David Evan Harris on Global Lives
The following combines two Skype interviews with David Evan Harris – founder and Executive Director of the Global Lives Project, undertaken in Jan 2011.
Global Lives is a global collaborative project which began in 2004 with a 24 hour video record of a day in the life of a cable car operator in San Francisco and has grown from there, with ten lives now recorded and plans for much more to come.
Mandy Rose: How did the ‘Global Lives’ project come about?
David Evan Harris: How did the idea come about?
MR: Yes, how did the idea come about, and what were the original objectives?
DH: Yes, well the idea came when I was in college. I was an undergraduate at Berkeley and I did this programme in my third year of college. For eight months, I studied abroad and I lived with families in Tanzania, India, the Philippines, Mexico and the UK. There were 25 students, eight months, five countries, and we lived with families. We had three professors who travelled with us the whole time, but the most amazing thing about this year was that we stayed with families about 70% of the time in home stays. During this year I lived in a bamboo house in the Philippines, in a former squatter settlement in Mexico City, in a mansion in New Delhi. It was an amazing variety of places and people who shared their own homes and their own daily lives with me.
A lot of people from the US do these study abroad programmes come back and we have culture shock—this hard period of adjusting back to the US. Well, I often say I got quintuple culture shock because I was traveling and living in five other countries. And when I got back, I wanted to communicate not just the political and social justice issues and deep inequality that I had seen, but also the emotional side of this experience of travel and life outside of my tiny bubble in the US, which is something that I was feeling unable to do as a student of the social sciences.
While working on the early stages of the Global Lives Project, I was also simultaneously doing a Masters degree in sociology in Brazil – I got a scholarship from the Rotary Foundation to do a Masters degree in Brazil in Portuguese. I actually have a book coming out based on my Masters thesis that I wrote in Brazil. But even while I felt like I was on a pretty successful track in academia in sociology, at the same time I just felt that there was something that I was unable to communicate in this sort of necessarily dry and inscrutable social science jargon that you have to use.
So, I really wanted to communicate this more emotional and, I think in many ways, fundamentally visual experience that I was having and text just wasn’t doing it. So that was kind of where the idea came from. Unfortunately, I had almost no formal training in video – I took just one art class in college where the professor loaned me a video camera.
So after I got back from this programme, I would tell anyone I met who had anything to do with video or film about the idea for Global Lives, and most of them would say, “Wow, you’re crazy.” Actually, all of them said that. They would say it in nice ways but basically the implication was “You’re crazy,” you know, “You’re not a filmmaker, you don’t understand how crazy an idea this is. It’s impossible. You’ll never be able to do this”.
Finally, one of the people I told actually liked the idea. He had lost his job, actually the company he was working for went bankrupt, and they couldn’t pay him so they gave him his last paycheck in video equipment. This is Daniel Jones who now works at Harvard as a video producer in the Berkmann Centre for Internet and Society – he’s obviously gone on to do amazing things. So they gave him a ton of equipment that he had been using on this documentary project and he called me up and said, “Hey David, I’ve got a whole bunch of video equipment and a lot of time on my hands. How about that crazy idea you had? Should we do the first shoot and do the pilot?” And so I said, “Hell, yes, let’s do it”, and he flew from Michigan, where he lived, out to California, we split the cost of his plane ticket, and we just did the first shoot with James Bullock in San Francisco. James was a friend of a friend and that’s the origin story.
MR: So, he’s the driver of the tram.
DH: Yes, exactly. In many ways, the Global Lives Project probably only happened because it was started by a naïve, overambitious person without much experience in video production. I don’t think that anyone with a lot of experience in video production, or at least anyone with a lot of experience in video production who didn’t work at a place like Google or YouTube with infinite monetary sources, would ever attempt something like this, at least at that time.
MR: Perhaps people who had more professional experience couldn’t imagine the collaborative potential that there is now with new technology…
DH: Yes, you’re totally right. The film and video industry is extremely hierarchical and very top down, a somewhat rigidly structured industry. And, you know, these models like Wikipedia and Linux and Free and Open Source software, all those things haven’t really reached the world of video and they definitely hadn’t in 2002. I originally had the idea in 2002 and it took two years of talking to people before the first shoot in 2004. We did the first shoot before YouTube even existed…
MR: So back then, thinking about the 24-hour form, what was your imagined outcome for the content, what was your imagined exhibition form? Were you thinking of an installation already back then?
DH: Yes, absolutely. The idea from the get-go was a video installation. I think I had seen two pieces, I believe both of them were at the Guggenheim Museum in New York but at different times. One of them was a Nam June Paik retrospective [The Worlds of Nam June Paik, 2000] and later there was a Bill Viola piece [Going Forth By Day, 2002] where he had five video screens all around in the room, and just watching how people walked through these spaces and how they affected people and how they affected me was a big inspiration. I was always someone much more interested in museums and the types of ideas that circulate in museums than the types of ideas that circulate on TV and in movie theatres. (Laughter). I’ve never articulated it in that way before but I think that’s probably why I wanted to do an exhibit, because, doing social theory and social sciences, there’s a lot more happening and the theoretical discussions are often at a much higher level in museum spaces than they are on the big screen or on TV. And, of course, web video as a platform didn’t really exist in 2002. The most you had was people attaching a really low quality wmv or using Real Player to struggle to watch something on a computer.
MR: Why did you set out on Global Lives as a collaborative project?
