A People with Passion series
September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano
I first noticed Chris Cascarano’s work in a Chicago News Cooperative story about a pastor in Roseland leading “God’s foot patrol,” in which he and other members of the community would walk the streets of the neighborhood as a visual reminder of the good choices a person can make. The video was a beautiful compliment to writer Paul Beaty’s words; no surprise then that Cascarano is co-credited on the byline. The CNC values their video work, and Cascarano is the man behind the camera.
Here in the 11th installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Cascarano talks about his interest in video, his path to the CNC, and how a story like the Roseland one is created.
I was going to Columbia College, kind of floating around. I had always read a lot of modern literature. It seemed like all the writers I was reading, Hemingway, Orwell, other writers, all worked in journalism. I didn’t want to be a novelist. But something about being a journalist was pretty appealing. I signed up for some basic journalism courses. I got a knack for it and really fell in love.
I’d always been concerned about being in a field where you can get a job. Being an artist is great but it’s difficult to make a living. So journalism appealed to me. It’s an opportunity where you can be creative and feed your intellectual interests. There’s also a practical application. This is before the recession, so there’s sort of a big irony awaiting me.
I started to read a lot of the newspapers. There were a couple of writers I was reading at the Chicago Tribune. One of them was Paul Salopek, a correspondent for Africa. He also covered Kosovo and places like that. I was reading this report coming from Mogadishu. It was defying everything I’d learned in history classes and even in TV news. It was insightful and in-depth. He was going into the trunks of cars to get into Mogadishu to report from them. I was sold after that. I put my head down and said, you know, hell or high water I’m going to work in this field.
My dad was a talented photographer – he’s not dead or anything, but not practicing anymore – so a visual aesthetic came natural to me. But I wanted to explore the written element. Also at the time, 2006 or something, web video wasn’t great. Internet speeds were slow. Video players were bad. They couldn’t get great HD online. The camera technology was really low. Without getting too technical, video was not good in those years. The cameras available to people like me were these really watered down professional ones. There was all this baggage you had to carry to do video. It wasn’t appealing.
One of the first papers I wrote for, I would shoot my own photos. It was a nice set of tools to have, to be able to do a story and then shoot your own photos. I liked it a lot. It came naturally to me.
Where was this?
The Evanston Round Table, in Evanston. It was later down the line that I got into video.
I graduated from Columbia. I think it was December 2007, right when the recession really hit. I had an internship in New York, in Brooklyn, and they weren’t going to hire me. The opportunity for jobs was whittling down. I remember applying to little podunk newspapers. I’d get a response that said, “Our inbox is overwhelmed with the number of applications we’re getting. We’ve had over 200 very well-qualified people.” A guy who’d only written for his college newspaper wasn’t going to get that job.
I spent a long stint in New York just working jobs. Just doing whatever I could to get by. I was a carpenter. I was a waiter. Geez, I did anything. That whole time, I was practicing my writing. I was reading constantly. I was taking a lot of photos, which was interesting because in New York things that happen right on the street are sort of national news. I was shooting photo essays. And I’d want to write a story about it, but you can’t do a lot with a story and nowhere to publish it. Blogs weren’t quite as big as they are now. A straight journalism news story doesn’t have a lot of legs just put out on the web for nobody, so the photo element started to appeal to me.
I was shooting some really cool things. There were some major, intense protests over the bailout. There was a major meeting at the U.N. when the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the U.N. It was this major rally. A lot of action. It was fun. I was shooting, and once in a while I would get little opportunities to travel. If I was abroad, I would sneak out when no one else was hanging out and go shoot something in the city. I shot a little photo essay once of a circus in Mexico. I was seeing a lot of the value in the visual element.
Meanwhile I didn’t have a lot to do with the video part. But right around that time, this organization MediaStorm, they were really pioneering multi-media. They were doing these innovative pieces combining photo and audio interviews. They were dabbling a little bit in video, but it was mostly photo put into video. They were really, really powerful. I took note of that. Slowly I started to learn video in my free time. That was the beginning of how I started to be a video journalist: I saw that there was this interesting way to combine print journalism and strong visuals.
Right around that time, the quality of video started to grow. It’s funny to mark it on a camera – it might sound odd to an outsider – but this really revolutionary camera came out about that time. It’s called the 5D Mark II. It’s a Canon camera. And that was a camera that gives this unbelievable cinematic look to anything you film. It was stunning. I remember watching the first videos that came out with that before it had worked its way to news, and thinking, “This doesn’t seem real. Is this actually being done with this camera?” That started to pique my interest.
