important, than the other. Both are visual journalism. But they are different components of the same general field. And just because you are good at the first doesn't mean you will be good at the second. In fact, I know excellent photojournalists who don't make very good videojournalists. This is where the storytelling comes in. And I believe the ability to write is essential for the storytelling process - the visual storytelling process.
Q: Is "convergence journalism" the wave of the future?
Call it "convergence" or "multi-skills" or whatever you like, but I teach students at Kent State to equip themselves with every tool possible because they will need every one of them when they step out into the job market. I think the days when professionals can do just one thing very well and nothing else, I think these days are coming to an end. And this is not just a marketing ploy. More importantly, these skills complement each other, making the practitioner not only more valuable, more employable on the market but, more importantly, more effective in achieving his/her goals at work - and in life. You might be a brilliant videographer and want to make a documentary about some fascinating topic but if you can't write a proposal and a script, you won't even be able to get through the door to present your idea. Or you won't be able to craft the final product. At some point we all have to ask ourselves, "What is my mission?" And it's after answering this question that commanding a number of skills becomes absolutely crucial. Because every one of those complementary skills will help you accomplish that mission.
Q: How did you come to focus on commodities as a vehicle for storytelling?
When cigar smoking was at its height in this country, I was working occasional assignments in Nicaragua and Honduras making still photographs for one of the nation's more popular cigar magazines. I already knew the region because I had worked there as a NEWSWEEK photographer covering conflict. While on one of these assignments, I visited a village in Honduras where everybody in the place men, women and children - worked in some capacity for the cigar industry. Most of these people were poor and working in difficult conditions to produce luxury items for well-heeled consumers in countries like ours. (Having said that, these Hondurans were better off in many ways than they were before the cigar industry came to town, when they tried to eke out a living from small plots of land.) And I thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to make a documentary about cigars? To tell the cigar story with video?" This idea ballooned into a documentary about tobacco, and finally into what it is now a much wider discussion of world commodities and how they link peoples and nations around the world. (See more about Bill Gentile's documentaries on commodities at goodsoflife.com.)
Q: Tell us about some of the other commodities you've tracked through Goods of Life.
Two years ago we shot a short piece called "Coffee" in the Dominican Republic. Most people don't know it but coffee is the world's number one legal export after oil. And last year we shot a longer piece, soon to be a one-hour documentary, called "Banana War." We traveled to Ecuador and to St. Lucia to shoot the piece on bananas, the number one fruit in the world. After having done the "Distant Neighbors" story for PBS and having visited Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in Illinois, I'm now thinking about a documentary on soy.
Q: Had you been to Cuba before? What changes have you seen there in recent years?
I've been going to Cuba since 1981, when I first went there as a correspondent for UPI to cover a speech by Fidel Castro. I don't think there's any question that Cuba has opened up in many ways. That's the biggest, most important change. And by that I mean that the government has loosened some of its controls on the population. But "freedom" is a relative term. As an American with dollars in Cuba, you and I enjoy freedoms that "normal" Cubans can only dream of. As a Cuban with pesos in Cuba, well, that's a much longer answer.