DH Well, I don’t think that was ever really a conscious decision—it was really the cultural milieu that I was in at the time that I think drove that. When I was an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, I lived in a cooperative house with fifty-five students, where we would all share the work of running the house, cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc. We ate vegetarian, local, organic food, and pretty much everyone was an activist an artist or just an out-of-the-box thinker of one sort or another. We’d have house meetings with long, consensus-based decision making processes, and so that sort of collaboration structure was really just the type of organization that I was most experienced with. I also was part of the Global Justice Movement – I’ve been going to the World Social Forum over the years. So I had no real inclination to do it all myself, to just go raise a bunch of money, hire a bunch of people, and fly around the world and do it that way.
So on the video shoots we did for the first series, I was only physically present at three out of the ten. All the rest I coordinated from a distance. I was living in Brazil from 2004 to 2007, so about half of the shoots took place while I was living outside the US myself. So I spent a lot of time on Skype, making long distance calls to the other side of the world. And I sent people very small sums of money and they worked magic and pulled off these beautiful shoots.
MR: How did you find collaborators then, what sort of networks did you draw on?
DH: To be clear, everyone who has worked on these shoots has been a volunteer. The first few years I didn’t get paid a nickel. I’ve been getting paid the last couple of years, minimum wage. 99% of the work that goes into GL is volunteer-based. How we find people has been mixed. The first batch of people was friends and friends of friends in the US and in Brazil. Then after that, it started to snowball. Helio Ishii, one of the directors of the shoot in Brazil, was going to Japan to visit his wife’s family and asked me if he could do another shoot and whether we knew anyone in Japan. And I said I’m sure we could find someone. So I put a post on our website, on Light Stalkers, a still photographers’ network, and on Facebook, and sent out emails to everyone I knew who had been to Japan. It said, “Do you know a filmmaker in Japan interested in social change?”
We got more responses than we could accept. We got twenty people within the first week, and trust me, if you are going to have someone shoot your life for 24 hours you don’t want twenty people on the crew. And then it snowballed from there. At the same time as the Japan shoot was coming together, we had a shoot happen in Malawi led by Jason Price, an anthropologist who was living there that I’d met only a couple of times before. We developed a structure whereby volunteers who wanted to do a shoot would write a proposal and the proposal gets looked at by the Global Lives Collective’s Production Committee – the group of all the previous producers, directors, and production leads – and then we’d vote on whether or not to approve the proposal, what needs to be revised, whether it’s detailed enough. We give small grants to cover any out of pocket expenses. The idea of the money that we give is so that no one has to spend their own money to do shoots. There are no stipends though.
After those first four shoots, it just kept snowballing. People who had done shoots wanted to do other shoots. One of these people was a professor in Japan, Irene Herrera, who is Venezuelan and has lived in Japan for eight years. After the shoot in Japan, she went on to work on shoots in China and Lebanon. Another woman, Ya-Hsuan Huang, did the shoot in Malawi first and went on to do a shoot in China. Nobuhiro Awata has been on three crews. He’s based in Taiwan. He went to Kazahkstan, China, and he was on the Japan shoot. Apparently, it’s addictive! A lot of people like to do not just one shoot but two or three. And a lot of people want to do more shoots in the future.
MR: Is there a consensus that the 24-hour format is valuable?
DH: I’ve had that discussion with a lot with people about the 24-hour format. It was developed for an installation experience, not for the web. But the 24 hours have had all sorts of value to other people and communities that I never imagined.
For example, one of our board members is a linguist, Laura Welcher. She works for the Long Now Foundation, which has become one of our bigger funders. She really values the 24-hour format from a linguistics perspective. We have had more than 500 volunteer translators who have painstakingly transcribed and translated about 80% of this footage – 240 hours – that we’ve shot thus far. From a linguist’s perspective these are extremely valuable resources, especially because some of the languages we are working with don’t have large number of speakers. Chichewa, for instance – the language spoken on the Malawi shoot – is a language, I believe, of 15 million speakers, which is a pretty small language. We were told by the man that wrote the dictionary that what we had done was the longest translation in the history of the Chichewa language. And not only that, but it’s not a translation of a book – it’s a full transcript that also corresponds to sound and to video. For a linguist, the value there is that this could be the beginning of building a corpus for the language – a set of words and word usages used to develop things we take for granted in English like spell checkers and grammar checkers that really work, or even voice recognition. It’s only a small number of languages relative to the total number of languages in the world that have those things, so Laura Welcher thinks of our very long-form content as valuable in that way.
On the other hand, the 24-hour perspective is also interesting because it allows for a nearly infinite number of ways that the footage can be re-used. The Wikipedia community is very interested right now and we are having a lot of conversations with them about using chunks of our footage in specific Wikipedia articles to illustrate topics that are taking place in our different shoots.
People have tried to convince me that we should also accept shorter videos. That’s something I would consider. But, Rahul Chittella, the director of the shoot we did in India, told me recently that 24 hours is our USP – I’d never heard that acronym before, have you?
MR: Yes, I have, and how sweet that you hadn’t. It’s your Unique Selling Point, and I think he’s right. You must hang on to it. You can cut up the footage in different ways, but it [the 24 hour format] is very precious and very interesting.
