Subsidizing my Journalism: The year in Client Commissioned Work

In trying to establish myself as a freelance journalist while experimenting with video and photography, I realized the bills and gear acquisition list were piling up faster than income was pouring in. As a freelancer, I was making more money editing, shooting photographs  and writing for commercial magazines than from journalism direct. But journalist was the title I liked to use best when asked my métier. Freelancer was too vague and media professional seemed a trite too lofty when said, though inscribed so on my LinkedIn page. But then what do you call someone willing to write and shoot for money so long as the subject complemented my interest and to an extent beliefs.  Then, at a time when loved ones were subsidizing both me and my various expensive hobbies and journalism gave me some credibility but little else materially, came a chance from a  private business. “Can you make us a video?,” said they. “You mean a corporate ad?,” said I. “No,” said they. “Not about us. Just a video that captures the youth and dynamic energy of Ulaanbaatar and gives outsiders a visual clue of the enormous growth potential in Mongolia…and a glimpse of the real estate market. We’d like you to give us a quote.”

It was that last sentence that echoed awhile in my year and, equally important, I also liked the subject but truth was till then I had filed a few TV reports moonlighting as a TV correspondent for Iran’s Press TV, made a few honest rough cut self-shot edited videos but that was it. And I wanted a new pair of lens bad. Audacity had a big part to play in fairing out a creative brief and making a quote that was instantly approved. No pledging my case for additional production allowance from stern editors.  But was I really capable of producing work that could please clients and how much creative independence would I have? UB Rising was the video that came out of my first commercial commissioned work. I listed the help of a brilliant photographer friend to help with shooting footage. Pierre graduated from one of the best agricultural engineering schools in France but decided to trade his degree for his passion for photography. He had come to Mongolia with his wife who had been sent to head a NGO project. Though hard schooled in analog photography, Pierre was no analog snob and keenly followed digital advancements. It didn’t take much convincing to entice him to experiment with the movie mode on his DSLR. All seemed well till a crisis struck. The professional editor I was hoping to sub-contract the project to dropped out for better paying options. So there I was stuck with tons of raw footage, ticking deadline and at risk of fumbling up my first commercial gig, as simple as the brief was. No option left, as my modest fees meant I couldn’t interest anyone  else,  I was forced to sit and edit it myself. Pierre stepped in again as his technical brain and professional workflow helped sort me through the messy process of transcoding and organizing the files for editing on the Vegas suite I was using at the time. And the clients were happy as was I with the results. A little rough here and there and a few things I wouldn’t mind changing but this is the video that marked a badge earned to step into the professional multimedia world.

The clients must have been happy because a few months later they asked me to produce another video for them. “A journalistic piece,” they said. Could you commission journalism as a private company?  That was the naive me wondering. Till that point I had largely viewed my need to take on additional non-journalistic pieces a little bit like my failure to be a real journalist able to sustain self only through journalism. But then there’s a limit to unanswered pitches and ignored emails you can take. But I was proud of UB Rising and ready to tackle another subject. I was asked to make an in-depth 15-20 min report on the state of infrastructure in Ulaanbaatar. The system was crumbling and they wanted a video presenting all the problems the city was facing with regard to traffic, energy, water and the mounting problems in the suburban ger-districts, Ulaanbaatar’s vast unplanned shanty towns.

The dearth of information in Mongolia had convinced this company to be willing to pay to raise awareness on issues affecting the real estate sector. What Now UB? was next piece I produced for the company and this was the longest piece I had tackled and one that was enormously challenging in both obtaining relevant footage and using them in a coherent flow. Many Mongolians do not like to be photographed nor video taped and some can get quite aggressive and  physical. Also, a seemingly dull story like infrastructure has its limits when it comes to presenting it in a visually interesting way. Again Pierre Thiriet helped enormously in obtaining the footage for this piece that was a huge challenge to complete for the subject matter and I sorely missed having an editor to help me along. But end result – the clients were happy.

In July,  I was once again asked to produce another journalistic piece for the same company. This time my brief was “Go to the Gobi and tell us what is happening. Talk about the infrastructure, the building boom, the economic growth, the power supply problem, the corruption….just show us what is happening. But also add something about real estate development in Dalanzadgad.”  And while I appreciate loose briefs, it doesn’t always help for a tight knit story. I took the trip as an opportunity to present a few real journalistic stories as well for news outlets. But the video I admit could do with more focus though once again it had all the elements required from the commissioners. And I admit a sense of self-satisfaction when I received the feedback – “A bit eco-warrior towards the end but we like it.” I had been a little worried about being so frank about the environmental and social impacts being wreaked by the very resources propelling Mongolia’s economy and  something most investors like the client were depending on. But like many, a lot of people do believe transparent good governance is still possible and shying away from very real problems is not doing anyone any good in the long run.

I am still immensely happy for the chance I’ve had to tell these stories and meet the people who made both stories possible. And these projects have also provided the fodder, both equipment and ideas wise, to realise personal projects. Your thoughts?

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