The whole thing started with a question — what was happening with the Passamaquoddy in Maine?
Sources had reached out to Colin Woodard, a state and national affairs reporter with the Portland Press Herald, about rule of law problems on the Passamaquoddy reservation. There was no constitution and no way to hold elected officials accountable. There was corruption.
Woodard wanted to know where those problems began.
“And I eventually found myself in the early 1960s in a Maine that I did not recognize and one that was shocking and frankly horrifying,” Woodard said.
He discovered the brutal murder of an Indian man; a young, progressive attorney from out of town; a tribal chief who wanted justice. The dominos started falling. They led back to the present. The story was an amazing one, Woodard said, “and one that said so much about how we are.”
He has told that story in small chapters with striking photography from photojournalist Gabe Souza every day since the end of June with “Unsettled: Triumph and Tragedy in Maine’s Indian Country.” The final story in the 29-part-series runs Sunday.
“It’s so important to understand who we are and where we came from, our identity,” Woodard said, “but also our relationship with the tribes, both then and now.”
FROM THE BEGINNING
As Woodard looked into allegations of corruption at the Passamaquoddy reservation, he gave his editors regular updates.
“It just kept growing, it got more and more interesting,” said Steve Greenlee, managing editor. “Every string would lead to another string. We sat down and said, tell us the story from the beginning.”
Woodard pitched the story as a two-day package, but Greenlee thought it couldn’t be told in two huge parts. It felt more like the chapters of a book.
Woodard, who has written four books including “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” had written historic retellings before, Greenlee said. He knew how to organize such a huge project. So Woodard’s editors told him to go back, prepare an outline and see if the thread carried through.
Woodard contacted people who knew about a nearly 50-year-old killing while examining current budgets, Greenlee said. He combined historical research with present day investigative reporting, dipping into the past and digging into the present. Time spent researching and reporting took the longest, more than a year. Woodard interviewed more than 70 people, a sidebar with the project reports. Writing “Unsettled” took him between six and eight weeks, Greenlee said.
To work, the installments had to be short — 1,000 words for dailies and 2,000 words on Sundays. “Unsettled” began on Sunday, June 29, on Saint Croix Island in the spring of 1604.
VISUALIZING AT THE PAST
Souza, a staff photographer with the Press Herald, knew this series was unusual. He wanted to approach the photography for the series that way, too.
“The Passamaquoddy are the oldest people in Maine, and I was going to be documenting them, so I wanted something that would allow me to span the decades of the series – something that allowed me to capture modern day moments, but have the readers feel as though they were connecting with events that happened 40 or 50 years ago,” he said in an email. “With the support of my photo editor, Yoon Byun, I created a pinhole camera, the original form of camera obscura, using a drilled hole in a lens cap, covering it with a thin piece of aluminum, and then piercing the aluminum with the tip of a pin. The result are the soft focus, long exposure images you see. In some ways, it allowed me to photograph a feeling, rather than a scene.”
The response, he said, has been excellent. Readers tell Souza that they count on that pinhole image, which is identified as such in the caption. The newspaper also explains the approach on a sidebar with the project’s homepage, as they do with Woodard’s reporting.
The soft-focus images that result from this rudimentary form of documentary photography create an aesthetic that blends modern-day scenes with the Passamaquoddy community’s past.
Souza also shot some images for “Unsettled” with a DSLR, but all the images run in black and white “so that a) we could blend in with the time periods and b) to give the series a consistent, branded look that readers could rely on. It also takes away the supporting element of color in an image, and makes the viewer focus solely on the content.”
And in this series, Sousa said, that’s powerful.
With more than a year spent researching and several months writing one project, the question we have to ask is how? How did they have the time? The resources? In the doing-more-with-less (thank you, Ken Fuson) environment so many journalists inhabit?
“The answer is that we have an owner who believes deeply in the power of the press and has allowed us to invest a lot of resources in the journalism at this newspaper,” Greenlee said.
Greenlee worked for the newspaper in the 1990s, left to work at the Boston Globe and returned to the Press Herald 12 years later, just after MaineToday Media bought the newspaper. The Press Herald added 12 reporting jobs, Greenlee said, editors, visual journalists and it hired Woodard and gave him the freedom to pursue stories.
In 2012, Woodard won the George Polk Award for Education Reporting.
“We recognize that we’re kind of doing the opposite of what everyone’s doing,” Greenlee said. “We’re investing money in journalism at a time when others are doing the opposite.”
The response to “Unsettled” has been overwhelmingly positive, Greenlee said.
“People are telling us they can’t wait to pick up paper.”
And readers have asked if it will become a book. They’re just starting to talk about that, Greenlee said. Woodard’s been focused on telling the story in the newspaper, he said, and hasn’t taken a breath to think about anything else. But it is a possibility, Greenlee said.
And the series has proven, to him, that newspapers can still give people a reason to read the newspaper.
“If you give people something that’s highly readable and tell them something that they didn’t know, that’s still a reason to subscribe to the daily newspaper.”
“Unsettled” is a rare story, Greenlee said, with multiple threads that informs life in Maine today.
The prologue begins in 1604, the narrative begins in 1964, Sunday’s final chapter ends in 2014, with the corruption and lack of oversight that led him into the story to begin with. “Unsettled” recalls murders, injustices, uprisings and issues that continue into the present.
“But understanding the context of it,” Woodard said, “is everything.”