At the UnionDocs event [a recent panel where I was on a platform with Rahul Chittella and Khairani Barokka from Global Lives], there was a great moment when someone in the audience asked a question that I think we’d all been wondering about; what happens when the people you are filming are asleep, surely that’s boring? But Rahul and Kharani’s answer really convinced us that the way people sleep, whether they sleep alone, how much they get interrupted or not, and the circumstances and the length of time, all those things were precious, important information. It gave me a sense of the richness of that 24-hour approach, and the texture it offers that other kinds of video just don’t get into.
DH: It’s really true. And another aspect of the 24-hour piece that’s interesting, that Helio Ishii, the Japanese Brazilian filmmaker that I’ve worked with [has pointed out], is, if we do shorter shoots then you can do it with one person, you don’t need a whole crew. And what Helio said was that actually, that is one of the best parts of it, building this crew of volunteers, that’s very different from what [the volunteers usually] do in their professional lives. Creating that community is part of the challenge. Over and over again I’ve heard filmmakers who’ve participated say that to me – they like the 24-hour format because it’s a pretty unique challenge for them as filmmakers to produce 24 consecutive hours of good, useable, quality footage.
MR: Who are in that community of people who come together for the filming – are they media professionals, students?
DH: It’s an incredibly broad mix, pretty much any type of person who you could imagine who has ever held a video camera or worked on a video crew. We’ve had a lot of people who come from visual anthropology, visual sociology, social scientists. We’ve had independent filmmakers who do documentaries. We’ve had people who work in the equivalent of Hollywood in whatever country they’re in, doing this as something different. We’ve had music video directors and producers, who have worked for MTV. We’ve had people who have been TV news producers and directors from BBC, NHK, the BBC equivalent in Japan, ABC, the American equivalent, B92, the Serbian equivalent. We’ve had people from all of these top news networks. We’ve also had people from photography, formally trained stills photographers – and that makes a really important contribution. And students – a lot of students – film students, communication students, journalism students, translation students. You can’t forget the importance of the translator. The crew on the shoot that we did in China, the crew of twelve had members from of seven different nationalities. Same thing on the crew in Japan, that was a shoot where the crew spoke four languages between themselves. They were speaking Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and English, just in organising the shoot. That’s an aspect of Global Lives that gets people excited. Ex-pats seem to really love getting involved in this. But at the same time it’s by no means all ex-pats. Some of the shoots are 100% people from the country where the shoot is taking place. That was the case in Brazil, the US, Indonesia. Nobody flew in from any other country to do those shoots. On the other shoots it was a mix with ex-pats who flew in from neighbouring countries. But I should say, we’ve never paid for a single plane ticket for any of these shoots in ten countries around the world.
MR: Can I ask, in terms of the content, what I’ve seen is observation of the 24-hours. Is there any point within the day when the subject addresses the camera, or is observation the only mode?
DH: There are two moments where people potentially address the camera; one of them is that we do a life story interview. In the DVD [that you’ve seen] there are ten shorts that are each edited by different editors and directed by different directors and so they’re stylistically all somewhat unique and different. And the reason for that is that I didn’t really give them, kind of, overbearing direction on what to do with the footage. I just said “Hey, why don’t you just edit a short.” And a lot of them said “Oh shall we use the life story video or not?” And I said, “Well, it’s up to you.”
Some of the crews were really opposed to using the life story video and others really want to use it. So, if you watch the short from say, Serbia or India, those ones really draw heavily on the life story interview. The other teams all did those interviews but they didn’t choose to use them as much in their shorts.
The reason that we’ve started doing those life story interviews is that in Brazil we collaborated with a group called The Museum of the Person, and The Museum of the Person has a whole library, a collection, of life stories. They’ve video taped more than 6,000 people’s life stories. Those range from rural farmers in Brazil to most of the recent presidents of the country who have all put their stories on video. So that’s how we got to doing that.
On the San Francisco shoot we told James, the cable car driver, to pretend that we weren’t there as filmmakers, just ignore us completely, do everything he possibly can not to talk to us and I think that in the end, I personally felt that that created an unnecessary amount of awkwardness and distance. And on pondering it a little bit more deeply I thought, hey, this is a joke because what we’re really documenting here is a record of an interaction between a film crew, a camera and the person over the course of a 24 hour period. We’re not really documenting the person’s exact day and why not just tell the film crew that if they want to talk to the person, talk to them. And if the person wants to talk to the person holding the video camera, why not? And so that’s kind of what we determined, that was my decision.
[Here I talked a bit about how the change in approach Harris describes enacts a shift that happened over decades in US documentary making from the ‘fly on the wall’ of Direct Cinema (Richard Leacock and Fred Wiseman) to the Participatory mode (Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore). ]
MR: So after San Francisco you set a template which required a life story and required observational filming, but allowed the subject to acknowledge the filmmakers.
DH: So yes, but some of the filmmakers didn’t want to do that. And these are again, stylistic differences that you can see in the shorts, as well as different choices about how much to engage the participant, the people we videotape. We try to call them participants instead of subjects as a subtle nod to the fact that they’re actively participating in this, they’re not just being observed.
It’s hard to generalise about which filmmakers decided that they wanted to talk to the participant on screen during the 24 hours and which ones didn’t, but some of them did not want to do that and some of them did. On the Brazil shoot one of the co-directors decided to do almost an interview at one point during the day, and it’s when Rael, the participant, is just playing guitar and hanging out on his bed. And so he just asked him,“Why did you write that song?” And so then Rael talks to Helio, one of the directors, and they just have a conversation. And actually there’s one point in the Brazil shoot, I think I show up on camera for a little while and I kind of have a conversation. Because Rael, the guy that we’re videotaping, just invited me over to have a drink of some wine that he was having and so I had a drink with him on camera for a couple of minutes.
