Dana Romanoff photographed this family of Afar pastoralists sleeping outside their home in northeastern Ethiopia, where the search for water is a daily chore. (photo by Dana Romanoff 2011)

Boulder’s Romanoff is a multimedia master on a mission

In today’s vast, chaotic, do-it-yourself digital-information world, the odds of finding stories that are clear, compelling and honest are long. That makes the work of award-winning photographer, journalist and filmmaker Dana Romanoff especially welcome.
“I want to tell important stories that people should know about or care about. But no one’s going to care unless the storytelling gets their attention,” says Romanoff.

Dana Romanoff (photo by Carl Bower)
Dana Romanoff (photo by Carl Bower)

A world traveler whose photographs have appeared in Time and National Geographic, Romanoff, a Boulderite since 2008, recently turned her expertise on an issue in her own backyard—creating vivid, short filmed narratives in support of a Community Foundation Serving Boulder County program that promotes pre-kindergarten education for Latino children.

Romanoff, who says she celebrates her 28th birthday every year, came to her mastery of multimedia the old-fashioned way. She brought extensive studies in anthropology and ethnology to her photojournalism, working her way up through local newspapers to national magazines, learning a story discipline that makes her projects strong and eloquent statements about the individuals at the heart of pressing contemporary issues.

Romanoff sees her move into film as a natural progression. “Even with still images, I always look for the story,” she says.

Recently, she completed an epic yet intimately grounded 10-video series, The National Park Experience, in collaboration with director, producer and writer Amy Marquis. The short films highlight individuals from a wealth of backgrounds, telling their stories in relation to the spectacular landscapes of our national parks. The latest film in the series, Canyon Song, premiered in May at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride. Its 13-minute tale took more than a year to produce.

“It’s advocacy,” Romanoff says. “2016 is the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service. The parks in these films are just really playing as a backdrop for stories of diversity. To stay relevant, the parks need to reach out to those other than older white people. We need the visitors to represent the diversity that’s out there, to say, ‘I do belong there,’ to make it clear to the next generation that these are their parks, too.”

Creating community through storytelling

Romanoff’s compositions and richness of detail make her images worth viewing in and of themselves, but she uses their appeal to point the viewer into the story.

“You can use that beauty to get people to take a step closer,” she says. “My background really is anthropology and sociology, and my interest is in contemporary issues—about race, gender, social movement, class and poverty. So, when I approach stories I try to instill the emotion—that’s the lens I’m approaching them through. Listening to people, sharing their stories and having their voices heard.”

Ruben Garcia Jr. (in purple robe) with his family on his high school graduation day. (photo by Dana Romanoff 2011)
Ruben Garcia Jr. (in purple robe) with his family on his high school graduation day. (photo by Dana Romanoff 2011)

Case in point: her films for the Community Foundation’s ELPASO (Engaged Latino Parents Advancing School Outcomes) program. Ruben’s Story (2013) and Veronica’s Story (2015) document Latino lives changed by involved parents and community members preparing children for the rigors of learning. Boulder County has one of the highest achievement gaps in the state, with one of three children in poverty already behind by third grade. Romanoff worked with Chris Barge, who directs the Community Foundation’s School Readiness Initiative.

“It’s a chance to travel in your own community in Boulder,” she says of the videos. “We have a Spanish-speaking community here that is underrepresented or misrepresented, living in the shadows of these million-dollar homes. The strength of a community depends on all of its community members, and here we have a segment of the community that is not thriving.

“By diving deep into one character, you can humanize these seemingly abstract issues,” she continues. “And these videos went from being part of a campaign to raise awareness to becoming a fundraising tool, and a grassroots organizing tool. They’re being used in ways we never thought of.”

Romanoff’s career has taken her around the globe, and she can work from just about anywhere she pleases. Why did she and her husband settle in Boulder?

“At first, I thought myself as the Indiana Jones of photography, traveling the world with my camera,” she says. “It wasn’t a work move. I came here for the quality of life—I always wanted to live in Colorado, and live close to the outdoors. Boulder’s an amazing place. There are lots of global issues in focus here, and lots of interest in stories about diversity and culture.”

All along, Romanoff has moved confidently from medium to medium, not skipping a beat as she adapted to new, post-analog creative technologies and distribution methods. (“The bandwidth on the Web has a much larger reach,” she notes.)

“But it’s still storytelling,” she says. “It’s how we learn, since the days of people sitting around the campfire. That’s how we pass on knowledge. It’s only the form that is constantly evolving.”

Brad Weismann is an independent writer and editor who looks into everything from grand opera to midget wrestling. He’s called the Front Range home for half a century, but he’s still ambivalent about prairie dogs.

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