Foto door Johnny Harris

Johnny Harris

Vox’s one-man-band filmmaker and journalist.

Het is geen publiek geheim dat wij bij OpenVRT behoorlijk fan zijn van video producer Johnny Harris en de YouTube-reeks ‘Borders’ die hij voor Vox maakte. Zes afleveringen lang onderzocht hij wereldwijd de verschillende soorten grenzen, en de impact hiervan op haar omgeving. Zo trok Johnny onder andere naar de Dominicaanse Republiek en Haiti, onderzocht hij hoe het zat met de grenzen op Antarctica, en liet hij zich verbazen door een Noord-Koreaanse community in Tokio.

Je kan je dan ook inbeelden dat wij behoorlijk enthousiast (oké, extatisch) waren toen we hoorden dat er een tweede reeks van ‘Borders’ in de maak is *insert vreugdedansje*!

Johnny vond tussen twee talks op and& in Leuven wat tijd om even met ons samen te zitten voor een pint en gesprek.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of nations as an identity. It is actually not a natural thing that humans draw this lines. I think it really was driven home when I lived in Tijuana, Mexico, the busiest border crossing in the world and one of the most contentious between the US and Mexico. I lived there for 2 years and I lived just a couple of blocks away from the border wall and I would see that wall every day. It’s so dramatic to see. If you would see it on a map, it looks natural, but if you see it in real life, it seems so weird. That kind of stuck with me for a lot of years after. Eventually it was time to pitch a series at Vox and the concept of ‘Borders’ was just kind of always there. ”

“There were submissions from all over the world. Some were helpful, some were less helpful, but what we learned was that there was this desire to contribute and be part of the project.”

Johnny kreeg groen licht om het concept verder uit te werken. Centraal in deze documentaires staan de menselijke verhalen. Want zo’n grens, of die nu wel of niet fysiek aanwezig is, heeft natuurlijk wel een grote impact. Johnny en zijn ploeg kregen het idee om de verhalen en de plekken waar hij naartoe zou gaan te laten bepalen door hun publiek. Ze stelden een aantal vragen op, goten die in een Google Form, stuurden dit de wereld in en wachtten met gekruiste vingers af of de vis ging bijten.

“We got 6,000 submissions, and we realised that there is this appetite amongst people to contribute. We ended up choosing 6 of those 6,000 ideas, and produced this first season.”

Maar het crowdsourcen ging nog verder dan die Google Form. Via Facebook of Instagram kon iedereen die het wilde Johnny volgen op zijn reizen. Hij poste foto’s, snip its van zijn videomateriaal en stelde vragen aan zijn community wanneer hij input nodig had. Want een geëngageerde community was essentieel voor de verhalen die hij wou brengen.
“We used social platforms to continue that engagement and to make sure that it wasn’t like this one time thing, but that it would continue. E-mail newsletters is one tool. We sent out a newsletter whenever there was an update. ‘Hey I’m going to Japan for this story and I would love any ideas for X, Y and Z, please send them my way.’”

Instagram: @johnnywharris

“The other tool was letting the community to follow along, especially on Instagram, which is the most seamless platform for this. This was another huge way of connection, not only because the audience would be there with me in real time, but also by giving me their feedback. In the early days, I would respond to every single message I got. Not only does that render loyalty among the community, but it also teaches me things about what people are interested in, what they are thinking about,…. There is no barrier between me and the community.”

“ I wanted to be able to tell stories in a more authentic way to that place, instead of random white guy parachutes into places and tells stories. I wanted to feel more locally driven.”

Terwijl Johnny tijdens het eerste seizoen van ‘Borders’ nog zijn weg aan het zoeken was in het crowdsourcen van zijn verhalen, heeft hij voor het tweede seizoen een duidelijkere visie over zijn community.
“For the second season I would like to harness this appetite to contribute more pin-pointedly. The first time, it was: ‘everyone tell me your idea and I’ll pick 6 of them’. Now it is, I’m going to pick a place and I’ll try to curate some locals who have local perspective, who can help me decide where to go, who to see and what the most exciting stories are. The key to good engagement is to say exactly what I want from the community so they know what to contribute. I hope to continue to refine that process, so I can utilise the community to its fullest potential.”

De aankondiging van het tweede seizoen van ‘Borders’ werd een maand geleden online geplaatst. Johnny en zijn team hoopten op 30 à 40 personen in Hong Kong die hem verder zouden kunnen helpen met zijn documentaires. Twee weken later hadden 700 personen zich aangemeld.
“As a reporter you spend so much time poking around and making inroads, but to have 700 people lined up saying ‘I want to share with you’, ‘I want to give you my perspective’ is to me harnessing the internet to tell stories. And that is kind of the goal for reporters, or it has become a goal at least.”