MR: So what are the requirements of those who make Global Lives recordings?
DH: We actually have on our website a whole document called ‘Proposal Guidelines’, that’s the guidelines for how to write a proposal if you want to get funding from us for a shoot and in that we lay out the guidelines. But a lot of that is more about making sure that the crew is technically capable of executing it before we send them money. It isn’t really so much about restricting the creative side. I just figured we’d get the best possible outcome if we gave each crew as much creative license as possible.
So, you know, on the crews where I was actually there, I told the camera operators, “I’m not the director, you’re the director. You as camera operator make creative choices about how you want to document this.” And so I think as a result of that we got a lot of really creative angles and creative takes in Brazil.
Another requirement is that you do a life story interview, the day or the week or the month before the 24-hour shoot, that interview can be any style you want. I’m sure you can imagine that a life story interview done by an anthropologist is very different than one done by a journalist, which is also very different from one done by a fiction film person.
We had guidelines from the Museum of the Person for that but I told people, “You don’t need to follow those in any kind of strict way. You just need to be there and interview them in an open-ended way; as long as the person wants to talk let them talk.”
The only guidelines for the 24 hours are to get 24 hours on camera, preferably more, and try – try is the key word – not to let the person go off-screen for more than 30 seconds at a time. That’s not always possible because not everyone was okay with being videotaped while they were in the bathroom, so we definitely had moments where someone was in the bathroom, you know, they videotaped their feet maybe if they were in a stall that we could videotape under or we would videotape the door handle, and that would be the approach to dealing with those kind of moments.
And we did say you have to videotape the person sleeping. I got a lot of eye rolling and weird responses to that, but they did do it.
MR: And is each shoot edited in the location it’s filmed in or edited back in the States?
DH: So the editing of those shorts that you have on DVD was done in a lot of different places. The only ones that were done in the States were the San Francisco one that was shot here and the ones from Malawi and China because after the shoots, the filmmakers who took on the editing – Jason Price and Ya-Hsuan Huang – were located in New York. Tokyo was another important site for us. One of our most important partners in getting the shoots done was Temple University, Japan, which is actually an American university campus in Tokyo and they have a great media lab there and a communications department with two professors – Irene Herrera and Ron Carr –who actually went out and did shoots. They brought in some money from their department to cover their travel expenses and to cover some of their co-faculty and students’ travel expenses. Temple University, Japan was involved in the shoots in Japan, China, Kazakhstan and Lebanon. “Involved in” meaning either their students or their professors went to those locations. In none of those cases was it exclusively their students or professors, but they did provide some of the equipment and some of the tools, and much of the leadership needed to get the shoots done. At the same time, in all of these cases, there were independent crew members involved who found out about Global Lives through the web and linked up with others who they had never met before to form the crews.
The shorts from India, Indonesia, Serbia and Brazil, were all edited in those same countries, and for those shoots, the crews were primarily or entirely from the local regions.
MR: But who edits the 24 hours together?
DH: Well, there’s not much editing.
MR: No, I guess it’s not. It’s just compilation really, of each take?
DH: Yes. You know, you have to picture lock it, so you’ve got to make sure that there’s no inappropriate stuff like no full frontal nudity. We did have to cut out some questionable bits from the San Francisco and Malawi shoots, so that was one part of it. And the other part is just making sure that , you know, you’re not including colour bars and stuff like that. If there are any parts that have really egregious technical errors like the lens cap was on or something like that, take that out. So that was all done in the same locations I mentioned before, so basically all over the world, yes.
And that was hell because when I got all the footage here to try to set it up for the installations, you’re dealing with five or six different flavours of HD video – PAL, NTSC, 1080p, 1080i. It was horrible.
MR: David, are you on this project full-time?
DH: No, I have another job that’s about half my time. Luckily it’s pretty flexible.
MR: To come back to exhibition – what’s happened in the exhibitions you’ve done so far? How have they worked?
DH: Our classic exhibit consist of ten screens, each showing 24 hours of unedited footage of the daily life of a different individual. We’ve done everything from outdoor four-meter-high projections at the United Nations University in Tokyo to art galleries with 42 inch LCD screens set up around a room.
The biggest show we’ve done so far was a four-month run at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco earlier this year. The opening night party turned out more than 1,100 people. If you’re not familiar with the space, YBCA bills itself as the top venue in San Francisco for new media art work and takes particular pride in showcasing both established and emerging artists that are pushing the limits of contemporary arts. The room that we held our opening party in happens incidentally to be the same room that Steve Jobs rents out when he wants to launch a new iPhone or iPad. As artists-in-residence at the Center, we got the room for free, which, with its phenomenal A/V capacities was an incredible blessing…
But if you go back to 2004, the first real architectural concept we developed was to do a circle where the viewer is surrounded by ten video screens and individual rooms where you’re looking at one side of each projection screen and you just can see one person at a time and then a central room where you can see all ten of them at once. That was the original concept and we haven’t built that yet. The reason we haven’t built it yet is because we haven’t quite found the perfect space to do that. Unfortunately the original designs that we came up with, just kind of pie in the sky thinking about what could build, required a pretty large circular area and so far we haven’t been offered up a space that big in a cultural institution that’s capable of hosting and publicising and really doing an exhibit.
