A recent tweet about Shyam Saran, India’s former Foreign Secretary, brought on memories of a particularly eventful seven months in my reporting career. This period begins in October 2009 at the Bangkok round of talks ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Summit. It was the first time I would be working alone as a TV reporter.
As any TV hand will tell you, this is not ideal. At the very least you need two journalists – a cameraman and a reporter. This isn’t because the PD-177 is a particularly complicated piece of kit. It’s largely because there are so many moving parts to a TV story, you need those many eyes and hands to make sure nothing slips through the gaps.
I had moved to television six months earlier after spending 2 years in print. My crash course in solo TV reporting lasted 10 minutes. A friend taught me basic camera controls and how to get the right shot – slow pan, steady wide shot, mid-shot, close-up, slow zoom, etc. I also learned how to shoot myself: set up the shot, flip the viewfinder screen and get in position, fine tune the frame, hit record, wait 2 seconds… and go. Then he wished me luck.
My kit was as basic as it gets: the aforementioned PD-177 and a laptop to cut and transmit footage. The Bangkok conference was a great learning ground. A parade of environmental activists was a challenge, requiring a fair bit of running around. The interviews (Shyam Saran’s was one of them) needed little active camerawork.
Armed with a bit more confidence, I took this same kit on assignment to Ladakh one month later. There are two problems with shooting solo in Ladakh. First, you’re lugging about 15 kgs of equipment at 10,000 feet. I reported one piece at 18,000 feet at Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world. You’re also weighed down by cold weather gear. Secondly, you have the harsh conditions. The sun at those altitudes screams down with all its ultra-violet ferocity, forcing you to use strong light filters. The batteries also last less than half their usual lifespan thanks to the cold. This means constant recharging and extra weight for backups.
Stupidly, I didn’t listen to the locals who advised at least 36 hours of doing nothing to help the body acclimatize to the rarified air. By the end of day two I was wracked by altitude sickness. The migraine was so severe I started to throw up and couldn’t even fall asleep. Luckily – very luckily - it didn’t get worse. Altitude sickness can easily turn to pulmonary edema and kill you. A combination of diamox pills, Kashmiri kahwa, and plenty of sleep and water had me back on my feet in two days. Still, I had to get extra oxygen from the army unit stationed at Khardung La because my lungs had not yet recovered. Suffice to say, I'm never not following local advice again.
The big event was the Copenhagen climate Summit that December. It would be two weeks of intensive daily reporting. I worked out a schedule. My day began at 7 am. After breakfast and an equipment check, I’d hike the 1 kilometer to the Bella Convention Center, equipment in tow. Once there, I’d get a fix on the day’s events and what had transpired during negotiations overnight. This would be part of my first report to the studio that day. Thanks to the time difference, it would arrive just in time for the afternoon bulletins. By 2 pm, I’d send another report of how the day was shaping up to hit the prime time bulletin. I’d spend the rest of the afternoon collecting bits and pieces of information for my late-night report (this was usually a phone-in at about 2:30 am Copenhagen time, for the morning bulletin in Delhi). My diet was mostly sandwiches, coffee and the occasional Coke.
The strain began to show by the end of Week 1. An American non-profit had organized a field trip to nearby Samso island, which ran entirely on renewable energy. It was here that I picked up my first and (thankfully) only injury as a journalist, so far. While climbing up the inside of a windmill, I tried to push my camera through to the next level. My awkward posture and the weight of the camera combined to twist my hand. My arm would be in a bandage for the next 1 month. The pain would last a whole year. To date, I can feel a slight pinch when I flex my wrist a bit too much. But again, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity for the world. Copenhagen was a hugely rewarding experience personally and professionally. Here I was: 1 guy from a small TV operation in India, reporting a story that was being covered by gigantic teams from organisations such as the BBC, AFP, AP & Reuters.
The last in my series of backpack reports came on an assignment to Israel in April the next year. This time I was with a colleague –Arjun Hardas. While he was well-versed with regional politics, his utility with a camera – but his own admission – was “limited”. This meant doing most of the shooting myself. But that also meant I had the opportunity to actively listen while Arjun engaged and probed our interlocutors. It was great exposure to what is seemingly one of the most intractable political stories and compelling human experiences on the planet. Sadly, the channel never aired most of the content we put together – 6 feature stories, including one from the Gaza Strip, and a half-hour documentary. Our assignment was part of the channel’s plans to showcase its international coverage ahead of a planned re-launch. The re-launch never happened and the stories eventually got outdated.
I quit NewsX last October, but I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunities to literally see the world. Few things match up to speaking with key personalities in global stories – Ban ki-Moon, Yvo de Boer, Shyam Saran, Danny Ayalon. But there are even fewer things that match up to getting the story from the people who are living it – a fruit seller in Gaza city whose supplies are under constant threat, a retired Israeli general who lost his family to a Palestinian bomb attack, the Ladakhi man who is single-handedly building glaciers to save his region from drought, a young Indian girl who put a promising career on hold to lobby government ministers to save the climate. These are the stories I love most of all. They’re the stories I’m proudest of.