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Documenting (In)Justice

When I was in college at the University of Alabama I took a two-semester class called "Documenting Justice (& Injustice in Alabama)." It was a documentary film making class where we had to apply, interview, and be selected to be a part of the course. If my memory is correct, we couldn't have past experience in film making. The idea was to start from scratch and learn all there is to know about documentary film making and then produce our own short doc by the end of the second semester to be screened at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa.

The instructors were Andrew Grace ( and Rachel Morgan ( The class was made up of 12 students. I was lucky enough to have been selected, and when I look back on the students in the class, I have no idea why they picked me. My guess is because I was charismatic, outspoken, and at that time in my life I was very innocent and probably the only conservative person in that class. So, I offered diversity I guess (ha). Also, I had a background in photography, but who's to say...

Anyway, we spent the first semester learning all about documentaries. I had never really watched any before the class. For a photojournalism major, I wasn't really paying attention to the world around me yet. Not in any big ways. So I was really starting from scratch.

That first semester we were also learning how to use Final Cut Pro and how to operate the cameras provided by the University, which I believe were Sony DSR-PD170P DVCAMs- the kind that used actual tapes to record on.

Also that semester we had to pair up with our doc partners and pick a topic to base our documentaries on. My partner, Josh Sahib, and I decided to do our film on the social issue of juveniles who are serving life without parole in prison.

This course was a ton of work, but it was by far the most rewarding class I took in college. Josh and I were able to interview Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, a 30-year-old prisoner-Antonio Russell, who had been incarcerated since the age of 15, family of victims, physiologists, and more. I learned so much about myself, others, the justice system, my belief system, and my craft.

When we came to the part of the semester where we were having to film b-roll for our films, I was having a really hard time figuring out what to film. Josh and I had this extremely heavy subject we were covering, and finding the right b-roll to shoot was incredibly difficult for me. Not only was it a challenge coming up with what to shoot, but my skillset was in photography- not video. I had zero experience in video leading up to this course. I learned what b-roll was in this class.

I'll never forget this one day when I was sitting in Andy Grace's office... I was showing him (with great hesitation and humiliation) the shitty b-roll footage I had taken so far for our film. He quietly watched it with me, and when I had finished showing him all I had, I said with total exhaustion, "Look, I don't know what is wrong with me. I'm a really good photographer. I don't understand why my video is so terrible."

Then he said something that was just really profound to me- something that has stuck with me all these years. He said, "Why don't you just shoot the video the same way you shoot photos?"

I took these words to essentially mean, stop moving the camera. Set up your shot. Hold still while you observe. Wait for your shot. Use the same eyes and same skillset that you know to be true.

So, that's what I did.

When I look back at the film, I was a total amateur, but the b-roll works. It's haunting- the way the film is supposed to feel. It doesn't distract from the story, which is kind of the point of b-roll. It's supposed to compliment the story- not take away or distract.

I think about Andy's words every time I record video, and so I wanted to share that nugget of wisdom to all of my artist friends out there who may read this.

Whatever you pursue, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You just need to leverage the skills you already have to make this new pursuit your own. Shoot the video the same way you shoot photos.

Here's the film:

Film by Sydney (Prather) Valiente & Josh Sahib.


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