Artemisia, the bitter herb that keeps malaria at bay

Published today in the Suddeutsche Zeitung:

Standing on a dike in central Uganda, the last of the setting sun glinting on the surface of the rice paddy makes it look like a gleaming sheet of copper. Birds splash. Crickets chirp. As far as the eye can see, young emerald stalks sway in the lightest of breezes. It's a spectacular vista, but it's impossible not to be fearful of malaria. When director Katharina Weingartner called to ask about coming to Uganda to work on her film, Das Fieber, she mentioned that despite visiting some highly malarial areas, the rest of the crew would only be using a Chinese herb, Artemisia, for prophylaxis against the disease. After weighing my skepticism regarding natural remedies against the unpleasantness and side effects of other anti-malarials I've frequently had to take in a career mostly spent working on social documentary films, I reasoned that it wasn't an extremely long trip. Why not give the herb an experimental try? But in that moment, standing in the rice paddy, that decision feels like a very bad one.

Kenyan public health entomologist Dr. Richard Mukabana stands on the bank in rubber boots and gestures across the field towards a long line of farmhands trudging home along the top of a parallel dike. All will at one time or another likely have suffered from the incapacitating fever; some may be carrying it back to their houses at this very moment. But the mosquito, however hated, is no more responsible for the disease than you are; it's a deadly symbiosis, with Anophelesmerely the middleman who transmits the parasite from one human to another. The insect can range over 5km between blood meals; much further than the distance between you and those workers.

Dr. Richard Mukabana in the night market at Masaka, Uganda. He pointed out that such markets, teeming with chapatti vendors, bus-ticket hawkers, and tire repair and oil change shops are a cultural gap in the interruption of the malaria transmission cycle. In the comparative cool of the evening the bustling commercial and social activity of humans perfectly coincides with the malaria mosquito's most active period in the hours after dusk. Nobody is under a mosquito net at this time of day.

Everywhere over the rice paddy now is the audible whine of a million insects; the water seems to tremble with the density of their larvae. Stooping over, Mukabana collects at random a small sample of paddy water in a test tube. He holds it up: the water is alive, wriggling with tiny baby mosquitos. In a sense the prevalence of malaria in this part of Uganda is a legacy of the colonial period, when vast jungles were cleared for agricultural production. “Normally, land with a lot of forest is not good for the malaria mosquito in Africa” he explains. “If the place had been left virgin, without opening it up to rice cultivation, you would not expect to have the endemicity of malaria in that area.”

Despite recent gains, the disease remains one of the world's most prolific killers. Well into the 20thcentury it was common in southern Europe (the name of the disease comes from the italian mal aria, or 'bad air,' once thought to be the cause), but it is now overwhelmingly an African disease. According to the WHO, in 2017 the continent experienced 92% of the world's 219 million cases, and 93% of the 435,000 deaths that resulted. Researchers like Mukabana can therefore be forgiven for wondering why Africans often seem to be left out of the global conversation around the disease. “Most decisions about malaria control are not made in Africa,” he points out. “They are made somewhere in Europe or in the US, with very minimal or no participation of African people. And if you look at the cultural practices back in Africa, a lot of those are going to be a very big bottleneck towards eliminating or eradicating the disease.” It is sentiments like this that inspired Weingartner to include only African voices in her film.

In another field, not far away, the herbalist Rehema Namyalo tends a different crop, a pungent, bitter weed that she cultivates in her mother's kitchen garden. This is Artemisia annua, a plant with potent anti-malarial properties that grows easily here. It may be the kind of indigenous, affordable solution to malaria that Africa needs. Used for over 2000 years in Chinese medicine to combat fever, it is credited with helping the communists win the Vietnam war, by keeping the Viet Cong malaria-free. The WHO [OMS/World Health Organization] recommended front-line treatments used against malaria today, ACTs, or Artemisinin Combination Therapies, are all derived from it. [In 2015 the Chinese chemist Tu Youyou was co-awarded the Nobel prize in medicine for her discoveries of artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin] Namyalo is not a scientist, but she has been growing, harvesting, drying and distributing Artemisiasince training with the German NGO ANAMED in 2004. Every morning, at breakfast the film crew hand around a jar of it, mixing a heaping tablespoon full with peanut butter, to cut its extraordinarily bitter taste. 

Rehema Namyalo with some of her Artemisia seedlings.

In 2008 Namyalo opened her own clinic based around herbal therapies, where she treats malaria with carefully measured doses of Artemisia infusion [tea]. She teaches visitors and villagers how to cultivate the plant, giving away seeds and seedlings. “I have seen so many positive results,” she says. “[Artemisia] is both a preventative measure and a curative. Before, in those first years, every day we would have 3 or 4 or 5 or 10 people coming and complaining of malaria. Sometimes people would come with their whole family of, say, 8 people, and six of them would be down with it! We no longer have those cases. Now in a month I treat one or two people. Sometimes I can complete a month without anyone coming in with malaria.” Her eyewitness evidence has increasing scientific support; a 2018 double-blind study in Maniema [Congo], co-authored by Congolese doctor Jerome Munyangi, found that similar doses of infusedA. annua and its native African cousin Artemisia afra had better results than ACTs against the parasite. Another study at the Wagagai flower farm in Entebbe demonstrated the powerful prophylactic effects of Artemisia tea. 

In a recent policy paper of October 10th, however, the WHO comes out firmly against this herbal regimen: “WHO does not support the promotion of use of Artemisiaplant material in any form for the prevention or treatment of malaria.” Increasingly, the institution appears to be on the wrong side of science.

Standard arguments against the use of artemisia invoke the precautionary principle [according to WikiPedia likely derived from translating the German “Vorsorgeprinzip” in the 1980s], the idea that potential unknown dangers in the implementation of any problem-solving strategy must be rigorously evaluated and eliminated before it is employed. In the context of malaria, however, which annually causes close to half a million deaths worldwide, this creates an ethical dilemma: lives are being lost while international organizations like the WHO urge caution in the use of an evidently successful anti-malarial remedy on the basis that it is unproven. The fear is that resistance to ACTs might develop, but it is far from clear that Artemisinin is the only anti-malarial compound within the herb, whose complexity of compounds acts as a natural combination therapy. With the debate currently raging around vaccine safety and the dangerous entitlement of the anti-Vaxx movement, it is ironic to find the WHO and major pharmaceutical manufacturers in the business of denying science, or at least being very selective in the science they choose to pay attention to.

