Posted 06 June 2019
Written by Indi Davies

3x3: Advice on great storytelling from pros in photography and filmmaking

The path of any creative career is paved with dozens upon dozens of questions, especially when you’re just starting out. If only you could just throw a couple of those burning dilemmas at some of your favourite creatives and get their advice... Well, luckily, in our second instalment of 3X3, we’ve asked emerging visual artist Amaal Omar to do just that.

Having left a design degree in 2017, Amaal Omar went on to work in the tech industry – trying her hand at everything from photography and writing to podcasting in her own time. Last year, she also became part of ustwo Adventure’s first residency programme and created her own Instagram zine, 020.ends.

With a passion for filmmaking, writing and photography, for 3X3 she’s pinpointed three of her creative heroes to impart their learnings – not only on craft and process, but also to discover how they summoned the courage to do what they do.

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Originally from Ethiopia, Dawit N.M. is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer, represented by US agency Couscous . Working across commercial projects, personal work and music videos, his recent short film for musician Mereba was just selected for the Emerging Directors category at the American Black Film Festival.

Amaal: How do you go about composing the perfect shot? And where do you look for visual inspiration?

Dawit: I take inspiration from a wide array of things, but the most prominent visual source I use are photographs, either taken by myself or someone else. These images work either as a reference or a point of inspiration.

Finding the right image is usually the most time-consuming part of the process, so I try my best to refresh and constantly update my library of images. This library [see screenshot below] is filled with photos, paintings, screenshots, video links, sculptures...anything that depicts an emotion.

Dawit’s inspiration folder

And in terms of of how I compose the perfect shot, I must start with saying that I don’t think there’s a such thing as the ‘perfect shot’. You either have a shot that works or you don’t. If it works, it will always add to the story and make it feel present.

I try my best to frame a feeling more than anything. I find this is what resonates best with people. Also, eliminating unnecessary things [from the shot] forces the viewer to focus on the subject. I highly believe that if your focus is on emotions, you’ll always have something to capture.

“I try my best to frame a feeling more than anything. I find this is what resonates best with people.”

Amaal: Can you tell me more about the process of framing a feeling, and how it’s evolved for you?

Dawit: It’s definitely an abstract task, and doesn’t come easy. Looking back, I first had to learn how to take a proper image – good composition, colour palette, lighting, so on. After I felt comfortable with my skills, I started focusing on the subjects and emotions I wanted to show. I realised that, in order to make a good photograph, I had to get comfortable with my subjects, and for my subjects to get comfortable with me.

Eventually I adopted that technique to my directing work. Being comfortable with both the technical side of filmmaking as well as the subject made it easier to be free with my thoughts, and express my ideas to people.

The one challenge that arose all the time, though, was finding a way to turn a still image into a moving image. The main thing that helped overcome that was watching an intensive amount of films; then the inspiration from everyday life helped fill in the gaps.

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Christina Nwabugo is a London-based photographer, who also works as an art director at Getty Images, where she manages a global roster of film and photography talent and creative content strategies. As well as shooting for magazines including Hunger, her experience includes photo directing and production for brand partnerships and campaigns.

Amaal: How do you go about finding great stories to tell and reflect that in your photography?

Christina: I believe storytelling stems from my imagination, and the fact that it’s super-easy right now. Our industry is currently going through a reality-check, where companies want to share authentic experiences and cultures. We all share the general consciousness that art culture all around the world holds global currency.

An image captured by Destinee Condison and art directed by Christina for Getty Images

The way you reflect a story must represent the artist and a fraction of their community. It’s impossible to merely shine a light on a very specific area of cultural relations; however it does bring knowledge and awareness, which can later open up further opportunities for deeper understanding.

I always want to represent people, earth and positivity wherever possible. The process I go through always involves researching the content gaps and later what country interests me, and then pairing this with talented local artists. I always try to understand the artist’s process, dependent on the time we have [to create work together]. However, we always meet in the middle!

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Janssen Powers is a New York-based director whose work has seen him travel all over the world to shoot documentaries. His films have attracted a Webby Award, recognition from One Screen Festival and numerous Vimeo Staff Picks, including his recent, Alaska-based short ‘To The Right’.

Amaal: Do you have any advice on launching a career as an independent filmmaker without any specific training?

Janssen: As a fellow filmmaker who has not received a formal education in filmmaking, my advice for you is simple... Shoot as much as you can as often as you can. Identify a story that you are passionate about, and find a way to capture it on film. It may sound obvious, but I think it's important to understand that the more time that you spend making films, the better filmmaker you will become!

In my experience, paid work often follows passion work, and many of my favourite commercial jobs have come as a result of a potential client seeing and connecting with one of my self-funded films. Passion work not only proves to potential clients that you have what it takes to get the job done, but it also shows the world what kind of filmmaker you are, and promotes the type of stories that you are interested in telling.

“The more time that you spend making films, the better filmmaker you will become!”

Amaal: In those earlier days of your career, how did you go about showcasing your self-funded films to the world?

Janssen: One of the first films that got a bit of recognition was called Typhoon Haiyan. In 2013 I found myself incredibly moved by the news stories that I’d heard in the wake of the typhoon in the Philippines and felt compelled to travel there to document the incredible resilience of the Filipino people.

I worked out a deal with an NGO that was willing to pay for my travel in exchange for raw footage and left Seattle for the Philippines three days after the disaster. After shooting there for a week, I travelled back to Seattle and edited Typhoon Haiyan sitting on my bed in my small studio apartment.

Upon completing the edit, I uploaded the film to Vimeo and almost immediately started to receive positive feedback. I remember being blown away at how something that did not exist a week earlier – something that I had edited on my bed in my studio apartment – was now affecting people all over the world.

Platforms like Vimeo have been monumental to the growth of my film career as they have provided me the opportunity to reach an international audience by merely clicking upload.


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Follow Amaal at instagram.com/ao.gramm

Written by Indi Davies
Mention Amaal Omar
Mention Christina Nwabugo
Mention Janssen Powers
Mention Dawit N. M.