Spotlight on Tim Matsui
Jan 27, 2015
Thanks for your time, Tim. This project is intense and amazing to see its development. Can you tell us a little of the backstory?
Thanks for taking the time to share this project with people, I appreciate it.
This really started about 15 years ago when I worked with students whose teacher committed suicide during an investigation into inappropriate conduct. I began to learn about sexual abuse, victimization and trauma. What happens when you start talking about this stuff, people start disclosing to you. I heard a lot of stories about rape and abuse; in response, I began working with some of these people to help them tell their stories.
This work became a non-profit for which I received and Open Society Documentary Distribution Grant, taking about a dozen classroom talks to 65 within a year. We also built out a bunch of other engagement programs, which is something that informs my work today.
I found running a small non-profit difficult and full of conflict, and my interests drifted to human trafficking. With a friend’s couch in Thailand available, I began what turned into several visits to Thailand and Cambodia researching and reporting on trafficking for both labor and sex. There I learned a lot more about root causes, like poverty, health care, economic opportunity, education, and migration. All of this is important because it’s the foundation for my work in Seattle. I had all of these relationships from my sexual violence reporting, I had proven myself internationally, and I had a larger project in mind, not just a photo story.
Seattle started to look at domestic minor sex trafficking, using methods I’d seen applied abroad. I then researched and wrote grants for four years, trying to find support for this project. The Alexia Foundation’s inaugural Women’s Initiative Grant is what gave me the seed capital to pursue the project.
Can you tell us how you started at first, and what you went through mentally to prepare?
I started with the cops, which took three months to negotiate access. When I wrote the grant I didn’t know if I’d be able to work with them, but I’d read an article of about the SeaTac police taking a victim-centric approach to the issue. My earlier experiences with Seattle Police weren’t very successful in gaining access. To be fair to that department, they were undergoing a Justice Department investigation and were a bit media shy.
When I was finally granted access, the delay was explained to me. There were complications with how a previous film crew worked with the Street Crimes Unit. As a commercial production studio, they walked into the story with an agenda. I had to explain to the police how a photojournalist works; that we don’t influence story, we simply observe and document.
Since I started this project I’ve learned there’s a huge spectrum for ‘documentary,’ but my approach was to observe and to be at the right place at the right time. Nothing was orchestrated or reenacted. While I was waiting, I went to several weeks of training workshops with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors. This was important because I became better acquainted with some of the key people working locally. I cannot stress how important relationships are to access.
At the same time, my personal life was turned upside down. This did two things; it put me in a pretty raw emotional state and freed me from any obligation except the story. In a way, the story is what kept me focused.
What challenges did you encounter while working to making this project, especially at the beginning?
Access was the biggest hurdle. I knew how I wanted to tell the stories, but I only had one solid lead, which were the cops.
I’ve worked with a lot of youth and know it’s ethically complicated. Reporting on youth (or anyone) involved in trauma can further traumatize them and can be exploitive. The stories I wanted to tell are law enforcement, a survivor, a pimp, and a buyer. I ended up with two of the four, with an added bonus of a fifth story. That fifth story is Lisa’s. I walked into her world wanting to find and tell a pimp’s story. What I found was an amazing young woman who’s seen a lot and continues to struggle with leaving the life. I think this is part of documentary; not getting stuck on a preconceived concept. To be flexible enough to pivot and follow the story as it evolves.
I’d still like to find and tell the other stories, but those hurdles are for later.
How did you handle and overcome these problems?
As journalists, especially freelance, all we have is our reputation, our integrity, ethics, and body of work to speak for ourselves. Nobody in Seattle had heard of the Alexia Foundation, and I didn’t have a mainstream publication backing me, so I didn’t have that credibility, but they knew my previous work and the people I’d worked with.
I’d say the problem solving was less photographic and more relational. That and time. Having the grant gave me a window of time to commit to the project, to put my everything into it so I could be available as the story evolved.
