King Street Building, Seattle, with representatives from every department in King County government.

I’m a Photojournalist and I’ve Been Working with Policy Makers. Should I Feel Dirty?

To help develop government policy is to walk an ethical tightrope, but fine-tuned partnerships can keep us on the straight and narrow. For the sake of positive change, journalists must go beyond business-as-usual


by Tim Matsui

ONE YEAR AGO, I wrote an essay about The Long Night, my award-winning feature documentary film on domestic minor sex trafficking. I argued that winning awards isn’t enough.

“Awards are about my work,” I said, “and that work is nothing until it makes a difference for the people whose struggle I’ve witnessed.”

Twelve months later, this essay is about that action. It is the two-years I have spent, with partners, creating Leaving the Life, an impact campaign to shift public attitudes, policy conversation and legal approaches.

For those who won’t read any further, here’s the takeaway: Journalists can make a difference. It happens through partnership.

This essay is about the dialogues, strategy and admin; everything that isn’t making video and stills. This essay is about finding partners — the right partners — and about guiding people to their own agency.

But let me be clear: I’m not directly developing policy.

More accurately, I am shepherding my journalism to specific audiences, that include community partners, members of congress, federal judges, state legislators, state supreme court justices, and King County (Seattle) officials.

On January 22, 2016, the King County Executive, Prosecutor, Sheriff and I co-hosted an Engagement Program bringing together 85 professionals from every county department to initiate a unified policy-development effort on commercial sexual exploitation. I understand this was a county first.

Here is a video of what that convening looked like:

Photojournalists, especially those working on long-term projects, become experts of their subject matter. The profound insight photojournalists develop is the result of their interaction with all constituents of an issue; they see social policy at the academic’s desk, on the politician’s agenda, on the civil servant’s 8-hour shift and in the public’s response. Through intimate understanding of individuals’ roles in the system, photojournalists garner a 30,000’ view.

Photojournalists become a resource.

I believe we can do more than be the traditional fact-gathers for legacy media, and we can do so without violating the tenets of journalism.

As parts of the [photo]journalism industry collapse and other parts evolve, I believe it is up to us, the journalists, to create the road forward. It was once the job of the newspaper, the magazine, the agency to get our work to a mass audience. It was, and is, a shotgun approach of delivery. I’m advocating for a more hands-on approach to distribution of our own material.

Before the Briefing: An empty and imposing Room 1100 inside the Longworth House Office Building next to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on February 25, 2016. I was invited by Congressman Reichert (left) and Congressman Cardenas (right) to brief congressional staff on how the King County (Seattle) model for addressing commercial sexual exploitation could become a national model. With me were Alisa Bernard, a CSE (commercial sexual exploitation) survivor and board member with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, King County Judge Barbara Mack, and Yasmin Vafa, Executive Director of Rights4Girls.

It may not be in our job description, and it may not be our expertise, but as newspapers cease printing, agencies fold into others, and magazines dissolve, we are left with an opportunity.

Will we use new distribution technologies to find our audience? Will we labor to carry the story to them, wherever they may be?

For those of you who say, “I hope my pictures make a difference” or “I want to thank the people who shared their stories with me,” I say: YES! From personal experience, I know audiences are keenly interested in the stories we discover, curate, report, and share.

Let’s make a difference. Let’s serve audiences and subjects by carrying stories further with existing and emerging tools. Let’s reach out for partnership and make sure our journalistic stories land in the laps of the people who can make positive change.

“HOLY SHIT, THIS IS HAPPENING!” Cristina Gonzalez wrote on a meeting agenda for the Engagement Program that took nearly two years to plan. A budget analyst for King County, Gonzalez saw The Long Night at a public screening and was compelled to act. The January 22, 2o16 event was the result of our efforts.

A new way forward

During the past two years, I have sat in government meetings experiencing new, distinctly different — even odd — emotions. I was experiencing partnership. I’ve left the “lone-wolf” mode behind for good.

The Long Night struck a chord with people within different departments of county government; some lacked the subject expertise, but they knew their work (in education, public health, community policing, family services and more) was connected to the hard solutions. And they wanted to act.

Compensation Analyst Molly Jensen speaks to a mish-mash of county employees and community partners, planning the engagement program. It wasn’t uncommon to have experts like Sr. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey (right) and Judge Barbara Mack (second from right), along with people from dispute resolution, human resources, or the budget office; jobs one wouldn’t think were directly related to commercial sexual exploitation. Planning was largely extra-curricular for these people.

I made introductions, negotiated touchy politics, and even found myself helping write a statement on commercial sexual exploitation for the County Executive. That’s not very journalistic.

“Engagement is not necessarily a photographer’s core competency, but engagement is essential,” I wrote with intention last year.

I cast my net wide, leaping after possible leads. Unfortunately, and you freelancers will relate, I found many leads were mere ghosts of their promise.


Mapping emotions to inform policy discussion

One lead stood out. And it would enable me to know, measure and share the emotional strength of my video journalism.

