Will Vassilopoulos's eyes fill with joy as he discusses his career as a video journalist. While the TASIS Hellenic (Class of 1993) graduate has only been in the field for six years, he has already achieved one of the biggest accolades, the Rory Peck Award for News, which honors freelancers who create news features that "look beyond the immediacy of the news." His work "Fear and Desperation: Refugees and Migrants Pour into Greece" features arresting footage from the Greek island of Lesbos and from Idomeni, a makeshift camp on Greece's northern border.
Will has always been a keen videographer, though for many years he limited his work to films of family, friends, and FinalCut on his computer. Born in Canada and raised in Athens, Will had just completed his Masters in Exercise Physiology and was considering a life in academia when he saw a job advertisement that he somewhat misinterpreted. This was in 2003, just before the Athens Olympics, and Japanese news agency Kyodo News was looking for a sports researcher who could also write. "I'd published scientific papers in journals, but that's it," he says. "During the interview we both realized I wasn't what they wanted, but they learned that I was an expert on doping in sports, which was something they were interested in exploring." He passed an English test and a three-month trial period and soon was covering not just the run-up to the Olympics but also Greece's general elections and their EU presidency. "I've always been a news buff," he says, "but in the back of my mind I was eventually going to be an exercise physiologist for an F1 driver."
After the Athens Olympics, Kyodo moved their European news bureau to Rome and Will was soon working for another Japanese media firm, The Yomiuri Shimbun, this time focusing on doping as part of the Turin Olympics. He realized that he really enjoyed journalism at the exact time that many freelancers were out of work post-Olympics. Then in 2007, Greece's state broadcaster ERT began a syndicated Anglo newscast. At this point, Will was working as an academic teaching exercise physiology at a university, which he enjoyed, but he missed the pace of news. Within two years he was an anchor. "We gave Greek communities around the world news about Greece in English, and it was quite popular," he recalls. But in 2010, Greece's financial crisis had begun and ERT decided not to renew contract workers, leaving many people without jobs. Will thought it might be a good time to look for work abroad.
Then in 2011, a friend said that Agence France-Presse (AFP) was looking for someone to help out on weekends. "It was one weekend shift a month, and I loved it, but my stress levels were through the roof," he remembers. "We were deep into the economic crisis and all of the unpopular decisions of that period were made on the weekends so the people wouldn't protest in the streets. We were in competition with Reuters and AP and they had three or four people working weekends. Rotating in and out was difficult because you still had to follow everything."
Then the bureau chief asked if Will wanted to do a video training program in Paris. "I jumped in with both feet," Will says. "As an anchor, I knew what made a good image. I used to go through Reuters and AP footage every day to see what worked. I just didn't know how to do it. I used to edit my home videos, but this, of course, was another level." The two-week course in May 2011 left him with a decision: stay with print journalism or shift to video. "And video was really exciting, amazing."
Slowly Will began to make a name for himself, working both in Greece and abroad. "I was getting offers, but I knew that AFP was the place for me." AFP had just started their video department, and Will knew this was an opportunity to help build something as well as challenge his own work.
Videojournalists are, as Will calls them, "Swiss Army knives. You do everything. You're a journalist, a producer, an editor, a cameraman. While you're in the process of filming you're already seeing how it will all fit together." After shooting the footage, the videographer packages the raw material—usually 2-3 minutes of video, with soundbites, that tell a complete story, and a script—and then the agency sells it to networks around the world. The networks then take this and edit it further for their needs.
"This news agency format is strict and straightforward," Will says, "but you have to have an artistic thought, too. Even if it's hard news, there's always a better angle, you can always keep the shot longer, edit differently. You can always make it more exciting."
"This idea that we're the same, there's no difference between races or genders, we're all human. This is completely the work of TASIS."
It's a balancing act of sound, light, angles, emotion—and, as Will says, "you know if you're missing an element. You have to go search for it. You have to grind the person you're interviewing down. You want a 15-second answer, not a minute-and-a-half answer. But you're also thinking about the emotions you want the viewer to have. You must be truthful to the situation and do your best to portray it properly. It's never perfect but the feeling...you can capture that feeling."
Will has spent time in conflict zones, including work in Ukraine and Crimea, and in Egypt and Turkey during the riots. "Conflict zone work is scary," he admits. "Especially when you have children, and if you're doing it for financial reasons." For video journalists, these aren't weekend jaunts; they are sent away to a hostile environment for many days at a time. "When you're away, it always seems much worse to the people at home than it really is. My wife and I don't speak about it."
Is he ever scared? "You have to find ways of overcoming your fear, but not too much as you have to respect the situations you are in. You're told to move your bed away from the windows in your hotel. Shrapnel and bullets might land close to you. I once interviewed a rebel commander and we were the target."
