Aaron Lewis reports and shoots video documentaries from around the world for the Australian news outlet SBS Dateline. Since joining the team at Dateline in 2005, he has covered important news events such as Hurricane Katrina and the funeral of the first American soldiers killed in Iraq.
Lewis says that how he got started doing work in journalism was “sort of by accident.” Lewis started working with a hand held video camera and making films when he was only 14. After studying cinematography and politics, he started his career as a filmmaker in Toronto, Canada where he also dabbled in making music videos before switching to making journalistic documentaries.
His work as a filmmaker for both fiction and documentary films have gained international acclaim. Right now he is a finalist for the Walkley Award for excellence in Social Equity Journalism for a chilling documentary aired last April on the skin trade in Tanzania.
In this interview Lewis talks about the changes he's seen in the industry, such as the increase of backpack journalism and the ethical issues at the heart of video journalism.Q&A
How has the industry changed since you started working as a journalist?
The industry has changed enormously in the last eight or nine years. The development of broadcast quality small cameras has really altered how a lot work is done and certainly the traditional, especially in current affairs television which is what I do a lot my work in.
The days of having a producer, a reporter, a cameraman and a sound person, that’s increasingly rare at this point. And the development of quite hi-quality small cameras from originally the PD150 sort of in the late 90’s which was the first Sony prosumer, as it was called, video camera and to now being able to shoot with full HD cameras like the EX1 has changed dramatically and there’s been a growing acceptance of the one-man-band style of production.
That has both benefits and costs I think that in terms of the kinds of stories that are done there when it’s a single-person crew there’s an intimacy to it, but you also have a corresponding loss of production quality which I think effects everybody. I think in some ways everyone mourns the loss a little bit of higher budget four-person crews doing works and as single-person crews have taken over, budgets have been cut back and more has been done for less and I think that there have been losses in a sense.
But having said that there’s a real intimacy and increased access when its just one person. One person can go in quietly and get to know the subjects, be unobtrusive and really get to the heart of the story in a way that I think larger crews would struggle to do.
How do you do your job differently?
I like my independence quite a lot and I like being able to work on my own. There is the advantage that I grew up doing everything myself so I didn’t have to acquire those skills. I think it’s more difficult for somebody who, for instance lets say a news producer that works with on hand on the camera and all of sudden put them in the field as a shooter as well.
I think that’s a real challenge and I think that doesn’t work as well as one might like. But personally it’s a mode of production that I’ve always worked in. I really like the independence I have and the freedom I have to tell the story how I want to tell it.
So it was a more smooth transition for you then other people in the industry?
There really was no transition for me I’ve always made both fiction films and documentary films in the same mode since I was very young you know, with a hand-held camera and some basic editing software. For me it was a very natural thing to do. I was lucky that the industry sort of grew up around something I was already doing.
What ethical issues have you encountered getting footage but also producing it for television and the Web?
There are all kinds of ethical issues. The biggest ethical issue of making documentary film is balancing the needs of the story and the truth of the story with the reality that the characters while participating are real people with real lives and that your work will have consequence their life. And trying to make sure in the process of selecting only a few grabs, only a few interview moments and contrasting them with other characters that you do justice to the people who are participating in your work.
I think that is always the biggest ethical challenge all the way through.
Photo Courtesy of SBS Dateline Australia.