Tag Archives: video


A Freelancer’s New Year’s Message

About four months ago I stopped booking new work.

2013 was an amazing year of work for me. I shot, produced and edited over 50 videos in China, the United States, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, The Netherlands, Poland and Romania. When I get this busy, sometimes my Vimeo channel ends up being a better record of events than my own memory. In 2013, between pre-production, production, post production, client management, stock sales and attempting to keep up with social media, I didn’t have a single day off.

About half way through this marathon of work the stress of never having a day off began to wear on me. I never “burned out” per se, but it became clear to me that I would never have a day off unless I stopped taking on new work. So I decided to take a step back and re-evaluate how to be passionate about my trade, putting everything I have into it, without completely compromising everything else in my life.

Entering 2014 my schedule is cleared for the first time in about three years. Even though I spent so long deliberately trying to get to this point, its actually a bit scary. However, the unknown possibilities are extremely exciting.

The entire process of getting “unbusy” has gotten me thinking about just how busy a freelancer should be. Unlike people with traditional jobs our working hours are relatively indefinite and formless. Our weekdays and weekends — indistinguishable.

So how much work is healthy and how much is too much? Should I be outputting as much as a staffer does? If I had taken half as much work last year, would that work be twice as good? How much quality was sacrificed by constantly being on a deadline?

And what about the rest of life? If you work all the time there isn’t much time for anything else. How many times can you tell a friend you are too busy to come out for a beer before they stop asking? How many “work vacations” can you go on with your girlfriend, before she asks you not to bring a camera? (ok, fine — the camera isn’t a problem, but a tripod certainly makes things less vacation-y).

As I’m trying to learn how to be un-busy, apparently not an easy task, these are the questions bouncing around my head entering 2014.

can get lost in the online ocean of content. If you work in video production then also know this — there is always more work you can do on projects. You can always make sound, color or sequencing tighter. Projects can always be improved and very rarely have I ever finished something and thought ‘there’s nothing more I can do.’

But without a doubt constantly working has made me better at what I do. More precise, more toned-in and more comfortable being creative and efficient in difficult environments with up-to-date technology. Before using the Canon 5D mkII I had barely touched a video capable camera. A few years later, I have a career shooting commercials, news videos and documentaries. Even after years of dedication and passion, I don’t think my learning curve is slowing. The work I’m doing now is leaps ahead of what I was doing 12 months ago.

The video above, Promise and Peril was shot in Myanmar over three different trips over the course of one year. Its a project I’ve been blogging about on the site throughout the year, here and here. In 2013 I made ten news features produced in Burma, but the greater goal of the project was to create a 30-minute documentary painting a bigger picture of what democracy means in reform era Myanmar. Some of the news videos appear in the main doc, others don’t. Some original content only appears in the doc, and some news clips are shown in their entirety, with different creative treatments. From a news industry perspective this is actually a bit unique and interesting. Its a way to get more legs out of your content, without changing your production costs too much.

But I can look at the doc and see quality differences from scene-to-scene. Things I see from segments shot earlier in the year, that I would never do now. This to me is an indicator that all the time I spent juggling multiple projects in multiple countries for multiple clients wasn’t without big benefits.

But perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned from being too busy is how many things I want to be better at.

For me, I know I want more time to study software and setup better workflow processes. I want to improve my color grading and audio engineering skills, learn to animate and become more efficient at handling data. These type of ventures get lost quickly if every bit of your time is spoken for.

When I realized that these things were important to me — I decided to stop booking work. I decided I want to chose my projects even more carefully than I already do and to make sure I have time for other parts of life. Finding the right balance between improving myself professionally, earning money while doing interesting work and still having time to enjoy life (without carrying a tripod around), might just be the greatest challenge I’ve found as a freelancer.

Just like a busy restaurant will often stay busy simply because its full of people (the sheep mentality) — by working a lot I do believe I get more work. But by working too much I don’t have time for the other things which are so important in staying relevant in a technology-based industry as well as simply spending time with the people I care about.

These are the promises and perils of freelancing.

So looking into 2014, I’d like to wish all you readers of the blog a healthy and balanced year ahead: A year with bright ideas, powerful projects and hopefully, a little time for yourselves. I know these are my goals.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading.


