Alastair Good was a solo video journalist for The Telegraph for a decade before recently going freelance. As part of work on the forthcoming second edition of the Online Journalism Handbook, I interviewed Alastair about his experiences of filming video at the Calais migrant camp. I’m republishing it in full here.
The refugee/migrant camp in Calais had been growing steadily for some time. Estimates varied between five and ten thousand people who had travelled from the southern part of the globe to escape war, persecution and poverty. They were all hoping for just one thing: the chance to make a dangerous journey across the Channel to Britain.
One of my contacts in an aid agency working in the camp called me to say that bulldozers were due to move in to clear the camp the next day. I pitched the story to my editor and was on the Eurostar by the afternoon.
Just as I arrived into Calais my contact called to say that there had been a last minute reprieve as a judge had ordered the clearance could not continue until the number of unaccompanied children in the camp could be accurately assessed.
These days it is hard to get commissioned to cover foreign stories with the restriction on budgets and the need to spend money on stories that are likely to be the most popular. With that in mind I decided to stay.
When travelling and working alone with a lot of expensive camera equipment, security is an ever present issue. I called my editor and told him where I was going and when I expected to return, that way if I didn’t get in touch that evening then he would know something had happened and begin making enquiries.
I also took down the address of my hotel on my phone so I could show that to taxi drivers and get a ride back as well as marking the hotel location on a paper map. Smartphones are great until they run out of batteries or signal so I always try to make sure I have a paper map of where I am.
I unpacked my camera from its case and carried it in a plain looking rucksack.
Most of the people I approached spoke some English and were willing to talk but at the mention of the video camera they immediately refused. I could attempt to film them anonymously, from the back or just their feet while recording the sound of their voices but I always try to steer away from that if I can. One of the values of video journalism over print or radio is seeing the emotion on the faces of people and anonymous interviewees can also call into question the authenticity of the story.
I called my contact and she said she would be able to help me with a young Afghan girl who had walked with her mother for months to reach the camps, but that wouldn’t be until the next day.
One big part of the story at the camp was that people outside didn’t really understand the scale of it: since I’d been there three years previously it had grown from a collection of tents and an old farmer’s shed to a sprawling shanty town complete with restaurants, shops and even a barber shop.
With this in mind I decided to film a walking tour of the camp with my voice as a guide to what we could see. I could have filmed myself speaking to camera cut with shots of the camps but for web video you don’t want to waste the audience’s time with unnecessary scenes so I thought that I could show more of the camps if my commentary was audio only. This style of video is also more immersive and gives the viewer the impression that they are walking around the camp themselves.
I wanted to record the audio live as I walked around. I could have shot the pictures and then written a script to record later but I always feel those voice overs lack an immediacy that reporting from the ground in the moment captures. Doing it this way meant a good few false starts as I ran out of things to say or people walked into the shot.
The next day I went back and interviewed the young girl, initially I had thought I would combine her interview with the footage I’d shot the previous day but the tone was very different and so I decided to make two separate pieces.
The Calais assignment taught me the value of being able to react to changing situations on the ground: I’d had to go from reporting a breaking news situation to making a more long-tail piece that the Telegraph could use in all stories about immigration as we waited for the next announcement over the camp clearances.
On my way out of the camp on the second day I called a taxi and waited where I had been picked up the day before. I saw a young man with a stills camera looking anxiously up the road and so I introduced myself. It turned out he was a freelance photographer trying to get back to the centre of Calais but he’d been mugged in the camp and had his money stolen.
I offered him a ride in my taxi, it seems obvious but in the cut-throat competitive world of modern reporting it is important to stick together and help each other when you can.
You can find more of Alastair’s work at alastairgood.com