In some of your work—particularly on your former TV show Only in America—you do a kind of “participatory journalism,” kind of an ugly word for saying you get yourself front and center in the stories. What do you think participating in a story can add to it?
It’s not such an ugly word—I like it. One reason I like it, quite honestly, is it’s fun. Is that a sin? To actually enjoy the gathering of information? Two, it really informs. I think it does. A lot of times I don’t do it. There’s immersion journalism and that means getting in there, hanging around that neighborhood, just living. But participatory might open the door a lot more quickly.
I wanted to make a comment or offer a viewpoint about gay life in America, for instance, after the 2004 presidential elections when we were talking about gay marriage. Alright, in 2005, I have a camera and a television show—I say, “Well, let’s go to Oklahoma where they voted on it.” I wondered how we were going to make a comment on this vote, something you would want to watch, with just five days of filming. You had to get the community to open up to you.
I said, “I’ll put on a dress, I’ll ride a bull—I’ve never ridden a bull before.” If you’re talking to a cowboy from the plains who’s gay and he sees this guy who gets on a bull, that shows him something; he will consider me. It’s better than being buttoned up and walking around with a pad—you’re going to get the same pat answers. If you participate, it shows respect for the person you’re trying to document. If you can share the thrill of a bull, you can share more.
Sometimes putting yourself in the story can lead to criticism. Following the story of the frozen man you found in an elevator shaft in an abandoned building, some accused you of leaving details unreported, to heighten the tragedy of the story. Do you think that including your reporting process in the story makes you more vulnerable to such criticisms?
It could be that. I wasn’t really in that story but I guess you could feel my point of view. That piece became a turning point for me. I’ll be completely honest with you. I’d just come back to Detroit and you go, “Oh my God, look at this, look at that, it’s crazy.” There’s almost a sort of detached amusement. And then you point out that that’s a human being; you make a statement. Then everybody starts to think: “Okay, this guy’s starting to show the ugly—well fuck him, go after him.” That thing turned me. Why are you attacking me? I actually called the police. I actually got the guy out of there. I didn’t skate around and go have a sandwich and leave him.
There’s something deeper going on here. We can’t get better as a society until we know exactly where we are. How bad is this? How bad is the money? How bad is Wall Street? How bad are the banks’ balance sheets? How used have we gotten to the collapse in Detroit? Really? I’m the problem here? Well, say what you will, I’m a big boy. I have no problem with people turning on me. I try my hardest, I try to be up and above board, and when I make a mistake I admit it. Am I an inveterate cheat? No. In fact, I’ll get on the damn bull. That’s how far I’ll go.
The man’s buried and I’m proud that he got a dignified end to his life instead of turning into soup in the bottom of an abandoned building. Me and my brother did that. A guy told my brother about him, my brother told me, I told the world. My mom said, “I don’t know, I’m proud of my boys.” And that’s enough for me. If my mom were ashamed of me then I’d have a problem.