David Shankbone with Colleen Asper
David Shankbone is a Wikipedia editor, Wikimedia Commons photographer, and an accredited reporter for Wikinews. The subjects of his interviews have ranged from the President of Israel and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shimon Peres, to the owners of an S&M dungeon. He has also worked with a wide range of authors, photographing the like of Jonathan Safran Foer and Mary Gaitskill, and interviewing Augusten Burroughs, Edmund White, and many others. Over a series of IM conversations, I conducted a meta-interview with Shankbone: questioning him about the art of asking questions.
Colleen Asper (Rail): What strategies do you use to make someone comfortable speaking to you?
David Shankbone: Asking things that matter, mixed with things that are just ridiculous, was a technique I tried to see if I could get them out of landing into a certain headspace. I have read interviews with Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes where he gave nothing but ridiculous answers to questions; me, I got him to talk about Chechnya and whether he would blow up India or China, if he was forced to choose.
Some of my lines of questioning: I have wondered whether they are fair, like the India/China question. But such questions have also led to very interesting exchanges. For instance, with Edmund White we talked about the Chinese Cultural Revolution with that issue. Sharin Foo of the Raveonettes, even though she would blow up China, is a quarter Chinese—India is a democracy and she had a better experience there than China. So, it is perhaps not a fair question, but I was in love with the places it would take me.
Rail: In addition to the interviews you do for Wikinews, you also are a prolific photographer. Your photographs, which are incredibly wide ranging in their scope —from celebrities to Port-a-Potties—are available on Wikipedia and licensed as open-source. Are you interested in using the Internet to expand the concept of fair-use?
Shankbone: I fell in love with Garrett Hardin’s essay about the Tragedy of the Commons. More, I fell in love with the notion of “The Commons,” like a public park or street. I wanted to create a body of work of high enough quality, and of enough relevance to people, that they could make use of it. Authors writing books who need them illustrated. Small town newspapers who can’t afford Getty Images. Artists who want to create multi-media works.
Also, I tired of the photoshopped world, of publicity photographs that do not show what people look like in real life. Wikipedia is about Neutral Point of View (NPOV). That’s not our area — sorry. Indeed, that’s why many notable people dislike us, because it’s a “just the facts, NPOV” attitude. We aren’t going to play into their publicity machine. Mike Farrell of MASH hated my photograph of him and sent in one to replace it.
Rail: Both photography and interviewing are reliant on your direction and point of view, but focus on someone or something else as the subject. I have found the biggest revelation for me in interviewing is how dependent the conversation is on the interviewer, how powerful journalism is in shaping what we accept as fact. If part of the desire to take the photos is to show a less staged part of a person, what other blind spots in journalism do you try and rectify with your work?
Shankbone: Taking quotes out of context. I also wanted to tackle tough people and tough issues. I wanted to look Al Sharpton in the eye and really talk, as a white man, with a black man, about the problems of race, as well as his own history. I thought that was interesting, and I did in the context of a Thanksgiving conversation about his work at my all-white Thanksgiving table. There is such a media narrative around Sharpton, and that narrative is what feeds the public’s perceptions of him.
Media narratives, wielded by editors who think that the same things need to be said to verify opinions their readers already hold, are one of the worst things in the mainstream media. They are boring. They do not educate. Yes, Sharpton riles people up: but is he wrong? Did Sean Bell deserve all those bullets? That’s the real question people don’t ask, and instead the media narrative focuses on Sharpton raising a ruckus. When the media creates a narrative about a subject, then people do not ask themselves the questions they need to ask, and instead focus on the wrong thing...like a civil rights activist with a few blemishes on his record
Rail: Working independently, you can avoid mainstream media narrative, but what biases have you discovered in yourself? In this interview, I am very aware of the fact that I am focusing on the craft and politics of interviewing, because that is a personal interest of mine. What biases has interviewing taught you that you have? Or things about a person or situation it has made you realize you focus on to the exclusion of others?
Shankbone: I’m very liberal. I loathe what George Bush did to this country during his term, from Katrina to Iraq to damaging our Constitution. That comes out, and I am criticized for it. Fine. As much as I talk about NPOV, it’s a goal, but a hopeless one. I wrote a piece of original reporting where I mention that a woman was “yelling angrily”; by whose definition? I can play you the audio, and you would probably agree. But maybe she would say, “I just talk loud, and I wasn’t angry, just had trouble getting heard above the noise.” Who am I to say she was yelling angrily?
Rail: Talking to you, I get such a clear sense of you as a person, what you relate to, how you feel about things, what matters to you. From Barbara Walters to Larry King, the art of asking questions has created personalities not only of the subject of the interviews, but of the interviewers themselves. Reading your interviews one also can’t help but get a clear sense of you. Are you conscious of how much of your personality you want to be visible in your interviews?
Shankbone: Yes, sometimes. I mean, interviews are about the interviewees, not the interviewers. I tried to limit how much I showed through, usually editing things out; but sometimes I kept a little story. I think all three Presidential candidates (Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo) I told them about my right-wing Dad to ask them why he should vote for them. “We’re not the Democrats” was the answer each time - ugh. Really?! That’s why he should vote for you?! There were times I thought it was unfair to be sharing with people the details I was hearing, without sharing my own side that got them to talk about things. But...I also would be criticized if I did that too much.
Rail: Interpreting public personalities has become a tremendous function of media narrative. When you talk about not wanting to play into the publicity machine that surrounds notable people, that act seems a calculated strike against the cult of personality. However, the media’s constant drive to expose people—think Britney Spears—is a part of the cult of personality. How do you weigh these things when you are thinking through the implications of interviewing?
Shankbone: Well, I don’t really want to expose anyone for anything. It’s a difficult line to figure out. “You see the thing at a silly level with celebrities. They love them, and then they tear them down. Or they are just salivating, hoping for somebody to trip and fall. I think it’s jut another nasty part of human nature.” Ingrid Newkirk wrote that. Or said that to me. I don’t have an agenda with people. I’m not asking for, nor getting, huge media personalities like Britney Spears. I am more interviewing or photographing people who matter to me, like a Floyd Abrams, a Jim McGreevey or a Gay Talese. Even a Billy West interview was hard to publish, because it was so personal for him. Did he really want to talk about this stuff? I am guessing so. Why me? Why now? Did my relating to him that I had some sense of his own experience, that I understood it, was that sneaky to do that? It wasn’t calculated. It just...happened. Do I take it out? Is that fair? “It” being my own personal stuff from the interview. When you are dealing with people’s lives, their history, it can be daunting.
Rail: Absolutely. It is amazing how many ethics are involved in making what is essentially a private conversation public.
Tell me one thing it would surprise a reader of your interviews to know about you?
Shankbone: Hmmm. I don’t think I’m right. I don’t think I know anything. I have a typing style that makes me come across as strident, even arrogant. I don’t see it, but I know it reads that way. In reality, I feel I understand and know very little, which is part of the reason I like to talk to people.
COLLEEN ASPER is an artist and writer. She is the co-founder, along with Jennifer Dudley, of Ad Hoc Vox.