Witness Earth: Innovations in photographic storytelling

Porter Yates is a photographer, and Dan Melamid is a director. They have been friends for many years, and both share a passion for travel and visual storytelling. Through Witness.Earth they have collaborated to develop a new style of photographic presentation to music. This new technique fuses slideshow, time lapse, and stop motion imagery; all set to the rhythm of unearthed and vintage songs.

Developed as an experimental process for Kanye West’s song “White Dress”, Dan incorporated his travel photos with Kanye’s music to create a never before seen style of music video.

Porter has traveled and photographed far away regions of the world. He saw potential in the technique and how it could be applied to his work. This method provides a level of immersion never before experienced and is unique in its ability to both comprehensively describe a place and provide intimate details of the setting.

From this the two friends created a collaboration and Witness.Earth was formed.

AHB: Dan, I haven’t talked to you before. I just checked out your work and it looks like you have a big connection with hip hop.

D: Yeah, I’ve been kind of in the hip hop business industry for my whole life, but I got into directing music videos maybe 10 years ago. I worked with them all I guess. Most of them. I got “hot” working for 50 Cent at the peak of 50 Cent mania.

Who’s one of your favourite artists that you’ve worked with?

D: I worked really closely with Prodigy of Mobb Deep. A lot of old school New York rappers.

I remember Shook Ones.

D: Yes definitely. I see that you’re very versed in music. I looked at your website and I saw all those wonderful pictures that you took of all the different musicians, I guess in Austin?

Some of it was in Chicago, I’ve done some stuff for Pitchfork out in Paris and then some of it here.

D: Yeah cool. I see you have a lot of great acts there. Out of the ones you have, the only one I’ve worked with is Freddie Gibbs.

Thanks. Yeah I saw that.

D: We did some wiggle stereoscopy kind of wiggle video. I try to develop different interesting techniques in my work and utilise them before people ever utilise them. Porter and I have been friends for a long time. I did this video for Kanye West called White Dress. It was a video actually for RZA for his soundtrack for his movie. He sent me this Kanye West song and he’s like, “I need a video like yesterday for it. You know, you’ve travelled all over the place, you could just throw me your stuff and put it on there.” I kind of ran with that and utilised all the photographs that I’ve accumulated throughout the years and put together the video. It’s very inspirational and great and it was amazing how many people from all these different tiny little corners of the earth reached out to me: “Hey I saw my town in the video”. Recently a producer friend of mine reached out to me and she was like, “Oh, we want a commercial like White Dress. Can you just repurpose those pictures and utilise them for a commercial for us?” And I was like, “No, I wouldn’t really be keen on doing that. But if you want something similar, I have an idea.” So I reached out to Porter, and we created this commercial. The funniest part is it’s a travel app, and the name of it is Porter & Sail. When we did that, the whole photography over music was in our heads again, and Porter was like, “Hey, you need to really do something for me with these pictures.” He sent me the India pictures and I started really digging for music. I found the music and put the pictures together and was like, “Wow, this is really incredible and something that needs its own entity and brand.” We started trying to figure out what that would be and came up with Witness.Earth.

It’s some really great stuff and I want to get more into that in a second. I was curious though about growing up and how you got into art. I just read up about you and read an article about your father in the New York Times. He’s consistently done some incredible work over the past few decades. Is he how you got started with art?

D: It’s funny because I never really considered myself an artist until most recently. I do kind of make videos, a form of art, but I definitely never tried to follow in my father’s footsteps in that regard, in terms of visual art, even though I did try to go to Parsons when I was a kid. I went to Parsons and I dropped out. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do and I was always into music. People are always like, “Well how did you get into the position you’re in?” and I’m like, “When I was young, hip hop was young.” I’m 41, so I was growing up with hip hop. I remember a friend of mine in Washington Square Park going, “Hey Dan, you know I got a record deal?” and I was like, “Get the fuck outta here you got a record deal?!” and he’s like, “Nah I swear I’ve got a record deal,” and he pulls out a white envelope and it says “Tommy Boy” on it and it has a mound of cash in it. I was like, “Holy shit, this is a career? This is like something you could do?” I started producing, I was making beats at the time, and engineering. From there I got into dot-com 1.0, like a dot-com company. And they started streaming audio and video on the internet. That’s kind of how I fell into video. When the bubble burst, I started working at record labels. At the time, nobody knew anything about video. Video back then was these huge EMG cameras.

About what year would that probably have been?

D: Well the bubble burst right when the towers fell. The cameras we were running around with were Canon XL 1s, pretty obviously way pre-DSLR. I went straight up into the music business from there.

Is that how you got your father into hip hop? I saw him do some paintings of Kanye and things like that.

