Before finding his calling as a radio producer, Gregory Warner worked as an adjunct professor of mystical philosophy in Ukraine, a house pianist in an Easthampton piano bar, an investigator of police brutality for the city of New York, and a prison activist. He graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and is currently working on a piece for This American Life. His company, Waterstone Studios, produces documentaries for businesses and non-profit organizations.
POV: In your work, you consider the notion of 'borders.' What is a border to you?
Gregory Warner: Before I took up radio full-time, I spent a year visiting about 30 New York State prisons for a report I wrote to the state legislature on prison mental healthcare. I got to visit mostly everywhere the cellblocks, the yard, the punishment units. I remember the noise, the smell that astringent prison odor of metal and sweat and testosterone and I remember how when I'd walk into a cellblock, dozens of guys would start shouting at me from all over the tier, pleading with me to come to their cell to witness their scars and grievances and fears. But the thing that haunts me most are the quiet ones. You pass them on your way to visit the shouters. They lie in their cots, unmoving, not speaking, "sleeping through their bid." What would it be like to sleep for thirty years? A warden told me that those are the guys you have to watch out for. They get forgotten, waste away. So you try talking to them through the bars. Even if you do get a response, it's like shouting across an ocean of sadness, depression, illness. Minds turned inward, drowning in their own experience.
Of course it's not just prison that you find people like that. There are so many people drowning in America today. Many of them are the working poor, but not all. They are people going through the motions, not participating in life anymore. Quiet in their cells. In prison the difference is more stark, magnified by the desperate loneliness and isolation of the environment. These are borders I worry about.
POV: What borders did you encounter while working on your pieces?
Warner: These stories have a composite format, especially "Invisible Creek" and "Bottle This." It's a mix of audio documentary and photography and computer animation. It's a little like NPR, a little like film, a little like a graphic novel. It's on the border of all of those.
POV: What is possible when innovative approaches to narrative and interactivity are combined? How is your piece different from traditional storytelling? What, if anything, was exciting or challenging about those differences?
I remember the day we all rowed the canoe down Newtown Creek. I was in the stern, with oar and microphone, Basil was in the bow, with oar and sample jar, and Betty was between us with her camera snapping pictures. At times she stood up to get a better shot made us all nervous. This water, especially near the creek head, is the last place you want to be taking an unplanned swim.
We made our way down to the widest part of the creek, which stretches 75 yards from shore to shore. A grey bird floated through the cloudless sky. The Empire State Building seemed to wait just around the next bend. I felt happy. How long had it been since I had gotten in a boat and rowed on open water? The warm breeze blew most of the smell away. "It's so beautiful!" I exclaimed. From behind me, I heard Betty and Basil catch their breath then they both burst into laughter. It wasn't hard to see why. Just on our right was a hazardous waste site leaking heavy metals and other chemicals, on our left were giant oil tankers draped with anti-terrorist barbed wire, and in the water floated wispy purple blobs that reminded me of the bottled nightmares in that book "The Big Friendly Giant" by Roald Dahl. Unspoiled nature, it wasn't. And yet, there is something about the majesty of open water that all the polluters in the world can't quite destroy.
I think the format of "Invisible Creek," the combination of audio and images, allowed me to capture some of this faded grandeur. If you look closely you'll see that there are at times two stories being told one aural, one visual. Each shows a different aspect of the story. And I think you can see, not only the pollution, but why this creek might be worth saving.
In "Bottle This," that disjunction between images and audio is even more pronounced. In the first half of the piece, the two actually contradict each other, with the on-screen text providing a third perspective. The effect is meant to be a kind of three-way dialogue: while the ad images present bottled water at its most glorious, the text reveals some grim truths about the industry, and the narrator is sort of caught in the middle of the two.
Finally, I'll just mention that the other two stories on this site don't have images synchronized with the audio. Instead they offer a slideshow you can view at your own pace. The effect reminds me of sitting on someone's couch, flipping through a photo album while they tell you stories. (In other words, it reminds me of being a radio documentarian.) There's a reason for that. "Not Disposable" and "It Takes a Child" are both similar stories, thematically very different, but similar in their contemplative and retrospective spirit. It's a kind of story that radio documentary is particularly good at portraying. Besides, there's no one image we could show you that represents the moment when Theresa Ramos talks about having to be a substitute mother at age 12, or when Jon Cotner gets rejected by his girlfriend because he won't buy a water bottle. You need your imagination to see this. The photographs are there to feed that.
POV: Expand our borders. What's a book, movie, piece of music, website, etc. that challenges or engages with the idea of 'borders' that we should know about but perhaps don't?
Warner: I'd recommend the books of Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and author. Like all good art and journalism, his work crosses a border, carrying information from one world into another. But in his case, the border is so vast, the world he describes so different than our own, that his ability to describe and explain it at all is miraculous.
POV: What are you working on next? Where can we see more of your work?
Warner: Currently I'm doing a story for This American Life about psychiatric prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. I'm also working on a documentary about trauma and its aftermath. You can see more of my work at my website waterstonestudios.com.