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Making an impact with a moving message

Making an impact with a moving message

© Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage for AJWS

March 2016

Photojournalist and Canon Explorer Jonathan Torgovnik is exploring the power of film to bring awareness to sociopolitical issues. CPN Editor David Corfield catches up with him and finds out the story behind his latest project...

The power of a film, or the power of a single image? It’s one of those questions that dogs photojournalists in this multimedia world. Jonathan Torgovnik asks himself that question every time his thumb hovers over the video button on the right hand side of his EOS 5D Mark III. The ubiquitous 5D-series DSLRs have redefined an industry and opened up photographers to a whole new way of thinking.

“I am a stills photographer primarily and it is my first love,” Torgovnik admits. “I do find it hard to shoot video because it’s a lot of stress – thinking about all these things like sound, light, all the different shots – but when I look at the end result I really love it. I want to do more of it and I definitely embrace the idea of making films.”

He continues: “Photographers that do not embrace [films] will have limited commissioned work. They are limiting their horizons. At least 50 percent of my clients ask for video now. If I say no they would maybe consider another photographer. It’s something that people need to think about because it’s where the future lies...”

But he thinks stills photographers have the upper hand when it comes to the overall vision of a film. “Photographers do have an advantage. They are the hardest directors because of the sensitivity of how they see things. I feel more production companies and ad agencies that would traditionally not have hired a stills photographer to direct a film, are doing that now.”

© Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage for AJWS

Please click on the image above to view Jonathan Torgovnik’s film on early and child marriage in India, shot on the EOS 5D Mark III.

The early marriage project

We turn to the latest project Jonathan has had published online, the culture of early and child marriage in India. He explains: “This project was a commission from a non-profit organisation, an NGO, committed to helping many issues, one of which is to end child marriage and early marriage or trying at least to tackle the issue.”

“The organisation is based in New York and is called AJWS (American Jewish World Service); it looks at issues such as child marriage, gay and lesbian rights, land issues and so on.”

“Based on the previous work I’d done, and the issues I tackled with my personal projects, the people there felt I was a good candidate to work on an issue like this because I care about human rights and women’s issues in general.”

For this project, a two-part web documentary series was commissioned that told the success stories of Sonali Khatun, a young girl in West Bengal, India, and Khushi Prajapati a young cab driver in Delhi, India. Through their personal narratives Torgovnik and his team looked at the cultural and social norms necessary to understand the prolific practice of child marriage in India and the impact that organisations such as the Azad Foundation and the Mohammad Bazar Backward Class Development Society (MBBCDS) has had in transforming young Indian women’s lives.

“The project took four days straight filming and after that I took all the raw footage to my editor, Andrew Hida, who spent three months on it,” he reveals, citing his colleague’s input as crucial in the film’s success. “What I really liked about Andrew is that he understood the thinking behind the storyline. He was really good at looking at the raw footage and – after I told him my vision and after he read the transcript (Jonathan found a journalist to spend two weeks transcribing all the audio from the footage) – he examined it and started to make a paper edit and then the story took shape.”

© Jonathan Torgovink/Getty Images Reportage
© Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage for AJWS

Sonali Kahtun at the MBBCDS school, February 15, 2015, in Mohammed Bazar, India. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 30mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/6.3, ISO 320.

“That’s really the challenge,” he continues. “I’m not the best at doing this with video – I’m fine at editing stills – but it makes me realise in video, you really need to have a team around you. Andrew put the story together sensitively and dived deep into the footage. He came back with the first cut – and it was 80 percent there – then we just tweaked it.”

The stills advantage

Torgovnik feels that the photojournalist still has a few ace cards left to play in this multimedia game. “Stills photographers that make the leap into video and film with motion storytelling have a different sensibility. Not just myself but I’m noticing it as a trend. When we [as photojournalists] look for stories, obviously we look for an image; one moment that we can actually freeze. And that really contradicts the whole approach of filmmaking, which is a continuous linear sort of looking. So the storytelling thinking is very different in stills, where we think as photographers ‘I’ve got my shot and that’s that.’ In video I need to think of many other things to get the story. Sometimes the images aren’t the most creative in that sense but you need to think about the wide shot, the medium shot, the long shot so you can cut it and make the edit interesting.”

