Filming History

By Samantha Stark '05, Photo by Chris Taggart, Illustration by David Broadbent

Samantha Stark

The morning same-sex marriage became legal across the 
United States, I was in The New York Times newsroom, ears pounding with adrenaline, waiting for the Supreme Court decision to come in on a giant screen. As soon as people started cheering, I ran back to my desk to grab real-time footage from DC and make an ending to a mini documentary I shot about Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the case. The story I was telling was bittersweet—Mr. Obergefell had sued the government to allow his name to be listed as the surviving spouse on his husband’s death certificate.

When I graduated from Sarah Lawrence 10 years ago, the idea of working at The New York Times and making a short film about such a profound historic moment wasn’t even in my solar system. At Sarah Lawrence, like most of us, I studied everything—history, theatre, psychology, and writing to name a few. During my last semester, I took a documentary film class because I wanted to edit together historical images and project them on my body for a performance art piece. Yeah. I was that kid in college.

After graduating, I moved to New York City and waitressed at a restaurant in Chelsea, floundering around perhaps because I loved too many things to know what my career path should be. I knew, however, that I didn’t want to lose that mind-bending high you get from learning something new—that feeling I got in college when I could ask a professor any question I wanted. So I just kept taking classes. In between shifts serving margaritas on 8th Avenue, I took filmmaking, political science, and women’s history classes around the city. One fateful afternoon at a Brooklyn College magazine writing class, I saw a flyer for a free photography workshop at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. Of course, I signed up. That class ultimately led to my enrolling as a video journalism graduate student.

My work today is an electrifying mix of everything I enjoyed during those early years at SLC.

I credit the ignition of my interest in video storytelling to that embarrassing SLC performance art piece.

After grad school, I got a message that The Times was looking for a freelancer to liven up their Vows video series, featuring couples about to get married.

I have never been interested in weddings, but when I got wind of the assignment, my whole body got hot and buzzy.

Producing love stories? The basis of almost every great play and novel I ever studied? This was something I had to do—something I could really make a mark with. Over the next year and a half, I made 65 Vows videos, many of them about same-sex couples who were just starting to be able to marry legally. My goal was for each story to hit a new note on the nature of love. Deemed “different” and “creative,” the videos got me a staff job and the opportunity to pitch stories on all kinds of topics, love and otherwise.

When I was growing up, it was rare to hear about gay people in terms of great love stories. Being gay was portrayed as a controversial, political issue—never a love issue. Sarah Lawrence was the first and, for a while, only place I felt comfortable being out. When I was an undergrad, I never would have imagined that public opinion would swing toward acceptance the way it has. I never would have believed people could feel so proud of the country for legalizing same-sex marriage that they would cheer its name on the courthouse steps: USA, USA, USA!

That morning when the Supreme Court decision was released, I was numb from weeks of late-night editing. My eyes were glassy reflections of my computer screen, focused on getting that last scene just right. Later that afternoon, as I scrolled through footage sent from the news wires, what had actually happened hit me. The sound of the chanting crowds reverberated in my skull. At my desk, in the LCD computer screen glow, I sobbed. I got to be a part of history. I got to tell the love story of the widower whose case went to the Supreme Court. I got to visit his home, meet his family, and ask him everything I was curious about.

At Sarah Lawrence, I learned how to find what awakens my curiosity and how to do what I love. My work today is an electrifying mix of everything I enjoyed during those early years at SLC. I get to be artful in composing shots and musical in editing. I get to explore new ideas and figure out how to explain them to others. I get to tell stories full of surprise, poetry, and emotion. And I get the world’s best excuse to ask strangers whatever I want.