MR: You clearly need the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern…
DH: Yes, well if you can arrange that…I sent them an email and they told me that it’s booked until 2014.
MR: I guess that sort of brings me to nuts and bolts stuff about where you find the money to put the time and effort into those things. You seem to be a consummate partnership and development person. Have you just done a lot of legwork going around trying to get support for the project with foundations, etc.? How does that all work?
DH: Definitely, there’s been a lot of legwork – that would be a correct statement. At a certain point we crossed a threshold where it wasn’t me going out and sort of begging and borrowing and, you know, trying to convince people that it was a good idea to collaborate with Global Lives. We got past this kind of snowball moment where it is essentially me receiving more emails from people who want to collaborate than I could possibly even respond to.
And it’s hard to say which one of those periods was more or less work intensive but yes, in the beginning, there was lots and lots of convincing people that we are for real and that it was actually going to happen. And then after we got five shoots done, I entered a phase in my life where there wasn’t much money. I had finished my graduate degree in Brazil. My living expenses for the first three years of this project were mainly being paid by my scholarships to graduate school. So I was essentially shirking my responsibilities as a graduate student and I was in a very open-ended Masters degree programme in Brazil. I just had one year of course work and then a year-and-a-half where all I had to do was research and write my Master’s thesis.
And I spent so much of my time while I was in Brazil and should been studying, working on Global Lives instead.
And it’s funny because I’ve talked to people at Wikipedia as well and I’ve given talks at a couple of different Wikipedia conferences and the interesting thing is that I think that ‘Wikipedians’ and the people that work at that foundation have seriously discovered that a very significant part of Wikipedia is written by graduate students who are procrastinating on their real work.
And that’s something that Global Lives has in common with Wikipedia. It was much more exciting for me to talk to all these people in all these other countries, and meet with all these new Brazilian filmmakers, and network and get Global Lives done, than it was to be sitting at home alone reading or writing…
MR: That makes sense.
DH: Then it got to this point where we had five shoots done, we hadn’t spent much money at all on those shoots, we’d only gotten one grant and then I was broke and I started realising that I really needed to raise money in a more serious way to get it done. But the first money that came that enabled us to do the first couple of shoots was all from individuals. I asked every family member, every friend, basically every person I had ever met for money for this. And, you know, that generated some small number of thousands of dollars. And then after that I pitched for a grant from the Black Rock Arts Foundation. They’re a pretty “out there” arts foundation. They fund specifically civic and participatory art and were started by the people who started the art and music festival called Burning Man. The grant was specifically to fund art that was in the spirit of Burning Man but not at Burning Man, not for Burning Man. To take that spirit of collaboration and civic-minded and participatory art away from Burning Man and out to the world. So I’ve been to that festival a few times, and they loved the idea of Global Lives, so they gave us our first real grant from a real foundation and that was $7,500 and I think pretty much every year since then, 2007, so every year for the past four years, we’ve doubled our fundraising. So 2008 we got some more grants. There’s an education foundation called the Burwen Education Foundation here in Silicon Valley, and they were really interested in the project. They gave us some really important early funds. The Adobe Foundation has been funding us for the last four years running now.
This group called the Long Now Foundation, they became a funder, and then when we did the actual exhibits they brought in other funders. We did one exhibit for another group called the Institute for the Future – my part-time employer when I’m not doing Global Lives. So they commissioned one exhibit then the exhibit we did at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts allowed us to bring in some additional sponsors. The Consulate of Switzerland in San Francisco became a sponsor because they really liked that one of our collaborating photographers on the shoot in Kazakhstan was Swiss, so they paid for his flight to come out to San Francisco, and gave us some funding for that.
MR : On a different subject; given that you’re working with a distributed group of collaborators, is there anything to say about the communication methods you use? What have you found works? What hasn’t worked? Are you doing anything particularly noteworthy in how you keep in touch with people?
DH: Well I’ll tell you one that doesn’t work. Video does not work! You know, we really wasted a lot of time early on in the organisation trying to do these video conferences. I’ve tried every single system and every single web service there is that claims to allow you to do multi-party video conferencing and none of it works. It’s totally unpredictable. It’s not like it’s always the person in Indonesia or the person who’s in the global South or in the less wealthy country who’s got the bad connection, sometimes it’s me, my apartment in San Francisco, something’s wrong with the internet connection.
So doing big meetings with people from all over the world all at the same time stinks. It doesn’t work. No, it definitely doesn’t work with video. It sometimes works with voice but it’s really inefficient. And the problem is, what’s the alternative? Our alternative is to use the service called Base Camp and that’s not perfect but it does a lot of things for us.
We also use our own website. We have a set of forums up there. We do a lot of one-on-one Skype calls. Sometimes we’ve got three or four people on Skype but I’ve pretty much kind of avoided doing big multi-person Skype, even just voice calls. Because there’s always someone who’s got a crying baby in the background and there’s always someone who’s got like a helicopter landing next to them and it just never works.
MR: Sure, yes.
DH: Wikis are good, Wikis are useful, Google documents, Google spreadsheets are really useful. We actually use a lot of Google documents and Google spreadsheets. And, you know, for a while everyone who was involved had at least met in person, someone else who was involved somewhere along the line, so there was like this kind of chain of face to face relationships that I could trace my relationship to people to. But then that ended and so it’s now a lot of my best collaborators are people that I work with for years without ever having met in person. I don’t know if you read Clay Shirky, but his thing is the internet and all this connectivity around the world. It allows me to meet other people who are totally bizarrely interested in the same things I am, who I never would have met.
