On assignment for The New York Times
“I’m sorry. Who is this?” asked Joëlle Pouliot when she received a phone call from The New York Times.
She was being asked to produce a short video about Quebec's rogue maple syrup producers for the newspaper's documentary section. Why so incredulous? Well, this was The New York Times calling with her dream assignment.
“I had been talking about it a lot," Pouliot says. "I was saying that I wanted to do documentary and that my biggest dream would be The New York Times because I really like their documentary page, and just by talking about it…”
A colleague in Pouliot's professional network — who had been offered the gig but couldn’t fit it in — recommended her for the job.
The next thing she knew, the Concordia alumna was hitting the highways and byroads of Quebec in search of farmers fighting for the right to sell maple products outside the quota system controlled by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ).
“The assignment just came out of nowhere,” says Pouliot. “But when I thought about it, I'd been preparing for years, by getting experience, talking about it and getting involved.”
After graduating from Concordia in 2011 with a major in journalism and a minor in political science, Pouliot went to London, England, where she completed a master’s in international journalism. She got a job as a video production assistant with Agence France Presse.
“That was my biggest newsroom experience. I was always working in news, but what I really wanted to do was documentary.”
So Pouliot returned to Montreal, and began to make inroads into the documentary community — attending festivals and screenings, writing for blogs and helping with other people’s projects.
“After a while, I began asking myself, ‘Why am I making this everybody else’s dream and just helping them? Why am I not making this my job?’ I guess I wasn’t allowing myself to do it because I didn’t think it was feasible.”
For The New York Times piece, Pouliot traveled around the province with New-York-City-based video journalist Colin Archdeacon, meeting with producers who reffectively sell their products via the black market.
The team also met with representatives of FPAQ, which claims its mandatory quota system is supported by at least three-quarters of Quebec’s 7,400 producers.
“It was so fun,” says Pouliot.
The week-long shooting schedule gave her plenty of time to experiment with the camera, which was appreciated by the editors at The New York Times. “They were really into the shots that were kind of original. I actually sat on the front of one guy's all-terrain-vehicle, and I almost died!”
Filming in the large warehouse in Laurierville, Quebec, that houses the FPAQ’s global strategic reserve was another highlight.
“The workers were having such a good time throwing the barrels around,” Pouliot remembers. “But as soon as we turned the camera on they'd become really serious. So we just asked them to do what they normally do. Then they started throwing them around to make us laugh.”
Pouliot is already planning her next documentary pitch for The New York Times — a short piece about a little-known group of inherited disorders called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which affects the body’s connective tissue.
“At first, I didn’t really know anyone else who had this disease apart from myself, so I just started turning the camera on all the time when I was sick, when I was at the hospital, or when I was crying. Then the more I got involved in this, the more I started meeting people who have it.”
What’s her advice for journalism students at Concordia who want to pitch their own projects to major news organizations like The New York Times? Be willing to try more than one thing — and be prepared to juggle.
“There are so many different media you can apply to, write for, and do radio and video for,” she says.
“You’re probably not going to get a full-time job in a newsroom. You have to work for a magazine and a radio and a newspaper, work in marketing, translate and do all sorts of things, because that's how you're going to survive in journalism."
Check out Joëlle Pouliot’s video on The New York Times documentary page.