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The WashingtonPost.com’s Existential Experiment: onBeing

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The Washington Post’s onBeing is one of the most radical, and radically simple, journalistic concepts to be deployed online: We need to get to know one another a bit better. The device is a video archive, updated weekly, of human profiles without any thematic continuity: people, from all walks of life, talking about their lives. A lactose-intolerant law student turned cheesemaker describes her passion for her profession; a gay Mormon talks about being different; a young man explains how he can be very particular about certain things; a 50-year-old nude-figure-drawing model talks about posing. The several-minute-long profiles feature the subject talking to the camera against a stark white background and are hypnotically compelling, intimate, insightful, and sometimes hilarious. OnBeing is the brainchild of washingtonpost.com video journalist Jennifer Crandall, who finds the subjects in the Beltway area, interviews them, and produces their segments. We spoke to her about her evolving work, which appears online every Wednesday.

What inspired this project?
I’ve always been interested in trying to find a way to relay the voices of real people. I moved around a lot when I was a kid. I saw lots of different things and met lots of different people. And I liked the idea of telling other people’s stories. I know that sounds cliché. Basically, I thought this would be the most direct way of doing it.

How did you pitch it to your editors? It seems like it would be impossible to sell.
That’s true, and that’s why I first spent some time producing a couple of videos. When I pitched it, I was actually able to show them what it would look like—how it would feel, instead of just describing it.

How do you find these people?
The process is pretty organic. In the beginning, when I first started the project, I found people by asking friends and family and co-workers to let me know if they thought of someone interesting. I just knew I wanted it to show the range of emotions that are out there. Now it can happen anywhere. I’ve met people shopping.

How do you decide if someone will be interesting?
I can’t quite explain it. But oftentimes something that they say or do will catch my ear. I want to make sure that people aren’t constantly addressing the same issues. On the other hand, I went to buy tires for my bike one day and I met this guy Courtney, who was a refugee from Katrina. That was all I needed to go on to bring him in. But in the interview, he talked about growing up racist.

It’s a thoroughly nonlinear approach. We can click on whomever we want, and we don’t know anything about who these people are.
At one point, there was a suggestion to feature a caption telling us how old these people were, where they were from, what they did, that sort of thing. And I quickly realized that did not necessarily tell you more about these people. Sometimes it can even make them seem less interesting. But we’re still in some senses trying to figure out where we’re going to go with the whole thing.

How do you get people to open up?
I try to make them as comfortable as possible. When I’m interviewing them there’s no one else in the room—unless I’m interviewing a kid, in which case their parents are always welcome. It’s important for me to come across as sincere as possible, and to let them know I have great interest in what they have to say. Eventually, they warm up.

Of all your subjects, who has provoked the most response so far?
Gio [Escalante], definitely—this little 7-year-old kid that I interviewed. Whenever I talk with someone about the project, they almost invariably bring up Gio. He just had a lot to say—about music, about how growing up is going to be so hard, about everything—and he had a fantastic way of saying it, very articulate and excited. I think a lot of people were reminded that children do have a lot to say: They do have ideas and feelings that get hurt. Gio is a pretty cool kid.


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