Last week, I emerged from my funk just in time for, and perhaps in part because of, a 5 day-long job subbing in as cameraperson for a major news network’s live broadcasts about the political crisis in The Gambia.
I was both incredibly psyched and absolutely terrified to do it. For an anxious person who does not work well under intense pressure and who is not very confident about my camerawork, running live broadcasts is just about the scariest job there is. But for someone who is in thrall to the glamour of chasing stories across the globe and fascinated by the culture of journalism – a culture that I as a documentary producer am close to but not part of – it was too good an offer to pass up.
Over the course of the week, I went from feeling vomitous to invigorated by the live-ness of it all. What’s ironic is that instead of getting easier with practice, the challenges proliferated. I spent a couple of days being schooled by the normal cameraperson/producer, who was about to leave town to cover the African Cup in Gabon. On the third day – the first one with just the reporter and me – our initial attempt to go live didn’t work and our 10:00am slot in the news broadcast was cancelled, because the machine that connects to the satellite started acting wonky and the software we had spent all of the previous day installing on my computer crashed. I suppose after that, I knew that the worst that could happen had already happened, no one seemed to mind, and I calmed down. If you watch the news, connection problems do seem to occur all the time, so I guess everyone rolls with the punches.
After the failed attempt to broadcast from my roof, we headed to the coast to get a better Internet signal, in order to use a different non-satellite-based system. The second broadcast, from a lackluster parking lot, went much better if only because the equipment actually worked and we were able to go live. For the third broadcast, the reporter led us to a secluded spot along the beach with a great view of the African Renaissance Monument and the northern part of the city.
We were all set up with a really beautiful shot, when mere seconds before we went live, two homeless men emerged from the rocks along the cliffside and one of them, clearly unstable, started shouting abuse at us in a strange Spanish-Wolof mix. He started moving into the shot right as the reporter’s image went live to 190 million-plus viewers, and the only thing to do was to try to distract him with my own presence by waving my arms around from far away. He retreated for a second but I realized too late that it was only to find a rock to throw right at the camera. It missed by a long shot, but I was on the phone with the people in the studio and they told me that the man was clearly audible yelling in the background. The reporter, meanwhile, continued to maintain laser focus with the anchor in the studio and conveyed the news on Gambia as though the man was a figment of my imagination. It was a (hilarious and bizarre) thing to behold.
Once that near-disaster was behind us, we checked in to a fancy hotel along the coast, from which we did our remaining live broadcasts and a few pre-recorded segments over the next few days. I got to stay at the hotel and order room service morning, noon and night, and it was there that I caught the transmission of one of the “as-lives,” which is a clip you film in advance but that looks live when it’s used in the broadcast.
I was beside myself with joy that my footage was being aired around the globe to millions of people. When you work in documentary you’re lucky if your stuff gets seen by 1,000 people. (The channel came in really grainy at the hotel; I’m hoping it was much, much clearer for other viewers.)
On Wednesday, I was relieved by a professional cameraperson from Nigeria who had flown in to possibly head into Gambia with the reporter. They ended up staying in Dakar because the president-elect had come to Dakar for security reasons by that point. As I write this, he is being sworn in at the Gambian embassy a mile or so away.
On the second day of training, I stopped by Cafe Cor Coumba for an espresso, only to find a film crew there. They told me they were shooting a “pub,” an ad, for the cafe, and they asked if I wanted to be interviewed for it, in French. Fresh from saying yes to another thing that scared the crap out of me, I answered, very much against type, “Sure.” (In the only other interview I’ve done on camera, I was so awkward and self-conscious that I couldn’t even make eye contact with the interviewer. I am meant to be behind the camera, not in front of it.)
The next day, I was eating lunch at my regular place when the story – actually a news feature and not an ad – came on the TV behind the bar. And I had made the cut.
Here is a literal translation of my soundbite: “I come here because the coffee is strong and good. I like, there is a layer of crema. It is very well made.” Yay for speaking French at a first-grade level! My friends at the restaurant were nevertheless impressed. I told them that actually, this is my second time on Senegalese TV; they love me here. Hahahaha.
And a musing related to the political events I was covering: ever since I moved to Senegal and realized the country had a human rights-violating loony tune for its next-door president, I have noticed haunting similarities between Jammeh and Trump. It is almost like Trump modeled himself after the man. Jammeh claimed that HIV could be cured with herbs while blocking access to actual life-saving interventions. Trump is a vaccine-sceptic (and climate change denier, and basic scientific fact denier). Jammeh throws Gambian journalists in jail. Trump calls reputed news organizations “fake news” and refuses to answer their questions at press conferences. I could continue along these lines indefinitely, but I’m so sick of both men that I don’t feel like wasting the time and effort. Suffice it to say, fingers crossed Gambia kicks out Jammeh (ideally today) without bloodshed… just in time for the United States’ very first Big Man to take over where he left off – only with a billion times more power at his fingertips. During the campaign, Trump kept saying the U.S. is turning into the third world… and in this one sense, that’s the only thing he was right about.
Oh, and a third P.S.: I left the reporter anonymous in the pix and print not because of anything shady but only because I didn’t feel like telling him about my blog after only a few days working with him, and I don’t mention or show people without their permission.