Myanmar Emerges is a year-long GlobalPost investigation into challenges facing Myanmar’s nascent democracy. To learn more about this project click here.


A Portrait of Luo Changping

Transparency International Integrity Award: Luo Changping from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

This video portrait of Luo Changping, an anti-corruption fighting journalist in China was commissioned by Transparency International to be played at the 2013 awards ceremony in Berlin. Luo along with Angola based journalist Rafael Marques de Morais received the annual award.

I’ve really grown to love this form of video. In my opinion it is the video equivalent of a still portrait where the photographer takes control of the elements from lighting to where the subject is photographed. In the video world, we have room to create sequences that build an environment and an atmosphere around a subject’s voice.

However, if we were to put narration in, I believe the format changes dramatically to become something different.

Working on projects like this is meaningful to me because I supply the creative architecture to let the character speak. And this character should be commended by what he says. Fighting corruption in China is an uphill battle and very few are brave enough to even try.

Transparency International Integrity Awards recognise the courage and determination of the many individuals and organisations fighting corruption around the world.Winners are a source of inspiration to the anti-corruption movement because their actions echo a common message: that corruption can be challenged.

Working in an environment of media censorship, Chinese journalist Luo Changping summoned the courage to expose corruption via his personal blog.

When the respected financial magazine Luo works for was reluctant to print the name of a high-ranking official accused of illegal financial dealings, he bravely decided to publish the full allegations, including the official’s name, himself. His naming of the official, Liu Tienan, eventually led to a government investigation resulting in Liu’s dismissal from the party and removal from public office in 2013.

The road to accountability was not an easy one. After the investigation was announced by Chinese authorities, Luo’s internet account was deleted before he could release further information on the story. But were it not for Luo’s courage and tenacity, the official’s conduct would have continued unchallenged. Luo’s success was a rare victory in the struggle for transparency in China. His actions have demonstrated the important role for investigative journalism and social media in the fight against corruption.

The response from the Chinese government to Luo’s award is not a surprising one. Before the award was released the central Propaganda Department told Chinese media outlets (via China Digital Times):

“Regarding Transparency International’s intention to give Caijing Deputy Editor Luo Changping [this year’s] Integrity Award, the media must downplay the story. Do not report or comment on it. (November 2, 2013)”


Transparency International
Get involved – Integrity awards http://buff.ly/I6rqzn

NYT: China to Investigate Top Economic Policy Maker
CNN: How Chinese journalist Luo Changping took on a corrupt official
BBC News – How a Chinese journalist took on a top official
China Digital Times: Minitrue: Luo Changping May Win Integrity Award
SCMP: Luo Changping on the state of Chinese media | South China Morning Post

How should we judge the best multimedia? An open letter to World Press Photo

To Micha Bruinvels:
Contest coordinator at World Press Photo

Thank you for inviting me to visit World Press Photo in Amsterdam last week. It was a true pleasure to meet you and your colleagues as well as to see and learn about all of the work being done to promote and improve visual journalism around the world by WPP.

It was also very insightful to be able to talk to you about WPP’s young multimedia contest and the challenges that occur in trying to create categories that are applicable to a constantly changing media environment across the globe.

Every year, following contest season there seems to be quite a lot of debate about who wins what as well as what categories and merits multimedia journalists are judged in. While debate and discussion are healthy, there has been some criticism of the contest categories of WPP’s multimedia site, including on this site here and here.

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Robbing our subjects or helping our audience?

“In the end, we didn’t reach an agreement. They got violent and took me away from the villager’s home. They hit me in the head, slapped my face and pushed me down the stairs. Then they forced me into the car and kept hitting me … They Forced me to meet their leader. They took me there and pushed me out their car and I saw the office of their leader. I thought I would be safe, but it wasn’t true. I was pushed into the office and I saw him sitting behind the desk. He was just staring at me. Then the thugs poured hot tea on my face and body. He just started at me in silence.”

Getting quotes like these is very difficult in China, especially when it comes to land rights. It’s even more difficult to get people to say it on camera. If a subject says something like this to me, on camera, they are risking even more problems for themselves. But in the video above, you won’t actually hear the subject say this in Chinese; instead, you’ll hear a voice-over in English.

