Emmy-nominated cinematographer Jerry Henry discusses his work on the docuseries The 1619 Project, working closely with creator Nikole Hannah-Jones to adapt the landmark work of print journalism and how a fish tank led to his favorite shot of the series.
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Awards Daily: Congratulations on your first Emmy nomination; I was shocked that it was your first one.
Jerry Henry: It was extremely rewarding, but it was a complete shock because when I was originally offered the project, that was a shock to me, too. So, being recognized for my visual contribution to the series is pretty phenomenal.
AD: That’s interesting because when I looked through your work, The 1619 Project seemed like a natural progression to what you’ve done before. Why was it a shock for you to get the project in the first place?
JH: Well, I’m a podcast junkie, which is ironic, right? I work in a visual medium, but I sometimes prefer just listening.
I remember where I was the first time I heard The 1619 project. It was one of the episodes of The Daily. I heard the first episode, and honestly, I hadn’t heard of Nikole Hannah-Jones before that moment. I ended up binging the whole series. And one of the things that struck me was her voice, actually— the sound and intonation of her voice. It was very calming but very wise. It felt like I was listening to someone I grew up with from childhood. It was very personable. One of the things I appreciated about [The 1619 Project] is how it felt to get this history lesson but being told by someone who sounds and looks just like me.
AD: When you were listening to the project initially, was there a part of you, as a cinematographer, that imagined how to visually translate the material?
JH: When listening to the podcast, I thought it was very visual. I could sit there and imagine all of the things Nikole was talking about and how she interweaved her personal experience and her family. I got the book, and there are these portraits in the book; there are moments in the book that feel like the narration for a documentary. So, when you’re thinking about The 1619 Project, one of the things that I took into consideration was that it feels like a memory. These ideas, ideologies, and thoughts feel like you’re listening to them directly from the source.
It was challenging for me to figure out how to break down all of this very dense material and make it something the audience could visually connect with. One of the things that Nikole always says is, ‘This is for the ancestors.’ I took that into consideration when I was thinking about how I would pay tribute to all of these voices.
AD: How would you describe the visual aesthetic that you landed on for The 1619 Project?
JH: Well, I have worked on a lot of projects where there’s a host or a narrator that is guiding the audience visually. I remember the very first day that Nikole came on set, and it was actually in Harris Neck, Georgia, which is the episode that I’m nominated for the ‘Justice’ episode. And it was the scene where they’re out in this field, with water behind them. Nikole came out, and we’re in the middle of the swamps, and she’s standing there, and she had this look on her face of, ‘Okay. So what am I doing?’ She asked me, and I said, I don’t know, just do what you do. And she’s like, ‘Well, what is that?’ And what I had to realize is, ‘Oh wow, she’s never really done this medium before.’ Everything has been through the written word.
When we were trying to figure out the look and the feel of [the series], it was literally like being this fly on the wall. I know that term gets used a lot to describe verité shooting. Still, it was really about making Nikole comfortable and making her feel like she could have these intense conversations without production happening around her, which is challenging. A lot of times, we would have crew members sit in for her before she would get there and stand where she may stand. We put up big silks because we wanted the lighting to feel natural. And again, sometimes that’s challenging in some of these spaces, but we were trying to figure out a way to use really big sources to keep the lighting at a distance so that she could have these really intimate conversations.
AD: It took over a year to shoot [The 1619 Project]. Can you reflect on what it was like for you to be in those intimate spaces for a prolonged period of time?
JH: It was interesting because when you shoot for that long, you go through all the seasons. We were in the South, in New York, in Philly, in Baton Rouge. We were all over these different locations, and each place had its challenges. When we were in Mississippi, it was the bugs. I remember crew members were bitten by ticks while in the swamps.
It was all about figuring out how to capture these environments because they’re part of the story as well, specifically, a place like Harris Neck. Our crew was really small. We just worked as a team and always ensured that while keeping it small, we were never sacrificing the production value.
AD: Tell me about some of the techniques you used when filming.
JH: Well, I really like using a gimbal. I also used a Sony a7S DSLR camera and prime lenses. Using a small camera gave me the opportunity to float through these spaces.
Nikole would just start going, and I would always have to catch up to her, and she’s like, ‘Come on, you got to get going.’ So we just knew that as soon as she walked into the room or we were ready to go somewhere, we would have to be nimble.
I did all of the drone work as well. “Justice” deals with Harris Neck, the descendants, and what was taken from them. We wanted the audience to understand and see this vast landscape and this vast resource, and this richness was all stolen from these people. And you can, and you feel it.
AD: A big conversation happening now is that, obviously, there aren’t that many cinematographers of color in the industry. For a long time, Black actors were being filmed by white people. And what does it mean when somebody might not be able to capture Black skin tones correctly?
What does it mean to you to be in this position where you get to be the one to visually capture these stories in the way they were meant to be represented? How did you bring your personal experiences into your shots?
JH: It’s interesting you say that. Previously, I worked with Shoshana Guy, our showrunner, on the Netflix series, “High on the Hog.” Shoshana and I spoke about getting the skin tones right— don’t flood our complexion with a bunch of light. What I realized a long time ago, as my career has gone on and I shot lots of folks of color, specifically Black women, is that reflected light is the key. And not necessarily having a source that just blasts light on them, but it’s the reflected light. So, for [The 1619 Project], we would use large silks and pump the light into them. Then, the reflected light was what would be reflected onto Nikole. She was extremely cognizant of the lighting as well. My assistant Josh would do the screen grabs where he would pull images from our shoots, and then I would send them to the producers. We would color each of them, just painstakingly making sure the color was right.
The main thing with Nikole is her hair, it’s bright red. Figuring out the balance between that and her complexion, we had to ensure we got that right. If she was in an environment like Harris Neck where she’s in a green field, I mean, the worst thing is to mix red and green— reflected light was the solution.
AD: Did you have a favorite shot or moment that stood out to you?
JH: There are lots of moments, but I think one of the most touching moments for me is the opening sequence of episode one, “Democracy,” where we’re on the beach in Virginia. It was very emotional because we were shooting at 4 a.m. I don’t know if anyone knows, but when you’re shooting in these environments, while it might look pretty, just getting there might be a pain. We had to unload all this stuff and trek it across the beach; there’s sand everywhere; it’s just not the most fun thing to do, and you’re doing it in the dark. But then, as soon as that sun comes up, everyone starts scrambling, and we’re trying to get that perfect light as it’s rising above the horizon. And I just remember the dancers were practicing that sequence in the dark, then as the sun’s coming up, the ceremony is happening, and it felt extremely spiritual. It was one of the last things we were shooting, and it just made everything come together.
I would say one of my favorite shots is the shot of the boys in the water. We had to think of economical ways to achieve it. We couldn’t hire an underwater crew, and I said, ‘Well, I can just do it.’
But I realized that when the tide was up at that particular time in the day, it was so low that if you stood in the water, it would cut you off at your knees. So, if you sat down, it looked like you were swimming. It was probably like three feet deep. You could walk out 50 yards and still be walking in only three feet deep water. So, I went to PetSmart the day before, got a fish tank, took the camera, and wrapped it in saran wrap and towels. I submerged it just above the water line, so it looked like the camera was submerged, and then kids were just playing in the water.
I told them, ‘Just make sure you don’t stand up so it looks like you’re submerged in the water.’ So, it was those moments of beauty that came from this financial constraint that led to creativity.
AD: A moment of genius. Any final thoughts?
JH: When you work on projects like this, you have a huge amount of responsibility, not just to the image but also to the legacy and the story. I’m just really happy that I was able to work with a team that let me be me.
The 1619 Project is streaming on Hulu.