One day, Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “freely you have received, now freely give…” I think about that statement when I write a blog post or have the opportunity to speak to groups in person. It was a special opportunity for me to do some “giving back” as a coach at the Picture Kentucky 2014 photo workshop held this year in Maysville, KY. Jonathan Palmer, a former Decatur Daily colleague, and David Stephenson who directs the workshop, gave me the invitation and it was a great experience.
This workshop was co-founded by Dave LaBelle, a man who hovered on the edge of legend in my mind. I had read about him and I had seen his pictures (never read his books but that will soon be amended) and we were Facebook friends but I had never met him. Dave was also a coach at the workshop this year along with Lisa Marie Miller from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio and Matt Detrich from the Indianapolis Star. It was such a great honor for me to be included in that company and to become friends with all those fine folks I would have gone just for the opportunity to meet and get to know all of them.
I will say after meeting and spending most of a week with Dave LaBelle, on the one hand he far exceeded my expectations and on the other I saw him for the very normal, loving man he is. I say this because it is a good lesson to learn not to elevate people too highly in your mind because we are all, regardless of accomplishment, just people. I could see Dave operating in that amazing gift he has with people but I could also see his weaknesses as a normal man. My respect for him is now greater than it was before because now I know him, at least a little bit and I found that, at the heart of the legend, was a real man who looks you in the eye and engages you no matter who you are. He is one who has truly never met a stranger.”
As far as that goes, I knew Matt Detrich only by his photos and they were very good, of course, but we roomed together this week and I found he is a very excellent man as well as photographer. I didn’t know Lisa Marie Miller at all but found she is a wonderful woman and a photo editor at the Dispatch. I don’t think I have enjoyed meeting and getting to know anyone more than I enjoyed meeting and getting to know these two fine people this week. Now, y’all may think I am just blowing smoke here and being polite. I am being polite but it is absolutely genuine. One of the greatest things we have as visual journalists, photojournalist, multi-media journalists or whatever folks want to call us these days, is the relationships we make with one another. I value those relationships above the job and above the pictures. If you have not figured it out yet, this is all about people.
Which brings me to team Cosby’s Angels. I had four talented and beautiful young ladies on my team this year; Anne Halliwell, Melanie Nesteruk (whose last name I still cannot say!), Rachael Le Goubin and Tessa Lighty. These young ladies continually surprised and delighted me as they brought in their takes every day. Anne is primarily studying the writing side so photography is still fairly new to her. The other three are all photojournalism majors. Every one of them brought back images I wish I had shot. They did superb work and I had a ringside seat to watch them grow as they worked their assignments.
Anne shot a story on a barbershop and a tattoo parlor. Melanie shot a story on a farm that was run by a woman and her husband. The woman was the lead farmer and her husband helped her in a reversal of the typical roles. Rachael shot two stories, one a candy company that employees handicapped people to make the candy and another on a downtown diner. Tessa shot a story that turned into two stories, one on an immigrant mother and her family and a related story on the tobacco harvest.
They drew their stories out of a hat and my job was to look at their work each day and help them with suggestions and motivation and to edit their takes and prepare the photos for the nightly critiques and for the final show on Saturday night. Having not been a full time photo editor I was surprised at how difficult it is to edit someone else’s work. My greatest pleasure was in watching them progress from day to day, overcoming obstacles and problems and finally pushing through to really beautiful photo stories by the end of the week. As much as I wanted to go out and shoot with them, especially after seeing their photos, that was not my job so I lived vicariously through their pictures and drew great inspiration from them. I am energized after seeing the work they produced.
My other job this week was to make a presentation to the whole workshop one evening and speaking about my passions is one of my greatest joys in life. I used the theme, “Surviving and Thriving In The World Of Small Newspapers.” My presentation went well and I hope it found a place in some of their hearts. The lessons we have learned as adults are so expensive sometimes and I would hate to think that I failed to help someone else learn them so they do not have to pay those bills in their lives and careers.
