Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


December 7, 2010

The Shadow Man

Immersion journalist Ted Conover discusses going deep into a story.

Max Lakin

Most halfway decent journalism concerns itself with a few things. Dates and names, to be sure; locations, of course; perhaps some general public opinion; or, if your reporter has had a particularly refreshing night's sleep, some social commentary. Usually it's a glancing swipe at how a few people are living this week, this month, this year. Ted Conover's journalism, bracing in its near erasure of boundaries, concerns itself with something else. It tells you What It's Like To Be There.

Ted Conover in an ambulance in Lagos, Nigeria.
"Participation can lead to identifying with another kind of person, and I think that's invaluable."

Ted Conover in an ambulance in Lagos, Nigeria.

Plimptonian in his complete immersion into the lives of his subjects, often times those on the margins of society (the homeless, illegal immigrants, and the incarcerated), Conover effectively dissolves the restrictions between reporter and story—lines that in the media have developed into Us and Them (even when his subject is the affluent, his perch is the margin, as a cab driver). His narrative nonfiction trades in tours of uneasy places, and he is uninterested in the schoolyard puritan's school of journalism—those who champion the notion that good reporting is first free from any semblance of opinion. When you participate, Conover seems to be saying, that's when you understand.

Recently, Gelf spoke with Conover over email, and got a few thoughts on what draws him to the immersion form.

Gelf Magazine: What was the impetus for your first project?

Ted Conover: I was an anthropology major and saw that riding the rails, if conducted mindfully, might be a way to do ethnographic fieldwork. In other words: It was a way to have an adventure and write a thesis at the same time.

Gelf Magazine: Apart from an indefinite stretch of time and an improbably understanding editor, what's required in undertaking an immersion piece? What kind of advance emotional commitment do you make?

Ted Conover: I guess you have to be willing to foreswear home and friends and familiar things for a while, and wrap your head around the idea of getting into someone else's head.

Gelf Magazine: What have you gleaned through immersion that you suspect you couldn't have from a different approach? How can you be sure, for example, that living in boxcars and forgoing showers lent something greater to your examination of itinerant hoboes than perhaps visiting them a few times would've?

Ted Conover: You get in a lot deeper. You never get to see the world exactly from their point of view, but you get a lot closer to it than you would if you had never shivered, gotten drunk, or been rousted off a boxcar with them. Participation can lead to identifying with another kind of person, and I think that's invaluable.

Gelf Magazine: But then does bias come into play? Surely in working from the perch of a corrections officer in Sing Sing, as you did in Newjack, you develop certain opinions, and those opinions then inform your writing. Is that ever a problem?

Ted Conover: I think that seeing things from someone else's point of view means understanding some of their biases, perhaps even adopting them. As long as you're doing it in a way that's self-aware—"here is how that made me feel"—I think it's one of the great benefits of immersion. You have one foot in and one foot out.

Gelf Magazine: I read that Newjack has been declared contraband in New York State prisons until pages which the state considers a security risk have been redacted. True? Would you consider that a mark of success?

Ted Conover: Being declared contraband got the book lots of publicity. I feel further vindicated by having never had a line officer tell me my book caused any kind of security problem at Sing Sing: This was the administration blowing angry hot air because I successfully snuck into their prison. To offend the powers that be for the right reasons—I do consider that a sign of success.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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