All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
My first video journal entry remains a vivid memory. It was recorded during a sweltering August heat wave in my insanely tiny Manhattan apartment. The year was 1996 and, not long out of film school, I had moved to New York City from Vancouver, Canada, to check out the indie film scene. I managed to score a rent-stabilized studio just a few blocks from Times Square. It may have lacked a kitchen, but some kind soul had installed two vanities in the bathroom – presumably one for washing dishes. I was as far from the vast, wave-swept shores of the western Canadian coast as you can travel.
I raced up the three flights of stairs to my apartment in what seemed a single breath. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was preparing to shoot an independent documentary the following week. I had just bought a new video camera from a large electronics retailer on the West Side and couldn’t wait to try it out.
The tangy chemical aroma of Styrofoam packing and new electronics filled the air. I placed my shiny mini-DV camcorder on its tripod and pointed its lens toward me. I regularly kept a written journal, but because I had the camera, I decided to try something different. I would shoot my first video journal entry.
As I looked into the lens, I felt excited, but also strangely nervous. The nerves caught me off guard. There was no rational reason for my edginess. I”d never felt anxious about writing in my paper journal. Why would I have? But rational or not, I felt a rush of endorphins.
Sweat poured down my brow and stung my eyes. The sweat I attributed to the ferocious humidity and a wheezing air conditioner much too timid to cope with aggressive New York City heat. After all, I definitely wasn”t that nervous. Yet the anticipation lingered. I wanted to figure out why.
The video entries were private – or at least I knew that the decision would be one hundred percent mine whether I made them public. There was no reason to feel even slightly anxious. But sitting alone in front of the steady and patient eye of the video camera energized something inside of me.
I pressed the bright red record button and began to speak. As I recorded some of my early experiences and impressions of New York City, the nervousness disappeared. What remained was my curiosity.
I continued to video journal and ended up using one of my entries in an independent documentary I made in 2000 that played the festival circuit. For the most part, though, I kept the majority of my entries private just as with my paper journal. Yet the further I experimented with video journaling the more the idea persisted that there was something special about the experience of speaking directly to a camera.
Around this time, I came across Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Cameron”s book is a guide for enhancing creativity through written journaling and other methods. This sparked my interest further. I tailored some of her exercises to video. With writing, I sometimes found it hard to get started. With video, the presence of the camera instantly focused me, and I loved the spontaneity. More than once, I found myself speaking about tough times I went through as a kid that I”d nearly forgotten. Whenever this happened it felt cathartic. The words flowed out of me “to” another place – into the camera lens.
Several years later, I started working on TV documentaries for networks ranging from HBO to Sundance Channel. Depending on the project’s budget, I sometimes shot interviews on my own. On larger projects, there were three or four crew members. When the camera came on, the emotional intensity inevitably increased with sometimes unpredictable results. It seemed there was more to this than the expected nerves or excitement about being on TV. When the camera rolled, it was as if an unseen energy had suddenly entered the room.
On one occasion, Steve, the subject of a TV documentary, confided that the presence of the camera had compelled him to open himself up to his sister in a way that he”d never been able to before. During their exchange the entire crew blinked back tears, myself included. I had spent time with Steve and the crew beforehand to create a situation where he”d feel comfortable, but the camera was the mysterious “X” factor.
I started to explore this “X” factor in my own life. How could it be used mindfully? What role did the camera play? Meanwhile, I was finalizing the thesis topic for my masters degree and decided to explore the topic in greater depth. I scoured research on autobiographical video and journaling. I made my way through some of the dense texts of media philosophy, searched online blogs, and read magazines and newspapers both online and off.
Media theorists seemed to roughly agree that mainstream media has a potent but not necessarily healthy effect on our psyches. Numerous books explained the technical and creative potential of video blogging. Several academic studies in the field of media psychology outlined the promise that video shows in a diverse range of areas. Finally, a number of excellent books focused on using journal writing for personal growth and transformation.
All of the above sources had an important influence on me and they are listed in the Appendices. However, there were none that I found that focused on using video for healing or self-exploration. Yet one area that seemed to need healing was our relationship to media.
I began developing a workshop that approached video from this perspective and ultimately wrote this book. My hope is that it serves as a fun and flexible guide to discovering an exciting new approach to video, and perhaps even to life. In the next chapter we’ll explore why the power of journaling is a key component to this journey.