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.


Low Salt Self Esteem

i have low Salt self esteem today. i feel like my wheels are spinning, im not getting anywhere. i wonder if this radio thing is a skill i can learn, or if it's maybe a talent i just dont have. maybe this is just a plane old, lame old, cliched quarter life crisis. the funny thing is that something is going to take off any minute and my story telling esteem will be soaring again. This sitting and waiting - for people to get back in touch, for meeting dates to draw near... makes me feel like i'm missing something, missing out on something.

Documenting My Decision

I've found myself in both bingo halls and Buddhist temples this past week. Let me explain to you a little about how I arrived here.

I drove out here from Michigan a day before classes began at Salt after squeezing all of my belongings into a 10x10 storage unit and leaving them behind. I had made a conscious decision to come to Maine with a clean slate and to open myself up to a new set of experiences and skills that I had believed would be discovered in the field. Since arriving, I have been living in my lightly furnished room atop Munjoy Hill, only surrounded by very few of my personal belongings. I've taken notice to the fact that the walls of all apartments on Munjoy Hill have been cast with a vibrant array of colors by their occupants and my apartment is no exception. These mismatched pale pink and yellow walls that encapsulate my bedroom became a blank template for me to decorate with mementos of my experience here at Salt. Unintentionally, I have created a visual timeline of my progresses here and one that documents my cultural exploration of Maine. It began as I posted above my bed the first Polaroid images that I had shot well before 8 a.m. on my first Saturday in the program while in Gardiner, Maine. I had been inside the A-1 diner with my group at the start of our mini ethnography exercise that Jessica described, and it was when I really recall the reality of my decision to move and attend Salt sinking in. Slowly, I have added to these images as each moment progresses and I become more deeply enmeshed in the life of Mainers. Next to these series of Polaroid images I have included my winning Bingo card that I earned in Old Orchard Beach as I followed a story into the lives of residents of this currently sleepy summer tourist destination. Next to this hangs an image that was handed to me two days ago as a gift from a Monk at the only Buddhist temple in the state of Maine that my writing partner and I spent some time getting to know. Today, I have added an image that my fellow Salt student, Erica, very kindly printed and mailed to me of myself that she had shot on my first non-Salt related Portland outing.

I look forward to furthering my explorations into the area and simultaneously collecting images that represent these experiences to hang on the wall. Perhaps I will use these additions to later include in the blog and to create a visual reference for you all as to just where this semester has led me. I’m a photo student, so that’s how I should be telling my stories anyway, no? :]



After a year of leisurely making lattes in Chi-town, and memorizing bones and how the human heart functions (for nursing school prerequisites)... I'm not sure how I even ended up here besides whimsy and a fat loan, and the fact that I was seriously missing taking photographs and living in a dark room, but here it goes:

So how DOES one find a subject? How does one go about finding someone interesting, someone willing, someone, perhaps, Compelling, to photograph day in and day out? And, ok, lets just say you find someone that is willing to let you "tell their story," is even more scary once you find that person knowing that you need to do it well.... How do we go about trusting ourselves and each other to do the right thing, to be honest, yet empathetic? And, what is the end result in telling these stories? Do they work to break down boundaries between people? Do they create understanding? What happens when a photograph is framed and put on a wall out of context? Is it really ok to put your camera in the face of a grieving woman? Is it ok to sell that photograph? Is it really alright to continue to contact a person you might want to document who keeps telling you no? Am I the only neurotic one?

A few bad things: I should tell you that my stupid enlarger wasn't set up and then didn't work. That frustrated me, and though I tried to exercise patience, What the hell? By the end of the third week (out of fifteen) I finally have a lovely enlarger that works and looks like a space ship. But for three weeks I could not tell if it was my ineptitude at printing (which it so very well may be) or a bum enlarger. I definitely felt, at moments, like the "dreaded eleventh student." Um, yikes.

Then, I think I have several good leads, friends of friends of friends, you know, interesting people doing interesting things, and I make a plan to drive to Bar Harbor to meet with people, and when I say a plan, I mean, I made verbal agreements with two different folks, and by the time I get to the lovely Bar Harbor (after driving in some crazy rain and fog) all agreements are off. No, I did not cry, Neil, but that is only because I had done enough crying already due to the fact that my sweet cat had only days before been diagnosed as terminally ill and I felt incredibly guilty about dragging her in a Uhaul across the country from Chicago to Portland to go to Salt- so I was all cried out for that moment. Nevertheless, as it was the first day of the third week and we were supposed to have a story by the end of that week, I felt spending 8 hours in a car was a big fat waste of my time, contemplative and beautiful and foggy as it may have been.