I often wonder who I am truly making videos for. Am I doing it for the subjects in the videos, to give them a voice? Is it for a cause that needs more awareness? Am I doing it for me?

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Xièxie Chinese State Security!

About a year ago while reporting on work conditions of Foxconn employees for the New York Times’ iECONOMY series, my team ran into some small problems with state security.

While visiting a dorm room of a factory worker, I noticed the normal entourage of people following us around had increased. Among the crowd, a couple of heavy set fellows with crew cuts continually taking photos of us. These are plain clothed policeman. In my experience, when police start following you, they aren’t actually too sneaky. These young men weren’t being shy about it. At points they would walk right up to you and snap a photo 5 inches away from your face with their oversized cell phones.

These policemen were actually very friendly. We even talked to them. They told us they knew our names and that we were from the Times. They were very excited when they got the opportunity to show us the photos they were taking. They even had photos of us from days earlier and showed us photos of colleague who had been in the area before.

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A Not So Ordinary Night at the Beijing Opera

In the winter of 2011 I followed director Chen Shi-Zheng as he created a new take on a classic Beijing opera, Farewell My Concubine.

Trying to do new takes on traditional art forms in China can be a bit risky. A decade earlier, Chen made a modern production of an opera that was so wildly different than the norm, the government actually shut down the production.

Initially these videos were going to be part of the Times’ Culture and Control series, as a positive example of change. The Times’ Culture and Control series explore the struggle to shape the culture of authoritarian China.

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Committed to Truth: Liu Jianfeng

In May of 2012 the Committee to Protect Journalists approached me, asking if I would be interested in making a short film about a Chinese journalist.

Last month, the piece published. It would be my umpteenth video looking at free speech and cencorship in China. Although it only took two days to film, there was about 10 months of planning involved. Thats mostly because, no one wanted to be featured.

I emailed many dozens of Chinese journalists for months and was having zero luck. They were interested in being featured until they found out the topic was human rights and free speech. As soon as they heard these words, most would immediately stop answering emails. Sadly, I think these people are better examples of what the average journalist in China. They are part of the system, and not willing to shake it … or in this case, come close to the shaker.

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Citizen Zhu: Dissident or Comrade?

Citizen Zhu from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Since recently appointed President of China Xi Jinping has taken his place at the top of the communist party, China watchers have been swimming in content featuring the word “reform.”

Lately, this word has manifested itself in the topic of constitutionalism. Many intellectuals and liberal thinkers in China think that this might be the way forward. On the 30th anniversary of China’s constitution, Xi is reported as having said “The Constitution should be the legal weapon for people to defend their own rights.”

Some people are surprised at the fact that China even has a Constitution. What does a document like this mean in an authoritarian state? Following the cultural revolution when the document was created it guaranteed “full powers of representative legislature, the right to ownership of private property, and freedoms of speech, press and assembly.”

However, most people know that these things are far off in China. I’ve met countless people whose land has been taken, journalists whose speech has been suppressed and of course we all know what can happen if people assemble in this country.

This week I spent a day with a citizen journalist Zhu Reifeng. Zhu runs an anti-corruption web site called The People’s Supervision. The Wiki-Leaks style site has exposed corrupt politicians all around the country, many of whom have lost their jobs over Zhu’s reporting.

In my report I follow Zhu as he files for divorce and talks to other journalists. My video was created for a general audience, and is available at the New York Times or at my Vimeo account above. However, for China folks interested in free speech I wanted to share a few more bites/

The video briefly mentions police banging on Zhu’s door earlier this week. This visit was prompted by a sex tape Zhu released on line. This tape, was actually suppressed and held hidden by Bo Xilai’s cabinet for years. The party seems to have been ok with Zhu releasing this video, as it may help further to burry the reputation of the disgraced politician Bo Xilai even further. However, when Zhu said publicly he has six more sex tapes involving Chongqing officials, it didn’t take long until the police came to his door. Here is Zhu’s full description of the events that transpired that night:

A Dissident’s Rant: Extended Excerpts from Zhu Ruifeng Interview from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Now, you might wonder why this is a big deal. Cops come to lots of doors, right?

