Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

Located in Portland, Maine, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies offers a 15-week immersion program for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in documentary writing, photography, or radio.
This blog is an update of current Salt students insights and musings.


Story hunting

When prospective students or interested listeners check out the Salt Institute's Web site, they get to hear well-thought out audio documentaries and see a lot of great black and white photos and tightly written narratives about life in Maine. It's exciting to see such amazing work, and to know there's a school out there pushing to make students do their best to tell honest stories about people whose voices rarely get heard in the media.

But what you don't hear or see on the site is the tremendous amount of struggle the students here go through to put these pieces together (and I can say "we", because I hear about these challenges every day from other Salties). I mean, it's one thing to have a compelling idea, a social issue, or an amazing person that you want to talk about. It's quite another to get that story. Sometimes, an idea turns out to be completely unfeasible because of how we're telling our stories here—we all have limited time and resources, and that means focusing our ideas a little more than we might if we were, say, writing a book on the subject. Other times, a person is less than receptive about sharing his or her life with you. It's understandable, sure, but it can derail an otherwise successful piece just as it's building good velocity. Other times, you can't find your subject at all and you have to abandon a good idea because the main character of your story is M.I.A. Then toss in legal issues, ethical dilemmas, uncomfortable social name it, it's probably happened during a student's story.

The storytelling we do here at Salt requires a delicate process. You can never take anything you're doing here for granted, because as soon as you think you have a strong grip on a story, it can slip out of your hands and your control. So one of the big ideas you learn here is how to be incredibly flexible. That can mean being prepared at any minute to tell the story in a different way, or it can even mean giving up on a failing project and running full throttle toward something else.

It's a humbling lesson. I can't say that it's an easy lesson, though, or one that doesn't really hack me off sometimes (You try running around the state of Maine for eight hours trying to find a lead on a subject, only to come back empty-handed, and see how you feel. It's not as fun as it sounds, trust me). But what keeps me going during this whole escapade of driving around the state, cold calling, researching, and tearing out my hair is the idea that somehow, every semester, every student manages to find a great story. These are the stories that hit the Web site and hang in the gallery. This is the stuff that draws you to attend this school or at least follow its progress in the world of journalism. Just knowing those stories are around means there are stories everywhere, and that people eventually tell them. Because, really, (and I know this will sound obvious) these aren't our stories. They are someone else's. And when a subject tells his or her story, he or she is giving a gift to us. And once the end of the semester hits, and we've shared our subject's story with others in the best way we know how...well...that's our gift to our subject. And that's what we're here to learn about.

We all just have to remember at this stage of the process not to lose heart. If we just keep working hard, it will come. It has to. At least, that's what I have to keep hoping.


A little bit of inspiration...

I know most of you will still be chasing your stories on Monday, but what do you say to a little bit of The UP Series in the student lounge?

WHO: Anyone who chooses to attend
WHAT: A viewing of the first disc of The Up Series: Seven Up/ Seven Plus Seven. (92 minutes)
WHEN: Monday, October 1st. 7:00.
WHERE: The Salt Student Lounge, 2nd Floor
WHY: Because it's a good documentary, and you'll be smarter for having watched it. So I hear.

We could even grab a little food if you want. Just a thought. Be there, or be somewhere else entirely.


Today I spent an hour transcribing six minutes of an interview with my subject T during which we had traipsed through the woods skirting his home. While in the field, we stopped intermittently for T to point out a landmark here and there, but we were on the move most of the time, his three year old son either running downhill ahead of us or tugging at his father's arm to go someplace new.

Due to all the walking, there are times on the tape when T steps away from me, and--in the middle of a conversation about felted props in the shapes of giant mushrooms--his voice becomes gravelly, distant, and completely incomprehensible. At these moments in the tape, despite multiple rewind and close-listening attempts on my part, I am left to transcribe our conversation as follows: "[unintelligible]." There are a lot more "[unintelligibles]" in this transcription than I would like (a reminder that I have to get closer to the speaker while interviewing).

Because he is not the primary subject of the interview (what with being three years old and all), T's son (C) is generally noted as speaking in the background. I have noted most of C's comments, when not directly a part of the conversation at hand, as follows: (C talks in background), (C yells), (C talking), (C yells again), (C repeats a phrase over and over again), (C unintelligible), (C mumbles and laughs). I did however include a specific discussion he and I had about big and little Leggos, as well as multiple instances of him instructing T that it is time to leave.

At one point, while his father is explaining to me the properties of a piece of foam sprayed in gray and flouresent paint, C insists on telling me that "it got crashed!!!" C tells me this in a high pitched squeal four times while I hold the microphone a useless five feet away from his dad, who is waxing on "unintelligibly" in the background. Finally, I look at C and respond to his repeated phrase: "what happened?" I ask, pointing at the broken piece of foam. T interjects, "can you say 'an ogre at it'?" C says, "o-er aoow in CRASH!" C shines his flashlight on the piece of foam and explains to me that it resembles a big Leggo.

Even though his voice registers ten thousand decibels higher than everyone else's on my tape and nearly blows my eardrums each time he screams out that it's time to leave, I really like having C on the tape and in the record. There's something about his incessant badgering that has begun to strike me as downright funny. At least, it seems that way when I'm typing it up.


About Salt's Blog

Welcome! The purpose of Salt’s blog is to provide students with the opportunity to connect with their fellow Salties. During Salt’s fifteen-week program, students are able to use this blog to share their thoughts and experiences through the written word, images, and sound.

This is a student driven blog and, as such, contains the students’ perspectives rather than those of Salt’s staff and faculty.

If you have any questions regarding this blog or Salt’s programs of study, please visit our website or contact us at

photo by Molly Meyers, 2002