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BEST OF 2012, Amy C. Elliott
New York, NY
Project: The War Within, a major multimedia project for the American Legion, focusing on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans, including fifteen portraits for the national magazine and three accompanying videos, which Elliott shot, directed and edited.

© Amy C. Elliott

© Amy C. Elliott

Commissioned by the American Legion for The War Within, a project focused on post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, Amy C. Elliott produced 15 portraits and three accompanying videos, which she shot, directed and edited.

“It was rewarding to be charged with the visuals for a project so significant in content and form,” says Elliott. “American Legion art director Holly Soria calls The War Within the organization’s “first major endeavor in new media documentary. As an instrumental part of their evolution in the face of changing media demands, I proved to be a valuable partner who can help lead the way.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Amy C. Elliott: Sixteen years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

ACE: Since 2001.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

ACE: Editorial and documentary.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool? What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

ACE: My Portabrace case (CS-DV4U). I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life pursuing the perfect camera bag. For still equipment, I’ve been through a gamut of brands, cannibalized parts to cobble cases together, and am looking at about ten different models in my studio right now. For video, I’ve only needed one. The Portabrace is rugged without being heavy and roomy without being bulky.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

ACE: The fact that I’m a filmmaker as well as a photographer. Aesthetically, the disciplines inform each other. My motion shooting lends my still images a distinct cinematic quality. On the flip side, documentary film is a medium where content can often trump form. I consider composition more carefully, knowing so well what it’s like to have to tell a story within the confines of a single frame.

ASMP: The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization, approached you last year to work with them on an in-depth investigation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and to produce the visuals for the piece, called “The War Within.” How did they find you? Had you worked with this organization in the past?

ACE: The American Legion is a regular client of mine. I’ve shot approximately 40 still assignments and ten video pieces for them since 2005.

ASMP: This high-profile report includes a series of articles for two issues of the print magazine as well as a video component with 28 minutes of content — the largest editorial multimedia project this organization has undertaken to date. Do you know what spurred them to make such a substantial piece? Why now?

ACE: PTSD and TBI are the signature wounds of Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF). The American Legion has been on the forefront of publicizing the health crisis these injuries present. In 2010, The Legion formed an Ad Hoc Committee on TBI/PTSD. The formation of that committee prompted this project.

The video was a three-part series called The War Within. The first episode was Families Afflicted; then came Military Sexual Trauma and Paths to Healing.

ASMP: How do you, personally, prepare for a project that deals with such difficult subject matter? Is it taxing for you to take in the pain you witness — even from a safe distance behind the lens? Do you have any visualization or relaxation strategies for keeping focused under challenging circumstances? Is there anything you do after you’ve finished a shoot to help you cope?

ACE: Contradictory as it may seem, the way I decompress after a trying shoot is by processing the images. I find it soothing to cull stills or digitize footage. As I begin assessing the visuals on artistic or technical criteria, I can disengage a bit from the subject matter. Also, the work isn’t intense, so it allows me to unwind, but it has to get done, so I still feel productive. (I don’t find “relaxing” to be all that relaxing.)

ASMP: How did you determine who and what would be profiled in “The War Within”? Did The American Legion dictate this or guide you? What amount of concepting or preproduction was involved? Explain how such decisions were arrived at during the initial planning stages of this project.

ACE: My responsibilities on “The War Within” were twofold — deliver the photos for a series of articles in The American Legion magazine and produce three related videos for Web and other distribution. The process of determining who and what to profile was slightly different for each component.

The primary purpose of the photography was to illustrate the articles, so their content dictated the shoot subjects. I relied on the two writers to let me know who to focus on, as well as to act as the initial points of contact. The Legion’s art director ultimately selected the images for publication.

On the other hand, while the Legion did want the videos to overlap the magazine report, the organization did not want them to merely parrot the text. We conceived them as stand-alone, short documentaries — which I was also in charge of editing. Some of the people featured in print did not make the final cut.

And vice versa — one of the videos explores alternative treatment options. Two of the four spotlighted are only briefly mentioned in the magazine. In that case, The Legion presented me a list of candidates. I narrowed them down after some advance scouting and recommended my choices, which they accepted.