But there's a strange attraction to this work. "The adrenaline rush is incredible," Will says. "I can see why it is addictive to become a war correspondent, how everything else is boring in comparison. When you put on your flak jacket, the heaviness, the weight—you're not thinking it will look cool in the Facebook photos. You're thinking, this might save my life."
Will is happy dipping into this sort of work rather than making a commitment to it. "For me, it's not the front line that is the interesting part. That's just big boys with toys fighting each other. It's the side stories, the people going through this, what it means to them. And it is most difficult when there's no closure to your story."
He often doesn't include the images that are most arresting for him in the footage for AFP. Piles of bodies, failed CPR, the body of an unidentified child—these are the things that Will finds most difficult to film. "You're trying to find a respectful angle, and you don't want to show the faces as you don't want parents to see their kids this way, and it's an awful story that you have to do," he says, visibly emotional. "You choose what you want to share. It comes down to respect and dignity. I don't want to shock the viewer; I want you to understand. I want to humanize the story." It's also about building a rapport. "It's never just walking around with my camera. I have to speak to people, to help make them understand what I am trying to do. And if they say no, no means no."
Will's fascination with people is reflected in his work covering the refugee crisis in Greece as well. His work shows respect for the people and their situation. The rescue operation that made up the bulk of his Rory Peck Award film was what he calls "an absolute success—I had really strong images, and at the end, everyone was accounted for."
"This is where TASIS comes in," Will says of his 12 years spent at TASIS Hellenic. "This idea that we're the same, there's no difference between races or genders, we're all human. This is completely the work of TASIS." He feels his empathy for others was cultivated by sharing the halls and classrooms with students from the Middle East, other parts of Europe, South America, Southeast Asia—even Canada, like Will. "It was so multicultural. I especially loved International Day, with stands from countries around the world. We took so much for granted, that your best friend was from Lebanon or Japan and that you had Arab and Jewish friends going out together. We were all the same."
There's also the issue of putting down the camera to help, especially for a person who sees the world with such empathy. "If I'm the person between life or death, there's no moral or ethical question, I'm going to help," he says. "Towards the end of the refugee crisis it was a circus—there were more NGO and media people than refugees. At the beginning, though, a dinghy would land and it would just be you. If it was a calm sea, it's ok, you can film. But if it's a rough landing, you have to decide."
"A story dealing with a social crisis such as the migration crisis is a different ball game than a conflict zone," he continues. "You're sticking a camera in their face, and it's embarrassing but it's the job. And it's an important job because the world needs to see this."
Will was one of four journalists included in "The Emotional Toll On Journalists Covering The Refugee Crisis," a July 2017 study by Anthony Feinstein and Hannah Storm for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. It makes for fascinating reading that transforms the way news stories are viewed, but Will's story is particularly poignant. He must come to terms with the atrocities he sees as a Greek man covering the migration crisis on Greek shores. "I am devastated," he writes. "This is a beach on an island in a country that's not at war. This should not be happening. It's sinister. It's evil."
So how does Will compartmentalize things? "There's a work Will and a home Will. It's difficult the day you come home. You automatically become Daddy and husband," he says. "My wife is a hero. While I'm away she takes care of our two kids. I wouldn't expect her to tell me to go out and have a beer with my friends, take a few days to decompress, and I don't want to do that."
He also finds it difficult to connect with friends. "Those in the field can tell from your eyes that it was a bad assignment. But your other friends don't get it, and you don't necessarily want to tell them."
The downside to the Rory Peck award is having to revisit the images from his film over and over. "It gets harder. The more you distance with time, the more I realize that it was not a dream. While it's still happening you are numb from everything. Now when I see these images I can't believe it was me behind the camera." He still isn't entirely comfortable with his footage winning the award, however. "There is a percentage of me that still feels that this was won on the back of human suffering," he said in the Feinstein/Storm study, "but whenever I get that feeling it is something I am uncomfortable with, but the positive aspects outweigh that."
He sees much growth from his early work, which he calls "horrific." "My eyes are sharper, everything is more fine-tuned, I work with less stress, and I am more aware of what I want." This means Will can take on bigger challenges, and the AFP continues to give him new opportunities to shine. "And in all my work, the echoes of TASIS are always there."
So far this year, Will has been to Romania, Switzerland (for the Cyprus talks), and Lebanon, and he also covered the Trump visit to Europe. In all, he will spend nearly two months of 2017 on the road, hoping to bring the truth to our screens. "A picture is definitely worth a thousand words," he says, "but video can be much more powerful."