D: Yeah I did this collaborative piece with my dad. I guess he was bugging me the whole time – he’s always been fascinated by what I do. It was really his idea and at the time it was in the middle of 50 Cent mania. All those people that are in it, most of them just came to my office. Kanye West would stop by my office and my dad would come and take photographs of him and do paintings off the photographs. The only one that he actually went and visited personally was Snoop Dogg and that’s a really funny thing. Snoop Dogg’s manager calls me, Ted Chung, and he’s like, “Dan, um, you know your father’s here and he won’t leave?” and I’m like, “Oh my God this is so surreal that Snoop Dogg’s manager is calling me, like, ‘Your dad, he’s such a sweet guy!'” Snoop made him wait until like four in the morning and then he finally did what he did. But this was before art and rap convergence. There was no knowledge and respect of the art world like there is now. As you see in Kanye’s pose – he’s got his Roc-A-Fella chain, he’s got a backpack on, he’s the old Kanye. That was a great project. My dad sold it, which is good and gave me a stack of cash.

Do you have any plans for any interesting future shoots?

D: Definitely. I’m always doing different shoots. I’m actually moving more into the documentary angle of things. I’m always shooting music videos, commercials. Me and Prodigy, who’s a friend of mine, we just did a short film this summer that’s in post-production and we’re probably going to do another two segments on that. I work with a bunch of the new rappers like A$AP Ferg and people of that nature. I’m around, I do a lot of different things. I’ve got two kids and I’m grinding and I gotta make money. For commercials I have clients like Radeberger Pilsner and other things like that that you might not see on my social media perhaps, because these two brands don’t coincide with one another; my boring professional brand and my hip hop persona.

Porter, looks like you’ve done a tonne of travelling. Personally, looking through your site, you’ve visited some of my favourite places on earth. Do you have a favourite country or place that you’ve visited?

P: That’s always tough. There are certain ones that I do probably like and I’m drawn to. For instance I really enjoy Japan, but the reasons I enjoy Japan are really different from the reasons I enjoy, say, Tibet. I do find that photographically there are certain places, like areas in Mexico, that I know are going to be easier to shoot in. I’ve been to Japan a few times but don’t really have anything that I would consider good photography. If I could pick up and go right now, probably Tibet would be high up there – the mountains, the people, it’s kind of got the whole package that I really like.

I’ve also been to Japan a couple of times and don’t have any photos so I know the feeling.

P: It’s an interesting place but I think it takes longer to get deeper into a scene. I do a little bit of street but when you see the interesting shots in Japan it’s usually the street stuff.

How do you plan your trips usually?

P: Sometimes it’s not planned at all and we can just show up. I generally try and get a guide and that’s usually the hardest part; I try and get a guide who I trust and who at least understands that what I want to do is different from a tourist. When I went to Peru I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in Machu Picchu, the usual 9-3 schedule. I’d be getting up before the sun and staying out, and I found a great guide who was able to help with that.   It was kind of a coincidence but this year I revisited almost every place that I had travelled to fairly recently within the last two years. Part of that was because I already had connections set up and it was much easier to get back to those places than to try and go somewhere brand new. I was working on maybe trying to do the West Coast of Africa, there’s some places I’d like to get to around there, and I started looking online but I didn’t even know where to start. That’s always overwhelming. The last thing I want to do is just show up and be completely out of it and burn three days trying to figure something out. I usually at least try and get some sort of connection or a plan before I go.

The reason I asked is when I look at your photos, some are of the places you can go where there’s just going to be something huge going on everyday, like Varanasi for instance. There’s always something going on there. But then you’ve been to certain ceremonies where it looks like you have to be there at a certain time, like a tea-spitting ceremony…

P: These festivals are not planned; they’re on the lunar calendar so you don’t even know when they’re necessarily going to be. A lot of it is word of mouth. It’s not like some places where this happens on this day every single year. In Tibet there was that tea-spitting festival that was just happening. I actually saw two of them, there were two different styles and two sects of monks, yellow hats and red hats, and they had their own style of how to attain their vomit. The yellow hats are a bit more slow and steady and the red hats are a bit more risk-taking. There’s a shot of a monk in a big yellow robe throwing an object into this giant fire. That was from having my local guide who was just talking to people. We’d chat to someone on the street and they’d say, “Oh yeah, this sect over there is going to be doing that later today.” If it was a week later I would have missed them. So some of that is just luck I guess.

What about in Mexico? There was that pyrotechnic festival. Did you plan to go to Mexico for that?

P: Yeah, I planned that. There was a photographer who I saw went there in 2012/2013 and it looked pretty interesting.

I really wanted to go there. That’s a place I’ve wanted to go for a long time and I was kind of jealous when I saw that you did that.