This selectivity is reinforced by an unwillingness to fund further scientific research needed to prove Artemisia's effectiveness, either because of, at best, western biases against herbal remedies, or, at worst, organized drug industry resistance to a non-marketable product that can easily be grown in the African kitchen garden, dried, and consumed as plant powder or tea at essentially no cost.Accompanying these concerns swirl retrograde colonialist warnings, familiar to those who remember arguments against introducing ARV HIV treatments onto the continent. Africans, it is hinted, do not enjoy a standard of education conducive to treating themselves, or their medical infrastructure is too weak to provide support for regular therapy. The last malarial continent seems to be explicitly required to wait for outside help to cure a disease that remains a major driver of infant mortality. “We have to conclude,” says Dr. Munyangi, “that this is in bad faith, intended to make Africans depend entirely on medicines that come from the exterior, and that Africans shouldn’t develop solutions that are local, less costly and adapted to the conditions of the poor.” 

Powdered Artemisia, ready to prepare the tea.

Weingartner hopes Das Fieber can be used to spread the word about Artemisia across the continent. On February 24th,at the Berlinale Africa Hub, she will launch a “Fight the Fever” initiative and distribute ready-to-plant seeds. She is intent on creating a mobil-cinema that will drive from village to village across Africa, showing the film in a multitude of languages. While in Uganda the film crew shared a motel with a traveling musical-comedy troupe called the The Ebonies, who pulled up one afternoon in a battered old green truck full of actors and props, set up a stage in the courtyard, and then drove through the bumpy, dusty streets of Masaka loudly broadcasting advertisements for their theatrical production. Weingartner imagines her film being broadcast in a similar context, complete with free Artemisia seedlings.

The argument that malaria should only be treated, and is only curable using standardized doses of ACTs produced in overseas factories and available for purchase in pharmacies is even less compelling in the face of estimates that in Africa fully 30% of anti-malarial drugs on the market are counterfeit. Pharmaceutical counterfeiting is a vast, multi-billion dollar business that causes as many as 200,000 deaths each year in Africa. [After spreading awareness of bogus drugs on the Congolese market Munyangi was arrested in Kinshasa at the behest, he says of the importers responsible. Granted asylum, he now lives in exile in France.] In this context a therapy that Africans can cultivate and process themselves seems like an obvious response.

One of the problems with prophylaxis is that you only know if it doesn't work. Back in New York, the artemisia grown by Rehema Namyalo and smuggled through customs remains a part of my breakfast routine for a full three weeks. The subject remains healthy, but it is impossible to say whether the herb or just the luck of the draw played a part. But for Namyalo, living where malaria is a chronic condition, the benefits are certain. “In my family,” she says, “now we can complete an entire year without having any cases.”


Finally, an article about ME in a New York daily newspaper!

I've been working for some time on a project based on the Mexican Lotería, the Bingo-like card game whose 54 images are touchstones of Mexican popular culture. I haven't written about it here because I have a whole section dedicated to it on my personal website (about which more in a moment).

The Lotería de la Migración, as I call it, reimagines the original images of the most widely played version of the game as commentaries on the obstacles and issues encountered by would-be migrants to the U.S. in the age of Trump. 25 of the images from this project are currently on display at the Hemispheric Institute at NYU (20 Cooper Square, 5th floor. Tell the security guard you are there to see the "migration exhibition", which will be up until May 31st.). 

After seeing the show, Carmen Molina Tamacas of El Diario NY interviewed me and wrote a much longer and more in-depth story than I could possibly have hoped for.  

On the very same day I got a message from Google suggesting that my website was infected with viruses and malware. I opened an onscreen chat with my hosting provider to ask them what they thought. They chatted back: do you mind holding for a few minutes while we check out the issue? 

Pro tip: don't ask your web host to check whether your site has a virus. If you do, they will just shut you down and ask questions later. It seems pointless to provide a self-promotional link here, but if you go to my website now, here is what you will see:


Over on his Tropicalizer blog, dedicated to the vernacular of the global south, Leo Ramseyer just published an interview with me about the "Amazing Barbershop" project. Check it out!


Val Jeanty on Radyo Shak for Clocktower.org

The lovely and talented Val Jeanty stopped into the Clocktower radio studio at Pioneer Works not long ago, and she brought her gear with her: a laptop, a deejay's sample controller and a stack of suave loops. We chatted a bit, but the heart of her visit was the amazing set of improvisational electronic music she did, blending vodou samples and other snippets of Haitian audio into deep grooves. She makes music on the fly with a few simple pieces of chip-based hardware in a way I have never really experienced live, right in front of me, before. In other words, this is a one of a kind performance!


An Interview with Josh Jelly Schapiro on Clocktower.org

Just gone live today on Clocktower.org is my interview with Josh Jelly Schapiro about the heinous, ongoing efforts by the Dominican Republic to expel Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian extraction in what amounts to racial cleansing right next door in the Caribbean. Josh recently returned from the Haitian-Dominican border; he's one of the few journalists who has been closely following this issue since the passage of discriminatory legislation in the DR 18 months ago. We met at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince about the time that law was going into effect, and Josh has been back many times since to investigate the realities engendered by the xenophobic climate and grotesque new law in the Dominican. You can listen to our conversation HERE. 


Radyo Shak

I'm embarked on yet another diverting and rewarding and entirely non-profitable collaborative venture, the production and realization of a pirate radio station in the inner-city of Port-au-Prince. This is and will be the Radyo Shak, coming soon to the Caribbean hood.

I've written here before about the Ghetto Biennale, an event that started out, one imagines, as something between a fantasy shared over a beer on a late night in a hot city and a potential promotional opportunity for some of Haiti's most dynamic and original artists. After the first Biennale, held just before "the" earthquake in December of 2009, the event has like Lazarus risen every two years since, growing in the meantime into something that the outside world, especially the art world, now pays attention to, has actually heard of, wants a piece of!

Earlier in the year, the Biennale co-founder, my dear friend Leah Gordon, contacted me to see if I would be willing to serve as the point person for the creation of a radio station to broadcast news of the Biennale and its artists, its excitements, its failures and personalities, throughout the surrounding neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, and throughout the world via Clocktower.org.

