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How we made this

Nearly 6,000 story suggestions. 13 dispatches. 3 cameras. 11 countries. 6 documentaries.

Vox Borders is one of the most ambitious projects that Vox has ever undertaken. From February to the end of November, dozens of people across the newsroom were devoted to the researching, reporting, community building, and producing required to publish our six documentaries.

The Vox Borders fans — our community on Facebook, on Instagram, and through our newsletter — were an incredible, important part of the process. You gave us story ideas that we ended up turning into videos, and your feedback and enthusiasm kept me going, whether I was trekking through the Arctic with no coat other than my red Uniqlo jacket or recovering from being hit by a car. (Seriously.)

So I wanted to close by giving all of you a deeper look into how we made this project and the lessons we learned.

Collaboration across teams was key

I’ve been obsessed with maps and borders for decades. After high school, I lived in Tijuana for two years and woke up every morning to a giant wall that split two countries apart. It had a huge impact on me, and I’ve had a genuine curiosity ever since about how people divide themselves up.

So when I pitched this international documentary series, I knew I wanted to do it on an ambitious scale.

After getting the green light from my executive producer Joe Posner, I roped in Vox’s engagement team. We crafted a way for people not only to follow the journey but also to participate — I wanted your ideas to fuel this project. In early May, we created a survey and published a video on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube asking for those ideas. The border didn’t have to be between countries. We were also open to invisible borders, like socioeconomic lines that often divide cities.

Within a day, we had more than 3,000 responses. By the end of a couple of weeks, we had nearly 6,000 suggestions of borders all over the world, from people all over the world.

We wanted ideas that struck a balance between exploring borders through people’s stories and explaining them on a macro scale. We wanted stories that would humanize the map. My producer Christina Thornell and I spent six weeks reading every one of your ideas and doing our own intensive research — interviewing experts, reading history books, examining maps, and seeking additional feedback from the editorial team.

Narrowing them down to just six stories was extremely difficult. In the end, we chose the stories that had a combination of powerful visual evidence and relevant context, and that were in a variety of regions of the globe.

Also key: good gear. I collected nearly three terabytes of footage, interviews, and photos in three months.

Getting all of this footage required a massive amount of research and planning. Christina and I spent a few weeks planning the trips, crafting the itineraries, and developing relationships with local people, including fixers — people who act as guides and translators on the ground.

Each production trip was about a week long — and I was the whole crew. I packed all my gear into a backpack and a carry-on suitcase so I could start filming immediately in each place. I never had time to acclimate to jet lag.

For you videographers in our community (and I know there are a lot of you!), here is the equipment I took with me: one camera (Sony A7S II), a drone (DJI Mavic Pro), a handheld, stabilized selfie stick (DJI Osmo Pro), an audio adapter (Sony K2M) and shotgun mic to get audio into the camera, two lenses (Sony 24 - 70 mm f/2.8 Zeiss and 18mm Prime 2.8) and a tripod (Manfrotto Carbon Fiber).

See you in The Arctic ❄️✈️

A post shared by Johnny Harris (@johnnywharris) on

I would shoot all day and then send footage back to the team at Vox HQ to craft into dispatch videos (like blog posts) and photos that would work on social media.

There was a lot of drone footage:

I’m going to miss editing Nepal footage.

A post shared by Johnny Harris (@johnnywharris) on

And hanging with the locals:

The most important part of making a documentary like this: don’t sleep

I spent three months traveling, collecting footage, and thinking about the stories I wanted to tell. When I got back, I already knew what the narrative of each episode would be. Christina helped me organize the footage. Sam Ellis, a Vox video producer, helped with graphics and animations. And I was writing scripts, recording voiceover, and editing videos nonstop. (Did I mention I also have two boys and a lovely wife with whom I was trying to spend time?)

Our goal was to have two documentaries finished at a time. When we released one, we always had another ready to go. And if we stuck to that schedule, we’d be able to edit four 10- to 15-minute documentaries in six weeks.

The only hiccup: I got hit by a car in October while I was biking to work. We had to push production by two weeks so that I had time to recover. (And I have to give a shoutout to the woman who helped me get onto the sidewalk and used her scarf to cover my bloody head; she was a Borders fan!)

This has been an unbelievable whirlwind experience, and a ton of people were involved in this project, including you! The people I have met, both online and off, have been one of the highlights.

My last question for you: Should we do a Borders season two? Let me know on Facebook. —Johnny Harris



Johnny Harris

Christina Thornell

Joss Fong, Ellen Rolfes
Story Editors

Sam Ellis
Animation Assistance

Mwita Chacha
Editing Assistance

Tian Wang
Engagement Intern

Joe Posner
Executive Producer

Valerie Lapinski
Managing Producer

Dion Lee
Art Direction


Kainaz Amaria
Editor, Visuals Team

Susannah Locke
Editor, Special Projects

Javier Zarracina

Ryan Mark, Casey Miller

Amanda Northrop

Tanya Pai
Copy Editor

Nancy Seay

Kate Dailey
Managing Editor


Agnes Mazur
Audience Development

Lauren Katz
Community Engagement

Blair Hickman
Engagement Editor


Ezra Klein
Melissa Bell
Andrew Golis
Cleo Abram
Yochi Dreazen
Lauren Williams

Published on December 5, 2017

Haiti / Dominican Republic

One island, two worlds

The Arctic

Russia’s plan for the world’s newest ocean

Japan / North Korea

How a group of children got stuck between two nations

Mexico / Guatemala

How the US outsources border security

Spain / Morocco

Africa’s gateway to Europe

Nepal / China

How mountains become borders