It’s an unusual chore to make a piece of clothing or an accessory look less attractive. This was a requirement for the video equipment bags carried by Queens student journalists during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Our original bags were slick and shiny and showed off a big “Canon” logo. Covering the logo with black tape wasn’t enough. Before departure, we consulted with documentary photographer Larry Price, who travels regularly in locations where it’s useful to be inconspicuous. His recommendation: find an over-the-shoulder bag that you can wear in front, and that you can shift around to avoid getting sweaty. You can’t make the bag invisible, so make it inconspicuous.
Larry had exactly the same requirements for an assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo a couple of years ago, and he pointed to a do-it-yourself article on the photography website Petapixel. He suggested specific products: a Rothco messenger bag and a Tenba removable insert. Price is a multiple Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer, and we followed his advice. Total price for materials: about $50.
The ugly bags work well in Rio. They use Velcro, not zippers, and students wear them with the flap turned toward their body. They look old and beaten up. Despite reams of coverage about robberies and assaults in Rio, after 12 days in the city, our students have not attracted criminal attention.
The Petapixel instructions don’t tell you something. The process is labor-intensive, hot, and time-consuming. Painting melted paraffin on each bag took 45 minutes, and smoothing it out in a pillowcase, tumbled in the dryer, took another hour. Multiple that by four bags, and it’s an all-day project. Thank goodness for my teenage daughter Colette, who handled the job.
Student reviews are positive. Videographer Austin Huddy, who shot this moving story on Favela Santa Marta, likes the way he can keep the bag on his shoulder and pull a lens or reflector out, without having to take off a backpack, lay it on the ground, and unzip it. Creative director Hiwot Hailu, who wrote this inspirational story on Rio samba prodigy Thawan Lucas, says the bag is a little bulky, but large enough for a reflector or a laptop computer to edit video. The insert is essential to protect lenses and microphones.
Another successful piece of equipment in Rio: a Manfrotto monopod is more convenient, easier to carry, and faster to set up than a tripod. A monopod sufficiently stabilizes the video images our students are shooting. One unexpected benefit – when students carry the monopod, it looks like a cross between a trident, a toy baseball bat, and an electric cattleprod. Students don’t carry it in a threatening way, but I wouldn’t really want to mess with them, either.
Photo, top: Queens students Caroline Henry, Ella Fox, Ashley Osiecki, and Alex Bruder on the streets of Rio. Ashley is carrying a Manfrotto monopod. Photos, middle: canvas messenger bag with insert before the wax process, and the finished bag after paraffin-coating and dryer-tumbling. Photo, bottom: our original Canon bag. Photography by Joe Cornelius.