This idea, too, seems to have grown out of a fantasy shared over a beer on a late night in a hot city, except in this case the city was not Port-au-Prince but Sharjah, or rather neighboring Dubai, beer being entirely unavailable in Sharjah, and indeed illegal. Alanna Heiss, founder of MOMA PS-1, and Leah were attending some sort of arts meta-event, like a biennale devoted to discussing other biennales, or something. Alanna is also the founder of Clocktower.org, a fabulous online arts and music and everything else radio platform , housed for the moment at Pioneer Works right here in Red Hook. (I presume the geographical convenience of this is not the only reason Leah called me).

The rest is soon to be history-in-the-making. Along with Clocktower studio guru Jake Nussbaum I'll be broadcasting all things Haiti from a shanty in the inner city of Port-au-Prince during the culminating ten days of the Biennale, December 10th through 20th. We're also producing as much programming in advance as we possibly can; my interview with house music legend Richard Laurent is online now. Upcoming shows include an interview with General Dadou of Brooklyn rara Djarara and an exclusive midnight recording of them marching through Prospect Park, a story-telling extravaganza and musical parade through Brooklyn with the Haiti Cultural Exchange and artist Allenby Augustin, Troubadou music with yours truly DJ Richard Nixon coming out of retirement, and anpil lot bagay tou! (Much, much more.) Watch this space.


The Many Moods of Donald Trump

My very first proper job was in the camera department at the Princeton University Store. It was a summer employment, and I was very temporary, but it was a time when working behind a retail counter was a perfectly stable and respectable career, and two of my co-workers were middle aged guys who had been working there ever since I remembered first going into the place when I was virtually a toddler. One of them was mildly animated. The other, Bob, was slightly pudgy and entirely unflappable, so unflappable that he appeared to be emotionless. Bob never got upset and Bob never smiled and Bob always wished the departing shoppers a good day. On the wall, to show passport photo customers what they would receive after getting their picture taken, we posted a grid of four identical photographs of our unflappable coworker. Underneath, someone scotch-taped a caption: "The many moods of Bob."

That job might mark the beginning of my love for and interest in photography. But while I'm fascinated by the photographic image, I've always questioned the ability of photographs to convey meaning. Photographs are an amazing tool that help immeasurably in telling a story, but they cannot tell stories on their own. Without writing or context the typical photojournalistic "capture" is only capable of a message so broad that it is essentially meaningless. A picture of a policeman pointing a gun, with bandanna'd youth threatening to hurl shards of brick in the background? Sure, there are racial clues, and a full-on semiotic analysis of a particular image will yield more, but often we don't know if we are in Baltimore, Algeria or Burma. "Demonstrators confront authority" is about all we can extract.

What does this have to do with Donald "I have ten billion dollars" Trump? Recent coverage of the Republican frontrunner's presidential campaign in The Guardian has me thinking about how single, but especially multiple images, can drive an agenda virtually without context. I find, at least collectively, that the images below convey a consistent and undeniable message. They convey meaning without caption or context. All of these have been lead illustrations for various Guardian articles about the Donald over the recent weeks since he announced his candidacy, but you don't even need to know who this is to understand that you are dealing with a flatulent, mansplaining blowhard.

The relentlessness of the photoeditorial decision-making process at the Guardian raises questions of fairness in journalism that are more typically leveled at written coverage. Or perhaps there just aren't any photographs of Trump in which he looks friendly, reasonable, or electable.


(All photographs are screenshots from the Guardian online, rights and authors various. Any copyright complaints will be swiftly considered, although I generally feel that the fair use principle applies here.)


Some technical notes on the Grand Finale of HBO's "The Jinx," from the perspective of a sound recordist.

Warning: spoiler alert. You may wish to avoid reading this if you live in a cave and haven't yet seen The Jinx.

Andrew Jarecki's riveting series for HBO, The Jinx, seems at present to be well on the way to fulfilling the ultimate goal of investigative journalism, the righting of wrongs. His subject, Robert Durst, the millionaire scion of Manhattan Real Estate royalty, was a free man when Jarecki began his research into three separate murders that Durst may or may not have been involved with. Today, just a few days after the  airing of the sixth and final episode, Durst is behind bars, accused of first degree murder. Most of us working in the documentary arena dream of moments like this, when the ethereal work of filmmaking has an immediate and real-world impact. But instead of reveling in the moment, Jarecki and his collaborator Marc Smerling have gone silent, invoking, like many a corporate entity of recent decades, the notion that it would be imprudent of them to comment because they are likely to have to testify in court. “Given that we are likely to be called as witnesses in any case law enforcement may decide to bring against Robert Durst, it is not appropriate for us to comment further on these pending matters. We can confirm that evidence (including the envelope and the washroom recording) was turned over to authorities months ago,” they announced, in a statement. Although it would seem to me that another option would be to tell the truth now, and then tell the truth again later, in court, the filmmakers have cancelled all further interviews and press appearances. 

The press hate to be shut down, and journalists hate little more than having their interview cancelled, but the backlash against the creators of the The Jinx has nonetheless been extraordinary. From Gawker to the Guardian, my entirely unscientific analysis is that as much as half of the press coverage has more to do with when Jarecki learned what and what he did with the knowledge than it does with Durst's guilt or innocence. The snark also began before the filmmakers cancelled all appearances, with questions about the "timeline." Because the final interview with Robert Durst occurred "a couple of years" after the earlier ones of 2010, Jarecki is accused of having sat on some extraordinary audio, presumably recorded in 2012, in which Durst appears to confess all. For as long as three years. While Durst roamed the streets. Jarecki's response has been to say that "many months" passed between the filming of that last interview and the discovery of that audio. How can such a thing have come to pass?

Durst and Jarecki, in a screengrab from HBO Go.

There are two potentially inculpatory bombshells revealed in the final episode of what, in stepping back and taking a retrospective overview, is some ostensibly documentary television that is extraordinarily difficult to distinguish from the mood, feeling and structure of a fictional scripted narrative crime drama. The first is the comparison of two hand-written envelopes addressed to different addresses in Beverly Hills. Both writings are in block capitals. Both misspell "Beverly" as "Beverley." Both appear to have been written by the same hand. One envelope once held a letter from Durst to his since-murdered friend Susan Berman; the other told police where to find Berman's corpse. Durst admits he wrote the first, and denies writing the second. Then, at the very end of the episode, apparently at the very end of the interview, Durst goes to the bathroom, where he is recorded muttering to himself apparent admissions of guilt. It is the ethics and "correlation to reality" of this section that most interests me from a technical standpoint as a sound recordist. 