MR: Yes. I think in my first [blog] post mentioning Global Lives I said it was an example of a project based on Clay Shirky’s idea of the “ridiculously easy group formation” that the web allows.
MR: You’ve mentioned a Global Lives collective. I thoughtperhaps it would be good to ask you to describe the management structure of the project.
DH: So, the Global Lives collective is a group of all of the volunteers who have been involved in the project. We define it very loosely as – people are eligible to become part of the collective if they have spent more than 24 hours of their time volunteering for the Global Lives Project. It’s a kind of symbolic amount of time – the time that people whose lives we record give.
In reality, the people who are actively participating in the collective are the producers and the directors, and some of the lead translators and other production leads from the different shoots that we’ve done. Along with some of the people who have helped us design, and push the project forward at different points.
And so that is a very international thing. There are also some institutional partners that have become really important in the organisation, I think I mentioned a lot of them before; Temple University in Japan, the Museum of the Person in Brazil, the Long Now Foundation here in California. A number of other universities; the United Nations University, the University of Indonesia is involved bringing a lot of students to the translation project; so those partners are also important. We also are incorporated as a legal entity as a non-profit organisation or an NGO in the United States.
The Non-Profit is based in California. We don’t have an office – it’s a virtual organisation. Most of our possessions are in my living room. I have so many hard drives running usually in my living room that I barely need a heater in my house in the winter. (Laughter).
We’re actually trying to move in to some sort of real office space in the next couple of months because we’re going to hire a second employee. [Note: two months after this interview was conducted, Global Lives moved into a coworking space called pariSoma that is shared with dozens of other small organizations in San Francisco.]
So the Board of Directors in California is another body that has an important role in governing the organisation. The Board of Directors deals more with things like fundraising, making sure the organisation doesn’t go bankrupt, dealing with questions around staff. Technically the Board of Directors has responsibility for the organisation fulfilling its mission.
MR: Do you undertake to make editorial decisions and decisions around directions for the project through that Collective?
DH: Yes. We’re still developing how our governance structure works. We had a meeting this February in San Francisco when we did our exhibit launch at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts with people here in person from each of the ten country shoots, from those crews.
And then we also had other people participate in this meeting of the Collective via Skype, and by sending in their ideas and comments beforehand. That was the first real formal meeting of the Global Lives collective – that was in February 2010. Some of the Board of Directors members came to that meeting of the collective and also the report that the Collective produced out of that meeting went to the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors talked about it as well. And then it was up to me as Executive Director to really synthesise and build a consensus from the Board of Directors and the Collective about the ways in which we’ll be moving forward over the next two years.
So it’s a process that changes and grows. Before February of last year, before that meeting, the main way that the Collective had been active in decision making was in evaluating proposals that we received from film makers who wanted to do additional shoots. So any time after the first two shoots – any time we got a proposal from a person or rather from a crew because really a proposal comes from a crew rather than a specific person – those proposals come with budgets and we make small grants to each crew to help cover their costs. And the Global Lives Collective – the production committee would vote on those proposals.
There wasn’t a lot of heated debate but there were a lot of questions around if this was the right person to be videotaping, if this crew had a good enough plan of how they’re going to execute it. Do they have the technical skills needed to execute it? Do they have a big enough crew with the right expertise? So the Collective is also involved in that.
What we’re planning to do this year is – right now we do have one member of the Collective who serves on the Board of Directors. And so that’s the way the Collective interfaces with the board and that right now is Jason Price who was the Director of the shoot in Malawi. And we’ll be having additional members of the Collective sitting on the Board in the coming year, hopefully more.
The biggest obstacle to the collective working together is that we’re all over the world. It’s really hard to have meetings so most of it happens by email. You know we’ve tried and tried to have video conferences but it’s very, very challenging.
MR: What can you share in terms of your plans or strategy for the next phase of the project now that you’ve completed those ten 24 hour films. What’s next?
DH: What’s next is really about extending our audience and expanding our impact. So, there are five key programs that we’re working on right now that push towards those two goals.
The first of them is doing more exhibits. And there are two ways that we can do exhibits; one is exhibits that are coordinated by the Global Lives project staff – it’s a very small staff, just two part time employees. And we’re working on a number of exhibits. Right now we’ve got leads on exhibits in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, in France, the UK, Hungary, Serbia, Brazil, India and Japan. So those are the places that I’m actively talking to people about doing exhibits.
MR: And that would be touring what was shown at the Yerba Buena Arts Centre?
DH: Some of it yes and some of it no. The problem is that shipping projectors and video equipment all over the world is not the most cost effective way to do an exhibit. So we’re still building our model for how we’re going to make the exhibit travel. And at the same time that I’m working on organising these exhibits in other places and working with partners, we’ve also decided that we really want our partner organisations – be they the film makers who are involved in our shoots or just other people that want to do exhibits – we want them to just do the exhibits and we don’t want to stand in the way of that. So what I’m working on now is building an online guide for how other people can do their own exhibits, so that they can just do it.
They can come up with their own structure and maybe they want to involve their own architect, maybe they’re working in some different kind of space or environment that we hadn’t thought of. I want people to adapt and change, in this open source spirit that we want to share and have people keep innovating, and building and changing the exhibits that we do.
