6 min read

Q&A: Seth Coleman, Covering the Refugee Crisis in Europe

Q&A: Seth Coleman, Covering the Refugee Crisis in Europe
Seth Coleman shot this picture of refugees scattered on the floor of the Budapest Keleti train station. Follow him on Instagram: @seth_coleman

Storyhunter Seth Coleman is a one-man-band video journalist and documentary filmmaker who’s produced stories on everything from treehouse mansions in Washington, and beautiful city panoramas of Portland, Oregon, to the European migrant crisis in Hungary.

Both shift by MSNBC and AJ+ commissioned Seth on Storyhunter to cover stories around refugees on the Serbia-Hungary border, a point of entry for thousands of people from conflict zones seeking refugee status in Europe. When he arrived, he found compelling stories of Hungarians helping refugees, and their perilous journey from Budapest to Austria.

Watch Seth’s story “Thousands of Refugees Traveling From Hungary to Austria” for AJ+.

Storyhunter: Let’s start with the Hungary story. With so many journalists covering the refugee crisis there right now, how do you find unique angles to this story?

Seth Coleman: Talking to the refugees and volunteers is easily the best way to get story ideas. All of the refugees, every single one of the thousands and thousands, has an amazing story. I was told about the boat ride from Turkey to the Greek islands. The people smugglers actually teach the refugees how to operate the boat and, after a few minutes of training, they’re off. One man I spoke with said the engine fell off the boat halfway through the trip. The men jumped into the water and pulled the boat to shore — but the shore was not a beach, but a sheer cliff. Somehow they made it, but that’s just one example. They pretty much all have equally shocking stories from their journey. It’s not hard to find unique stories by talking to them.

SH: How does the presence of a lot of journalists affect your reporting (help or hinder)?

SC: I tend to avoid the large scrum of reporters whenever possible, because as a freelancer it’s impossible to compete with the resources and support that large news organizations enjoy. And really, if there are so many reporters clustered together, obviously that story or image is going to make it out into the world. A few days ago on the Hungary-Austria border, I stumbled on some frantic action on the side of the road, and went to investigate. It was when all those Austrian volunteers were driving into Hungary to try to pick up migrants walking along the road, and some drivers had come across a family with a baby. It turns out at least half of the dozen or so people there were reporters. It was the perfect feel-good moment, with the reporters from several large news organizations ravenously feasting on the imagery. In reality the drivers were largely unnecessary at that point because the trains were running smoothly for refugees, but the image sort of filled out the narrative of the rescuing Austrian drivers, and everyone wanted the picture.

The scrum that Seth likes to avoid.

SH: How about the logistics: How did you get a seat on the train? What was it like filming in the train station?

SC: I don’t have a car, which was a challenge logistically since the whole story is based on the movement of people. I took the train, walked, and there were plenty of friendly volunteers from Hungary and Austria near the border area happy to give me a ride.

I spent about four consecutive days in Budapest Keleti station, which turned into a makeshift refugee camp, but with almost no services. It grew increasingly squalid and I knew it couldn’t last much longer, given the number of people and how bad the conditions were. There were very few functioning toilets so the smell became quite unbearable by the last day, when the march to the border began.

I made a lot of friends among the refugees, who were very friendly and, considering the situation, pretty good-spirited. The best part was meeting many of them again at the border a few days later, as the Austrians delivered aid and prepared onward buses for them. I was a happy they had made it. I plan to get in touch with some and see how they settle down in Germany.

SH: How does your approach differ when filming for, say, the City Verité series for Discovery versus covering breaking news for AJ+?

SC: I’m more accustomed to features where the deadlines are a little bit looser, but I find doing breaking news to be a fun challenge. With the City Verité and other work, I tend to experiment more with timelapses, sliders, a larger variety of lenses, and editing techniques. Covering the refugee issue has been more bare-bones. There just isn’t time to worry about that stuff. And of course you can’t be carrying all that equipment around in tense situations.

Watch Seth’s piece “The Master of Treehouse Mansions” for Discovery Digital Networks.

SH: As a video storyteller, how do you switch your mindset to produce stories on such a broad range of topics and styles?

SC: It helps that I very much like experimenting with the audio-visual medium. I’ve also worked as a stills photographer and a producer of radio stories, so wearing many hats comes quite naturally to me. Certainly there are very different modes of operating depending on the story. The issues around refugees transiting through Hungary on their way to Western Europe changes by the minute. With character-driven stories like the treehouse piece, I had the luxury of sitting around with the main character, SunRay, in his house and letting the story organically bubble up from our conversations. Both ways of working are rewarding but in different ways.

SH: Tell us about your gear kit and why you chose it.

SC: I love my Canon C100, especially for this type of work. Everything just works — the battery lasts ages, the audio is totally simple and easy, and it’s relatively compact. I normally use a tripod and lav mic for interviews, but as I had to stay mobile and I was alone, I did everything handheld with just a rode videomic and a wide lens, and would just get in really close to get decent sound. It works okay for this type of assignment, I think.

SH: What is the general atmosphere like in Budapest right now?

SC: It’s pretty much normal — Hungarians talk about it but you don’t see anything different in the city unless you go to the train station. And even that is quite calm compared to last week during the standoff. Trains are running normally and refugees and migrants are free to board them. Nobody knows how long that will last, though.

SH: Was it dangerous to report there? Was keeping safe a challenge?

SC: It never felt dangerous in the locations I reported from, which was mainly the train station and the Austrian border. Once, I was a bit worried about getting pepper sprayed. I was shooting between lines of riot police and angry refugees demanding that the station be reopened. Thankfully, the police restrained themselves.

SH: Was there anything interesting you learned when producing any of these stories on Storyhunter? Any funny or interesting stories / tips you’d like to share with other freelancers?

SC: For me, it’s important to be true to the story or the situation that you find on the ground, rather than trying to please an editor who may have a mistaken idea about what the story is. I love this work because I get to learn new things, meet new people, and expand my fields of interest on a daily basis. It might not be easy or the most lucrative (especially after investment in equipment — publishers, please take note!) but it’s great fun and very rewarding.

Seth gets the best angle in Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (2009). Photo: Eline Clandestine

Seth Coleman grew up in Washington State, in the U.S. He is currently working out of Budapest, and previously lived in Asia for roughly a decade. In the last few years, he’s worked on stories in Spain, France, Italy, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, China, Nepal, U.S., and now Hungary.