Content That Makes Meaningful Connections: Q&A With Producer Donald Perry

I met producer Donald Perry at a recent multicultural TV summit and was fascinated with his impressive background and current project, Family Pictures USA.

“I've had a very unusual career path," said Perry. "I started off as a foreign exchange trader with JP Morgan,” and from there went into the intense world of high finance.
In his spare time, he wrote “lots of sci-fi, thriller, fantasy stuff, even published a series of novellas -- oh, yeah, and that book of erotic fiction that every writer has to do at least once!”

His creative side kept calling. “One day, I started giving notes to a friend of mine on a film project he was working on - a personal doc about self-identity and negotiating the various ways of being black. By the end of the project, I had my first film writing credit and I was hooked.”

By 2010, Perry was writing full time for film, and now has four feature documentaries as well as many shorter pieces.



Charlene Weisler: Tell me about Family Pictures USA and how it got started.

Don Perry: Family Pictures USA is a TV series and transmedia project that explores neighborhoods and cities through the lens of the family photo album to enlarge our understanding of history, our diversity and our shared values. We like to call it the antidote for the divisiveness that undergirds our national, even international, malaise.

The program emerged out of the audience development project we created around “Through a Lens Darkly.” While making the documentary, we found that certain kinds of images were not easily accessible through museums, libraries, various institutional collections so we basically started a crowd-sourced mechanism for activating private archives, which became the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow.

We've held over 55 live events, some of which lasted over several weeks, in over 40 cities on three continents, interviewing over 3000 participants about their family history, photos and connections to place.

Eighteen months ago, one of our funders suggested we might have a TV show in there somewhere, and we've been deep into the development process ever since. Last summer, we filmed a pilot episode in Detroit and now, we're looking to take what we've learned into wider distribution.

Weisler: How is it different from other genealogical programs?

Perry: This isn't a genealogical show at all. We focus on the stories within the family photo album — the personal testimony about the who/what/when/where/why behind the image, looking for patterns, relationships and connections that unite one person's story to someone else's, perhaps someone they've never met or never imagined they had a connection to.

These aren't only through family lineages, which has happened at various events, but more through people having experienced something in common, like being at the same place, at the same time, but from opposite sides of the street and witnessed an event or took part in something that was so impactful that it needed to be captured in a photograph.

What we're really looking to uncover is the mystery behind that little spark of the divine that exists just in the moment the photograph is taken… a compelling desire to commit something to memory in a tangible — now digital — way.

Weisler: In an era of multiplatform, what is your digital and multiplatform strategy?

Perry: We started this project back in 2009, when there really wasn't social media as we know it today. We have been adapting the project to the new landscape….
On Facebook and You Tube, we do short modules, from two to 15 minutes. On Flickr we have tons of albums depicting our various events. On Instagram we have images and short stories.

We generate a lot of content when we go into a location and we can cut it to fit any set of parameters, from short form to longer formats.

Weisler: How can your program encourage new ways of thinking about race and connection?

Perry: Most of our problems as a society stem from our ignorance about "the other”: people who are different, whether by race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, class. They are treated as outsiders, with all the suspicion that goes with not being part of the tribe.

We physically bring people from a wide range of different corners of a community together in one place, which is a cornerstone of our production process. We create a space where people can feel comfortable sharing some of the most intimate narratives about themselves, their families and their history. …

We learn about moments of tremendous pain which they have suffered, but which they have also overcome and found a certain peace. We create a palpable link from one person's eyes to another's heart. The payoff is, as Antonio Lucio, CMO at HP, Inc., said in an article in Adweek recently, “It is harder to hate someone you know.”

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