“When I’m on the road, I’m a one man band.”

Johnny wordt bij Vox door een team omringd dat hem helpt met de research, story development en de strategie voor zijn social media en nieuwsbrieven. Maar wanneer hij on the road is, is hij alleen met zijn toolkit. 
“All of the production, sorting footage, editing footage, editing photo’s, doing map animations, all that stuff I do on my own. Which I really love, being able to have all that control. Eventually I know I have to give this up if I ever want to grow this. I’m ready to do that at some point, but I really love having all my fingers on the buttons still. Plus, there is also this amazing synergy that happens when the person who is writing it and thinking about it, is also thinking about it visually.”

www.facebook.com/JohnnyHarrisVox

Het is niet zo dat Johnny al die skills al had voordat hij bij Vox begon. Tijdens zijn universiteitsjaren leerde hij alles over internationale relaties, maar hij wou meer.

If you want to learn something fast, put some fire under you and learn it.

“ I wanted to learn animation when I was in college, but I had no one to tell me how to make it. At that time I saw the promovideo for our State Department, and it was so bad. So I reached out on a limb and said that I was an animator and would love to make them a new promovideo. Of course they were delighted, because I said I’d do it for free. And suddenly I have someone I’m accountable to, which lights a fire in me. So I better learn how to be an animator. I would just devour these tutorials, I would learn a lot, and suddenly I find that that is a shortcut. If you want to learn something fast, put some fire under you and learn it. Get yourself into some situation where you’re forced to make something and it has to be good.”

Bij Vox moedigen ze deze werkwijze heel erg aan bij hun werknemers, wat niet zo vanzelfsprekend is.
“It’s a unique model, especially in media where traditionally there is an editor in charge of the ideas and the vision, and they make assignments to their staff. That makes sense, because you can scale it. 
But at Vox we believe that really amazing things can happen when people feel empowered to own their vision. They would say: ‘You’re a really good writer and you’re kind of good at editing or animation. Well, we’ll make you really good at animation so you can do that as well. We’ll make you better, but it’s still your vision and we respect that.’ 
It’s not at all lovey-dovey at Vox. There is a pretty high standard. If it’s not good, the editor will come in and make sure that it is up to par. And that’s how we learn.”

“It’s like, have a vision and we will give you the resources to do it, but it needs to be good.”

Vox ging in 2014 van start en focuste in de beginjaren voornamelijk op het maken van explainers. Maar bij Vox zijn ze niet vies van experimenten. Dus trok Johnny in 2015 zijn stoute schoenen aan en pitchte hij een idee voor een documentaire over het internet in Cuba. 
“What if I went to Cuba and do this story on the internet and actually talk to the human beings who are behind this. Of course Vox, as it has this experimental mentality said ok! But the caveat was: ‘You have all the responsibility. If this crashes, it is one hundred percent on you. If it does well, it is one hundred percent on you. You have 2 or 3 weeks, make it amazing.’ And that just lit my fire.
To this day, the Cuba video was one of my favourite video’s ever made. I love the aesthetic, the approach, the story and Cuba is an amazing place. But the story was so much better, because I felt that fire of empowerment.”

“There is always a benefit to learning as many skills as you possibly can.”

Een tip van Johnny? Leer zo veel mogelijk skills. Uiteraard moet je je voor sommige jobs of sectoren specialiseren, maar in heel veel gevallen kan veelzijdigheid in je skills alleen maar meer deuren openen.
“There is obviously a limit, but what we need to do is to take down the barrier of having to specialise and put a label on your head. I’m a video editor, that’s what I do. But why? Why can’t you be a video editor and an animator? Why can’t you be a shooter, an animator and video editor all together? And a scriptwriter? I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a mindset.
Learn it all, find what you love and obsess over it. And you’ll find that if you have a story that you want to tell, all of those skills just become means to an end. Get rid of those barriers and empower yourself to learn a lot of things and then force yourself to make them somehow.”


We want more!

Benieuwd naar ‘Borders’? Je vindt alle afleveringen (en nog veel meer!) hier.

Wil je meer Johnny en zijn avonturen graag op de voet volgen? Hou dan zeker zijn Instagram en Facebook in de gaten!

Wil je onze volgende OpenVRT #talks niet missen? Schrijf je dan zeker in op onze nieuwsbrief en kom zo als eerste te weten waar en wanneer ons volgende event plaatsvindt.