Dan Barry said a 90-word wire report from rural Iowa was the spark of what became his 2014 story “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse.’”

mayborn_logoThirty men with intellectual disabilities in a schoolhouse on a hilltop being paid $65 each month to kill turkeys for 35 years.

“That series of images jumped out at me,” Barry said. “I think in terms of cinema. I think in terms of scenery.”

The Pulitzer-winning writer of the This Land column in The New York Times spoke Saturday at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference with fellow Times staffer Kassie Bracken. Bracken is a videographer who has collaborated with Barry on many of his reports.

The two presented a series of case studies and video examples about how visual journalism – specifically video – can help improve narrative writing.

“I learned long ago not to say, ‘This is my photographer,’” Barry said. “The way to do it is respect the discipline … but respect the power of those disciplines to dramatically raise the game.”

When on assignment, Barry and Bracken will many times negotiate with each other how to structure interviews and reporting days. If they split up during the day, Barry said they meet in the evenings and debrief each other, so both reporters stay on top of a story as it develops.

“I’m looking for different things than Dan is,” Bracken said. “As a video person you’re not a gatherer, you’re a hunter.”

Barry and Bracken said they both approach sources without notebook or camera when beginning their reporting. They’ll visit a source many times to earn trust and make sure the subject is comfortable with the scrutiny of a reporter.

Bracken said she specifically makes sure that sources know what they’re getting into before they begin shooting. She’ll tell a potential subject what she plans to shoot, how much time it will take and why she wants to get the shots she works for.

“You gain trust by just being there. Not imposing yourself, but being available. You have to spend the time,” Barry said. “Then the notebook comes out and the stories come to you.”

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