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Courtesy of Ross Taylor

Through a More Intimate Lens: Interview with Filmmaker Ross Taylor

Ross Taylor is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Previously, he was a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I discovered Taylor via his feature documentary film, The Hardest Day about veterinary performed in-home pet euthanasia.

I’m an animal lover, and had never heard of this way of saying goodbye. I watched and reviewed the film, and was profoundly moved by the heart, power, and quality of Taylor’s first feature documentary.

I quickly contacted Taylor, and we found ourselves in a friendship. In addition to Taylor’s film, I learned about his work as a photojournalist and was again moved by the quantity and quality of his human-centered photographs. Although photojournalism will always be in his DNA, Taylor is pursuing filmmaking. Based upon the quality and impact of his first film, and his passion for film, I believe he is going to have a successful career in filmmaking.

Taylor’s professional recognitions include National Photographer of the Year, Northern Photographer of the Year, New England Photographer of the Year, Virginia Photographer of the Year, and North Carolina Photographer of the Year (twice). His coverage of an Afghanistan trauma hospital garnered numerous international and national awards, and his work has also appeared twice on the cover of the Best of Photojournalism magazine.

Taylor was the inaugural fellow in the Multimedia, Photography and Design department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. His master’s project was a series of films in the local burn unit. He is the lead creator of The Image, Deconstructed.

I spoke with Taylor telephonically from my northern California home to his Boulder digs.

Ross, tell me about the process of becoming a photographer and then a film director/producer.

I became interested in doing film from an early age, but I’m from a small town in the South, and we didn’t have any kind of resources to pursue film. It was never really an option. But, what was an option was visual communication through photography which was a cheaper entry point, and I found that very appealing.

So, I pursued journalism for quite a long time. I became very involved with the field. I was enthralled the idea of telling stories through visuals. My entry point was photojournalism, and I was quite involved with that for a long time.

I began to see the shift as the cameras we were using enabled us to do video production. There was one documentary that struck me called ‘Restrepo’—a war documentary. I had done some conflict photography as well. ‘Restrepo’ set something in me that seemed to make it possible that I could do video.

It’s not the only reason, but in part I left the field of photojournalism, and returned to graduate school where I studied short-form video production in a program at Syracuse University that addressed students who were leaving the field of photojournalism for producing video shorts. It was there I started thinking ‘how does one do a feature film?’ I’d always been interested in doing it. But, this was later in life, I was fortyish when I went back to school.

Fast forward, I was on a creative tenure track at the University Colorado at Boulder, and I did a photo project as part of that. It was about at-home pet euthanasia—the last moments people were sharing with their animal. There’s been very little media representation on it. It was very, very intense as you can imagine.

I was documenting the last photo appointment of my first trip where I realized I wanted to do a feature film. There was a thunderstorm, lightening was hitting all around, and you could hear the mourning sounds of a woman over her pet. It was very visceral, and there was no way you can convey this in a photograph as well as you could in a video camera. I thought maybe I could do a film on this. That’s what began the feature film.

Let’s go back a bit. Tell me about your formal education.

I’m from North Carolina, and went to school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I received my B.A. in photojournalism, and my Master’s degree from Syracuse University in New York—in short-form video production.

I got into photojournalism because of my father. He was an amateur photographer with a darkroom in a utility closet back when not many people had one. I was about ten or twelve years old. I just wanted to spend more time with my dad. It could have been anything that he did. But, it was because he did photography that I picked up a camera. I took pictures in high school for the year books.

And then in college I luckily took up a photojournalism course. I was pretty wayward in my education. I didn’t do that well academically, I struggled to find motivation within a major, or a course of study. Luckily, I took a photojournalism course, and it was like the light went on. I thought, ‘well, this makes sense.’ While other subjects were more difficult for me, photojournalism spoke a language I could understand—visual communication is easier for me to process.

I was from a pretty small area, and my thinking was pretty restrictive, I was unable to think expansively. I remember going to Washington, DC and thinking it was the most massive city on the planet. But, photojournalism opened that door. It was a series of peaking around the corner of photojournalism and thinking, ‘oh god, what’s next, what else can I see, can I witness?’ It just continued for quite a long time, and it kept just expanding. That’s the best way for me to process retroactively what the career arc was—an expansion of thought via visual communication.

What happened next?

After graduate school I was a visiting professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and then a visiting Professorship opened up at the University of Colorado Boulder. After that I received a creative track for tenure.

What were you doing?

You build a case for tenure with a particular expertise. My expertise is working and documenting in photographic and documentary film form the effects within, and the aftermath of traumatic experiences through a more intimate lens. I think because it was on my path or because of some of the things I’ve witnessed along the way, this was an easier connection for me—one that I’m more familiar with. I can move with respect and honor in these spaces. I feel very comfortable documenting and being present with people dealing with trauma.

I’ve found that people want to feel connected in trauma, in difficult experiences. They want to feel less alone. There is value in being with people in these moments, in documenting these moments, and in sharing them with others so that they know they’re not alone. I certainly see this trauma in pet loss. This is a quiet sadness people have felt.

