How To Find Success as a Freelancer Despite the Pandemic
In the face of the pandemic, people worried about the future of content production. But last year, Storyhunter paid out freelancers in 122 countries from Sri Lanka, Syria, to South Sudan. Video journalists on Storyhunter did not lose work; in fact, there was an increase in payout for this Storyhunter service in 2020 versus 2019. So, what is the secret to some freelancers’ success? We spoke with US-based videographer and editor Lucas Mullikin, who filmed for 11 different companies through the Storyhunter platform last year. He tells us how he navigated an unprecedented time and hopes others are inspired to follow their passion.
Shivan: Our slogan is move and make noise. It seems like you were moving and making a lot of noise in 2020. How did you continue telling stories amidst a pandemic?
Lucas: At the beginning of 2020, there were no jobs. There was just no commercial work. All the documentaries I was working on stuttered their production. But I was actually doing work for a nonprofit in Guatemala in January and got exposed to COVID. It was an eye-opener because I hadn’t been that sick ever. Once I came out of that, I was trying to feel better and seeing what was going on. But I also felt like since I had gotten that infection I would be able to go into the field and start doing work. I and other filmmakers hit the ground running all across the country. I probably was in 26 or 28 states last year. I spent a lot of time going from LA and I was in Albuquerque, Portland, Seattle documenting unrest. I’ve always seen myself as a filmmaker and a storyteller, but last year gave me the strength to say this is exactly what I have to do. I started making connections with a lot of different activists. Even just on social media, I reached out to folks and helped them tell their stories. Storyhunter and all the different people I’ve worked for have given me the ability to go into situations without having any stories or monetary reward lined up. I’m then able to dive in.
Shivan: What precautions were you taking when you were out in the field? What were some of the big things that you were thinking about while you were really in the thick of all of these events and in these communities?
Lucas: Am I sick? Am I possibly infected with coronavirus? Am I going to kill someone that I’m interviewing? It really made me quickly reframe how I interviewed people and how I interacted with them. I spent a lot more time flying drones, staying away from certain subjects. In terms of technical, I was just not mic’ing people up. I was using different audio gear like a shotgun so I could talk with them from afar. I had a zoom lav, it’s a personal little pack you put on them. I would wipe it down really well, zip it in a plastic bag, hand it to them, they’d open it, put it on. And then when they were done, they put it back in the plastic bag. Then I would take it home and clean it. So, I was taking tons of precautions.
Shivan: What stories are you drawn to and what are your areas of expertise?
Lucas: I am an environmentalist and I am also someone who sees that we have to have equality among all of our groups on the entire planet. I focus on issues that are impacting communities that might not be well-known. I focus on environmental issues and groups that are working to protect the earth. Even right now, I’m in Minnesota working to cover Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline expansion project. I’m looking at the different communities that are almost being overlooked and not acknowledged when they are trying to fight back against this. In Arizona, I covered border wall construction, especially through indigenous lands and through nature preserves, looking to bring awareness to the topic. I feel like a lot of times if my camera wasn’t there in those places, then how would these stories get out?
Shivan: What are some of the memorable Storyhunter projects you worked on in 2020?
Lucas: I really enjoyed going to Portland and Seattle. When I hear media and news stories being sensationalized, I pull back and try to find the human in it. When I was in Portland, I was talking with residents about how they feel. Black residents may not necessarily want their city people having street battles with the Department of Homeland Security in the middle of downtown, but at the same time, they want peace and justice.
Shivan: What are you doing for each of these stories? Are you filming, reporting? What is your role in these stories?
Lucas: I do a lot of field producing work a lot and setting things up. For many pieces, I was the person who would pitch the entire story and would take it from the concept all the way to completion.
Shivan: Even in the midst of a pandemic companies were looking for video journalists, according to Storyhunter’s data. Does this surprise you?
Lucas: No. I’ve been doing journalism work for almost five years now. And I got to see how the Trump administration really shifted how we share stories and how we sculpt these narratives from communities. After almost three years of dealing with Trump, at the beginning of 2020 people were very much burnt out from the hyper amount of news and partisanship. So when the coronavirus started, it wasn’t about Trump, it wasn’t about left or right. It was about science and personal stories. So, it definitely doesn’t surprise me at all that companies on Storyhunter sought out a lot of journalists in those regards.
Shivan: In uncertain times such as the one we are living through, what skills have you found most useful?
