Q&A: Anirban Mahapatra, the Human Side of Covering Tragedy
Anirban Mahapatra is a documentary filmmaker, video journalist and multimedia producer based in Kolkata, India, who recently reported from Nepal on assignment for The Weather Channel.
He began his career in journalism as a correspondent with The Telegraph newspaper, before moving on to a seven-year stint as a travel journalist with Lonely Planet. In 2013, he shifted to video journalism. He covers mostly the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
Storyhunter: What was it like reporting in Nepal after the earthquake?
Aniban Mahapatra: My personal association with Nepal and its people go back several years. In the backdrop of the recent earthquake, reporting from the ground was thus both professionally challenging as well as emotionally trying. It was a difficult time to be there — the odd aftershock still shook the ground through the waking and sleeping hours, civic infrastructure was minimal, and the air was heavy with grief and a sense of loss and suffering. Nonetheless, a number of civilians had come out stronger after the catastrophe, and had selflessly devoted themselves to rebuilding and recovery efforts with matchless optimism and enthusiasm.
My brief was to focus on stories that reflected the human condition in Nepal at a personal or community level. Operating as a one-man unit, I thus had to work through a wide gamut of human emotions and physical obstacles to get to my stories. It wasn’t easy, given that people were still reeling from trauma and had critical problems to solve in their lives, and any effort to involve them in a journalistic exercise could seem like an intrusion on their privacy and sentiments. Fortunately, however, a lot of people opened up to telling me their stories and allowing me into their space, even through such a trying phase. I admire their courage and strength, and I can’t thank them enough for their cooperation.
SH: When you arrive in a disaster area and tell people you are a journalist, how do they react?
AM: Many years ago, a wise editor taught me the cardinal rule of crisis reporting — step into a disaster scenario as a human being first, and a journalist later. When I first met Parvati, the lead character in one of my videos, I came to know that she and her family hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. It was a no-brainer of a situation — I along with a French tourist and a Korean photographer rushed to the nearest provisions market and bought the family a few days worth of basic rations. At a human level, it was the most obvious thing to do. I even decided to spend the greater part of the day in and around the camp where Parvati and her family were staying, volunteering with a Chinese medical team as a translator and helping people present their ailments and complaints to the non-Nepalese speaking doctors. In the end, however, it earned me a great deal of confidence among the people in the camp, and I didn’t have to try too hard to get to the bottom of their stories.
SH: Why did you choose Krishna’s story?
I chose Krishna’s story because it shed light on deep-seated social and structural complications in Nepal that were rearing their ugly heads and getting in the way of organized relief distribution efforts in these trying times. If the earthquake had dealt a severe blow to people like Krishna, myopic interpersonal dynamics at the village level were only accentuating problems instead of alleviating them. I felt Krishna’s story reflected some of the unseen and unreported challenges that many people were facing at the micro level on a daily basis, and decided to focus on them.
SH: Krishna’s story is devastating. How did you feel while you were reporting it?
AM: It was difficult, to say the least. Krishna willfully agreed to share her story on film, so I set up a handheld shot and kept rolling as she came forth with details, which reflected the misery that she and her family were living through. It started out as a fairly straightforward DP job to begin with, but then, as she revealed one grim fact after another, it was hard to remain objectively detached. I knew it was important to record her story for the sake of honest journalism. But towards the end of the interview, when her emotions took over and she broke down in tears, I had no option but to stop rolling, even though it would mean an abrupt fade-out during edit. I thought it was more important to respect her privacy than to ensure a perfect edit.
SH: For this assignment you produced video as well as text for what was originally just a video assignment. How did that come about?
AM: The assignment was initially conceptualized as a single short documentary with a run time of under 12 minutes. However, when I arrived in Nepal and got to work, both I and my editor at The Weather Channel felt that we should break down the assignment into a series of 2-minute or so videos that would look at various aspects of the rebuilding and recovery phase, instead of producing a single film. We visualized the project as a video essay, which would follow along the lines of a conventional photo essay, but feature videos instead of still images. The extended captions I wrote served as a sort of connective tissue to hold the videos together as a unified body of work.
SH: What stories do you look for as a freelancer?
AM: As a filmmaker and video journalist, I mostly look for stories that focus on the human condition, social development, culture, travel and the arts. While I also chase breaking news stories, I see myself as more of a feature journalist who likes to dwell on deeper and more complex issues, and explore different perspectives to a story.
A landscape photographer once told me how it was important to look behind ourselves once in a while, for oftentimes, the unseen landscape behind us was prettier than the one we instinctively pointed our cameras at! I think I have taken his words quite seriously over the years, and made a habit of looking where few others tend to look.