TV photojournalist has an ear (a big one!) for telling unique stories

For the third year, KARE11 photojournalist Ben Garvin wore a 40-pound, 7-foot-tall paper mache ear wired with two Go-Pro cameras and a shotgun microphone and wandered around the Minnesota State Fair Labor Day weekend.

"I had the idea five years ago when I was working at the Pioneer Press," Garvin told Poynter. "The newspaper didn’t bite. They said it might be embarrassing. They didn’t quite get it. But a couple of years later I got a job at KARE11 and I pitched and they said 'Great. Do it.' It is a real credit to the station's leadership they see this wacky weird idea and let it develop."  The stories air on TV and find hundreds of thousands of viewers online.

"The idea was to tell people we just want to listen to them," Garvin said. "So we make it really obvious to anybody who speaks any language at any age what I am up to. I am an ear."  

Garvin hoists on the ear like a tuba player wears the instrument and wanders for hours around the Minnesota State Fair. He asks a single question of the people he meets. For example, "What are you proud of?"   Last year during election season he asked, "How would you make America better?" Other questions over the years include: 

"How do you help?"

"If you could change anything what would you change?" 

"What do you think about?"

"What is your favorite thing?"

But the question, "What are you proud of?" is Garvin's favorite. He started asking it at 8 a.m., with the assignment to have a story on TV at 5:30 p.m.  "200 or more people said I am proud of my kids — it is not surprising," Garvin said. The unsurprising answers don't make it in the piece.  

That left Garvin with 100 responses that he classifies as "nice or cool or makes you feel something." He has two Go-Pro cameras running all the time. One is framed as a two-shot that includes him in one corner and the subject in the other. The second camera frames the person speaking as a one-shot. He syncs the cameras together and the station sends a second photographer to spend an hour or so capturing extreme wide shots of Garvin as he walks the fairgrounds.

As he edits the story on deadline, Garvin is looking for a dozen or so magical moments. "I am consciously looking for diversity; it is something I'm aware of and searching for. I have a secret underlying notion that we are all human and I want viewers to see that in each other." 

The finished story includes a man who says he is proud of his sobriety, a soldier who said he was proud that he could bring his Iraqi translator to Minnesota, a young man who says he is proud of his sexuality, a little girl who says she is proud that she is really smart and a toddler who says he is proud of his nose. Each priceless answer forces the viewer to wonder about the story behind it. You wonder if the person would ever tell a TV camera what they are confessing to a walking ear.  

Garvin says he has lots of other ideas for capturing the humanity of people at the fair and the days of the KARE11 Ear may be numbered. "I love watching the ear videos but I hate producing them. It is so hot and it is so long and it is embarrassing and kind of humiliating. I am trained and practiced in not being noticed. This is the anthesis of that. I have to power through that and it is a real struggle. I do like it but I have to pretend like I love it."

And Garvin says, the state fair is the only place he is willing to wear the giant ear. "They wanted me to wear it elsewhere but I couldn't stomach it. But the fair is massive and it is a melting pot. All kinds of people go there, which makes it perfect to go and listen."

Garvin didn't expect the ear costume to lead to any profound discoveries. But maybe it did. He said, "I learned it is easier to judge than to listen and when I am not wearing the ear I am guilty of judging and guilty of assuming things about people. The ear is a costume that allows me to uncover things I would not have known about people. It has been personally fulfilling."

Nobody claims this is high-minded journalism, not even Garvin, who is a life-long journalist. "I think of it more a public art. But I think there is room for stuff like that on TV. In between the storms and crimes and politics, we have to find ways to listen and tell people's stories."    

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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