P: Well I’d be down to go again so if you ever want to like… I got some fixers in Mexico City and I communicated with them. I was like, “Well, what’s the deal, do I want to go this?” It’s way out in the ‘burbs in Mexico City – it would be hard. It’s not set up for tourists. I don’t even really know if there are hotels out there. You have to rent a car and so I just got these fixers in Mexico City and was like, “Alright, let’s arrange this,” and they kind of set me up with some other places to explore in Mexico City. It’s two weekends; there’s one weekend, then you have the week in between, then you have the next weekend. You spend time and money and energy to get down there; it’s worth staying more than just a couple of days and a couple back. The nice thing is that when you make contacts, usually you have those connections for a long time.

Dan mentioned that you guys have been friends for a while. How did you two meet?

D: Through his [Porter’s] sister and one of my best friends. Well, they were married. P: Yeah I don’t really remember when we actually met. D: I knew Porter before he was taking pictures, that’s for sure. When he was a wee little tot. Maybe ten, fifteen years or something. P: We’d always talk gear and get into the technical stuff of photography once I got into that. And then when I moved to New York, Dan and I lived four blocks away from each other. D: We actually lived one block away, on the south side of Williamsburg. P: Since we were in proximity we just started hanging out a bit more. D: When Porter got into photography that was like the onset of the DSLR movement and I was already knee-deep into that because on a low-budget tip, we always shot on 5Ds. So I gave him a lot of pointers and direction when he started out his interest in that. P: I had tried with my photos to do kind of a video. I might have put something together that was in the same style, separate from what Dan was doing, way faster, way just kind of like not curated and thought out. Just kind of like, “Let’s see how this works”. And there was something there. I don’t have the video mindset, the video-editing skills, all that, and I was working on it, Dan was like, “Yeah this kind of works”, he helped me out a little bit, but it never really went anywhere. And that’s finally when I was like, “Here are the images, there are some cool images here, see what you can do with it.” D: At the end of the day, a photographer cannot make a music video out of stills. There’s no way a photographer could do that. I’ve been editing music videos for ten years. You can’t just open up After Effects or whatever program you’re gonna use and be like, “Oh, I’m gonna do what Dan does.” No fucking way. Although taking photographs, you might be able to take the same picture that a photographer takes; you go to that same location. You know, I will say that taking pictures is real easy. That’s really kind of simple. You could train a monkey to take a photograph. Monkeys have been known to take pictures. But editing a video is not simple at all. It’s not easy, it’s fucking hard and it takes rhythm and this and that.

It is the hardest thing, I’ve learned that the hard way for sure. Just like colour correction and everything too – it’s a nightmare.

D: It is. People are like, “Wow, I take pictures so I can do a video!” Alright, good luck. I’ve been doing it for ten years straight, every day, and that’s why I’m good at editing. But I think that with Witness.Earth, what’s really important is the music. I’m also a producer, I also make music. It comes from digging for records, it’s kind of like the same thing, but now we’re digging through the internet. I think what’s really important about the one piece that we have up now is the music and how beautiful that song is.

How did you find it?

D: Just going crazy searching, through the internet and a blog that sells vinyl and then Googling. I think that that’s a really, really important part of this thing. You see a lot of people putting images to non-descript techno electronic music and I just wanna fucking throw up. I don’t wanna listen to that shit. What’s really important about Witness.Earth and the brand is the music. It’s unearthing a beautiful, rare, vintage piece of music and you’ll see when the second one launches. Now we have one up and it’s hard to kind of understand the whole concept but once we have a couple up you’re gonna be like, “Oh I get it”. This next one is more almost like something where you would hear a hip hop sample kind of situation.

Porter, since you travel a lot, could you see yourself making a recording of something that’s happening live while you’re travelling and using that later in a video?

P: We talked about what our end vision is for that. Right now I have a backlog of tens of thousands, almost a hundred thousand images from these trips. Maybe I go through 3000 from one place and I edit that down to fifteen. You’ve got your fifteen selects, that’s what you show, that’s what you’re working with. And then just using Indonesia as an example, you have 2985 images that are now kind of B-rolling, but that sequence is interesting. D: For him it’s not good, but some of the ones that are probably on the total cutting room floor for example, for me, it’s about the movement. Like right now we’re doing the Mexico one and there’s stuff that’s definitely on the cutting room floor, with like Mexican wrestlers, but it’s showing movement in such a beautiful way that it works so amazingly for video purposes. P: But all of that was stuff that was shot without knowing that this would be a possible use. So in the future, if we were able to go somewhere and with the intent to make a video like this, yeah, then you start paying attention to the audio, music, the sounds, the textures; it’s a little bit of a different mentality than just the traditional stuff I would shoot. D: And also, there are so many photographers that go into video; you see that all the time. But when I see a video guy going into photography, I want in. I’m a great photographer just like you guys are great video makers, so I would love to go on some of these trips with Porter and kind of collaborate in more interesting ways. All these photographers trying to take my fucking work – I’m coming to take your work too. It’s all the same art you know? Doing video, making stills, it’s kind of the same thing in a way.