Lucas: I’ve been a freelancer for almost nine years now and have completed almost 2,000 packages for all sorts of clients. As much as I think that my skills in camera operation and sound design are important, the biggest thing has been my ability to have empathy for others and get on the same page as someone and say, “Hey, I see what you’re going through. I want to help tell your story. I want to engage with you.” That’s been something I’ve really honed in on in the past year, just getting over that fear of reaching out. Now as soon as I contact people, I send them my clippings page and say, “This is the type of work I do and the type of narratives I lift.”
Shivan: It sounds like the skill that’s led to at least a part of your success during the pandemic is empathy.
Lucas: Yeah. I was filming with a tribal member here in Minnesota. We not only talked about the Line 3 pipeline but also other issues. We filmed for 15 minutes and then we spent seven hours sitting talking in a yurt. A lot of other filmmakers and activists say, “Hey, you have to put in the time, you can’t just show up and point a camera in someone’s face because that’s going to piss them off. You have to engage, you have to spend time and develop those relationships with people.”
Shivan: How do you relay to companies that you will offer this empathy in your storytelling? Also, whether it’s on Storyhunter or not, what do you believe companies are looking for from journalists?
Lucas: I think it’s just one word: access. As much as it’s good to have someone that has an iPhone or a camera that can roll up and record, you need people that are homogeneously embedded inside these communities and exist with these communities. Even on some projects, like for AJ Plus, I pitched it and started it, but it was finished by two indigenous women filmmakers. For me, that was great because as much as I sparked the story and got the company interested in it, I don’t have that access. After all, I’m not from the community. So, to see them take it running to the next level, I think is really important. It’s about access and letting these companies know that you’re not going to spend a week trying to dig through the sand to find something. You have a phone number of someone that’s involved and you can call them right away and say, “Hey, look, I’m trying to do this story. Are you interested in helping me work on it?” And just in general, to get out there and help people tell their stories. For years I’ve been covering indigenous efforts to protect the environment. But during the pandemic people really started panicking, they wanted their stories known and that was really evident in the Navajo Nation.
Shivan: What is your advice for others trying to find work during this time?
Lucas: For the more journalistic folks, I would say just get involved. You can’t start too small. Get in your community, go walk around, go and engage people. Every single person on the planet for the most part has struggled with this pandemic and has had major issues whether it be financial, lockdown or travel. So just start local. You don’t have to grab your camera. Just head out and just spend a lot of time connecting with folks. Tune in to what’s going on. If your interest is in food access or unsheltered folks, then spend a lot of time getting to know the efforts in your community. But If you’re doing maybe more commercial stuff, I would just suggest playing around in your house, setting up and staging things. Maybe do a fake commercial with some of your favorite drinks or foods and make a cool 30-second video. And use that to branch out. I think a lot of people who hire folks on Storyhunter are really looking for that creative eye.
Shivan: What’s next for you? And what should people be paying attention to in terms of journalism and storytelling?
Lucas: I’m continuing to hug that line between journalist and documentary filmmaker, trying to bring awareness to these stories that are really important to me. I’m in talks right now to do a larger style package in Minnesota about the history of Enbridge, which is the world’s largest pipeline company manufacturing company. As community members and journalists, we’re also going to have to keep the pressure on and dig into stories. I see myself spending more time working with militia groups to really focus on what they’re experiencing now that Trump has gone. Even looking at alternative social media platforms: They’re turning on Trump. These Proud Boys and folks that got riled up over the last four years are pissed off and they think Trump is weak. So now they’re going to continue their own efforts to advance their agenda. So journalism in general, the whole picking up a camera and covering a march in the street might not be the same, but there’s going to be so many opportunities for people to really dive into these smaller communities and explore what’s going on in folks’ minds. That’s what I’m aiming for in 2021. I’m giving myself a little bit of a harder mission.
Shivan: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Lucas: People should see Storyhunter and this new media realm that we’re in as an opportunity. Don’t sit around and think “Oh, I need to go about things the perfect way.” Pick up your phone or get on Facebook and find the things that interest you. If you’re in your community and you’re seeing lots of hardship then uplift those stories because there is interest and only collectively can we make things better. A lot of times journalists feel they’re separate from that and I don’t want them to feel that way. If you have something that interests you, you can still report objectively and truthfully, but also make it about lifting that narrative and sharing that with the world. We’re experiencing so many different issues at once. We have a massive increase in debt. We have the coronavirus, the life expectancy of the US has dropped because of this, and we’re having to come to terms with it. People need to see Storyhunter and journalism as a resource for them to help make things better in their community.
Interviewed by Shivan Sarna, Head of Stories