Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: Photojournalist Damir Sagolj On Using Sound to Tell a Story

November 25, 2014

By Holly Stuart Hughes


When Damir Sagolj found Hiroshi Masukura, a widower living in a pre-fabricated house at a center for evacuees in Fukushima prefecture, he knew he had the protagonist for his story. Masukura's wife died from illness he considers related to depression she suffered in the evacuation center.

Photojournalist Damir Sagolj was in Fukushima, Japan, last fall, gathering stills, video and audio for a multimedia story when he asked himself the question: “What does the horror of a haunted place sound like?”
His story, on the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and the nuclear plant meltdown it triggered, focused on people forced to leave their homes due to radiation contamination. In “Broken Lives of Japan’s Nuclear Refugees,” Sagolj tells the tale of one evacuee, Hiroshi Masukura, who has lived alone in an evacuation shelter since his wife died of an illness that he believes was exacerbated by the trauma of dislocation. Adding to the poignancy of the piece is the audio Sagolj recorded: crickets humming, waves washing onto the shore, the wind blowing through broken windows and Masukura singing a mournful song. Those sounds provide the score to a story about loneliness and loss.
A photographer for Reuters based in Bangkok, Sagolj has been honored by World Press Photo and other awards for his news photos. But when he shoots videos, he’s not chasing events. “I don’t shoot action on video; TV does that,” he says. He places his camera on a tripod, and captures a few seconds of movement happening within his frame. At the same time, he’s listening. “Since there is no or little action in my clips, I pay more attention to sounds while recording.”
When he walks into a scene, he listens for subtle background sounds. Most of the audio for his Fukushima piece is made up of Masukura talking and singing, but Sagolj also wanted to add an additional layer of ambient sounds. The challenge, he says, was “to record the sound of emptiness, of loneliness.” The sound of crickets chirping seemed a perfect fit, he says, explaining, “Nature was taking over what humans left in a hurry.”
Sagolj edits his videos himself, and says that cutting and mixing audio tracks taught him how to use audio to enrich a story. His earliest audio recordings seemed flat, he says, so he bought a more expensive recorder; it didn’t help. He asked for advice, but got only technical tips. Then one day he decided to revisit an old project, opening it in editing software. There, he could see his video and audio tracks side by side. “Visualization of tracks in editing software helped me to see [sound] and to start treating it the way I treat pictures—in layers,” he says, adding, “I loved it.”
The Fukushima video opens with the sound of tolling bells, then text appears on screen to explain that the number of deaths among evacuees has exceeded the number killed in the original disaster. The bells fade, replaced by the sound of insects and chirping birds. Then we hear the sound of rain atop video of droplets running down a windowpane. The focus shifts, and through the window we see the coastline accompanied by the sound of waves breaking on the beach—visual and aural metaphors for the tsunami.
Sagolj says “Broken Lives” is the product of thorough research. “I do believe in a reporter’s instincts and his abilities to recognize important things in the field and react to them,” he says. “But I believe those are enhanced by serious research.”
He had covered and followed the disaster from the beginning and was honored in 2012 with a Pictures of the Year International prize in the multimedia category for a project on Fukushima. In the more recent news stories he read, he found brief references to the steadily rising death toll among evacuees–due to continuing medical issues, the shortage of hospitals, or suicide. His editors at Reuters supported his decision to bring the issue to the fore in his reporting from Fukushima last fall. With help from friends in Japan, Sagolj visited many sites and photographed many evacuees. (His photos from the trip were published in The Atlantic and other publications in March, on the tsunami’s third anniversary.) To make a compelling video narrative, he needed a strong protagonist. It took patience and a lot of legwork before he found Masukura.
Sagojl spent two days listening to his story. “He liked to have someone who would just sit face-to-face and listen,” the photographer recalls. He typically uses a small, unobtrusive Roland recorder with an onboard microphone, which he can place close to his subjects. In the audio Sagolj recorded, Masukura explains that he and his wife were ordered to leave their home with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Once, he says, he and his wife laughed all the time, but in the small, prefabricated home to which they were moved after the disaster, they had little to talk about. She withdrew. One day they went to a doctor, he says, but “it was sort of too late.” Now alone in his home, he feels isolated from the strangers living around him in the evacuation center. “Who would ask me: ‘How are you, Mr. Masukura?’” he says. Except for Masukura’s voice, there was little other sound in his tiny house, Sagolj notes, “just an echo or a clock ticking.”
When Sagolj and his friends were about to leave, Masukura asked if they would like to hear a song he had written about his tragedy. Sagolj moved the recorder even closer. Sagojl doesn’t speak Japanese but, “I perfectly understood what he had to say.”
Sagolj shot stills inside Masukura’s home. Outdoors, he shot both stills and video, focusing his camera on the distant horizon. His video clips were “moving pictures” that captured subtle movements: “flickering lights on an empty street, waves hitting rocks, a twisted clock swaying.”
Sagolj had pre-conceived his edit for the story “before I even sat down at his computer,” he says. Masukura’s narration provided him with a “skeletal structure,” then he added imagery and sound for additional context. Rather than literally illustrating Masukura’s words, the visuals Sagolj chose symbolize the isolation and loss he describes: video clips show a traffic light blinking in front of an abandoned house and a capsized ship overgrown with grass that blows in the wind; still photos show a vending machine left in the middle of a field and a line of worn shoes in Masukura’s house. “I used pictures of windows every time the story leaves the house or comes back from outside,” Sagolj notes. “Psychologically, windows divide cold from warm, dark from bright, life from the absence of it.”
To decide how long to make his “moving images” and cuts between visuals, he tries to find a rhythm. Here, too, he says, his audio clips helped. Repetitive sounds like tolling bells or breaking waves worked “like a metronome that sets the speed” and set a pace for his edit.
“The attention span of viewers is short, so I don’t have a lot of time to tell a story,” he says. Through his use of metaphor and his rich layering of text, audio, video and stills, Sagolj manages to communicate one man’s story—and a continuing problem facing his community—in less than five minutes.