ASMP: What kinds of time frames were involved in the various stages of pre production, shooting, post production/editing and such? Looking from hindsight, is there any aspect of planning or workflow in this project that would cause you to plan, prepare or negotiate differently in the future?

ACE: We had an initial planning meeting at the Legion’s headquarters in Indianapolis. There were several deadlines set, given the staggered rollout of the package. The photos were due in two batches, to go to press for their respective magazine issues. The video was posted to coincide with publication, which gave me a longer lead time. It roughly broke down to a month of pre-production, three months of shooting and a month of editing.

ASMP: When executing this project, were there any surprises or unexpected moments technically, creatively, and/or emotionally? If so, explain the circumstances and how they played out.

ACE: In the three months of production, I shot with 20 different subjects in 12 states. Having to cover so much ground and accommodate so many people’s schedules meant I couldn’t be too picky about the circumstances. The priority was fitting everyone in, not orchestrating ideal shoot conditions.

Andrea Neutzling is an OIF veteran who was profiled in the segment on military sexual trauma. The only time we could get together was over the Fourth of July. This was logistically challenging — she was a single mom who had holiday celebrations planned with family and friends. While she graciously invited me along, due to the festivities my one-on-one time with her (and the opportunity for an in-depth interview) would be limited. The footage turned out to be some of my favorite — watching her interact with her young daughter proved more revealing than a formal interview, and the visuals of her setting off fireworks in a field in her small Midwestern town provided a poignant backdrop for her story.

ASMP: Do you have any personal connections to the military? Are you close with anyone who has served our country? What kind of background did you have regarding this subject matter when you took on this assignment? What kind of research did you do and what resources did you tap?

ACE: For “The War Within,” I considered educating myself about PTSD and TBI to be as important a part of my job as prepping my camera equipment. I did extensive online research, spoke to a social worker friend about trauma and, when possible, read original source material generated by any of the doctors or experts involved.

Even with the schedule demands, I knew I had to get that done — squeezing in research on planes, in hotel rooms and so on. I believe it was essential to the success of this particular project, but also that it’s always critical. It immediately puts subjects more at ease when they realize you are well versed in the topic at hand. Having that fluency also makes you more efficient — you ask smarter questions and waste less of everybody’s time. Finally, when on assignment, you owe it to your client to be a good emissary. And that includes giving those you photograph on their behalf the respect of your full interest and attention.

ASMP: Please talk about the terms and fees you negotiate for assignments of this type. Do you put a time limit on the usage rights? What kind of negotiations, if any, were discussed (or would you envision discussing) with a client for assignments that include substantial digital rights?

ACE: I charge a day rate for shooting. For video, it’s 30 percent higher if I’m doing the sound as well (or alternatively, I bill out the appropriate crew). I charge a flat fee for editing/shepherding the project through post-production. Doing so ensures a degree of fee predictability for the client — especially appreciated in a production of this scale, where the schedule is likely to vary.

I retain the rights to all images. However, the tried and true “one-time, editorial use” licensing model can’t be taken as a given for multi-media. The brave new world brings with it the need for more upfront discussion and clarification of everyone’s expectations. For example, the Legion’s uses for the video component of “The War Within” included distributing DVDs to local posts, advocacy and indefinite Web archiving. Clear authorship is important to me, and the art director designed a closing card that incorporates my Web site link as well as my credit line.

ASMP: Were you accompanied by a client representative on shoots or did you work with additional crew or support staff (either your own or supplied by the client) to assist you in making “The War Within”? If so, how did you find them and what were their responsibilities?

ACE: Nope. Today it is possible to produce HD, broadcast-quality video (I shoot Sony XDCAM on an EX-1) without a large crew. In this case, that was preferable. A crew (even just two or three people) can intimidate folks who aren’t used to being in front of a lens. That, coupled with the sensitivity of the topic, made establishing intimacy crucial. To that end, there were several shoots where I was with a subject and didn’t even take my camera out for half a day or more. We’d have a meal, go to a park, and basically just hang out together until he or she felt comfortable opening up.

ASMP: Please talk about the post-production and editing of this project. Were you responsible for these things? If not, how much of a role did you play in the decision making at this stage of the project?