But then, ah, THE INTERNETZZZZ. Yes, thats right. Thank you, thank you, the internetz for helping me find someone I would have never found otherwise. I have to say now that I've "found" my story, or my potential story, or whatever that means, I am losing more sleep than ever worrying about messing it up. However, I am thankful to be doing this kind of work in a community where I trust that peers and teachers alike are going to say what they think. So, I'm going to keep working hard, and keep trying to trust my instincts.

Now here's whats been amazing; Spending a day with awesome salt students at Jimmy Worthing's Smelt fishing camp in Gardiner for our mini-ethnography. That was a day I never anticipated having, and it was oh, so much fun. I loved every minute of it. Even buying extra socks at Rite Aid had its charm. The point is, when would I have ever had the gall to walk down to the little shacks on the river and see who was inside? NEVER. Nope, thats not the kind of person I am. Salt is bringing on the adventure. And now I am invited into someone's home. Its crazy and amazing and also, extremely difficult. I'm just waiting (chomping at the bit!) to see what happens next. Plus, I gotta find that moose.


...Now go, children!!!

Here at the SIDS, or the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, we are told that what we are doing somehow has some sort of pervasive edge to it, and I'm inclined to believe it, but to a degree. We create cultural journalism, something like the stuff you might you hear on NPR. Do you listen to NPR? Yeah, I could probably benefit from more listening, but for right now, we're learning how to talk to people. That's right. It's one thing to converse with your friends, but another to research a story idea-or person, as I like to call it- and get them to divulge, over time, little details and visions of the past they share with few other people. Of course, I'm inclined to believe, as someone close to Salt intimated today, that people are into themselves and would love nothing more than to sit down and talk about themselves. Just visit your average idiot's Myspace page; people write mini-diaries, disclose their favorite movies, music, books they've never read, because they'd love for you to believe that they're way more intelligent than they really are. Either way, we are selfish creatures, and listening objectively is something that takes patience and tolerance, virtues many people refuse to implement into their daily lives.
What we have to do is be respectfully forceful with our subjects: bug the shit out of them in a knowing, self-conscious fashion, keenly aware that though your subject of choice might love the idea of talking about themselves endlessly, they might also experience something with the semblance of annoyance or aggravation. It's a thin line, and we get to toy with both sides, all while trying to perfect our craft. Our dialogue must be formal but casual, friendly but not cloying, interested but not over-analyzed. At the moment I am following two filmmakers for my first story; I've found this particular story of special interest, as I am complete cinemaniac. However, ethically, I can't let that passion get in the way; my subjects own interests are first and foremost, and I'm OK with that.
Part of me believes that if you've got a story, you should just tell it yourself. There's an axiom in the documentary studies that suggests that you are giving a voice to the voiceless, but if people are so inclined to talk about themselves, why wouldn't they just do it on their own? Doing so, of course, might result in something reeking of pretension, but I believe that no one can tell your story better than yourself. Maybe that decision comes from the somewhat nerve-racking process of finding your story in the first place, but it is something I think about everyday. What we do here..Do we really, over the course of three months, spend quality time with our subjects? Cultural journalists who work within the framework of the documentary approach might spend a year, sometimes more, gathering up enough information to accurately portray an engaging, emotionally rich story with depth and character. At times, I wish the program at Salt were a full year, and then I realize that, very soon, I'm going to be spending fifteen hours a day logging twenty hours of tape in order to create a six minute story. It's exciting, but a kind of demanding situation I'm not completely prepared for. I've been working in a natural and organic foods Co-op for three and a half years; my subjects drink wheatgrass and think dessert is great when its a pile of oat groats sitting in front of them. Still, it's a testament to the power of people that there might, or will, I should say, always be stories available for others to tell.
That's all for now. I should be logging tape, but I've got an absolutely awful slasher movie to watch.


The streets get salty...

We radio people have been vox poppin' the streets of Portland.

Basically, we approach strangers and ask them to answer a question (a question we have undoubtedly labored over for hours and hours). Once the tape is gathered, we load it into the trusty Macs and chisel away. One minute and thirty seconds later, we've got a beautiful piece of radio. Well, I could not be further from that point. Pro-tools still scares me but I'm hoping to overcome my fears within the next 24 hours. I'll keep you posted...


holy intrusion town

today i had a major wakeup call about the level of... "intimacy" required to make or tell the kind of stories that move me the most. i always loved the black and white documentary photos I saw in LIFE magazine (though i can't remember the last time i picked up an issue, i know i had LIFE photos taped on my wall in high school). i dream of making a 6 minute radio story that.. would make people leave their engine running in the driveway to finish listening to a story. and after watching War Photographer, and reading the taking-stock paper for one of my favorite radio stories from last semester, i realize that inches away from the face of the starving baby, crying widow, ranting activist, wrinkly war veteran, dying friend, is somebody cranking and clicking a camera or holding a puffy intrusive microphone hoping to capture the juiciest/truest/revelatory moments on film or tape. obsessing over the intrusion of this work is not contructive and if i think about it too long, even paralyzing. but i think, finally, 3 weeks in, i realized this is going to be harder than i thought. how bout that, amigos?