The photos you see in the gallery below are from my girls, Cosby’s Angels!, and a few from the workshop that I did. I have watermarked their images so you know which ones were shot by which young lady. Hope you enjoy their work as much as I did.
Lately I have been giving some extra thought to building an audience. Obviously, newspaper circulation numbers are falling and newspapers are transitioning to more and more web content. Ultimately, printed newspapers will cease to exist and news websites will be the only remnant of what was once a great and proud industry. As far as I can see, there is no salvation for printed newspapers. That leaves us with the pressing need to build a loyal, online audience and we must do it now. The question becomes how do we do it?
There is a real rush toward posting content as quickly as possible, especially visual content. Here is where the first major rub comes in. We are living in the most visual age in the history of man yet newspapers and news websites are laying off visual professionals in droves. Many of these sites are turning to their reporters who are using iPhones. These reporters generally have a very low level of visual literacy and visual skill but they are being called on to replace the visual content previously created by professionals. To say these organizations are throwing the baby out with the bath water would be the understatement of the 21st Century.
The first thing I want to emphasize here is quantity alone does not generate reader loyalty. So what does? Back to the baby and the bath water, the bath water is the old method of delivering content, the printed newspaper. The baby is content. You can’t toss content while tossing the delivery system. What generated reader loyalty in the printed product? It was relevant, quality news in both word and picture.
First, what is relevant content? That is the easy one. Relevance is determined by the readers. What matters to them? If it matters we should be reporting it. In the great state of Alabama I can tell you relevant content revolves around football, faith, government/education and, above all, weather. I look around and wonder why no news sites have their own weather guy/gal. If not that, why don’t we have a partnership with the popular weather dude on TV and simulcast his forecast and especially the wall to wall radar coverage of storms. I mean, what else is as popular as that in Dixie Alley? I think websites must, and I mean really must, get in the weather game if we are serious about building a loyal audience. At bare minimum we should have a live radar feed right on the front page of our websites.
Now lets talk about visuals. People go to YouTube to watch stupid people being stupid. We all get that so why do people go to newspaper websites? How about to get the news? There is no way we can go head to head with YouTube but we do have our niche. We must exploit that niche. If we are a community news site we must really nail the local content. If we have a state audience then we have to get the most important stuff from around the state and really hammer it. We have to provide top quality visuals of our audience doing that thing they do whatever that thing is. We absolutely have to cover sports from stem to stern. In Alabama you have to hit Alabama and Auburn football and basketball, gymnastics and occasionally baseball and swimming. We also have to go after the high school sports aggressively.
Everybody goes to see those high school photo galleries. Fill those things with excellent content and be aggressive about it. I hear some managers who suggest just pointing the camera at a section of the bleachers and clicking away, no visual point to it, just put as many people’s faces on the site as possible. That is flat out visual suicide and it is an audience killer. I have heard suggestions that every photo gallery should be crammed with as many pictures as possible, no worries about editing, cropping or toning. I have heard those same people propose slapping unedited video online just as fast as possible. Really?
I don’t think there is much reason to go beyond 20-30 photos in a high school sports gallery unless you have a ton of killer content. I would go to 75-100 for a college gallery, again unless you have killer content and can deliver more. On your everyday assignment galleries there is seldom a reason to go more than 10-15 photos deep. Why? If you have more photos you get more clicks, right? Nope. What you get is a jaded audience who you train to only look at the first few images. Think about it. If you have a hundred photos in galleries all the time and the readers see after about ten pictures the quality goes to pot you have trained that audience to not bother going more than ten images into your gallery. If, on the other hand, they see each photo contributes to the whole and doesn’t waste their time you are training an audience to go all the way to the end of your gallery. Make it worth their while to check out your work.
How about video content? Same principle applies. Whenever I go to a news website and check out videos I last only as long as the quality and relevance lasts. When you bore me you lose me. When you have crap quality you lose me. When there is no content to the video, no reason for me to be there and spend my time, you lose me. Video can be one of the most powerful tools we have to build an audience but the videos must have great quality regardless of whether they are 15 seconds long or a few minutes long. It takes so little extra time to make a quality video why not do good quality work? I don’t care for advertising on news site videos but I recognize the necessity to have those ads. The caveat is if I am going to endure an ad before I can see your video you dang well better have a video that was worth my trouble. My biggest objection over the years to newspaper videos has been quality. The biggest danger we have in this rush to create content is losing the quality and thereby losing the viewer.