ACE: I was responsible for executing every aspect of post-production. I did discuss the fundamental outline of each video piece with the Legion art director before getting too deep into editing to confirm we were on the same page. I also gave her periodic updates during the process.

I edited in Final Cut Pro and output finished QuickTime files prepped for upload to the Legion’s Web site and You Tube channel. I first provided low-res versions for sign-off, but their notes were minimal — mainly regarding captions or lower thirds — and were addressed in less than an afternoon. They never saw my raw footage.

The autonomy I was given in post was not only gratifying, it made my job appreciably easier. Both parties’ confidence that the deliverables wouldn’t require a lot of tweaking, saved weeks that otherwise would have been set aside for revisions. It allowed my deadlines to be “real” deadlines, so to speak, with very little cushion, affording me that extra time to work (which was welcome, considering the short turnaround).

ASMP: What has been the response to “The War Within?” Did audience response meet the goals of your client? Has this project resulted in new opportunities or accolades for you? Please elaborate.

ACE: It has led to other opportunities, even with the same client. Since it was published, I’ve completed another multimedia project for the Legion, on housing for homeless veterans, called All They Need Is A Chance.

But I suspect the long-term value of having this under my belt is inestimable. I believe hybrid shooting is the future of my business. I’ve always been able to point clients to examples of my motion or still work, but now I have a high profile, important project that shows I’m equipped to synthesize the two.

ASMP: Your photography has a strong focus on regional American culture and customs. What draws you to this subject matter? When did you first become interested in this theme?

ACE: My earliest and deepest artistic influences are iconic American ones — from blues music to westerns. I’ve always responded to art that’s rooted in, and evocative of, geographic place. It makes me want to go see those places for myself. Regional cultural expression compels me in the same way.

ASMP: You attended college at Princeton University. What did you study? Were there specific things you learned at Princeton that have been valuable to your business and which you find lacking in photographers who did not pursue this type of education track? What kind of photography training do you have?

ACE: I majored in visual arts at Princeton and completed a creative thesis of photography and painting. My teachers included photographer Emmet Gowin and painter Power Boothe. It was extraordinary (especially so early in life) to have exposure to such distinguished artists.

I also had access to one of the finest photography collections in the country, at The Princeton University Art Museum. And I mean literal access — part of our training was studying the original prints. Seeing up close what black and white masters like Alfred Stieglitz and Minor White were able to do, inspired rigor in the darkroom. That appreciation for the mechanics of image making is something that still very much guides me, even in the digital era.

ASMP: You work both as a still photographer and a documentary filmmaker. Have you always worked with both mediums? When were you first inspired by still photography and by film, and under what circumstances?

ACE: Yes I have. And I’ve always been fascinated with the technology of both. (I admit to being somewhat of a gear head.)

I discovered documentary film as a teenager, when I stumbled upon Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line in a video store. It stayed with me, prompting me to go to the library and spend hours reading up on the case. I started hunting down every non-fiction film I could (a quest, in pre-Netflix suburbia), and saving for my first video camera.

I was first inspired by photography in college. (See answer to question above.)

ASMP: Do you often use these two mediums in tandem, as you did to make “The War Within”? Please talk about your vision for using these mediums together to tell a story.

ACE: For this project, I pictured the stills and motion functioning together as a sort of call and response. The portraits are intended to arrest the viewer and provoke interest in the subjects’ stories. The videos are where those stories then unfold.

ASMP: You’ve also worked on a feature film called “World’s Largest” with your childhood friend, Elizabeth Donius. When did you start this project and how did you come up with the idea? The film was shown in numerous festivals in 2010/2011, had a series of theatrical screenings and is currently available for online viewing or purchase on DVD. Do you consider this project complete, or are you still shooting on this theme?

ACE: World’s Largest is about towns across the country claiming to have the “world’s largest” something — be it a 15-foot fiberglass strawberry or a 40-foot concrete pheasant. By documenting these offbeat civic monuments, the film examines the changing landscape of small-town America.

