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How to tackle tough topics with sensitivity

Photographer and associate creative director at Amplify, Daniel Alexander Harris, discusses the making of Young Blood - Young Men on Masculinity and explains the best ways to approach sensitive subjects...

To read the original article, published on 7th July 2022, visit Shots.

Talking about ones own mental health, fears and anxieties is rarely easy. It's even less so when there's a camera pointed at you.

When Amplify, a creative agency which specialises in culture and experience, wanted to explore modern youth culture, it set about undertaking in-depth research and making a series of films.

The project started in 2016, reporting on an optimistic group that had their sights on changing the world. In 2018, global events and decisions made on this sector of the population's behalf meant their faith in the world, and specifically the generations before, had taken a dive. Fast track to 2022 and with the pandemic years also taking their toll, it is perhaps unsurprising that an alarming majority of young men are experiencing mental health issues.

When director Daniel Alexander Harris set about interviewing three people for the most recent iteration of the project, he knew that sensitivity was key when confronting subjects like masculinity and mental well-being, which are taboo issues for many. Below, he talks about his approach to the film and gives advice on how to sensitively navigate such discussions while also capturing the story.

"For our latest Young Blood film, Young Men on Masculinity, we set out to find three young men, aged between 16- and 24-years-old, who could represent a snapshot of this age group. 

All three young men came from incredibly different backgrounds (we moved around the UK as it was essential that we didn't remain London-centric), had very different upbringings and have differing interests, passions and aspirations. 

The documentary explores what it means to be a young man in 2022, working through various themes such as identity, self-image, gender-equality, sexuality, mental health, otherness and racism. Nick, Dias and Louis, our three protagonists, didn’t shy away from the uncomfortable conversations; they discussed their lives and experiences, hopes, fears and beliefs incredibly openly.

This generation of young men understand that they need to be able to express themselves and are more comfortable at being able to emote and cry, yet be assertive when it comes to careers and ambitions. They are also aware of inequalities, particularly around gender, acknowledging that their female counterparts do not share the same privileges.

It was essential that the film portrayed these views in their own voices, and when handling subject matter like this, there’s a number of elements to get right in order to get a result that captures the story. 

Heart and soul

Take on projects that allow you to bring your heart and soul into them You need to believe in your film so that those involved pull on that energy; it’s not something that can be faked. When you believe in what you’re doing, it’s the fire in your belly that propels you to work at it all hours, and inspire those you collaborate with. These projects aren’t short undertakings. When you have that belief in your project, that fire transcends beyond the production team into your protagonists and the overall output. 

Do your groundwork

We spent a lot of time doing pre-chats and calls with our protagonists before filming. These calls were used to learn more about them, their lives to this point, and their backgrounds. Crucially, it also helped understand those invisible lines in the sand and those brick walls, where your subject might feel most comfortable, plus any points of discomfort. The work put into these relationships was essential to demarcate lines of respect when it came to our interviews and how they wanted to be presented. 

Spend time with your protagonists

As a director, it was really important to handle these sensitive stories honestly and not to impose an angle. You have a finite amount of time with each person and their stories are incredibly expressive and emotional, and are to be handled with the greatest care. Throughout the process, I strived to create environments for open conversation and I'm incredibly proud of the searingly honest conversations that live within the film. 

Cross-check your POV

Almost a subset of the the above point, be aware that some films benefit immensely from your own point of view whereas others need it pushed away to the side. Sometimes it’s important to be on the back row of the stadium looking into the game whereas other times you’ll be on the field. Be aware of your own viewpoint so you can handle it appropriately. 

The power of a good voiceover

I’m proudest of the voiceover in our film; it is raw, bare, uncomfortable in parts and fearless throughout. We really went for it, the editor, producer and I, working off reams of printed transcriptions and jigsawed together our final voiceover. We worked to find those moments of magnetism between the moments the characters shared and establish a flow to the topics. The voiceover is the key holder to this film and it had to represent the characters honestly."

Check out the full research online here.

To request a physical copy of the research, or to book a talk or workshop, please contact tosh@weareamplify.com