Audience loyalty is a fickle thing and cultivating it requires both quantity and quality and a regularly updated site. Of course, we are part of the 24 hour news cycle now and if we are going to compete for those all important viewers and those even more important advertising dollars we must create a relevant, top quality product that is updated all the time and then cross promoted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else pops up in the social media world.
As a new high school graduate with no idea what to pursue in college, my mom suggested I try accounting. I took a class in high school and did well but I knew that math and I don’t actually speak the same language and my complete failure in college algebra proved the obvious. The only math I ever liked was geometry. I still like geometry. It is a math that makes sense to me and try as I might I was never able to see much use in working formulas with the alphabet. The alphabet belonged in English class, not math. Geometry is all about lines and shapes and angles and it is such an integral part of photography they are like brothers.
I don’t mean the kind of brothers that are always fighting, I mean the kind of brothers that complement one another and work together to form great things. You know, now I think of it, maybe brothers is a bad metaphor! Maybe they are more like a great marriage where one completes the other. At any rate, geometry forms the basis for composition and photography loves shapes, triangles, circles, squares even squiggles. Not so sure about trapezoids. I have always been slightly suspicious of the trapezoid. Still, geometry and photography are great friends.
I also love history. I spent the summer at the pool with the kids and they played and I read three great volumes by Rick Atkinson known as the liberation trilogy, a look at the US Army’s growth from its infancy in north Africa to its maturity as it marched into Germany. As I read the books, the LST came into play a number of times. The LST, Landing Ship Tank, was key to allied success and delivered armies to the beach in every theater of war. The perfect photographic storm came together for me this September when LST 325 sailed up the Tennessee River. I was invited to ride the ship from Wheeler Dam to Ingalls Harbor in Decatur and it was a dream assignment for me. I was able to ride on a piece of living history. This ship participated in the invasions of Sicily, Italy and Normandy. LST 325 was on the beach on D-Day and made 44 trips across the English Channel delivering men, equipment and supplies supporting the army in Normandy.
The ride was not spectacular. The Tennessee River is pretty calm and nothing like what the ship faced in open ocean. The crew members, most all retired Navy, told me when the ship is in high seas it flexes so much you can stand on the tank deck in the stern and watch the bow flexing up and down. Now that is freaky. Over 1,000 were manufactured during World War II. LST 325 is the only one that remains operational. There were plenty of areas I could not go, some due to regulations imposed by the Coast Guard and others because not all the ship has been restored. What I could see was just awesome. The LST class was the first class of ship that was welded together rather than riveted. One of the men on board told me he heard stories where an LST broke into two pieces while in heavy seas but did not sink. They pulled the two halves together with cables, towed it to port and welded it back together and sent it back to active duty. Now that is something.
I roamed everywhere they would let me with the only instruction being not to get in the way of the crew. As we were making ready to pull into harbor I must have gotten in the way of the crew. The captain sent my escort to escort me to an area out of the way. He put me in the forward 40mm gun mount. It was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch. I would have asked to be there if I thought they would let me but here they did what I wanted without me even asking! I was able to look straight down as they opened the bow doors and lowered the tank ramp. I was told this operation could even be done at sea and not compromise the watertight integrity of the ship.
As we pulled into Ingalls Harbor we were just creeping along at one or two knots, very slow. I was able to lean out of the gun tub and look straight down on the open bow doors and the lowered tank ramp. Several crewmen in bright red and yellow shirts walked out on the ramp as we prepared to dock which essentially meant, pull right up the boat launch ramp and drop the ramp on the concrete. You see, the LST is a flat bottom boat and was designed to sail right up onto the beach and disgorge its 20 Sherman Tanks or trucks or artillery or supplies or even men. When I looked down and saw all that geometry I was delighted. The frame you see at the top of this post is my very favorite image from the trip. You see all the cool lines and angles and shapes and then you move from the very fixed geometry of the ship to the very amorphic clouds being reflected in the surface of the water. Talk about a nice contrast! I was blown away and just thrilled with the image. I always love boundaries. You have the boundaries of steel ship, water and reflected clouds plus the implied boundaries of technology and nature, steel and water and it all gives me the photographic quivers.
