Photographer William Widmer knew this assignment would be different than any other the moment he met the subject of the story.
“In the first light of morning, the cab light clicked on, we got out of the rental car and walked around to see the door of the cab. It was dark, the windows were dirty, and these two bare feet stepped out,” Widmer remembers. “Then he gets out and he has [his pet dog] Blackie tied with a rope for a leash. And he looks like a mountain man, like a fur trapper from the 1700s.”
The bare feet — which appear in many of Widmer’s photographs of the nearly three-day, 1,300-mile journey — belong to independent trucker Robert Harsell. He had offered to take reporter Richard Grant and a photographer along on one of his delivery runs to show him what life was like on the road. What resulted was this multimedia feature about new safety regulations that Harsell says makes the highway more dangerous and threatens truckers’ livelihoods. In the process, Widmer and Grant got a first-hand look at the vagaries of the trucking life — and the eccentricities of one Robert Harsell.
Only one person could ride in the truck with Harsell at any given time, so Grant and Widmer rented a car and traded off riding with the trucker and his 16-year-old dog and driving the rental.
For this project, editors at Al Jazeera America wanted to show the trucker’s perspective of the American highway and decided a GoPro camera would be the best way to do that. They were inspired by this insanely well-produced piece: https://vimeo.com/117770305
So AJAM bought a GoPro Hero4 and a suction cup mount with an adjustable arm. The idea: film the entire trip start to finish and turn it into a time-lapse video. One thousand three hundred miles and three days into three minutes of perfectly edited, beautifully shot footage.
What could go wrong?
Editors mailed Grant and Widmer packets containing:
- Two power cords of different lengths
- A car charger with an outlet and two USB powers
- Five 64 GB memory cards
“My expectations were adjusted at 6 a.m. on the first day.”
Grant, meanwhile, downloaded a GPS-tracking app to get an exact route of the journey for a map to accompany the video.
Those were the plans, and boy, were they grand. But things soon started going awry. The first indication that making the video might not be as smooth or effortless as envisioned was when Widmer received his package. The promised 64 GB memory cards turned out to be SDs cards instead of microSD, which means that they were too large to fit inside the GoPro.
“My expectations were adjusted at 6 a.m. on the first day,” Widmer said. (They kept adjusting as the day went on.)
Editors had discussed mounting the camera above the driver’s seat, so viewers could share Harsell’s view, with him moving in and out of the frame at times. But as it turns out, 1989 Freightliners — or at least this 1989 Freightliner — did not have a wall behind the driver’s seat.
So then Widmer tried to use the suction cup mount on Harsell’s window, but the glass was dirty and the cup would not stick. Grant also worried that if the arm of the camera stuck out too much, police might pull the trucker over.
At the first gas station, Widmer bought window cleaner and paper towels, but even a sparkling clean pane of glass only held the mount for roughly 30 minutes at a time. The solution: what Widmer calls “a spider’s web” of tape.
The next challenge: noise. The truck rattled, making any audio from the camera unusable because it clattered against the glass. “It was far too noisy in there to do much with audio,” said Grant, who had an iQ7 microphone to record sound. “We thought we could catch up with audio interviews over meals at truck stops and so on, but he never stopped for a meal the entire way. It was either driving or sleeping or grabbing a sandwich to go.”
At the end of the first day, Grant checked his phone to stop the GPS app. The phone crashed. App, data, all gone.
During the trip, Widmer took photos through the windshield of the rental car. His laptop rode beside him, buckled into the passenger seat, so he could dump video cards at the same time. “I was using a 50 mm lens straight through the windshield, one hand on the wheel, one hand holding the camera, shooting in bursts,” he said.
“Probably not the safest, but it turned out all right,” he added.
He would also periodically call Grant to remind him to change the GoPro card in the cab.
“Note to self: don’t mail the wrong memory cards; don’t rely solely on GPS phone apps”
At the end of the trip, Widmer and Grant had some 17.5 hours of dashboard video. It wasn’t a complete start-to-finish, but some of the imagery was indeed beautiful: night driving in the rain, streetlights blurred like watercolors, the sun rising over the trees along a highway.
If some of the setbacks resembled a comedy of errors, the duo also captured some gems as compensation. In one part of the video, Harsell pulls into an empty parking lot to rest for the night. A minute later, Widmer pulls into the parking lot, gets out and stretches every which way, working out the kinks after many hours behind the wheel.
Editors sped up the videos to 2500 percent and cropped them to a panoramic 900 x 250 pixels, deciding to showcase them as accent pieces that provided a flavor of different parts of the trip. (Each sped-up video runs for about 30 seconds, but is actually about 10 minutes in real time.)
If the video didn’t turn out as perfectly as planned, the process of making it — despite everything that went wrong — provided an object lesson in what not to do (note to self: don’t mail the wrong memory cards; don’t rely solely on GPS phone apps). Plus, Harsell’s windows are sparkly clean.
For more photos by photographer William Widmer and the full story, read “Hard trucking: Independent truckers say new safety rules threaten their livelihood” written by Richard Grant for Al Jazeera America.