Andrew DeVigal and Laura Lo Forti, the husband and wife team behind A Fourth Act, welcomed me into their home. I had a story, they had a framework for community engagement, and we had a shared goal of making a difference.

Left: Andrew and Laura at their Portland home after a late-night planning session. Center: An early concept diagram for the Leaving the Life Engagement Program. Right: In true Portland style, taking advantage of good weather to office in the back yard with Viola and Laura.

DeVigal, Lo Forti and I wanted to measure an audience’s emotional reaction to my stories. A Fourth Act’s new tool Harvis would do just that.

We edited my raw content in order to design short, themed chapters that would target specific audiences. All while staying true to the story and true to journalism.

Then we applied Harvis, a mobile web application that captures and visualizes the emotional pulse of an entire audience in real time. It works like this:

First, audience members log in to the mobile web app on their smart devices. Second, they sit before a screening, smart device in hand. (In order to enhance the quality of data returned at the end of a screening, facilitators can add a questionnaire between steps one and two, to get more information on participants. In our case, we asked users to self-identify according to their department of influence, e.g. Executive Office, Sheriff’s Office, Transportation.)

As a film plays, participants swipe up on their device if they have a promising response or solution to what they see and hear on screen. Alternatively, participants swipe down when they feel powerless.

We wrote many grants to apply Harvis to Leaving The Life. One landed. The Fledgling Fund is a small, but generous funder backing impact campaigns behind some of the most popular documentaries. We now had the seed money to test the concept.

We captured our audiences emotional response to stories from The Long Night in real time. Harvis mapped the emotional mood of the room into peaks and valleys.

After the film, we showed the participants their collective response. At the peaks and valleys we could quantitatively say “this was important” or “you had a strong reaction here.” We also saw the different reactions of each user group.

When we work with policy makers and experts, we bring them together by demonstrating visually where they share emotions and where they differ. We and they can use the Interactive Engagement Program to jumpstart discussions, focus on subject areas of primary concern, develop strategic planning and co-create solutions. This is storytelling in the service of policy change.


Securing law enforcement and policy agencies’ buy-in

The first local screening of The Long Night was a private event for more than 80 local law enforcement, mayors, judges, prosecutors, FBI, HSI. Detectives cried, police chiefs shook my hand. I was vetted; the film was bona-fide.

James Graddon Major (Retired), King County Sheriff’s Office.

“As the last commander of the Green River serial homicides investigation I am all too aware of the true victimization that results from sex trafficking,” said Major James Graddon (Retired), King County Sheriff’s Office.

“Tim Matsui’s work,” continued Graddon, “sheds a bright light on this issue and presents the raw truth directly from the victims themselves. The images, the reality, are not easy to accept. But through work such as that Mr. Matsui is doing we are all more aware and hopefully prepared to help and support the recovery and rescue of victims of any form of human trafficking.”

This built a foundation of professional support. I wasn’t just the filmmaker sticking a camera in everyone’s business, I’d proven I understood the issue and could address some of the nuance with honesty.


Working with new allies

I found an advocate in the county budget office. Actually, Cristina Gonzalez found me.

After a local screening, Gonzalez was so moved by the stories she had to act. Her efforts started a cascade of connections within the county. The deeper we looked, the more we found small groups working to address commercial sexual exploitation. But there was no overarching strategic plan.

One of those pockets of effort was Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey, who specializes in commercial sexual abuse of minors (CSAM) cases. He was working in a compartment within the silo of the Prosecutor’s office; screening the film for his fellow prosecutors helped them understand his work.

“It’s one thing to know about what goes on and how and why from an academic perspective and another thing to see it. Very powerful — like a kick in the teeth!”
~Stephanie Sato, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, King County

Over coffee one day, Richey described his vision of King County owning a leadership role on this issue. He was working on an “end demand” program, a de facto decriminalization of sex workers paired with a targeting of sex buyers.

This quasi “Nordic Model” is a marked improvement from the traditional American approach to prostitution and lies roughly in the middle of the political spectrum of sex work. However, its efficacy relies not only on prosecutorial and law enforcement changes, but also on a strong social services safety net; something that the King County region is still building.

Over in the Sheriff’s office, things had shifted too. Both the Prosecutor and the Sheriff were now saying “we’re not going to arrest our way out of this.”


Tirelessly pushing the film and the policy partnerships

While Gonzalez navigated county politics, I continued developing a broad audience outreach campaign and grassroots movement. Community partnerships. Film screenings. Interviews. Following NGO’s and their efforts. A website for the film. Social media. A logo. A successful Kickstarter. DVD’s and BluRays. A movie poster.

I was learning about independent film distribution by doing it, all on a shoestring with a few volunteers.

Screenings, interviews, panel discussions, Kickstarter shipments, DVD’s and BluRays fresh off the press. Snapshots from the past two years building a grassroots impact campaign for The Long Night. Many thanks to photographer Mark Berndt for the bottom two contact sheets; he helped organize a screening at the Kansas City Public Library (MO) with the local ASMP chapter and University of Missouri’s journalism program, including an interview on “Up to Date” at KCUR 89.3, a local NPR affiliate.

