Interview with Donna Galluzzo of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

We recently had the pleasure of meeting Donna Galluzzo, the Executive Director of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. (Remember Maisie Crow, who spoke at last year’s Summit? She used to teach at Salt!)

Ever eager to get experts’ opinions on the industry, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Donna about the current state of the documentary genre, what makes a good story, and, well, just about anything we could think of that would be useful to our audience of emerging photographers.

With the advancement of technology and the rise of the Internet, the documentary genre has been undergoing some pretty significant changes. Read on to get Donna’s take on the causes and implications of these relatively recent developments.

ONWARD: Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about Salt and the programs you offer?

Donna Galluzzo: The Salt Institute is a non-profit institution located in Portland, Maine. Founded in 1973 by former newspaper publisher-turned-high school teacher Pamela Wood, Salt’s mission is to promote powerful and responsible storytelling. We offer 15-week intensive programs in radio documentary, documentary photography, nonfiction writing, and multimedia to graduate and undergraduate students from all over the US and around the world.

People often ask us where the name Salt came from. For starters, it’s not an acronym. It was chosen by the school’s first group of students to represent the salty coast of Maine, the salt of the earth people, and the salt of sweat and tears.

ONWARD: Interesting tidbit! So, delving into the heart of things, what would you say is the role of the documentarian in our culture? Has it changed over the years? If so, how?

Donna: Historically, the role of the documentarian has been largely to educate and inform the viewing public. Documentary has been used to expose wrongdoing, as well as to uncover places and worlds that would otherwise be unknown to the public.

In more recent years, I believe the role of the documentarian has indeed changed. There is still the desire to educate and inform, and to expose us to new places and situations. However, documentarians are also interested in creating a record or “document” of experiences and in reflecting on their personal experience.

In one sense, access to stories is potentially easier than ever before with increased understanding and exposure to the kind of work that documentarians produce. In another sense, access to stories is potentially the most difficult that it’s ever been as people have become more distrustful of those who present themselves as media professionals.

It’s important to note that today’s viewer has also come to expect a higher artistic quality of work. Now that all types of documentary are easily accessible and more widely viewed, viewers are seeking out and responding to more sophisticated story productions.

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ONWARD: Speaking of “the viewer,” what affect do you think the Internet has had on interest in the genre? There certainly appear to be more opportunities for funding and promotion these days.

Donna: There is no doubt that the widespread use of the Internet has created more interest in the genre, and more opportunities for artists to fund their work. The Internet allows a media-savvy public to essentially invest in the causes and stories that they are interested in through funding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

As a result, artists are no longer hampered in their storytelling or editing and production cycles by the calendar timing and limited availability of traditional funding organizations. Now, funds can be raised quickly in order to respond to time-sensitive stories.

The Internet also gives artists opportunities to publish previews of their work, allowing the public to be more involved and feel more invested in the documentarian’s work.

Because of this, the viewing public (especially those acting as sponsors and funders) now has a greater responsibility to hold the documentarian accountable. If you are investing in and promoting someone else’s work, you need to be educated about the issues, and you need to be aware of the documentarian’s process in the field, in editing, and in post-production.

ONWARD: That’s an interesting observation about the viewer’s responsibility. You also mentioned that there are more opportunities available for artists. What do you think about the increased accessibility of equipment? How do you think this is affecting the direction of the genre?

Donna: I believe this may perhaps be the biggest cause of the changes we’ve seen in the genre. DSLRs with HD video capability make it easier for artists to work in the field – they can be even less obtrusive, especially in challenging conditions. All types of gear and accessories are now more affordable and more accessible, and free or low-cost training is widely available, giving more people the opportunity to enter the industry.

Also, depending on where work “lives” on the Internet, it can be accessed more often, more easily, and over longer periods of time through online archives. This phenomenon has certainly affected on the genre. It pushes the documentarian to dig deeper for more unique stories, and it allows nonfiction storytellers to build off of each other’s work to present more in-depth and well-rounded work.

It’s important to note that, unfortunately, these effects are not always positive. Work that misinforms, work that is not created or presented ethically, and work that is not in some way vetted by the industry can also reach wider audiences, with more damaging and longer-lasting negative results.

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ONWARD: Yes, that is an unfortunate byproduct. So, keeping all of this in mind, what advice do you have for emerging artists?

Donna: Continue to push the field in new directions. Raise the bar on the artistic quality of the work that you produce. Use the technology as a delivery vehicle and never put technology before storytelling. Help the viewing public not just to view your work but also to interact with your work. Hold yourself accountable for the work that you are producing.

ONWARD: And, just for fun, what do you think makes a good story?

Donna: Tension and conflict, most especially when it is not obvious or when it is used to reveal more about the story itself or the characters involved.