Jarecki holds a photograph, or photocopy, of the "two Beverleys"

The "timeline" questions about the Jinx are important, but they essentially boil down to wondering when Jarecki and Smerling told the police what they knew. In other words, despite believing Durst to be dangerous, did they privilege the schedule for the release of the series over the safety of the public? Did they, ethically or not, postpone the inevitable moment when their relationship with Durst was going to change from one of friendship, collaboration and mutual exploitation into one of antagonism and betrayal? The jilted LA Times' Questions we'd like to ask The Jinx's Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling is typical of the quite numerous articles that question the filmmakers' priorities. It is literally a list of questions, much harder questions than I think Meredith Blake would have asked if the LA Times had actually been able to conduct an interview.

Durst's numerous nervous tics include belching, blinking and yawning as if bored. Note the lapel mic, prominently visible at the top center of Durst's shirt.

Handwriting experts will battle over the "Beverley" envelopes in court, but to understand what happens in the final two minutes of The Jinx, it may be necessary, for once, to call to the stand experts in the recording of documentary film audio. How is it recorded? What equipment is used? When are those recordings listened to? How are those recordings used? How do they actually get into the filmmaker's workflow?

A quite murky and poorly-defined extra-wide shot that will not be earning anybody any cinematography Oscars. Durst faces Jarecki in the lower right-hand corner. Note the microphone pointed towards them from the ceiling. I would estimate it to be a good six or seven feet from the subjects.

These final two minutes are presented as having happened at the very end of Jarecki's very last interview with Durst. After the scene in which Jarecki confronts Durst with the two envelopes, we cut to a high-angle wide shot, in which much film equipment is visible; the cameraman, who we have just seen passing behind Durst's head, back on the other side of the table (the edit leaving insufficient time for him to retake his place, incidentally); a boom microphone on a stand, very high up, almost against the ceiling; a lamp, also clamped up high. In this shot, Jarecki is holding a photograph that is not visible on the table in the shots that make up the sequence of the envelope confrontation. It appears to be a photograph of a couple. It is certainly not the image of the two "Beverley" texts that he was holding two shots prior. In a feature film this would be a continuity flaw, a failure by the script supervisor. In a documentary, it slides by. Film editing is all about collapsing time in a coherent way, and this sequence clearly shows that some unspecified amount of time has passed between the envelope conversation and the wide shot, in which the two men thank one another and say goodbye. (This sequence analysis also answers one of Meredith Blake's LA Times questions; "Did the interview end immediately after you confronted Durst with the handwriting samples, as depicted in The Jinx?" Meredith, the answer is "no.")

This camera and its position are themselves odd. The images from it are much blurrier and darker than those from the "primary" and "secondary" cameras used to construct the envelope sequence. It is a sort of "record" camera, in that it sees as much of the room as possible, without any artistic intention. In my entirely speculative estimation, it was likely a small "Go-Pro" style camera placed in a high corner, perhaps just on the off chance that Durst might lose control of himself and attack Jarecki. Even as a rarely used third angle it is a bizarre shot, given that it sees the appurtenances of filmmaking. The already extremely wide position of the microphone on the boom indicates to me that it has been installed in such a way as to be invisible to even the widest possible shots from the two cameras set up across the table from Durst and Jarecki.

 At the end of this shot, Jarecki appears to remove his own microphone.

What happens next is also quite odd, cinematically. The wide shot holds as the two men shake hands and get up. Durst walks forward, around Jarecki, and out the bottom of the frame as Jarecki asks for someone to locate "Bob's" bag. Someone else offers Durst a sandwich-to-go, which could be taken as a rather nasty inside joke, given that Durst was once arrested in Pennsylvania for shoplifting one. At the end of this shot, Jarecki can be seen removing his own wireless transmitter. We then jump-cut to another shot from this same camera, with Jarecki no longer in frame, and a couple of presumed technicians, who we have not seen before, suddenly visible, coming around the far end of the table. Is one of them the sound recordist?

From the moment of this odd jump cut there is only an illusory synchronicity between the sound and the picture. Once we see the two technicians, what we primarily hear are the private murmurings of Robert Durst, no longer visible. I would argue that the jump cut here, from one, synchronous moment in this strange wide shot, to another, with Durst's voice coming from some unspecified area off camera, is used precisely to create the illusion that Durst is speaking at the same time as we see and hear a light being switched off in the interview room. It is important to note that we hear the light being switched off, meaning that in constructing the scene, the editors took audio both from some source within the interview room, perhaps the overhead boom, and also from Durst's lavalier microphone now out in the hall, as he looks for the bathroom. The two have very consciously been mixed together, presumably by Coll Anderson, who has the audio post credit on the series. The sound of the lamp being switched off reinforces the idea, for which there is no actual basis, that Durst's monologue and the shutting down of the set are happening simultaneously. We then see an intertitle card:

You are now going to accuse me of pedantry, of harping on semantics, but this is a strange card. Microphones do not record. Tape recorders record. Actually, in the present day film business, a combination of software, hard-drives and compact flash memory record. The filmmakers have thought very carefully about what images they are going to put in what order in the telling of their story; I'm going to assume they also thought carefully about how to phrase the crucial intertitle that introduces Robert Durst's earth-shattering, allegedly self-incriminating statements. Let's imagine for a moment that we are sitting in on a meeting in which this phrasing is being discussed:

As a sound recordist I might raise my opinion that sound recordists get insufficient credit for supervising the most important half of the image-sound combination that make up the modern film. Why not make up for that in this intertitle? How about "The sound-person continues to record Bob while he is in the bathroom."? 

No, someone would point out, that reinforces our ongoing intrusion during his going to the toilet. It gives us agency.