MR: What kind of license do you have on the material? It’s not Creative Commons content?
DH: It is Creative Commons.
MR: It is? Okay. So, I guess the work is about developing a structure whereby people can access content, and that can be done in a way so you guys aren’t having to do an awful lot of work to make content available to people?
DH: Precisely. But I wasn’t quite done answering the last question.
MR: Continue please.
DH: You asked about what next? The exhibit is just one part of it. So in addition to doing more exhibits we’re really excited about expanding our website, so that when you come to our website you can have an experience that’s as good and in some ways even better than coming to an exhibit in terms of immersing you in the footage – you get lost in the footage in the same way that you can get lost in Wikipedia, reading an article – we want you to get lost in Global Lives videos. And I just found out yesterday that it looks like we’ll be getting a pretty significant grant to work on the website and the web build.
Number three of the projects I’m working on is a feature length documentary. And we’re looking to build a partnership right now with an established production house to help us edit and distribute a feature length documentary based on the footage that we’ve already shot.
DH: Number four is education, and that ties in to all of the other programmes. So getting teachers to use the DVD – the feature length documentary that we’re making – in their classrooms, along with a secondary DVD that will have specifically educationally tailored content on it: lesson plans and curriculum to go with the video.
And also building resources for educators on our website and at the actual exhibits that we have, building capacity so that we can receive groups of students with their teachers and lead them through the exhibits. And create experiences for teachers and students in that way.
And last but not least of the programmes we’re working on is to do more shoots. A lot of the people who already did these shoots all over the world are really excited about doing more. As I mentioned before, it’s been demonstrated to be addictive to do Global Lives shoots. There are three of us, myself included, who’ve been on the crews of three different shoots, and then there’s another handful of people that have been on two different shoots. And there are a lot of people who want to do more shoots in different places.
MR: You’re really taking advantage of the material you’ve got. So will the shoots continue to work with your breakdown of the world population? Will it be a continuation, reflecting that, kind of, reality of global life in terms of the demographic breakdown?
DH: That’s a great question and it’s one that we’re grappling with right now. One of the teams – the team in Serbia – actually has been raising funds to do a series of five more shoots in the Balkans in a geographically specific sense of doing shoots. One of the directors of the shoot that we did in Brazil is really interested in doing a series of shoots all on the same day with domestic workers or maids in different countries. And there are other proposals over the years to do a series of shoots all about, say, bus drivers in public or transportation workers like James Bullock, the cable car driver that we recorded in San Francisco, or people living with disabilities like Rumi who uses a wheelchair, in Tokyo.
So, there’s a lot of interest in expanding along thematic lines. And at the same time I think it’s very important that we not lose this really important element of who we are as an organisation, which is that while some of us are based in the global North in wealthier countries, we’ve really made a big effort to collect footage from all over the world in a representative way.
And we really want to keep that up and one way that has been suggested to do that is essentially to take the same demographic research that we did to produce the set of 10 profiles of individuals. But instead build an algorithm that uses that same data to help filmmakers to keep adding to the overall diversity of the pool of a potentially infinite number of people that we could keep video taping.
So to make that more concrete, what this algorithm, if we go forward with this, would look like, how you would experience it as a film maker, is that you would come to our website and you would say “I’m a film maker and I’m sitting here in Wales and I’m willing to travel up to 100 miles to do a Global Lives shoot – what kind of person should I videotape?” and the website would tell you that your contribution to the Global Lives library of footage would make the library more representative of the world if you were to videotape, let’s just say, a woman in a rural area. And then it might give you a list of different occupations that we don’t have yet represented in our library, and how to figure out how to build the representativity of the overall collection of footage. Does that make sense?
MR: It does make sense. Something that I must say from my own experience – I mentioned doing that BBC project in the 90’s [Video Nation] – and when I saw the promo on how you were selecting representatives from the world population, it was so similar to the approach we took on Video Nation to looking at the UK. We said, “If we’re going to have…” as we did “50 people from across the UK, who should they be?” And we worked out that x percentage should be over 60, 50% female, 5 should be in Scotland, 3 in Wales, etc.
But actually, then we found that that representativeness fell down in some ways for us, because, for example, thinking about ethnic diversity in the UK, if you took that representative approach you would have among 50 people (at that time) perhaps only 2 who were Asian British. And actually we wanted to produce a better reflection of those lives that were poorly reflected elsewhere in the media.
So we came up in the end with a mixture, a level of representativeness, and then a kind of attitude that we were trying to be true to certain important themes of contemporary life. We looked at that representativeness, and that was very informative, we divided the population into quintiles – you did the same thing – which told us that eg a fifth must be earning less than £10,000. We took those understandings, and we kind of threw it all up in the air and said, “Yes, but there are also contemporary themes that we want to address” [through who we select.]
And I think it’s possible to do both those things. I’m thinking about your thematic days, that actually you could say you’ll do a thematic day that might be to do with climate change. But you could also be saying “We want that representativeness going on.” One can slice other themes across that representative sample.
MR: So, one more big question for you. We’ve touched on it a number of times but it would be interesting to hear what your overall thoughts are about doing this project as a collaborative project, how that’s gone, the virtues or challenges around that way of working.
DH: Well, when I was originally coming up with the idea for this I remember I talked to one person who said, “Just get on a plane. Just get a video camera and go do it yourself.”