“I combine my thinking as a stills photographer almost as a director, thinking how the film is going to be. I break it into different elements. First I would think how I would do it [logistically], then I would keep it very organic and intuitive looking for shots in my peripheral vision – so it’s a mix of something preconceived and planning – and then the rest of the process I just let it happen naturally. You don’t want to stop a scene; you want to let it go and see how it falls.”

“As a stills photographer shooting video I retain this [photographic] vision of looking through a single frame; and I try to bring that into the films I make.”

Equipment choices

Jonathan uses the EOS 5D Mark III for his work, having shot with Canon since the day he started as a full-time photojournalist after graduating with a BFA degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he studied Photography and Fine Arts. “I use the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens for the video because it has an Image Stabilizer and it does make a difference when you are shooting handheld. I don’t use a rig; I’ve never connected to it. I just handhold the 5D [Mark III] and use a Zacuto magnifier which I push quite strong into my eye so that helps stabilise the camera. I try to use tripods, too, whenever I can for interviews and landscapes but a lot of the time I shoot handheld.”

© Jonathan Torgovink/Getty Images Reportage
© Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage for AJWS

Sonali Kahtun at her home with her mother and father, February 15, 2015, in Sahanagar, India. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 28mm; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/5, ISO 200.

He continues: “Working with DSLRs in video, the focusing is quite challenging. It’s not very forgiving unless you shoot really wide. The focus is quite sensitive and you need to really adjust all the time, especially in the style that I shoot, as a documentary photographer.”

And one area that he is keep to stress as particularly important is sound. “I don’t think enough photographers who venture into film know about how important sound is until they learn the hard way. Sound is very important. I use a lavalier [lapel] mic on the subject with a separate recorder and sync the sound in the editing. When I do the B-roll reportage scenes I use a Rode mic mounted on the top of the camera. The quality is amazing; I found it to be really good.”

Embracing new possibilities

Jonathan Torgovnik is looking forward to continued work as a filmmaker, despite the different logistical and mental challenges the medium presents. “You need to know in your own internal hard drive in your head what you have,” he says quizzically. When asked about how he sees his own career alongside his fellow filmmaker wife Elles van Gelder, he laughs. “Now let me tell you: the first time Elles ever touched a video camera she won first place in the World Press Photo. So I have a lot to match up to! She has an amazing talent and we don't have any competition and I hope it stays that way. But we of course support each other with ideas and notes.”

“The world of multimedia is becoming passé in my opinion,” he rues. “It started with mixing stills with video, as I did with my own early work, but it is becoming more film-based now, with no stills. I don’t see the need for stills in film anymore except in very rare situations where it is a necessity. For me the world of multimedia is a bit old-fashioned. It’s all about making films. And in embracing that I have become stronger. Make a video that reminds you of that still image. That’s where the power is.”

About the AJWS

The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) was founded in 1985 in Boston, Massachusetts by businessman Larry Phillips and international aid worker Laurence Simon to help some of the poorest and most oppressed people around the globe.

Biographie: Jonathan Torgovnik

Jonathan Torgovnik

Jonathan Torgovnik graduated with a BFA degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York where he studied Photography and Fine Arts. He is the author of two books: Bollywood Dreams; An Exploration of the Motion Picture Industry, and it's Culture in India (Phaidon, 2003), and Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape (Aperture, 2009). Jonathan's award-winning photographs have been included in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the US and Europe and are in the permanent collections of museums and institutions around the world. His photographs have also been published by: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, Le Monde 2, GEO, The London Sunday Times Magazine, Stern, Paris Match, The Telegraph Magazine, Mother Jones, Aperture, and CNN among many others. Jonathan Torgovnik is the co-founder of Foundation Rwanda, an NGO that supports secondary school education for children born of rape during the Rwandan genocide. (www.foundationrwanda.org). He is represented by Getty Images Reportage, and currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Sonali Kahtun at the MBBCDS school, February 15, 2015, in Mohammed Bazar, India. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 39mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/3.2, ISO 800.