I should mention that approximately 90% of the interview subjects I have wired in my more-than-twenty-year sound recording career forget within minutes that they are wearing a microphone. Only crack professionals who are interviewed almost daily sometimes remember. Very often it is only when they go into the bathroom and find that there is a small wire leading from their belt or pants pocket up to their shirtfront that they realize someone may be listening to their every fart. It is quite common for interview subjects to then come see me and ask me to turn the transmitter off before they return to the toilet. On a recent shoot with former president Bill Clinton I was informed by his staffers that I was not to use a lapel mic, presumably because of the risk of recording an unauthorized or unguarded moment before or after the official interview. Obama, Bush, and Ronald "we begin bombing in five minutes" Reagan are only a few of those who have been burned by so-called hot mics. Jarecki told Charlie Rose that Durst knew that his microphone was always on, but knowing this and remembering it are two entirely different things.

How about: "The tape is still rolling as Bob goes into the bathroom?" No. First of all there's no tape these days, and we can't exactly say "The hard-drive is still rolling...."

OK, then, what about "The audio is still being recorded as....?" I suppose that might work, but it would be nice to avoid using the passive voice.

The obliviousness of the New York Times and the Washington Post with regard to my profession should embarrass both of those venerated publications. Here's The Post's absurd sentence about the bathroom confessions: "The camera crew had already packed up from the day's interviewing but the recorder kept rolling as Durst went to the bathroom." For their part, demonstrating a breathtakingly gullible interpretation of how this film was edited, the NYT writes: "Near the documentary's end, the filmmakers were packing up their equipment when Mr. Durst asked to use the bathroom. He did not remove his wireless microphone as he closed the door, however, and began to whisper to himself."

This is already dragging on, but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Most people who aren't in the film business don't have a firm grasp of what it is that a sound recordist does. I'm often asked if people hire me to come along and record the music that will be used in the film, or the sound of the birds in the trees or the passing traffic. In fact, these are usually the things I am trying to avoid recording, in the context of an interview, or a scene with several people talking to one another. Viewers don't understand that in order for a speaking human being to be heard crisply and with clarity on film, that person, in the vast majority of contemporary settings, needs to have a microphone very close to their mouth. Let's say, ideally, within 18 to 24 inches. Someone needs to put that microphone there, and the audio coming from it needs to be monitored at all times. (For this I charge approximately $90 per hour, if you are looking).

Back in the long-distant days of film, sound recordists were blissfully independent. We attached our microphones to our tape recorders with wires, and our only worry about the camera was whether it would see our boom poking down into the top of the frame, or our lavalier microphone peeking out from behind a shirt placket. We recorded the sound, and the camera recorded the image. In post-production, the two were synchronized. In this scenario, it was important for sound to begin rolling before the camera, and to continue to roll, if possible, after the camera cut.

Throughout much of the 1990s and the "aughties," as film became too expensive and video became more sophisticated, most audio was recorded on the camera. As a sound recordist my microphones were now attached to my portable mixer, with the camera doing the actual recording, whenever the cameraman was "rolling". I monitored the sound, but did not myself have control over the recorder. I would either have a couple of wires leading from my mixer to the camera, or transmit the audio to the camera wirelessly. Cameramen generally hated this arrangement, because the wires risked impeding their movement, and the "wireless link" option demanded that they do some level of monitoring to be certain the sound was coming through okay. In this scenario, which prevailed in television from about 1990 until at least 2005, and persists on many lower-budget productions, essentially zero audio was ever recorded when the camera was not rolling. Durst's mumblings would never have gone down on tape.

In a sense, we have now gone back in time. Because of the widespread adoption of portable multi-track hard-disc recorders like the Sound Devices 788T, and thanks to the proliferation of Digital SLR cameras, which shoot high-quality video but sound something like a broken walkman, sound recordists today, and during the period The Jinx was filmed, once again generally record the sound independent of the image. Although the video camera visible in the final shots of The Jinx is capable of recording decent sound, the use of a multi-track machine allows the recording of a large number of discreet audio tracks, offering more flexibility in the final mixing of the film.

The credited sound recordists on The Jinx, neither of whom I know, are Tim Hayes and Paul Marshall. I suspect that either of them would have been recording on some kind of multi-track machine. We could ask them how it all went down, but I am certain they will have signed deal memorandums ensuring not only their salaries but their silence. I expect them to be subpoenaed.

There are three microphones visible in the scene: the boom, the lavalier on Durst, and a lavalier on Jarecki. Each of these would be recorded on its own track. In order to aid the synchronization of sound and picture, the sound recordist would then send either one or two tracks of "scratch" audio to be recorded on the camera. On lazier or lower-budget productions, or quite commonly still on network television productions, the editors might well take the sound from the camera tracks rather than bother synching up the files from the hard-disc to the camera images. In this case I would only believe that this had happened if the recordist told me that he had sent Jarecki's and Durst's microphone signals to separate channels on the camera. The boom is so far away from the scene that it can only be there to record room ambience or to provide marginal backup audio in the case of a catastrophic failure of one or other of the lavalier microphones. It is quite possible, although lazy filmmaking, for the editors to have listened only to the audio recorded alongside the camera images, and to have ignored any audio recorded after the cameras had cut. Nonetheless, this recordist would have immediately alerted the producers to the bombshell that had just come into my headphones.

It is important to understand something about the transmitter packs to which these lavaliers are attached. I can see Jarecki's in the near final shot, but I cannot determine its make or model. Often just called "wireless," these body packs transmit the signal from the subject's lapel mic, or lavalier, to the sound recordist. Because of FCC regulations on their transmitting power, they typically have an out-of-doors "line-of-sight" range of approximately 100 yards. In dense urban environments with lots of other wifi activity their ranges can be significantly diminished. Walls also have an impact.

In my sound recording setup, I use Lectrosonics wireless systems. A receiver for each wireless is attached to the recorder, and I record the signal only when I choose, that is to say, when I press record. At the obvious end of the shoot, or interview, I will generally cut (press "stop"), if it is abundantly clear that we are finished. In an exceptional circumstance, and recording a final interview with Robert Durst probably qualifies, I won't cut at all until the director makes it very clear that he considers the filming complete. But in that case I will be sitting in front of my rig, with my headphones on, listening to what I am recording. Jarecki, or at least the media's interpretation of what he has told them, would have me believe that whoever recorded the Durst interview walked away, or started packing up his gear, while still recording. This makes no sense to me whatsoever.