And it was an interesting idea. I mean, you look at projects like Baraka for instance, which was shot all over the world by a very professional crew, of people from wealthier countries and doing it with amazing equipment, and that’s one approach that I could have taken to this. I wasn’t an experienced filmmaker at all though so that was not really an avenue that would have been available to me. And, given my experience in grassroots social movements, like the World Social Forum, and having lived in a cooperative student house when I was in college, I thought, “Why do I need so much money and lots of fancy equipment to do this? Why don’t I just start talking to people about collaborating and doing it together?”
It’s a very different approach and in the end it probably took a lot longer than it would have taken had I just worked my butt off somehow to raise the money to go fly around the world myself and try and do this. But at the same time there’s no way I would go back and change the way I did it. The way I did it of course being this massive collaboration with hundreds and hundreds – possibly approaching a thousand volunteers including all the translators that have volunteered their time.
I’m really happy that it’s been a collaboration and it continues to be a collaboration because we have a community. We’ve created a community of people – I can’t remember if I told you this before – one of the things I love is logging on to Facebook and I see that I have 36 friends in common with someone that I have never met in Serbia. I’m wondering, “How do we have 36 friends in common when we’ve never met in person? Who are these people?” And I look and it’s all the Global Lives producers and directors and translators from all over the world. So these connections are happening – without my doing – that are allowing the project to have the incredible potential that it never would have had if it were not a collaboration.
Just yesterday the producer of a shoot that we did in Indonesia made a presentation to the National Teacher’s Association of Indonesia. And she’s working with a teacher now and they’re planning to use the Global Lives video as part of the curriculum in all the schools all over Indonesia. So that’s the kind of thing that never could have happened if this were a traditional top down video or film production. The translation itself – we’re talking about many hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of translation work that has been put in to this by the volunteers. We’re talking around about definitely over a million if not multiple millions of dollars worth of volunteer expert time that has been donated over the course of the six years that I’ve been working on this project with all these collaborators.
I think the scope and the scale of the project and the fact that it’s still heavily driven by volunteers – the volunteers all know that I’m not packing away bags of money from this. I wasn’t paid for the first three years I did this and I’m getting minimum wage now, but I’m happy to do it and I’m loving it – and happily I’ve got another job that pays me a little more.
It’s so gratifying to see this community and then also to see the community of people collaborating on other projects. The director of the shoot we did in India and the producer of the shoot we did in Indonesia both happened to at the same time apply to film school in New York. And they both started film school at the same time, about a year and a half ago, and they became really good friends and in New York and worked on each other’s projects together. And there are many, many more stories of that sort of the Global Lives group connecting in different places. An Indian woman who was part of our crew in India has moved to Australia and is now friends with the Australian woman who was living in Japan and helped on the shoot we did in Japan. So all these connections are happening and I feel like it’s a really wonderful community.
I think that the whole process has really demonstrated to me and to a lot of people that – in the same way that Wikipedia has created an encyclopedia that’s now been scientifically demonstrated to be superior to Encyclopedia Britannica, and it’s all written by volunteers – I think that Global Lives is an example of something that the traditional ways that people have been producing media and producing film in our society really couldn’t have done. Maybe, if you just had a really big pot of money you could have done something kind of like Global Lives but you’d get nothing similar to the enthusiasm and the drive of these volunteers, who are just taking it upon themselves to do their own screenings and their own exhibits, to produce new shoots and to use their own money to do their own projects in different places.
I think that generating the collaboration has been harder and perhaps slower in some ways than it would have been had I had access to tons of money to pay people to do everything. But I think it’s been much more gratifying and to me really importantly a demonstration of the power of doing stuff outside of the market, doing stuff outside of these traditional market models of media production, really a demonstration that people can collaborate and do things that are really exciting without tons of money.
MR: Yes, absolutely. It’s about process not just about product isn’t it? It’s about the process of community building, and a critical reflection on Big Media representation, I guess.
DH: Yes. I had a meeting yesterday with a funder here in San Francisco and he runs a foundation here and has funded a lot of media projects. He really likes to give to smaller organisations that are built on volunteers, and he said something to me that I think was really wise and insightful: “When you first get into the pool you can swim pretty far under water but after you’ve been swimming under water for a while you will eventually have to start breathing regularly.” And that metaphor is pretty appropriate to where the organisation is at now. We’ve got close to a thousand volunteers involved and we have had no full time staff. And we’re getting to the point of expanding where, to keep the collaboration alive and to keep the collaborative nature of this going, we do need an infrastructure, a basic infrastructure. We need a physical office where we can keep our hard drives and know that they’re not going to get stolen, and where our interns can come and work together and be in the same place.
So right now I think the big challenge for the coming years is going to be to maintain the collaborative nature of the project, to continue on its path of having nearly 99% of the labour of Global Lives to come from volunteers, but at the same time build a sustainable organisational infrastructure that can support those volunteers and ensure that people aren’t duplicating the same work, that peoples’ wires aren’t getting crossed, that two people aren’t planning the same exhibit in two countries right next to each other when they could be working together, except they don’t even know who each other are, etc.
That funder who I mentioned in particular is putting funds specifically towards our web presence, because he really believes that the website is the critical thing here for us to keep the community going. It’s through the website that we’ll be able to maintain this collaborative, volunteer-driven spirit of the organisation, by providing that virtual infrastructure to this community we’ve created.
MR: Yes, absolutely, and also to be able to show the project more widely by showing the kind of riches that you’re generating.