There’s no trickery here. Gaining access and trust is about honesty, transparency, and what I call ‘walking the line.’ For instance, I’ve heard a lot of people say that pornography is to blame for the trafficking of minors. Or that all sex work is inherently exploitive. Or that sex work should be legalized. To do this right, to be a good journalist, all positions should be heard. It’s about giving people the opportunity to share their story and being as unbiased as possible. As a journalist, I simply help people tell their story.
I might have my opinions, but I do my best not to let them affect my work. It’s about inclusivity; it’s about bringing everyone’s voice to the table. Are the film and this project lacking some important voices? Absolutely. Telling those other stories is something I’m working toward.
Lisa: Trying from timmatsui.com on Vimeo.
What has surprised you about your work dealing with such trying issues?
One of the surprises for me is just how normal all of this is. A lot of my friends who are parents, especially fathers of daughters, are shocked at how close to home these stories are. For some it took a few tries to watch the film. Another surprise for me is how I’ve gotten a bit callous. Not that I lack empathy, but it’s just not as shocking. However, when it does hit, it has a lot more impact. I’ve been learning how to recognize these moments and manage them in a healthy way.
Now, onto the film. Can you talk more about it in its entirety, what you hope to achieve through this work?
The film is kind of a happy accident. I started this project on a photography grant, felt I should be doing a lot of video, and through the Alexia Foundation was partnered with MediaStorm. As access deepened, it became apparent we had something much richer than a photo essay. Early on, I’d decided video would be the priority; I think this story really lends itself to film. I think the photography suffered, but to step back and look at it as a complete package, I think everything goes well together.
That package really isn’t the film. I started Leaving the Life with the idea of shifting cultural and institutional norms. This is where the last 15 years of work informs the project; the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking is rooted underlying issues and it’s going to take organizations and individuals to change how they view things before the victimization decreases.
To that end, I see the film as broad audience outreach. It’s a story, it’s got an emotional hook, it’s informative. People can act on this by sharing the film, hosting home screenings, talking about it on their socials, or digging in deeper; there’s a variety of small ways people can become engaged. The engagement path is pretty similar to many other advocacy films. Through my partnerships I’ve won a second grant, this time from the Fledgling Fund. They’ve supported quite a roster of amazing films and I’m honored to be on that list. The grant is written for an engagement program that works with policy makers and first responders to shift those institutional norms.
With A Fourth Act we’ve designed a live event that uses participatory media and facilitated discussion to co-create solutions. For instance, a lot of law enforcement don’t understand the concept of victim-centric and see anyone who is a sex worker, regardless of age, as a criminal. Social services tend to advocate for the victims, in this case the minors, and are in conflict with law enforcement. Yet through our engagement program we’re able to bring together these two disparate groups and help them understand each other and find solutions.
We’re in the midst of incorporating this into local government and then, through additional partnerships, will be rolling this out across the state. What this does is amplify the impact of the reporting. It’s not just an indie doc, it’s an entire movement built around story.
Vignettes from timmatsui.com on Vimeo.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making this film?
If anything, I think I’ve learned to value myself and my work a lot more. I tend to want to just “do” and to keep moving forward, which doesn’t allow for a lot of reflection. But the past two years, for both personal and professional reasons, I’ve done a fair bit of reflection.
I mean…I won two grants and two top awards. People trusted me to tell their stories. I’ve made a feature documentary film. I’ve got some amazing partners who inspire me and help me be a smarter, more creative person. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of collaboration.
I’ve also learned more about balance. About how important it is to make time for friends and family, and to scratch the climbing itch, because the mountains and my climbing partners help me stay grounded. And, I think I’ve finally realized how tenacious I am. I can’t guarantee this is project will succeed, but I’m going to do the work, push it to the edge, and hope it flies.
What have you learned about others?
Resilience. I look at Natalie and her family, or Lisa and her strength and…I’m just impressed.
Moving forward, what do you think you'll do differently knowing what you know now?