If we accept that the Durst confession actually did happen after the close of the interview, rather than at some other time, it is clear that Jarecki thought the interview had concluded. How else do we account for him removing his own microphone? He can't have known that Durst would hang around long enough to use the toilet. The sound recordist could be excused for cutting, and even for beginning to wrap up his cables. Had I been the sound recordist, I would probably have been attempting to get the okay from a producer to remove Durst's microphone, in order to prevent him from walking out of the building with it. Durst's bag, after all, is being gotten for him, and he has left the room. If we accept the film's chronology, the lights have been turned off. The shot of the darkened, empty room then holds during Durst's entire lengthy bathroom monologue. This is another oddity; it even seems manufactured. I have never been on a film set where the film lights were turned off without the "house" or overhead room lights being promptly turned on. When the film lights are turned off, wrapping is about to commence, and wrapping is not done in the dark. It makes me suspicious. There is something slippery here. When we hear Durst finally say "killed them all, of course," the room dramatically darkens even more, as if the filmmakers flicked off a couple more switches out of frame, and have left the building, with all their gear still installed.

A dark and empty room full of film equipment.

There is one possibility that alleviates, but does not entirely remove my skepticism about how and when this audio was recorded, listened to, and noted. It also could account for the strange phrasing of "Bob's microphone continues to record...." The sound-person might have use Zaxcom wirelesses. These differ from Lectrosonics in that their transmitters simultaneously transmit audio to a wireless receiver and record it locally. They make a time-stamped backup of all the audio fed into them by a microphone for as long as they are switched on, regardless of whether or not the sound recordist is listening or recording. The idea is that if the subject wearing one walks, runs or drives out of range, it is still possible to recuperate their audio. I've heard they are useful for extreme sports.

I have a question for Meredith Blake to add to her list. I would like to know what brand of wireless Durst was wearing, and, if it was a Zaxcom, how anyone ever came to listen to the files that were recorded on it, given that they would be imagined to serve only as emergency backups of the production audio recordings on the hard-drive? If it wasn't a Zaxcom, the whole scenario is very fishy indeed.


Daniel Morel Interviewed

In my last post I promised a full interview with Daniel Morel, with whom I got to spend some time in the Grand Rue of Port-au-Prince on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the earthquake. I went to Haiti to write a couple of stories about his spectacular photo exhibit, a show that was put on in, by, for, and featuring the people of the Grand Rue. Morel, now 63, grew up just down the street, and his family had a bakery there. He was sitting in this same courtyard five years ago when the earthquake hit, and some of the same neighbors and friends and family who appear in the images helped install the show. Many, if not most of those who came to the opening know personally people in the pictures.

A nice long piece I wrote appeared in german in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, and I also recorded for the BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent." You can listen to that story about sixteen and a half minutes into this MP3 file, or read it online.

The day after the very moving opening of the exhibition, Daniel and I went back to the outdoor gallery space and sat down to talk about the ideas behind the show and the painful process of reconstructing Haiti. I've lightly edited the transcript for clarity:

How long have you been working as a photojournalist? Have you worked other places besides Haiti?

I would say over 30 years, that’s my career. I started professionally here in Haiti in 1986. I like working here; I’ve always worked here. Sometimes, in New York and other places, Venezuela, Santo Domingo. 

What do you consider the highlights of your career?

This. Also, the return of Aristide, when I was on the plane with him. October 15th, 1994.

That must be, probably, the day before I met you. 

To me what is really interesting about this show is that the people who are in the pictures are the people who helped put the show together, and they are also the people who live around here. Could you talk about the philosophy behind that?

That was a dream come true. It's the purpose of the show. That’s the reason I didn’t do it any other place, I didn’t do it in Petion-ville, I didn’t do it at the Oloffson, I wanted to do it here. Because the people here deserve to have a good show, up to an international standard. This show could be [put on display] anywhere. I think they deserve that.

How did your ideas for this come together?

The very next year it was in my head. Because the year [after the earthquake] I came back here to see all of the people that I had photographed, to see how they were doing. And since then the idea was in my head. I always wanted to do it with a book, but the book hasn’t come true yet, because of a lack of money and sponsorship. The second phase of this show will be to travel around Haiti, to take it to where people were not affected by the earthquake. And the book, always, of course.

The idea that was in my head was to do photography for the people. To do photography for people who never had any experience of photography. So that movement starts here. Not photography for the gallery, photography for the people. And they should have the same quality of photography, not lower.

Do you think it is a traumatic experience for people to see these photographs, the people around here?

Yes and no. I have observed a few moments—because I have been photographing their reactions—I have seen people who were very emotional when looking at the photographs, and I see others who were shocked and excited at the same time. Excited because they don’t know—they were in the earthquake, but they didn’t see the earthquake, or see themselves in the earthquake.

I think I was expecting people to be more traumatized than they were. People I saw were very moved, but in a positive way, and I’m having a bit of trouble understanding why that would be.

One reason is the way I edited the photographs. Destruction yes, but not so much blood and death. The photos are not so shocking. It’s a documentary about their life. I think that’s the main reason why you didn’t see so much emotion.

I saw plenty of emotion, but it was mostly positive.

Yes, it’s not very harsh, like sadness. I think this exhibition is more happiness than sadness. When people are thinking about earthquake photos, the first thing that comes to their mind is death, just like they exaggerated with the 300,000 dead. When other photojournalists came here, they focussed on the same thing: death, death, death, death. Only one subject symbolized the Haitian earthquake, and it was death. But human struggle is what really symbolizes this earthquake. That’s the way I shot it, and that’s the way people react to it.

From what I can remember, I only have four dead bodies from that moment that you see here. No more than four. 

I can easily imagine why the number of dead would be exaggerated. Of course I have no idea how many people died, but I know you feel strongly that the numbers were grossly exaggerated. Do you want to talk a little bit about why you think that is the case?

Yes. Because to have a death count, you have to count the bodies! I remember one of the networks said, the very next day, 150,000 dead, and from that point on it was out of control. Every hour the death count was going up without counting any dead bodies. Without counting how many were injured, without counting the missing. Myself personally, I don’t think more than 20,000 people died, but of course I am also in the wrong, because I did not count the bodies [either]. I think it shows disrespect for the country, disrespect for the victims; it’s taking advantage of the misery of the people to collect money. 

I went to Fort National, the whole place really was wiped out. And I asked the people in the neighborhood how many people died, and they told me maybe ten people. Also, the soldiers came here without body bags. That’s another way you could have made an estimation of how many died, by knowing how many body bags were distributed, you could have made some estimation.

