Behind the Lens in West Africa
A story by GP Mendoza
Last December, I went to West Africa with my fellow journalism school reporters Linda Givetash, Maura Forrest, and our instructor and producer, David Rummel.
We were tasked with putting together a chapter on Benin and Togo, two very small countries, as part of a larger journalism project on mental illness in the developing world. This was a fully funded reporting trip that enabled us to go — and report from — a place in the world I would never have otherwise thought to visit.
We saw things there that surprised and shocked us about how people with mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are treated. We filmed scenes that are going to live with us for the rest of our lives.
This trip was my first time doing journalism abroad, and my low retention of high school French was suddenly and painfully obvious. Moreover, it was the first time I was assigned duties as the principal shooter (the person in charge of operating the main camera and capturing major scenes).
In 2012, I had been to Central Africa before, as a volunteer with my church, to the Republic of Congo. In the two weeks I spent there, I had an idea of what a French-speaking African country looked, smelled, and sounded like. But I had no idea what the experience in West Africa was going to be like.
Benin is an incredibly tiny country. Nobody I knew had any idea where it even was. When I couldn’t find the country on a map, I wondered, quite literally, where on earth was I going?
The anxiety abated somewhat when we landed in Cotonou, the largest metropolitan center in Benin. Things suddenly felt oddly familiar — the sounds of traffic, street hawkers, oddly-painted hair salons and electronics store signs, and Christian motifs on every doorstep — while overwhelming, were all welcoming me back to Africa.
The tail end of our trip found us reporting in Togo, a neighbouring country to Benin and remarkably, even smaller in geography. It was here we would experience one of the most shocking surprises of our life, and capture what would become one of the most important scenes in the entire project on global mental health.
From the Director
Peter Klein, Associate Professor and Director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, and Director, Graduate School of Journalism (2011–2015)
In 2009, with a generous donation from Mindset Foundation, we created the International Reporting Program to train the next generation of global journalists — allowing them the opportunity to spend time in the field, experiment with new approaches to global reporting and produce major projects from around the world.
Our media partners have included The Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, The New York Times, CBC, Global, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS News, and past projects have won a long list of awards, including an Emmy, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Sigma Chi Delta Award, a Webby Honor and numerous top prizes at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
But our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations. Our multimedia Pain Project is used by global health professionals to advocate for palliative care worldwide. Our documentary about the hazards of illegal electronic waste exports has been used by policymakers in Washington to establish strict new rules about e-waste export. And just six days after our investigation about the murder of a Brazilian Indigenous leader ran in The New York Times, more than a dozen suspects were arrested.
We are now growing the IRP into an ambitious non-profit Global Reporting Centre, the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”
From the Instructor
An inside look at teaching in the International Reporting Program with David Rummel, Assistant Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism.
Shooting and Working in West Africa
There is also a widely held belief that mental illness is caused by demon possession and incurable without traditional medicine or spiritual intervention.
I had worked in commercial video and photography in Vancouver for a few years, but that was a world far from the rugged and demanding environments this project entailed.
Before going to Africa, I had little idea as to how much things cost. Flights, hotels, meals, wages for drivers, fuel, fixers (local journalists to help connect you with people for the film), water; all these things added up more quickly than I had originally imagined. I was constantly learning about the realities this kind of production presented — I couldn’t conceive of doing something like this on my own without any prior knowledge of the amount of financial and material resources required.
Luckily, we had a seasoned journalist working and mentoring us through the entire trip.
Our instructor and executive producer Dave really pushed us to keep the focus of our story clear. He was extremely cognizant of things that you wouldn’t normally care to think about; things like the driving distance between cities, always reminding us to ask ourselves what the focus of our story was at the end of each day, always pushing us to think of what footage and interviews we would need before each new day began, and generally keeping us on our toes throughout the trip.
What I Learned
About the Author
Gian-Paolo (GP) Mendoza is a journalist and filmmaker from Vancouver, B.C.
He loves crafting stories driven by real people and captivating pictures.
He is finishing his last year at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, and equally loves a good documentary and a strong cup of coffee.