The cap on the assignment came for me on the last night of the ship’s visit. I suggested we might get a nice shot at sunset for our Riverfront section front since the ship would be leaving early the next day. I was able to take enough strobe power out there to light one side of the ship against a decent sunset. I then turned the strobes off and cranked up the ISO and shot some available light images which were very nice as well. Overall, I have not been more pleased with an assignment in quite a long time.
I am a very competitive man and I hate to lose and I hate to fail. I try to keep that beast in the cage because it can be pretty ugly when it gets out and prowls around but the plain fact is I truly hate losing. I begin every assignment with the idea that no one will beat me on this job and it doesn’t matter who else is shooting it. Obviously, I don’t always win and I do fail. In fact, failure is inevitable and learning to deal with failure is very important. If you fail and don’t try anymore then you lose; however, if you fail and get up and learn from it, use it to motivate you then you get better. Ultimately, success is built upon a foundation of many failures.
I was in grad school and was applying for an internship at a big newspaper in Nashville. I had spoken to the photo editor who invited me in for an interview. I assumed it was kind of a formality and I would get the gig. I was, after all, coming from Virginia to do this and I couldn’t imagine someone bringing me down to talk and not giving me the internship. What actually transpired was somewhat less pleasant. That man chewed me up and spit me out and left me with this parting shot, “you should probably be looking for another line of work.” I felt like the worst failure in the world.
I had two choices; I could tuck my tail between my legs and crawl off crying and look for a new career or I could use his criticism as motivation and do something about it. I obviously chose to stay in photography since you are reading this now. I left humiliated but knowing in my gut I was far better than what that guy thought I was. I had actually taken a portfolio of mainly sports action photos to him because that is what I did best so part of the fault was on me and I knew that by the time I left.
I can tell you now that what that man said to me has never left my mind. I have used him as motivation. Now I don’t hold anything against him and I mean that sincerely. What I mean is I let that situational failure, and his parting words, be a driving force that motivates me to always push higher. Maybe, just maybe, what that guy said is why I am where I am today. I hate failure. I hated failing that day but that hatred of failure is a strong motivation not to fail.
Recently I have had two events in my life that have driven this point home. First, back in the early summer I was a finalist for a job that would have been life changing for me and my family. I didn’t get the job. Second, at the same time, the state press association awards were announced and I did extremely well, far better than I have ever done before. Such incongruity! There is a lesson here. Don’t let success go to your head. Awards don’t mean anything, except maybe the Pulitzer. If I ever win a Pulitzer I will crow like Peter Pan and fly around the newsroom on the power of that happy thought! On the other hand, not attaining the gold medal is not the end of the world so don’t allow it to drag you down.
You won’t always win and failure isn’t always a bad thing. Failure wasn’t a bad thing for me this time. It was actually good and it will motivate me to work harder than ever. I may never attain the goal I was shooting for but think about this; even if I don’t attain that goal but I work hard to attain it the end result will be that I am much better tomorrow than I am today. That may not guarantee future gains as it relates to awards or career advancement in the sense of getting a better job or making more money. Those things are largely out of my control. What it does guarantee is that when I hang up the camera someday I will look back with satisfaction knowing that I used ever ounce of talent God gave me to be the very best that I can be.
In the end, that is the reward.
I was reading a Facebook post the other day from a friend and it said something like, there is no secret to success. I paused. I thought about it. Maybe there is no single secret to success. I don’t actually know but something about the statement didn’t sit well with me. That is usually a good thing because when I start to cogitate on something I don’t initially agree with I usually learn something.