Well, in China this could lead to a dark world. In 2009 Zhu refused a bribe from a corrupt politician who he exposed as having shady business dealings with mine owners. After leaving the, Zhu encountered uniformed and plane clothes policemen again. Here’s how he describes that situation:

So maybe Zhu would have been taken to the police station. Maybe he would have been taking to one of China’s infamous black jails. We don’t know, but I don’t blame him for not opening the door.

Over instant noodles in Zhu’s office we chatted. To me he appeared to be a warrior of free speech and anti-corruption. In my video, he sites China’s constitution and says he is following Xi Jinping’s words. However, during the 48 hour period it took for me to shoot, edit and publish this video Zhu made a swift reversal of some of his ideals he seemed so passionate about. Within this period, he decided he would not release the other videos.

So the question becomes, what happened? Who was involved in those other six video tapes? Times’ reporter Andrew Jacobs covers this in his report “Chinese Blogger Thrives as Muckraker.” However, on a more sad note we see yet another example of the facade of this document and the politicians’ claims to uphold it. If this document held any true weight, would Zhu have backed off? You can’t blame him though. I wouldn’t want to spend time in a black jail here either.

The Chinese political and media environment seem so connected at times that all it takes is just one toe over the ephemeral line of acceptance, to scare even the bravest of China’s journalists away.

The Southern Weekend Protest: In Photos

Xiao Qinshan, a freedom of speech advocate from Shenzhen screams from his wheelchair in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound in Guangzhou, China, Tuesday, January 8, 2013.

NOTE FROM JONAH: Going to take a break from the Madagascar series and come back to China for a moment.

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China followers will have seen the political uprising in Guangzhou this last week. I spent two days outside of the Nanfang Media Group shooting stills and video for the New York Times. I won’t spend time here saying anything, because other people have said it already, in a way far more intelligent than I can put in words.

I can however, offer a post-fact extended view into the scene. Here’s a larger edit from this week’s events down South. If you’re confused and looking for information on what went on and its significance, check out James Fallows’ blog that gives a quick rundown navigation of the scenario.

Here is the free speech protest, from my camera:

A group supporting the Communist Party of China confronts free speech activists. Fights amongst the politically polar idealogical groups continued on through Tuesday afternoon.

A freedom of speech advocate shows an anti-reformer his identification card saying “he stands behind his words.” Anti-reformers refused to share their identities at Tuesday’s protest outside the Nanfang Media Group compound in Guangzhou.

Censorship Incites Protests in China from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Police hold back a demonstrator in Guangzhou, Tuesday.

Police hold back a demonstrator in Guangzhou, Tuesday.

Police hold back a free speech advocate in Guangzhou, Tuesday.

Free speech and anti reformers clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound Tuesday.

A free speech advocate wears a mask from the movie V for Vendetta. The activist said he ordered the mask recently after he saw the movie on Chinese state run television.

Police officers and state media film reporters and advocates.

Supporters of the Communist Party of China march outside of the Southern Weekend offices with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Supporters of the Communist Party of China march outside of the Southern Weekend offices with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Supporters of the Communist Party of China march outside of the Southern Weekend offices with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Free speech advocates wear masks outside of Southern Weekend Tuesday afternoon.

A man rips up a freedom of speech sign outside of Nanfang Media Group, Tuesday.

Free speech advocates and communist party supporters clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound, Tuesday.

A tres chic protestor, outside the newspaper.

A group supporting the Communist Party of China hangs demonstration signs outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.

Free speech advocates and communist party supporters clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound, Wednesday.

A group supporting the Communist Party of China hangs demonstration signs outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.

Police try to contain a free speech advocate outside of the Nanfang Media Group, Wednesday.

A group supporting the Communist Party of China hangs demonstration signs outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.

A group supporting the Communist Party of China waves flags outside of the Nanfang Media Group compound. Clashes between protectors continued into Wednesday afternoon, although rumors of a deal had broke from within the newspaper.

Signs of Hope for China's Environment

HOPEFUL from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

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China’s history and reputation with environmental protection is far from positive.

