Q&A: Tim Matsui on social impact, journalism and the sex trade in America

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Celebrated multimedia journalist Tim Matsui released his film about child trafficking in America in early 2014.

It got awards and a lot of attention and acclaim in journalism circles, but Matsui wants more. He wants impact, and for the film to reach a wider audience.

The Long Night is available online but he started a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $16,000 to distribute BluRay and DVD copies of the documentary to civic and nonprofit organizations.

The Long Night isn’t just a movie but a catalyst for change, Matsui said on his Kickstarter page, a way to “start the conversation on domestic minor sex trafficking, and lead to social action and systems change.”

“I want to help people create their own gatherings, where they can watch the film and engage in conversation on the issue,” he said.

The Long Night started as a photojournalism project for Matsui but developed into a documentary film with help from the Alexia Foundation and MediaStorm. It follows two teenage girls from Seattle as they enter and leave the sex trade. Earlier this year the World Press Photo Awards awarded The Long Night first prize in the long feature category of the 2015 Multimedia Prize.

You can watch the movie online on Vimeo.

Through the Cracks spoke with Matsui Thursday via email.

Through the Cracks: What are some of the community groups who have requested a physical copy of your documentary? How can a community group request a copy?

Matsui:  Right now groups are asking me directly through the film’s website or by my email. Some are out of the blue, others could probably be traced to some connection I made in person or from one to another. It’s truly grassroots. Just this morning, the library system of a neighboring county asked to screen the film—or do a series of screenings. Another request came in for an event in Atlanta, another in Florida. And I’ve been to Detroit and Park City.

Some are connected through area task forces; groups of NGO, government and business people who are creating awareness and policy around the issue.

My intention is to broaden this reach and have an efficient system in place for organizations to get copies of the film. 10+ years ago I worked with an educational distribution company. It wasn’t great, but it was what I had at the time. There are a lot more opportunities these days to distribute content.

Through the Cracks: More broadly speaking, does it matter to you if your work has a social impact? Why?

Matsui:  Yes, it matters to me that my work has an impact. Witnessing social or environmental injustice troubles me. I drive a car. I fly. I don’t know the supply chain of all my consumables. I don’t use palm oil. I look for fair or direct trade. I do what I can and use my skill set in storytelling, in journalism. I also have a nonprofit background and understand community outreach and engagement.

I approach stories with empathy. For instance, a lot of pimping is cultural, generational and often influenced by poverty. It’s not an excuse, but a means of contextualizing a story. One of the cops I worked with told me, as a kid, he idolized the neighborhood pimp because he had the money and the girls. As a youth, he didn’t understand the complexities of that relationship.

When I started doing work on sexual violence, I thought my portrait series would make a great gallery show. I paused; those stories weren’t about me, they were about the subjects and their desire to have others listen. In sharing, they were doing something for others. My role was to help be their loudspeaker. In the end, I’m merely the conduit helping others have an impact.

Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding to enable journalism is one thing but what do you think about the idea of journalists using crowdfunding for social impact after reporting? Should it be avoided so as not to forfeit objectivity? What do you think are some of the risks and rewards?

Matsui: Doing this film I learned a lot about “documentary film.” It’s a vast spectrum spanning from pure photojournalism (how I approached it) to reenactment and interpretation. There were moments when the cops I was with asked “Want me to do that again?” and I’d have to say, “No, I missed the moment, my bad. Just do your thing.”

As journalists, we only have our reputation, and that is based on our journalistic ethics and transparency.

If you take my Kickstarter apart, it’s really about distribution. I’m getting the film into various formats and letting people know about it. They choose to use it. Can it create change? Yes, I hope it does.

However, the stories I’ve told are only part of the picture. I’ve been challenged by consensual adult sex workers to tell their story.

Similarly, I want to know who the buyers are and how one ends up pimping; not to shame them, but to hear their stories. This whole sex work thing is incredibly messy, 18 isn’t a magic number, and there are a number of hard-line opinions that aren’t helping the issue.

I know I haven’t told a complete story. I’ll own that. I’m looking for funding to rectify this.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that The Long Night was funded in part by MediaShift. We meant to say MediaStorm. We regret the error. 

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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