I was learning Final Cut Pro. I was really into multi-media, still working on my print, writing as much as I could on my own. Just crazy. I found some opportunities in Chicago. And I thought, First of all, doing anything outside of waiting tables, being a busboy, whatever kind of miserable jobs I was doing, was great. Secondly, if I can learn video, that’s even better.
So I came back to Chicago and started with small things. Spent a year and a half from as soon as I woke up in the morning until I went to bed at night learning video. I was sucked in. I took every course available. I did everything I could do. I was just drinking it. I couldn’t stop. I was obsessed with learning video, and these skills that were really empowering. Video was starting to become ubiquitous across the web. It was all really happening. New York Times was starting to put their video department into high gear.
I started to see a couple of video journalists doing amazing things. Travis Fox of the Washington Post was one of them. He was doing these videos using DSLRs. The quality was amazing. The storytelling was great. It was conveying these really amazing places and experiences. I put my head down and started doing any story I could find on the street. I would just approach anybody and say, “I’m going to do this story. I don’t have anyone to give it to or anything, but I’m going to make this video and this story about you.”
I started approaching anyone I could. “No one’s doing video at your organization. Why don’t you let me do some video?” People were pretty chilly about it. I got the same response: “We don’t have the budget.” Things like that. I kept approaching the CNC because they’re forward-thinking. It’s clearly a well-focused organization. I’d tell them about my stories, send them emails, stuff like that. They weren’t crazy about my story ideas and rightfully so, but eventually they said, “You can try an internship here and help us out with some video and we’ll see how it works out.” And it eventually evolved to me working there and doing all of their video.
CNC does have a very specific and well-focused mission, I would say. What stood out to me about the work you were doing there was that it didn’t seem like the sort of video components that I find at other outlets. These seemed like little documentaries…
Yeah, exactly. It speaks to the nature of what CNC is trying to do, which is in-depth reporting. You want to eliminate the surfacy stuff. When you look at a broader picture of TV news, video, any type of video, it’s capturing live events as documentary-style shooting. News is packaged in such a way that it seems so different, but it’s a lot of the same elements. You have a talking head. Someone you interview. You’re capturing the footage, the action of a story. News just packages it into such a short little piece of time, like regular TV news I’m speaking of, that it feels so different. But it’s all very similar. We’re all using documentary techniques.
I think one of the big differences though as I think about it now is that you don’t have the reporter ever standing in front of the camera with the microphone, editorializing.
It’s called piece-to-camera. Yeah, we don’t do that.
Piece-to-camera. Yeah. Or a “standup.” It’s really not necessary to us. The news stations are really engaged in building the credibility and characters within their organization, and we’re just focused on the events and the actions. What we use voiceover for is connective tissue. Transitions. Adding those details that have to be known. We try to let the events speak for themselves.
The stories that I collaborate with reporters always have a striking visual element or an action that needs to be seen. An example of that is the story we did on the pastor patrolling his neighborhood in Roseland. Reporters, they have a limit of words. They can only write 1200 words sometimes at the max. And a photographer can do great justice to those. But hey, why not add video? Why not add more to that and take advantage of this really rich medium that’s available to us? It’s deliberate what we do. We’re focused on showing some things that need to be seen. Bringing more to a story.
Your most recent story, “Growing Hope.” [note: this story can also be found as “Gardening Hope.”]
Take me through how exactly a story like that becomes.
How it happens? Well you know, we have editorial meetings like any newspaper. During those meetings we talk about what stories would have opportunity for video and photo. And that one was a standout. It’s got a location, it’s got action, it’s got characters, all the things that make a really rich video. We decided on that one for sure. Don Terry, the writer, actually recommended it before anyone. He said, “We really gotta do this in video.”
Right off the bat we went to Cook County Jail. Don was doing interviews, and I was shooting and doing some of my own interviews, and then Don would join and listen in on the interviews and talk with them. Then we went around to the other gardens. We work in tandem. We’re not joined at the hip, but we also do like to share interviews and things like that. It is definitely collaborative. I do a lot of the heavy lifting with the video. I’ll shoot for as long as I need and follow up with sources and places and things like that, and then do the editing and script-writing and post-production on my own.
So your responsibilities on a story like that go from brainstorming to sort of writing, interviewing, actually interviewing subjects, filming, editing.
Yeah. Everything. Sometimes video journalism sounds unrealistic. That you could ask someone to do so many things. But I think with practice it’s possible. It works out.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)