In your videos, I’ll see a tonne of shots of one thing. And it’s kind of like Porter’s moving and he’s just rapidly shooting one person. So what you’re saying is that was done without the video intent? That was just you trying to get one still?

P: Yeah generally. So there might be a portrait shoot. It’s taking 20 shots per person. Slightly different angles, slightly different poses, a lot of it’s insurance. The eyes are going to be a little wrong in this shot, the alignment’s not there. The Kumbh Mela video that we put up – that’s from 2013 and there’s a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t shoot today. D: Unfortunately for the video. P: What I shoot now is much more selective and not as content-rich, which I have to think about. D: And lensing, too. He stayed on two zooms, the 70-200 and a wider one – that really is conducive to cinematic storytelling. If you’re zooming around all the time, I’m able to edit that much more interestingly. In Porter’s later work I’m gonna have to be zooming around into the image. P: I had a laptop but it wasn’t that powerful, and you’re trying to edit a RAW to send friends and family images before Instagram was big and before shooting on phones in 2011, 2012, 2013. What I ended up doing – my 5D had two slots for cards – so I would shoot RAW on one and then shoot JPG as a backup. When you go through and delete, it would only delete the bad RAWs, and every single shot that I had took was sitting there on the JPG card. D: What’s interesting about the way that I shoot when I’m on vacation – I go through my card and I make sequences out of it. Naturally as a filmmaker, I’m like, “Oh this is a cool sequence”. And I guess now Porter is gonna have to get into that mindset of scrolling through the camera and being like, “Even though this is not a great shot, I’m going to have to keep it.”

How does the process work? Do you just send Dan a huge folder of thousands of photos or are you more selective?

P: One was like 7000 photos I think. I put the JPGs on Google Drive and then he downloads them. Then you go through and look at sequences; you try and find some interesting… D: Yeah I just discerningly go through it and pick the great shots, pick the great sequences. Obviously the music goes almost first in a way. You have your tempo and you set your amount of frames the song is to the tempo, and then it’s kind of just a basic slideshow at that point. A slideshow to the beat. And that’s when the editing and the magic comes in.

AHB: Where are you heading in the future?

P: We’ve got a rough schedule of trips that I’ve done that would make a comprehensive video with a song. It’s a little washy right now because, you know, I’ve been to Tibet twice in different regions – are those two different videos or do we plop them all into one? So we have to figure out the exact logistics but ideally we’re trying to get two, three, four videos out that at least establish the brand and say, “Okay, this makes sense”. And then from there we’ll have a little bit more time, whether it’s one video a month, one every six weeks. What we would like is to build this and have it be a style that we could go and actually work on with a company if they’re interested, and us doing a video for them or something like that which could expand this technique. Not just in the artistic realm, but maybe I think the avenues where it could be applicable could be short intros to television. It is a different style – it’s not time lapse, it’s not stop motion. It’s a unique thing that could be pretty interesting. D: What’s important about this thing: it’s a new technique. And that’s really the reason we were like, “We gotta make a brand out of it”. I looked around and we really tried to find something similar and we couldn’t find anything similar. A lot of people do time lapses, which are always crappy for some reason, and it’s hard to find something like this. Hopefully one of these things will get really picked up and loved and that will enable us to have some type of attraction in terms of getting some brands involved and stuff.

Is there anything else you want to say?

D: Well we also wanna package it at some point into some type of actual record slash photo slash video package. P: The idea was 10-12 songs; that’s almost an album. D: Or what you call on your site a “mixtape”. I hate to use that word because people don’t even know what a tape is anymore. So we’re just trying to figure out what that is called nowadays. P: There would be a way. We’d have to get all the rights to the songs to distribute it, but to make a really cool package, the album art would be this beautiful photo. It would be a comprehensive way to witness the earth and travelling through this experience. D: And the video in uncompressed high definition is even more amazing. P: Physical content. That would be a mixed media project. It’s not gonna sell to the masses but you market it and it’s kind of an artistic cool thing to have.   AHB: Absolutely. It’s nice just being able to have something physical in your hand. In this day and age it’s really weird that everything seems to be on the computer, but then when you have a chance to actually go to a gallery opening and you actually see some work hung up on the wall in the series the way it works together, it is a much different – and better in a lot of ways – experience. So I think having something like that would be great.   D: It would be best to figure out how to do that digitally. How do you package video like that? Do we put a record with a USB stick? The world has to figure that out.

Interview by Matt Lief Anderson for AHB

Images and video courtesy of Porter Yates and Dan Melamid from Witness.Earth