Can you explain how your pictures were stolen?

I was not working for anyone. I received some offers [for the pictures] that were very low. I decided to put them on Twitpic, for the world to see it, and maybe to sell it, too. So, someone in the DR stole the photos and removed my name and put his name on it, but at the same time, people, the AFP, was trying to contact me, and then they decided to go with the other name. Then, the next day, they removed that name and they put my name, but without any authorization—and they say they had $20,000 for me—I never knew that! Basically the photos were unauthorized. The proper thing to do would have been to delete all the photos and send me an apology, say ‘we made a mistake,’ --they didn’t even bother to do that.

I was lucky to use Twitpic, because most people use the local phone company, and all the local phone companies were out of service. So us, in the hotel [Oloffson] we had a Satellite dish, and we had a little power left in the inverter, so I managed to send some photos out, but the power was in rationing. Every hour they would give us like ten minutes, I don’t remember. I think it was about twenty photos, 19, I think.

The power was off first of all. We had the inverter, but the generator was down, we couldn’t charge the battery, so we only had maybe an hour left of power, and we had to manage it, like ten minutes every once in a while, something like that. One reason I put the pictures on Twitter in high resolution was that it could’ve been the last time I was going to be able to have access to the internet. They [AFP] claimed this as an excuse, saying that I should not have put the pictures up at high resolution; it doesn’t matter. The lowest resolution can be stolen, too! Stealing is stealing!

Is there a difference for you between documentary and photojournalism?

For me, my style is documentary. Photojournalism, it depends how you do it, you can do it as documentary and you can do it as spot news also. All my pictures are a picture story. I don't like showing one photo. I always have a group of photos, a minimum of 4, 5, 6, or more. That way you can see the story better. I don't even have to write a word, you can see the story. There is a continuation, point A to point B.

You have the breaking news, the real news when it is happening, but the aftermath is more important than the breaking news, because that's the continuation of the story, and it's very important to know how your subject is doing, if they survive. That's the way I work. 

I would say that's very different from many photojournalists who come, they get the picture, and they move on. So they don't know whether that person has a future or not. It may have changed a little bit in the digital age of photojournalism, but I remember when we first met, twenty years ago or so at the Hotel Oloffson, those guys would be sitting around saying "oh, it's more of a hot scene in Rwanda than it is here, I'm going to fly over there", this kind of thing.

They cover spot news. They get paid for three days work, for four days work. Maybe it's not their fault.

I'm not blaming them. But you see an iconic photograph of a person, and you don't know what happened to them before, you don't know what happened to them afterwards.

That's one reason I choose not to travel. Because I think the story belongs to the local photographers. They are the ones who know the area, they are the ones who know their people. Why me, to go some other place, taking photos, when I have my own story to cover?

Haiti's enough of a story for an entire lifetime.


You chose 5 years as a good time to look back at the earthquake; it's also a good time to look back and see what has happened in the country in those five years.

One year was too fresh, and two years still too fresh to evaluate it. I think five years is a good period of time. The president is elected for five years. Two presidents have passed since that five years, you know. And my personal evaluation is not about reconstruction. My personal view of this period of five years is still that there is a lack of leadership. Nobody is really leading the reconstruction, leading, to help the people. Because the death toll was exaggerated, the homeless were exaggerated, and that became anarchy, really. Anybody could claim they were a victim. Nobody asked them, where did you used to live? What did you lose? They didn't have a file on each person who was in a camp, first of all. The camps were born by themselves. The camps were not planned, well planned by some organization, namely the Haitian government. They let the international [community] take over. They thought the international community was going to do everything for them. That's wrong. The first step is that the Haitian government should lead the reconstruction. Instead of that, everybody is trying to make money. The Clinton Foundation came here with a lot of money; the airplanes used to be full coming here, everybody coming with their project. Some of those projects, they are very useful, like solar power, some other stuff I saw was really useful, and the money was available. I'm not blaming that the Clinton foundation stole all the money, yes they did, but mainly it's our fault, because the government didn't have any plan. They're lazy. They thought Clinton was going to come here and build everything for them. That's not the case. You should have your own plan, and you say what you need: "I need a roof for this place here," and make an estimate for how much the roof is going to cost, how much the labor is going to cost, and you ask for money or whatever, to me that's the way the reconstruction should be planned. It's not by building those little cages for people that I see--and then they're going to accuse the international community? No. If I have to accuse, I have to accuse myself. I didn't do the right thing, I didn't take the responsibility to do what I was supposed to do, I failed. I'm not blaming NGOs, I will never make an excuse and say that it's because of NGOs that this country is like this. Because us, as Haitians we are incapable of doing the reconstruction, and the reconstruction can be done only by Haitians! 

Considering the location where we are, this is as much like a gallery show in Chelsea as I could imagine. It's clean, it's a beautiful presentation. In a way I see the show as a metaphor, or a commentary on what hasn't happened in the reconstruction.

Yes. You see the way I did it here? I did it with respect. Not because it is for poor people should it have to be on a poor level. People are people. Not because they are poor you should build them one room, without windows, in the middle of the desert. Because they are poor? No. Every single human being deserves a minimum standard of living, but here the minimum standard of living--when somebody is poor, they are not even like an animal, they just build anything for them--this is wrong.

The international community only comes here in moments of crisis, and out of these crises somebody always manages to make money. So it's as if Haiti is a kind of resource of disaster that the international community can draw on in a way, from time to time. And I think that the way they treated you, the way they took your photographs is in a way a parallel. Like, they raped your photographs.

Yeah, and they sued me!

And they do the same thing in the aid arena.

Yes. The way they are building those little rooms, for the reconstruction; it's the same thing. In Haiti, as a photojournalist, I'm nothing. In Pakistan, as a photojournalist, I'm nothing. It's not a matter of race or color anymore, it's a matter of big and small. What happened to me here could happen to a Pakistani, or Afghan, or Iraqi or any small local photographer. Because before the internet the local photographer was nothing. When something happens, they charter an airplane, come here, take the shot, go back, make their book, enter for the Pulitzer. Like they did here, they stole my Pulitzer away from me! Somebody came here 72 hours after... I submitted my work for [the Pulitzer for] breaking news, and you could see all the headlines, with my picture, all over the world. And I managed not to win the Pulitzer, I was second? And the person who came 72 hours later was the winner? This is the same thing. The only people who are really supposed to have a better life, is them.