However, in my experience in China over the past four years I’ve seen a number of examples of the next generation of Chinese starting to take action to start fixing some of the problems their parents’ generation have caused.

China’s youth will inevitably face these problems in a much more serious way than their parents. Compared to two decades ago, there is tremendous pressure from the outside world for China’s economic development to not come at the expense of the environment. But now, the pressure also seems to be coming from within China.

In many ways, China’s environmental problems become the world’s environmental problems. For example, China’s growing deserts affect communities across oceans and continents. At the same time, the world’s environmental problems affect China. Changing global atmospheres are causing glaciers to melt faster than they ever have.

Friend and colleague Sean Gallagher’s recent work from the Tibetan Plateau can help show the seriousness of this issue.

In the end, we live in one world with one connected environment.

However, the world seems to point fingers at China telling them to clean up their act, without the same act being reciprocated from China. But on the ground in China, I see signs of reform. Even signs of hope. Recently, one came across my desk.

Friends of Nature, China’s oldest registered NGO approached me a few months back about making a short film about their battle with an environmental criminal in South China.

In the past, these battles were not so easy for NGOs to take part in. But now, a new amendment to a law is helping to even the tables.

The new amendment states:

“In instances where the public interest is threatened, such as environmental pollution or violations of consumers’ rights, relevant organs or social organizations may file suit at the People’s Courts.”

The effect of this amendment means NGOs in China can now sue private or state owned companies in a court of law. And Friends of Nature is one of the first to try.

Instead of writing open letters, protesting or creating public awareness campaigns, the NGO is taking a factory to court after they dumped 5,000 tons of chromium six into a reservoir outside a town. They are suing for human and environmental costs.

This chemical, made famous from Julia Roberts and Erin Brokovich has caused cancer rates in this small southern Chinese village to skyrocket. Cancer rates are up, fatality from cancer rates are up and cancer rates amongst youth are up — although a lot of the numbers seem to be elusive and debated.

When this happens in China, villages often become labeled “cancer villages.”

But a grassroots NGO is still extremely out weighed in a court of law compared to a factory with a budget. In fact, the NGO’s budget is next to nothing. Their lawyers, are probono. The research, is done by themselves. Collected evidence, also on their own initiative.

Much to the demise of the factory, the NGO has been making regular trips to the village to collect water samples, dirt samples, taking photographs and talking to villagers. The NGO expressed very serious fears about repercussions of their actions from the factory. They have been threatened physically and have been told to stay away.

While trying to keep out of harms way, they need to be on the scene. At the same time, they don’t want to jeopardize their case and are attempting to get the necessary information they need to make their case in court, without being harmed by factory thugs.

The equation became more interesting to me when I met the whistle blower who first started calling media and the NGO about what they knew.

When I met him, we were on the side of the road in a city about four hours East of Kunming. A black audi with tinted windows, whom ordinarily I might assume to be a politician rolled up. Both the NGO and my driver didn’t want to be seen with a foreigner in this place so I stayed in the car and watched as the man stepped out of his vehicle.

A short, bald man with a gold chain and sunglasses talked to my friend from the NGO about how to get into the cancer village and avoid the factories thugs. Funny enough, this man looked a bit like a hired thug. I wondered about his motivation behind his actions and asked my Chinese assistant to keep his ear out for details.

While I didn’t find out any concrete information, it did seem he had some personal reason for putting the factory in a bad light. It wasn’t out of a love for the environment, or from a hope to help the village — but something personal. Perhaps revenge? Perhaps economic gain? I’m not sure. But his purpose was certainly different than the NGOs, whose goal is to actual help this place and these people.

And this is how environmental reform in China is working today.

It takes a lot of ingredients in the pot, to make the right soup. A new law; a smart NGO; a lawyer willing to work for no money; an citizen with a shady motivation … maybe even a filmmaker looking to help spread the word … its a little different than reform in the West.

And right now, the law suit isn’t finished. But regardless of who wins or what the outcome is I do believe it is a win for China’s environment. It shows the government is comfortable giving more power to the people to help protect their own environment. The case shows ordinary Chinese citizens care about their environment. And it shows that change can happen.

And this is “hopeful.”