Cybel Nat Geo

My friends know I’m happiest when traveling. Multiply that joy by ten if I get to travel and work. So I get a little miffed by two occurrences: how rare I see films about African Americans traveling. And how frequently I see white men as the only on-air talent, photographers, writers and film crew for a travel show or documentary. They may have been credited with “discovering” foreign lands centuries ago but couldn’t we all benefit from seeing diverse perspectives on international travel now?

There are a handful of films about African Americans abroad. My favorite is Martin Ritt’s “Paris Blues”. The amazing cast includes Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier. Additional films are mentioned in Tambay’s post “Films About Black Americans Set Outside the USA”. In 2001, I saw Darien Sills-Evan’s film, “X-Patriots”, about two black American men living in the Netherlands. I ran up to him after the screening, at the Independent Feature Film Market, to express my absolute delight of seeing this often ignored scenario. We do travel!

International travel makes me a better person. In 2008, very much inspired by the book “Eat, Pray, Love”, I traveled to Nigeria (twice), London, Belize and Mexico. That was my best year personally and professionally. Being exposed to different cultures and working outside of my comfort zone deserved much of the credit.

And I know I am not alone. My travel mavens (Kiratiana Freelon, Greg Gross) and I have discussed the endless benefits of venturing abroad and how refreshing it would be to see our experiences on the big screen. (Aside: I’m glad to see an increase of diverse images in tourism and travel commercials. The #AdWin goes to Booking.com spots).

#Protip #1 – International film festivals sometimes offer workshops in conjunction with their screenings. They will fly over filmmakers and pay them to lead their workshops. This is how I taught in Belize and Nigeria on multiple occasions.

Since I am a Director of Photography and not a writer, director or producer, I have no control over the types of narratives being made. Is it simply no one wants to fund these stories? Is no one writing them? I once received a very disheartening tweet on the subject. A black female Twitter follower explained to me, emphatically, that only rich African Americans travelled abroad. And “we” only felt comfortable in the Caribbean. I dislike arguing on Twitter so I didn’t reply.

However, I think of this tweet whenever I watch travel shows on the Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, Travel Channel or similar. The majority are hosted by white men seeking adventure, exotic animals, new arts, new music, dining delicacies and sacred spaces in foreign lands. I watch these shows for the vicarious thrill. But can these shows also alienate people? Do they reinforce a fear that traveling abroad is expensive, difficult or can only be experienced by “certain” people? Whatever the show’s host finds of interest is wonderful. But what other “wonderfulness” could we experience from a host with a different background?

Of course there are exceptions. I enjoyed “Dhani Tackles the Globe” for his international travel with a sports twist. The ultimate joy, that combines my love for travel and fascination with real estate, is “House Hunters International”. Fans of HHI love it for the assortment of people who move abroad, the diverse countries they pick and variety of living spaces. PBS’ “Grannies on Safari!” is one of the best concepts ever.

I used to look forward to Lisa Ling’s investigative reports for The Oprah Show. She was host for “National Geographic Explorer” for seven years but her reports on human trafficking in North Korea and the “Modern Day Geisha” in Tokyo for Oprah stayed with me.

Speaking of Nat Geo, I’ve always wanted to shoot for them. I imagined myself shooting Super 16mm while riding an elephant in Nepal. Or hiking through the Andes with lenses in my backpack. So when the call finally came? I had to laugh that it was shooting in Harlem. It was one of the best gigs ever and I got to work with director Marco Williams (see photo above).

Protip #2 – Nat Geo, Discovery, Bravo etc contract out their tv shows to different production companies. If you’d like to work on nature/travel shows, google the words “reality tv” and “production companies” to get started.

This is a perfect segue to my other concern: who is behind the camera? Does that affect the story being shown?

I watched a fascinating documentary recently that shall remain nameless. It covered the sexual exploitation and degradation of young women in a third world country. The entire crew was male. From what I could determine from imdb, most, if not all, were white men. My “buttons” were pushed.

Every documentary crew member (sound, shooter, producer) comes with their own sensitivities and beliefs about the story being told. If you combine doc crew members with diverse interests, your footage can be richer, more dynamic. When given the authority, I like to chose 2nd Unit DPs for documentaries who are, of course, professional, fast and creative. But I also want them to have different “buttons” than I. They may see real life stories unfolding that the director and I can not, because our backgrounds are different. My personal sensitivities are the welfare of women and children, group activities (sports, dance troupes, protests) and urban renewal.

In the case of this one particular documentary, I was concerned by the social dynamic between the destitute, brown women, sharing their stories of sexual abuse with the white, (relatively speaking) privileged, male filmmakers. Did the women feel heard? How did it feel to have these men in their homes? Doc crews spend a lot of time with the subjects before and after interviews. I hope the women and their boundaries were respected during those moments.

I wish there had been at least one female behind the camera to show compassion and reflect back understanding to the women. Not that men can’t express compassion or understanding. Of course they can. I’ve also worked with women who were cold and manipulative.

And I’m practical. Sometimes your crew comprises of who’s available. Who you always work with. Who has gear. It’s often easier and cheaper to rent hotel rooms if everyone is the same sex.

But the next time you watch a documentary or reality tv show, examine who is working behind the scenes. Did that have an impact on the “reality” being told? And be mindful when crewing for your own documentaries. In my experience, the best way to find crew is by recommendation. Protip #3: Join groups like The D-Word for additional help in finding crew.

This brings us to a letter I wrote to “Departures” Magazine about their October 2013 “Africa” Issue. “Departures” is a beautiful, glossy, “delicious to look at” Travel & Lifestyles magazine published by American Express. It’s one of the few magazines I must experience in print. Of the 26 contributors for their October issue, 7 were women and all but one (it seems from the photos) were white. They may or may not print my letter but I wanted to share it with you:

“Dear Departures Magazine,

I love your magazine. It consistently delights and makes me want to board the next flight. To anywhere.

However, I was very disappointed with the lack of diversity amongst your contributors, in particular, for the October 2013 Africa issue. The content and photos were superb, but I’m personally tiring of magazines such as yours, Nat Geo and similar tv shows hiring almost exclusively white men to travel, explore and report back. I’m glad you had a few female contributors, but I believe only one person of color?

I am a cinematographer and huge travel enthusiast. Last year, I shot a documentary in Tanzania and Ethiopia and was keenly aware (especially in Ethiopia) how people could feel violated by the camera’s presence. Sometimes having a person of color behind the camera put people at ease and encouraged them to show a different side of their personality and experiences.

Writing, photography and cinematography are all arts. We make decisions on framing, people to follow and lenses etc based on what fascinates us. It is subjective. I’m sure all of your contributors had the best of intentions. However, limiting your group to a predominantly white gaze, restricted how Africa and it’s people would be portrayed.

I hope you take this letter and my concerns to heart. The American Express brand does a strong job of representing diversity in its advertising. I’d love if that commitment spilt over into your creative staff.

Warm regards,

Cybel Martin”