When the story published of my photographic essay of people participating in their pet’s in-home euthanasia, it went viral, worldwide, it just exploded. I couldn’t believe how it took off. It appeared in many publications, and every time I would publish there would be a spinoff effect and other publications would pick it up. This was about a years’ cycle of exposure. It just shows that people have this experience, and it just had been bottled-up, and people haven’t seen representation of something so many people have felt.

When did you make the decision to move forward with a film?

In the summer of 2017, I was closing the photographic wing of the project, and that’s when I had that experience with that one family that was so visceral. I was photographing a very sweet family – Wendy and Rich Lehr in Florida, who had a dog named Mimosa. I wanted to attempt feature film, because it was then I realized it was only in a video that the experience could be properly documented. I started the project in 2018—not really knowing what I was doing. I knew one person that’s done a feature film. I didn’t have much connection to the industry.

Given that, you are a natural.

We had to balance the idea of documentation with the respect of the moment because it is profoundly intense. We worked with a former student of mine at Syracuse who does video, and became my cohort in this. We had to learn pretty quickly how to produce audio and video as a two-person team in very difficult situations. The gravity of the situation was reflected in the footage. It was intense, and it was something that I’ve never seen, never witnessed. It tended to present the reality of the moment at hand.

We worked about a week alongside what’s called Lap of Love—the largest at-home euthanasia service in the country. I became good friends with the CEO, Dr. Dani McVety-Leinen, who was instrumental in this film. She believed in the project and understood the importance of it. She helped introduce me to the veterinarians and we’ve become friends. We spent a lot of time together during this project, and I’m grateful for her (and the vets) support.

I always do this. I want people to know what I’m doing. I wanted to make sure that they understood the mission of the project. And, because they understood the mission they were on board with it.

Lap of Love gets a lot of media requests they deny because a lot of media outlets don’t come at the topic with the respect it deserves.

As far as I can tell, you are the only person who has addressed in-home euthanasia in photographic and filmic media.

I’ve not seen anything in a feature film on the topic, and certainly not as much in photo. The film became by default one of the first large bodies of work on this topic in photojournalism and feature film.

What’s next?

I’m working with the refugee community with a man named PJ Parmar who is a doctor. He owns a place called Mango House which is the largest facility in Colorado—and probably the greater West—that provides medical and dental services for refugees. The facility also has space for refugees run by refugees. It is a massive complex giving a leg-up to the refugee community. The film and photographic coverage is about Mango House, but Dr. Parmar is the film’s central character. I’ll finish the film over the summer.

This project, does it have to do with issues of immigration and the law?

Yes. My eyes have been opened. I thought I knew something about the refugee community, but I was ignorant. I’ve learned a great deal about the refugee experience. They deal with a whole host of issues that the average person could not imagine. My heart goes out to that community. Like The Hardest Day I really want this project to work, to get out there. I’m hoping to learn what I can from everybody that’s been of help, including you, for the first film, and apply it to this next film.

Where are you at in the production process?

I would say 80% done. I’m waiting until we get post-mask. A lot of refugees are still wearing masks. I really want to be careful of ‘othering them.’ I want to make sure that we see plenty of faces. I’ve done a lot of the structure of the film. I’m just waiting until there’s a little bit of normalcy so that we can identify more with this community.

That film’s very exciting to me. But, then again, I think anything you do will be of great interest to me.

I have photographically covered the Boulder mass shooting that took place on March 22nd which I will continue to document as an archive of the Boulder experience.

Here’s one of my favorite questions: If you suddenly found yourself with ten million dollars, what would you want to cover?

My heart goes towards enriching community. It would probably be a hybrid of working in arenas where I would try to identify unresolved grief or disconnected grief that many people are sharing, and then come together through the documentary form. I don’t know what exactly that project is. I just see the natural arc where all the projects I’m exploring would tend to gravitate towards identifying experiences that we all share but don’t want to outwardly express as readily. And if we can find creative expressions that can unite people in that grief, I think there’s real power in knowledge that you’re not alone in that grief.

I also think about creating a center for visual communication in Boulder. If I can get funding, that’s something that I’d like to do both in photographic and film form through fostering community.

What would that involve, what would the substance of that be?

I’ve done a lot of training in the field of photojournalism. I’ve run national workshops. I find it exceptionally rewarding—helping and training professionals in ways of maneuvering with intent, and purpose, and respect. I think many people are not born with understanding how to document somebody’s pain or struggles. It can be a very bumpy experience for people as they learn in real time how to do that. But, I think there’s an impetus and a need to continue to train people how to respectfully add to the documentary experience in film and photo people going through these difficult moments. This work can be more powerful and more respectful.

That sounds like a great project. The sooner the better.

The tenure path is helping me to crystalize my overarching vision, and what I’m about. I think when I was a photojournalist I just responded, and I worked hard, but I didn’t have an undercurrent I was attuned to. But, I see more clearly now.

Film is a direct link to that. You can’t film people in a difficult moment like the loss of a pet without really understanding your purpose. You can’t just show-up, you have to know why you’re doing that. And you have to convey that quickly, and people have to pick up on that, and accept that, and believe in it.

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Tags

Ross Taylor, filmmaker, photojournalist, Dani McVety-Leinen, Lap of Love, The Hardest Day