Success, especially in photojournalism, is a funky formula of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment, looking in the right direction and having the right vision. There is an old Photo J expression, “f8 and be there,” that comes from the days of the Speed Graphic camera with the big flash bulb. Be there and be ready and get it in focus was the essential message. That is the first and most important part of the success formula. If you are not there you certainly can’t get the picture. Reporters can do big parts of their job on the phone. No such luck for us. We have to be there.
Some folks say that luck is not really some blind set of chances that combine out of the blue rather, luck is the intersection of planning and preparation with a moment. In other words, luck favors the prepared. Sometimes a photo does just drop out of the sky in your lap, so to speak, but those are very rare. Luck is planning and preparation – the right place with the right equipment – and then witnessing and capturing the moment as it unfolds.
These seem to suggest there is more to photography than pushing a button. Indeed! Consistently high quality performance is not something you get from Joe Citizen with his new camera who just happens to be standing in the right spot. Consistently high quality performance is what you get from a seasoned photojournalist who is continually putting himself/herself in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and who is paying attention to what is happening in front of the lens and occasionally behind their backs, off to the sides or behind the tree where no one else is looking.
This suggests something that has not been said. I have a great friend and mentor who passed away on New Year’s Eve. Dave Martin, whom we all affectionately knew as “Mullet,” and who was one of the legends of the Associated Press, once told me something that I will never forget. He said, “Gary, I am not the greatest photographer the AP has but I get great assignments because my bosses know when they send me on a job I will work harder than anyone else.”
Hard work is the last part of the success equation. I remember Mullet showing me a portfolio of images of sports jubilation he was putting together. I was expressing my amazement at the collection of images and that was when Mullet gave me that little secret to success. I know I am not the best photographer in the world but I also know that I can work harder than anyone else and put myself into a position to succeed.
What does hard work for a photojournalist actually look like? I tell people all the time that watching me work is about one step below watching paint dry on the excitement scale. After all, what am I doing; pushing a button? Yeah, that, but what I am really doing is what goes on before I push the button. When I am shooting sports I tend to be very active, not always, but most of the time. I run, literally, from one place to the next to get into a position to shoot something I think might happen. Sometimes I miss. Sometimes it doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen the way I think it will. But more times than not I find myself in the right place at the right time with the right gear and then I push the button.
The same goes for breaking news. You have to be there and you have to be there at the opportune moment. That is where the work comes in. Getting into a position to shoot breaking news can be the biggest challenge. A weather event is tough to predict and tough to get into a position to shoot and still maintain a margin of safety that gets you in and out in one piece. Many times you will have to deal with police barricades, road closures, property issues, personal safety concerns and you still need to get the photo. The hard work comes in getting yourself into the right place to do the job. Then, of course, you have to get the photo or video on the web as soon as humanly possible – or sooner.
How about shooting a portrait, or a standard news feature assignment? What is hard work there? Much of it is mental. It involves imagination and it involves planning and you finally get to execute the photo. Many times I am making my plan on the fly while driving to an assignment. I usually don’t have a tremendous amount of advance time on a job so I have learned to quickly adapt and to minimize gear except in rare circumstances. For instance, there was a portrait I did a few years ago of a couple who reconstructed a log cabin on their property. I wanted to do a portrait at dusk that showed off the cabin and would have them standing on the front porch. I strung together ever light and every pocket wizard I could come up with. I think I had six strobes, maybe it was seven, hanging here and there to get the natural effect I wanted. I love the shot but it took a ton of work to set up and execute. That is the exception. Most of my portrait work for the job is a one light umbrella set up that is light and portable.
What about you now? What will your secret to success be? Whatever it is, please don’t outwork me. That is what keeps me employed!
Basketball season for Alabama high schools is winding down. That alone is reason for celebration but it is tournament time and that is reason for double celebration. Regular season basketball can become tedious because we cover so many games. The pictures get a bit repetitive. There is usually not much emotion in a regular season game unless you happen to be covering a big rivalry and emotion is what makes the the games great and the pictures better. Tournament time is all about emotion and the action is better too because you have the best teams playing one another. Good stuff.