What I didn’t understand until later was the uphill battle Cristina was fighting by championing an issue many in the government didn’t want to own. They had enough on their plate; they didn’t want to take on commercial sexual exploitation too. Leave it to the community partners, they said. But she worked doggedly, building a cross-agency team to develop the engagement program. Using clips from the film, inviting me in when needed, she worked with her team to sell the program to leadership.

Somehow the timing was right.

In September, 2015, King County Executive Dow Constantine sent an email to all 13,000+ county employees, stating their new policy toward the purchase of sex and their founding membership with the national BEST Alliance.

In his letter he stated:

Most people assume that sex trafficking is largely confined to other countries. But it occurs in our region at a startling rate. Researchers at Arizona State University found that in a single 24-hour period, more than 8,800 people in the Seattle area went online to solicit sex for hire. An estimated 27,000 people solicit prostitution each day in King County. The victims are among our most vulnerable, many forced into prostitution between the ages of 13 and 15.
…We have more than 13,000 employees — most of whom work directly with the public — who can help identify victims and circumstances that contribute to sexual exploitation. I want each of us to know what we can do in our individual roles to contribute to this effort.
This fall, the Executive Office, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office will host a screening of “The Long Night,” an insightful documentary on the underlying causes and devastating impacts of sex trafficking in south King County…
To be clear, I have no knowledge of any county employee violating our employment policies in this way. However, given the vast numbers of daily solicitations, it is unlikely that any major employer is completely immune from this problem…

Applying the Technology

In 2014, we’d done a beta run with our first chapter, telling the story of law enforcement shifting to a victim-centric approach. The City of Renton Police Department rented a commercial theater, hosting more than 60 cops, prosecutors, victim services, educators, administrators, and others for the hour-long beta run. They logged on to Harvis, we captured data, and had a brief discussion. A very, very heated one.

Commercial sexual exploitation, and how to address it, are polarizing issues. We saw we needed skilled facilitators and a longer session, but everyone realized how successful this could be. Our partners were in the audience; we had support.

Arun Sambatoro, Program Manager for the King County Equity and Social Justice Program, works with Andrew DeVigal of A Fourth Act, and fellow King County employees Val Richey, Cristina Gonzalez and Polly Davis to choose the points of emotional engagement by 85 department leaders, using those moments for facilitated discussion to co-create solutions to commercial sexual exploitation within King County.

I cannot stress how important partnership is. As journalists, no matter how discreet and efficient, we will always be outsiders. It is audiences that act and it is some audiences that have the professions and networks to create change.


Momentum builds

After the Executive’s letter, the doors of King County opened. Invitations were sent to each department. We didn’t invite the media; we decided that County employees deserved a closed space in which to participate (for the first time) with Harvis and the Interactive Engagement Program. As a journalist, this was an awkward discussion for me to have.

Dow Constantine, King County Executive, during the Interactive Engagement Program.

Compensation Analyst Molly Jensen worked with our lead facilitator, Polly Davis, to create “mini governments” and pull attendees out of silos and to cross-pollinate ideas. We created intimate circles of six to eight chairs. Easels and pens were provided.

“This particular facilitated session was one of the fastest I’ve seen in getting to the issue directly,” said Davis. “The short videos, the use of Harvis, and the engagement design helped in getting an important message to a lot of people quickly and catalyze the conversation.”

Andrew DeVigal got people logged on and we played the media; people swiped up and down on their devices, telling us when they felt empowered or helpless.

As the comments revealed, the stories were impactful. There were some tears. Some gasps. And afterwards, the discussion flowed.

At the end, these employees, these leaders turned to their Executive and shared their ideas and made a request: they wanted to act but the mandate had to come from the top.

Dow Constantine stood before them, note cards idle in his hand; he went off script. As a new father, especially the father of a daughter, he said with emotion, he promised to support their efforts to address commercial sexual exploitation.

Of course government can’t do it alone, nor should it; these efforts go hand-in-hand with those of private organizations. But a refrain I keep hearing in these circles of power is government must take a leadership role, otherwise private interests won’t see it as a priority.


Am I a journalist or an agent of change? Both? Maybe?

At the World Press Photo Awards presentation in Amsterdam last year, I used the platform to reiterate my belief that our role as journalists is to have an impact, to create change.

Receiving the surprisingly heavy, gold-plated trophy for First Prize, Long Feature from World Press Photo in Amsterdam in April, 2015.

Creating change extends beyond giving voice to the voiceless; it means helping all people find their voice. I challenged the audience, mostly award winners themselves, to do more than say “I take pictures because I hope to make a difference.”

I challenged them to carry the story one step further, to find the partners creating the change and get those images, get their expertise into the hands of the change agents.

I’ve worked on this issue long enough that I now have answers when people ask me, “What can I do?”

The answer I keep for myself is to honor the stories people shared with me by making sure they have the greatest opportunity to make an impact.

And to create change.


My name is Tim Matsui. I’m a visual journalist. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Previously on Vantage ‘I Just Won a World Press Photo Award But I’m Not Celebrating’