Visualizing stories of trauma through photojournalism and documentary film

Throughout his career, Ross Taylor has compassionately told stories that display the resilience of individuals who have faced trauma.

His visual storytelling is deeply rooted in the practice of journalism and aligns with the Restorative Narrative genre. In the past he has worked as a staff photographer for The Virginian-Pilot and The Hartford Courant. His work in a trauma hospital in Afghanistan was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and he has reported from numerous other countries including Bangladesh, Haiti, Costa Rica, and Iraq. In more recent years, Taylor has begun exploring documentary film.

During a phone interview, Taylor talked about how the transition of moving from photojournalism to documentary work and cinematography has changed his approach to storytelling.

“I am really drawn to the reclamation of voice and other trauma,” said Taylor, who is a visiting professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

His centerpiece film — “Worthy of Love” — is a series of documentary films from the burn unit in a Syracuse hospital. It tells the story of Crystal, a woman who attempted several suicides and who is now on a path to recovery.

Ross Taylor of The Virginian-Pilot. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot)
Ross Taylor

Taylor’s approach to this film was a step outside of his traditional background in journalism. “You have to collect data with a structure in mind. Otherwise you run the risk of overwhelming yourself with repetitive, redundant data that doesn’t progress a narrative. And that is different than photojournalism,” Taylor said. “Before I got into filmmaking, I don’t think I would have been as open to that.”

With documentary work, there is much more collaboration between Taylor and his subjects. Taylor loosely structures the story ahead of time, thinking about each step, from the introduction to the arc to the conclusion, as well as the life lessons intended for the viewer. Taylor typically poses this question to himself: “Why are we taking people on this journey?”

“Without thinking of the structure in mind, I wouldn’t spend as much time thinking about asking questions of purpose. And I think that is really important when dealing with trauma,” Taylor said. “You should move with immense care.”

Taylor’s interest in the psychology of photojournalism and his curiosity to understand images led him to co-create, along with fellow photojournalist Logan Mock-Bunting, The Image, Deconstructed, a weekly blog that examines and deconstructs images. “Its primary goal,” according to the site, “is to provide a collective insight to to the psychology of photojournalism and serve as a resource for a purposeful approach to photography.”

The blog has done just that, embraced by young photographers as well as educators who are using the site for their teaching. Taylor referred to their use of it as “a lovely surprise.”

“If that is part of our core audience, that makes me really happy because I know that it is very difficult when you first start out,” Taylor said. “So the more resources, the more advantages you can gather, as you embark in a very challenging career, I think the better.”

The Image, Deconstructed is entirely run by volunteers. Taylor described it as a community organization, “by the community for the community.” He is often the person to interview the featured photographer, but other times it is his co-creator, Mock-Bunting. “We do have some contributors,” Taylor said. “That really excites me.”

Taylor mentioned both Lisa Krantz’s work as well as Therese Frare’s as examples of stories that gave a much needed voice to individuals dealing with trauma. During times of tragedy, the families featured by these journalists were not ignored, but rather documented with tender care. The interviews featured on The Image, Deconstructed give light to the the story behind the story, which helps the public better understand their media. For young photographers, the interviews offer an insight into the mindset of photographer who want to create meaningful awareness and change through their work.

Since moving to Boulder, Colorado, three months ago, Taylor has spent more time working with Adobe’s After Effects, HTML, and cinematic filming. He’s also learning how to code. “ really challenges me,” Taylor said. “It has just made me see the web differently and that is really interesting.”

All of these different skills give Taylor the ability to not only produce, but also publish his blog posts with great intention. Taylor is now in the process of working on a collaborative film about a woman who was sexually abused as a child. While rooted in journalistic tradition, the film is a conceptual documentary.

“We together are discussing ideas of how we will visually represent her, as opposed to me telling her how I feel like we should present her,” said Taylor. “The visuals will be conceptual and lyrically-minded. A reason for her to be open to this is that she feels the expression of giving the name of trauma, having somebody listen and be present as you name that trauma and work through that trauma. And then, also to understand that you were part of the reclaiming of that, and that you are a collaborator in this process.”

Taylor plans to build a website that can house the film and act as a resource for people who have experienced something similar.

Taylor’s work as a photojournalist and filmmaker, as well as The Image, Deconstructed provide a deeper insight into images that instill a sense of empathy and compassion amongst viewers. His ability to embrace different storytelling methods has given him the tools to interview, film, and share with intention.

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