In recent years I have covered very little basketball. I probably did more this year than in the past two or three seasons combined. That is a good thing. I do love covering sports but basketball comes in third on my list behind baseball and football. Still, there is nothing like the regional and state tournaments. They are wonderful.
If you are a new shooter or haven’t shot much lately, here are a few tips for getting better stuff. First, let’s talk lenses. During the regular season I will most often shoot with the two mainstays in my bag, the 17-35 and the 80-200. We don’t often carry the 300 into a normal high school gym. Most of the time the gyms are bit dark and hauling the big glass in is cumbersome without much benefit. Tournament games are played in college gyms with much better lighting and the 300 becomes a great tool. Unfortunately, I have only one good camera body so I become proficient in the fine art of the lens juggle! The key thing is to shoot with all your lenses. I like putting that wide zoom right down on the floor and shooting up toward the basket. You get some interesting stuff. The 300 is good for opposite end of the floor stuff and the 80-200 gives you excellent half court coverage.
The shooting position you choose is a matter of comfort and taste. I like to shoot from right underneath the basket. I usually shoot from my knees or from a sitting position. It took some getting used to but once I felt comfortable there I have been able to make some very nice photos. One added benefit is that is the one place on the court the referee never stands. He will run past you from time to time but he never stops there. I can’t even tell you have many pictures have been ruined by the zebra’s back side! In some arenas you can move around. If you can, do. Especially move up high if that is possible. In the arena at Wallace State in Hanceville the seating is very vertical so you can climb high and get a nice view of the court.
Look for photos away from the floor. I got a shot this year of one of the coaches standing in the arena entryway completely oblivious to me as he watches the end of the game before his. The cheerleaders give a bit of framing and there is a cool, blue light coming from behind him. There is another shot of an older man giving a piece of gum and some good advice to the same coach’s little boy on the bench as the team is loosing. It is a nice moment. Editors always want to see photos of fans. I didn’t do enough of that this year but fan photos can be a bit repetitive as well. I think the best fan photos I have are of dejected fans. Not on the best seller list for reprint requests.
The primary thing with basketball is the emotion so pay attention to emotion. When I am shooting tournaments with back to back games I usually get some action in the first half, edit and transmit during halftime and the third period and then rejoin the action in the fourth making sure to get the emotion shots win or lose. I do hate to shoot photos of the kids crying on the bench but that is part of the story and that means it is part of the job. In a way, I am comforted the kids care enough to cry. Of course, jubilation after a victory is the best thing to shoot. I love seeing the kids get all ramped up about a big win. By the way, you can get in their face with your wide lens after a victory and nobody cares but do show some compassion and shoot the tears with a longer lens and don’t get in their face. They are not NBA pros. They are still just kids.
One final word, be cautious in the hospitality room. I have been covering the regional tournament at Wallace State for most of the twenty years I have worked in Decatur and for every single season they have had the same four types of cookies in the hospitality room. No joke. And usually there is cubed cheese. Even the serving containers are the same. Makes you wonder! Of course, in Birmingham, during the Final Four games, when they bring in actual food for a meal, don’t get in the way of the reporters. Those poor, half starved sports writers stampede the food tables as if they haven’t seen a meal in eons. It can be dangerous in there!
Being a good photographer has relatively little to do with the camera in your hand or the lens mounted to said camera. Being a good photographer comes down to finding moments and capturing them with whatever camera is in your hand. I am a community photojournalist and every single day I am faced with the challenge of finding a photograph. I know something is going in the paper regardless of how good or bad I do, something is going to be published so I have the challenge of finding the moment in every assignment.
To be honest, there are days when I don’t want to try. There are days when I would rather just grab the easy shot and get on out of there. In truth, ninety-nine percent of the time the bosses wouldn’t say anything as long as they have something to fill that slot. The problem is my name is under that photo. That alone motivates me to make every shot as excellent as I can make it. Maybe you don’t have that everyday challenge or maybe you do and it has worn you down. That is the thing about newspaper photojournalism, it really can wear you down. Exactly how many high school basketball games can there be in a season? How many community play promos are you going to shoot? Do I really have to shoot that festival again for the umpteenth year in a row? All that stuff weighs you down and makes finding a shot difficult.