You don’t think that race…? I mean, to me it seems like the attitude was, “This guy can't really fuck with us, so....

They didn't even know I was in the US. They didn't even know I was a US citizen. They kept on asking my lawyer where to send the papers, my address in Haiti!

That was a special moment, when the shoeshine guy came in....

When I saw that, I mean, whew. It was what I had been dreaming of. When I saw that guy walk in here, freely, looking at those pictures; that’s probably the best moment in my life. I didn’t even look at his face, I was so excited. I just kept taking pictures of his box, and I didn’t even try to look at his reaction. But I was so excited. 

To see a shoeshine man walk in and look at those photos, with so much interest, it was like a dream. Because a shoe-shine boy, or man, in Haiti, that is the lowest category of human being. It's the lowest job, the worst work you can do in this society. Can you imagine, you have to carry a box, 
you walk for miles, and miles to make $2, or $1? When I saw that guy walk in here, first of all he knew he had the right to come here, freely, to look at those pictures. That guy carried his shoeshine box in here to look? I tell you, seeing that was worth everything I did. 


Sonje means remember

I made a quick trip to Port-au-Prince last week to catch the opening of Daniel Morel's show of the photographs he took on the day of the earthquake, five years ago on January 12, 2010. It was an entirely unique event in my experience of the Haitian art world. He displayed the photographs in the Grand Rue inner-city neighborhood where he took them, so that the primary audience for the show was the same people who appear in the images. The are the subjects, or the friends and neighbors of those seen running, panicked, through the streets, in the pictures. Furthermore his assistants and docents are all drawn from the community, making it entirely a neighborhood affair. It was extremely moving, and I remarked at the time that I have never seen visitors to any Chelsea gallery stare with such intensity at the images on the wall.

I hope to post an interview with Daniel Morel about the show soon. At the moment I have a piece about it running on the BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent." You can listen to it online here, or catch on the BBC World Service wherever and whenever they run the program.

Daniel, in front of his exhibition.

ps: Anyone still having trouble with the link, as pointed out by phuzz in the comments, can cut / paste this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ykk4w



At the beginning of What We Don’t See, the new documentary by Austrian filmmaker Anna Katharina Wohlgenannt, the artist Christina Kubisch wanders through a weedy field beneath high-tension wires, wearing bulbous old-school headphones while gently waving a pair of what appear to be plastic tennis rackets, as if swatting slow-motion flies. Later, we see her meandering through city streets, lost in her own auditory world. Her headphones are modified to translate the electro-magnetic radiation that surrounds us, all the time, into sound. We hear what she hears, a constant, dense soundscape of hums, buzzes and tones that serves as a powerful metaphor for the hyper-connected technology-driven world we have created for ourselves. There are now more cellphones in circulation in the world than there are people. Our homes have wifi accessible air-conditioners, thermostats and smoke detectors, and telecommunications companies squabble over the last unused blocks of radio bandwidth. If all these anthropogenic transmissions and emissions were visible we would scarcely be able to see our own hands in front of our faces. What if all those signals flowing through the air are debilitating to our health and sanity?

Rather than attack this question head-on, Wohlgenannt offers non-judgmental portraits of five people already certain that electricity, wifi, and cellular transmissions are poisoning them. Her characters live underground behind thick brick walls, or in remote, isolated rural areas. They sleep in Faraday cages, line their homes with mylar foil, or wear metallic radio-repelling chain-mail undergarments. If what they say is true, they are canaries in the digital coal mine; all of our fabulous technology is killing them, and will soon kill us. They suffer from, or believe they suffer from, Electro-Magnetic Hypersensitivity, or EHS.

A year ago, I drove to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. to pick up Wohlgenannt and her cameraperson, Judith Benedikt. I had been hired to record the sound on the final, United States portion of their shoot. We headed to Green Bank, West Virginia, a remote, forested bowl in what is one of the poorest states in the country. The town is near the heart of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, where a near-complete radio blackout is enforced over thousands of square kilometers. Eliminating human-based radio signals avoids interfering with a giant telescope that has sometimes been used to monitor the intergalactic radio waves constantly beaming down on us from space, in hopes of finding signs of intelligent life. Perhaps paradoxically, many Americans who have diagnosed themselves with EHS have moved here because of the government prohibition on man-made radio waves. Diane Schou and Jennifer Wood, who appear in the film, told stories of discovering Green Bank as if it were a lifesaving oasis in the desert. They believed their self-diagnoses with near-religious fervor, and had made great sacrifices to move there. Although Schou lives in a quite comfortable, custom-modified house, she rarely sees her husband, who works halfway across the country in Iowa. Wood abandoned an architectural career and almost all the trappings of contemporary life (she owns a car) to live in a tiny wooden cabin without electricity or plumbing.

Are these people simply incapable of coping with modern life, and so flee a society that has become too dense with communication and information? Or have they correctly identified the source of the almost absurdly diverse array of maladies that EHS sufferers report: everything from migraines and tinnitus to numbness, joint pain, weight loss, exhaustion and gas? Science has so far failed to find support for their claims, to which many answer that because the curing of their condition would require abandoning mobile telephony and the wireless internet, twin drivers of the global economy of the last twenty-five years, great forces are aligned against them. Perhaps it is no surprise that EHS sufferers can seem paranoid and conspiracy-minded.

What We Don't See is a kind of documentary science-fiction, proposing an alternate future, one already inhabited by Schou and Wood, who both say they would like to warn us about the path that we are on. 

On her last day in Green Bank, I asked Katharina whether, after a year spent in the company of electronically tormented people, she had grown more or less convinced that the phenomenon is real. It's a question she carefully avoids addressing in her film. “I'm much more certain it's a problem,” she said, quickly. 

Then I asked the cinematographer, Judith Benedikt, the same question. She said “I'm afraid I feel the opposite. At first, I thought, maybe.... But not any more.” But back at home in New York, I had a ten-month-old baby in the house. Ruby. It was hard not to say to myself: What if? For a couple of weeks, every night before going to bed, I carefully turned off all the cellphones, the computer and the router. Did we sleep better? Some nights I thought so, but gradually I got out of the habit. It was too much trouble.