Moda Bella

After spending time with the town's resident tailoress (Amber was born in NY but got to Maine as FAST as she could!!), we followed her suggestion and hit the local dress shop on Main Street. "You'll be won't believe you're in Maine." We weren't sure if that was the theme we were aiming for (assignment: document a story in the life and typical day of a Mainer in Gardiner) but we figured a little chat wouldn't hurt.

We stepped into Moda Bella and were instantly greeted by various ladies of different ages (all stunningly attractive). We explained that Amber had sent us and before we knew it, we were chatting with a former Miss Maine USA, a former Miss Maine International, and the dress entrepreneur to all the pageant ladies of Vacationland. And in GARDINER? Diane Tucker explained that her store had become a "destination boutique."

Many asked her to move to Portland or Bangor but she felt attached to Gardiner;

"I am good to Gardiner and Gardiner is good to me."

RaeAnn was at Moda Bella to pick out her dress for Miss Maine International 2008, a title she aims to capture since she was first runner-up last year. SOCLOSE. She talked to me for a bit and explained her coaches were on their way.....and I looked confused: "Coaches to prepare me for the pageant."

They have coaches?

Naturally they have coaches.... Let's just say that our posse learned quite a bit about the ins and outs of pageant life in Maine in that tiny shop. We watched a delegate pick her gown, we heard wistful stories of national competitions past, we understood the business ethic of a former nurse-turned-retail-queen, and heard it straight from the mouths of the team of married coaches, Heather (a former Miss Maine and Mrs Maine) and Marty;

"Some girls play soccer, some play pageants. And let me tell ya... is it NOT all about the shopping...."


Taking it to the Streets: Salt Mini-Ethno Spring 2008

My name is Jessica and I'll be blogging quite frequently. Not only do I find it cathartic, I love remembering events through writing. It is a true form of processing, brutally honest and exciting all at the same time. I'm studying radio here at Salt. I've dabbled in audio for quite some time, in the process gathering voluminous amounts of oral histories. Despite my love for recording, I always hit a block at second base. How do I edit? How do I tell a story in sound? How do I pitch? What keeps someone hooked and what makes them pick-up a magazine and block out my voice?

Salt will answer these questions and so much more. It is the first time I am surrounded by many people who love documentary as much as I do. We sat silently through our first group film-screening. I could tell this was a special audience...and I was very happy to be sitting among these people.

Well what do we do, you may wonder? Thought I'd write about our crazy first weekend as students....where faculty chooses a random town in what our radio director Rob Rosenthal migh call "East Jesus." Luckily it was a beautiful town with a lot of potential. Gardiner is about 50 minutes north of Portland nestled near Augusta. I arrived with the other women in my group (two photogs, one writer, and me bringing up the radio end) and we hit Main Street after two strong cups of coffee at the local A1 Diner. Looking for something a bit darker, we drove to the funeral parlor and knocked on the door....for 2 minutes. No answer. Sadness. I was truly interested in the person who does make-up but from the tire tracks in the driveway, it was obvious someone had departed earlier that morning. From the funeral parlor, we drove around.....outside of town and past a working farm, within town and past a home-based beautyshop. Very Steel Magnolias. Unfortunately she was closed and uninterested in speaking with us.

We went to Reny's at the suggestion of Gen, the writer in our group. A Mainer born and bred, she explained that we might want to speak with someone who had been working at Reny's for quite some time. Bingo. Sounded good to the rest to us. As we waited for Lurena, the 75yr. old who spent the past 20 yrs at the shop, we went to the community board and started making phone calls. A canine behavioral specialist. Environmentally safe pest control. Hypnotherapist. While these were potentially alluring subjects, either people were not home or were not able to accomodate four ethnographers for the day. The pest man said we wouldn't fit in his truck. Another strike.

Lurena arrived at 9:30am and suggested we speak with her cousin, the 80 yr. old cook at A1 (where we had breakfast). She called, he wasn't home. We trudged down the street feeling a bit dejected (at least I did). We walked past a pawn shop and almost walked in....but spotted fellow Salties in the window. I peeked around the corner and saw a tiny sign "Kennebec Tailoring: Locally Owned and Operated."

We walked in.....