The idea sprang from my love of roadside attractions (I’ll drive hours out of my way on the promises of a billboard) and a desire to learn more about the places that erect them. Tourist attractions are invitations to “come visit.” My co-producer Elizabeth Donius and I decided to answer that call.

The film took more than six years to make, which is actually not unheard of for an independent documentary feature. This was on account of the scope (we logged 78,000 round trip miles), and the demands of the narrative. The through-line follows tiny Soap Lake, Washington’s four-year struggle to build the World’s Largest Lava Lamp. We had to let that play out.

I’ve exhausted that material creatively — though there’s no doubt that some of the central themes in World’s Largest were present in my work before, and will endure. In particular, I think I’ll always be drawn to exploring what it is that people celebrate about their communities.

ASMP: On your Web site, your still photographs are divided into four categories: north, south, east and west. How did you come up with these categories and why did you decide to organize your still photos into such distinctive groups?

ACE: It is a statement about the content of my work. My focus is American culture and my images are very much about place. The “North/South/East/West” construct conveyed that simply and effectively. And, in fact, I organize my own image library by region, so once I settled on that conceit it was easy to populate the categories.

ASMP: When you’re not working on editorial assignments do you pursue personal projects? If so, how do you make the time? How do you fund such projects? And have you successfully pitched any of these personal ideas to clients, either while a project is being made or after completion?

ACE: Absolutely — World’s Largest began as a personal project. We received a finishing fund grant during the editing stage, but my co-producer Elizabeth Donius and I footed the bill for production. It also necessitated being in rural, remote areas of the country for long stretches of time.

My day job gave me the freedom to find paying work along the way. I would send my itinerary out to my stable of clients. If any had photography needs nearby, or knew anyone else who did, they’d tell me. This panned out — on one month-long stretch I picked up a gig from the North Dakota Water Education Association shooting bodies of water all over the state. I spent weeks filming small towns and their statutes and shooting lakes and rivers from Fargo to Williston.

ASMP: Based in New York City, you are one photographer among many. How important is it to your business to network and be seen? Do you regularly attend gallery openings, trade shows, and events? If so, is this something you really enjoy, or are you more content when you’re working? Are there particular networking opportunities that hold the most importance for you?

ACE: Anyone who knows me personally would laugh at this question. You wouldn’t find me at a gallery opening unless I was there on assignment. I was born here in New York City and live here now because for all my travels, my hometown is still my favorite city. But honestly, I’m on the road so much I probably could be based anywhere.

ASMP: Do you regularly market your services (or your recent accomplishments) to clients/business contacts or keep in touch via social media? If so, does your contact method or message details differ based on the type of relationship, industry demographics or other factors?

ACE: I’ve had a Facebook presence for years and have found that marketing on there feels almost incidental, in a really good way. A fair amount of my Facebook activity revolved around World’s Largest when it was on the festival circuit in 2010. The film isn’t something I would have necessarily thought to promote to my magazine clients, but many were genuinely interested — commenting on posts, liking the page and so on. Holly Soria, the art director of the Legion, even went to see it when it screened in her city. While it wasn’t a direct causal effect, I bet seeing firsthand that I could complete a feature assured her of my ability to handle an undertaking of the magnitude of “The War Within.”

ASMP: What do you do to keep your business solvent in today’s economy? What do you do to differentiate yourself and your services in such a competitive marketplace?

ACE: I’m a one-stop shop. I edit and produce as well as shoot. Moreover, I’ve essentially outfitted myself as a proper production house (professional sound equipment, continuous lighting, editing suite, and so on), at great expense. Investing in these other elements means I can supply a turnkey product.

ASMP: You’ve been shooting for 15 years. In your experience, has the business climate gotten tougher in recent years or are you finding more opportunity out there now? Given your background with both stills and motion, please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense.

ACE: I’m loath to make sweeping industry predictions, but can share my impressions as a lone editorial shooter. A few years ago, I was pretty sure I’d eventually have to expand into additional photography markets (advertising, retail and so on). And I assumed documentary film, for the most part, would remain a labor of love.

But what’s changed since then is the way people consume editorial content. There is an increasing demand for multimedia. I see the probability of more assignments like “The War Within.” I’m encouraged by this, and optimistic about continuing to carve out my career on my own terms.