STEPHEN SAPIENZA considers himself first and foremost a storyteller, a “backpack journalist.”
Armed with only a small video camera that fits inside his backpack, along with a couple of microphones, the award-winning news and documentary producer has journeyed to some of the most remote and hostile parts of the world in search of those stories that mainstream media does not cover, and that governments–both theirs and ours–hope the rest of us won’t ever hear about. Or have forgotten.
The HIV crisis in Haiti, prostitution in the Dominican Republic, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, climate refugees in Bangladesh, landmine survivors in Cambodia, and most recently, the secret civil war in Burma… Forty-four-year-old Sapienza has witnessed atrocities and injustices on a grand scale, acts of inhumanity committed for the sake of power and profit.
And yet, says the Washington D.C. journalist, while these stories are by no means easy to cover, bringing them back to share with viewers, with members of our own government, has been deeply rewarding. By giving audience to those whose voices are rarely listened to, Sapienza is making a difference.
As a journalist, what’s most important, says Sapienza, is to keep an open mind when you’re out in the field. To not be afraid to “push a little and look around the corner for where you might not expect a story to be.”
Sapienza tells of when he was in Cambodia working on a story about landmine survivors:
“I knew people who were helping rehabilitate survivors there and at the Angkor Wat site, and I was thinking I would go check that out. But in going back and forth from the hotel to these sites every day, I kept seeing this sign advertising a landmine museum, and the sign looked homemade. One day, I told the driver, ‘Let’s go there today.’ My contact was baffled because, it wasn’t on our agenda, but it turned out to be quite fascinating. There was a retired deminer there who had constructed his own museum made up of all the mines he had removed from his neighbors’ farms. Even though he was retired, they knew he had been a deminer, so when a local would encounter a mine, they would call him, and he would come and take the mines out.
So with all of these mines now in his possession, the retired man created a small museum, to show the tourists, but also to educate the locals what to do when you see something that looks like this.
So for me, this was a beautiful find discovered from keeping this open-minded approach. To not to be afraid to go down that other road, or turn that other corner, just to see where it might lead you. Some fascinating stories just might be waiting for you, which you otherwise might never find.”
Sapienza relates another story, this time when he was in the Peruvian Amazon on assignment for the Pulitzer Center, the non-profit alternative media organization whose mandate is to “illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times.” When in Peru, Sapienza investigated illegal gold-mining.
“It was such a horrible situation and so much devastation and exploitation of both the environment and the workers.” Yet while other journalists were covering the story from the “environmental devastation angle,” Sapienza wanted to see what else he could find.
And so what did he discover?
By keeping his eyes and ears open and listening to accounts of the locals, Sapeinza learned about a mine that was trying hard to become fair trade certified. “There was a community in this town I filmed who had for a long time worked in this mine but now were trying to create a co-op.” And, this was “not something that was originating outside of Peru. It was coming from the workers themselves. They realized that they would all be better off if they banded together to produce a new kind of gold.”
Here, says Sapienza, was a story that needed to be told.
“Many times I hear from the people I’m interviewing that no one ever asks them how they feel about an issue. No one ever asks them their opinion… Honestly, I think in terms of being a journalist, probably my greatest asset is that I go there to listen.” To bear witness.
And, Sapienza says, that’s where keeping an open mind comes in. “Sometimes it’s not until I sit down and go through the transcripts that I know where this piece is going to go.”
Then comes the second half of his journalistic self-mandate: to shape what he hears into a story that can be then shared with the rest of us, to take what he’s learned to the larger, global community. “I’m there to listen, to capture it, and then to try to convey what they’ve said to me in an honest light.”
And for those individuals to be finally heard like this, says Sapienza, it’s “such a relief. And that’s incredibly empowering for both of us that they can tell someone and hope for some kind of change. That I will cover them and then run this story and maybe bring some changes about.”
Which is exactly what happened after Sapienza videotaped the Haitian National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince in 2008, a prison that allowed less than one square meter of space per inmate, forcing them to sleep in shifts. In addition, less than 10 percent of the inmates had actually been convicted of a crime. Most were awaiting trial.
“We had a doctor perform a site visit and look at the conditions, then we aired the piece on PBS NewsHour. It’s now airing on YouTube and has received over 30,000 hits. After our story aired, the U.S. State Department released $100,000 to improve conditions in those prisons. There are situations like this where you go in knowing that there’s something good that’s going to come out of it, that something can change.”
Other times, such as is the case with Sapienza’s latest assignment, in which he covered the civil war in Myanmar, (formerly Burma), hopes for an optimistic outcome can be far more murky, as constant political maneuvering creates instability not only between the government and the rebels (in this case, the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA) but also between one country and another, such as with Burma and the United States, with the U.S. government choreographing its own dance between which atrocities to sanction versus when to look the other way, in hopes of encouraging at least surface improvements. It’s a dance that is constantly being re-improvised.
Finally, I asked Sapienza if, now that videotaping technology had improved to the point where cameras have become small and light enough to be carried around in a napsack and editing can now be done by oneself, does everybody fancy themselves the next Studs Turkel or Christiane Amanpour? Has the field become perhaps so accessible that it is now over-crowded?
“I think experience counts,” says Sapienza, who says he’s been a “news junkie” since boyhood, delivering the Washington Post to his neighbors. But, he adds, all of these skills can be taught to those who are dedicated enough to want to do this work. Ultimately, says Sapienza, “you’ve got to have an idea of how to tell a story. How the issues that you’re tackling can be told in the most creative way.” The good news for those just starting out, he says, is that there are many ways to tell stories. “Everyone has their own approach and style in telling a story.” And this in turn benefits society, as having a wealth of different narratives and perspectives, is “very cool and necessary. I think news outlets are always looking for good storytellers. You just also have to have the technical skills to back it up.”
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For over fifteen years Steve Sapienza has shot and produced stories for broadcast television and internet distribution. Most recently, he earned a 2009 News & Documentary Emmy for his work on LiveHopeLove.com , a ground-breaking multimedia project focusing on the human face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. In 2008, he received the Ruth Adams Award for reporting on dwindling water supplies in Asia. In 2002, he produced Deadlock: Russia’s Forgotten War for CNN Presents, winner of a CINE Golden Eagle. Previously, he was Co-Director of Azimuth Media and Senior Producer with the global affairs television series Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria.
To view more of Sapienza’s work, please visit his website at: http://www.stevesapienza.com/