I’ve always been plugging away at my own projects, pursuing stories I think need to be told and finding ways to get the work to communities where it can make a difference. I walked into this project with that mindset. One of the things I’ve learned through this process is what I’m capable of; I have more confidence and trust in myself.
This growth is definitely driving the evolution of the project and will inform future works. Filmmaking and film distribution are new to me. I’m not afraid to say I don’t know, and to turn to people who do. I may not do what they say, but at least I have more options and greater knowledge.
We have amazing self-publishing tools available to us these days. I’ve been on social media for some time, but this project showed me how powerful, effective and important it is to independent distribution. Social media builds community. When we launched the film in December last year, there were three entities promoting it on three different web portals. MediaStorm was using their Facebook and website to promote a ‘web’ version in their proprietary media player. The Alexia Foundation chose to embed the MediaStorm version on their website, using Facebook and Twitter for promotion.
I chose to build The Long Night Movie upon which I embedded a Vimeo player with the theatrical cut of the film. I also created a Facebook page and Twitter account for the film. For various reasons, this was only done about a month before release. I then took to the socials, posting stills, short clips, interview excerpts, and behind the scenes stuff to my channels, including instagram, and the film’s channels while doing my best to push audience to the film’s channels. I feel the film needs to be it’s own entity; that’s what people are connecting with.
Having spent a week in late October drumming up media coverage in NYC for the December release proved effective. It gave me something to promote on the socials, which in turn drove people to want to check out the film itself. Local media picked it up as well; in part because we have an incredibly supportive photojournalism community here in Seattle. For the Facebook post launching the film on the film’s page (not mine), I achieved 97,000+ reach, 90 percent of it organic, with 750+ shares of that single post. A couple of separate posts were shared another 500-ish times through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Facebook. And I connected with a blogging group of mothers who cumulatively reached over one million through Twitter.
In the big media world, this isn’t huge, but this is an indie film and an indie project. And consider this: I’ve only got about 3080 followers on my professional FB page. The film’s FB only recently broke 1000 followers. Twitter even less. I’m not a social media powerhouse, but I believe I reached a greater audience than both of the other partners combined. What this showed me is the power of community. Some amazing volunteers stepped forward to help monitor the socials. Hands-on, personal communication matters. Spending time on interviews, like this one, allows people to connect and feel like they’re a part of it. Which they are, because they’re investing time into the story.
In the next project, and as this one evolves, I’m going to ensure community has a greater role. If I’d been able to start the social campaign earlier in the project, we’d have a much larger audience and far greater reach. And that is what this whole thing is about. To create change there must be an audience inspired to act.
In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers who may want to do this work?
Photographers need to think beyond this medium. Gallery shows and coffee table books are cool, but how far will they reach? Who will they inspire? I’m not saying shoot a feature film, but there are many ways to build an audience and tell a story today. It’s important to think in terms of partnership and be quick to pivot as opportunities appear, technology changes, or the story takes an unexpected turn.
The other thing is be prepared to work hard. Really hard. Know what you’re willing to sacrifice, as this will help you decide what you can and cannot compromise on. Photojournalism is a lifestyle, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
To learn more about the film:
Tim Matsui is an Emmy-nominated multimedia journalist and producer focusing on human trafficking, alternative energy, and the environment. Tim's clients have included Newsweek, Stern, Der Spiegel, GEO, Wired and many other domestic and international publications. Today, Tim partners with non profits and corporations, and self publishes, to tell meaningful stories founded in tenets of journalism. A non profit founder, Pictures of the Year and World Press Photo winner, and recipient of grants from the Alexia Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Fledgling Fund and Fund for Investigative Journalism, Tim seeks to inform and engage viewers through his projects, using media for social change.
The Long Night, a collaborative documentary film by Tim Matsui and MediaStorm, was just named by judges as the Best Use Of Multimedia first place winner in NPPA's 2015 Best Of Photojournalism Multimedia contest, among numerous other awards.
Photo Credit: Frank Huster