The question then is how to stay fresh and keep on finding those nice moments amid the mundane routine of life? I like to think of edges. Take a piece of paper and look at it. Pretty dull isn’t it. Now, tear the paper into two parts. Tear it any direction you like. Now hold it up and look at the torn edge. It is vastly more interesting than the straight, factory cut edge. It has character. I has something real about it. Now, take your photo assignment and just rip it up. Yeah, I know, you still have to shoot the assignment but look at it differently. Tear up the assignment and find the edges within the assignment. Find where it is ragged, real, alive.
To do this doesn’t take nearly as much work as you might imagine. You already know what is expected so go ahead and grab that straight edge of the paper photo and get it out of the way. Now, look at it differently. Rip it up and look for a moment within the assignment. Life is real even when it is being stage managed and manipulated. There are still real moments there. You will see a photo with this post of two women hugging beside a house. That is a very typical assignment for a Habitat for Humanity home dedication. They do the same thing at every one of these and I have shot at least a dozen, maybe twenty of these home dedications over the years. This moment happened before the ceremony began with the director of the Morgan County Habitat hugging the new home owner. It was my best shot from the day and it was not the “planned” photo.
We do frequent play promos. Mostly the night guys get that assignment but I was working a night shift and caught one. This one was based on the Aristocats. One of the directors was teaching the geese how to waddle before the rehearsal. I was overhead in a balcony and had a great angle for a shot. That was my favorite image from the night. The cop photo was from a shooting. It happened in the parking lot of a cheering academy and I had all the standard cops investigating images. I was looking for a better angle and noticed the little girls peering out the window. It turned a normal cops photo into a cool image.
I was at a high school football practice one day and arrived near the end. I shot the expected photo to go with the story and noticed the kids in the tubs. I walked down to investigate and started chatting. The kids were sitting in the ice baths after practice to cool down and help with recovery. I had a wonderful shot because I took a little extra time to look around. The kid spitting seeds was another photo where I already had plenty of shots but came back one more time because I just wasn’t satisfied. This kid was one of the last ones to compete and I got this wonderful expression as she spit her pumpkin seed. Again, I took a few extra minutes and came away with a much better photo.
Sometimes you just have to turn around and see what else is going on. I love shooting sports action but many times the photo is going on behind me. The kids reacting to the touchdown is a classic example of noticing something behind me that was better than what was in front of me. I mean, how many times can you make a photo of a football player scoring a one yard touchdown? The kids reacting to the one yard touchdown was far better than any action photo I could have made.
Maybe you are seeing a pattern. Look around, be curious, spend a few extra minutes and work for something beyond the ordinary. Trust me, it is far too easy to capture the ordinary and simply walk away. Force yourself to never be satisfied with ordinary. Look beyond the assignment. Literally rip it up and look for those torn edges where the real picture is waiting to be captured. You will be happier with yourself and your bosses will be much happier with your work.
Today, assuming you are reading this on February 14, marks two decades for me at The Decatur Daily. Wow! That was never my plan. I grew up in north Alabama and, when I moved to Virginia to go to grad school, I never intended to return. Then I got married and we started having children and suddenly there were four and an opening came back near home. I moved back with a five year plan. I would stay here five years and move on. Five became ten, then four more children came and now ten has become twenty. Crazy. I have no idea where the time went.
People sometimes ask, “Why are you still in Decatur?” Well, I ask myself that question sometimes too. The answer is probably tied to the first paragraph. We chose family over a great many things and that includes money and it has meant that staying put and raising that family we chose has been the best thing for us. I haven’t always liked working here. In fact, there have been times I have hated it. There have been times I have loved it too. I once thought it would be great to move on to a big newspaper but after all these years that seems pretty unlikely. Still, plenty of opportunities have come to me right here. Some have stunned me. I just hope when I am done I can look back and say that I gave my very to this job. After all, it is likely enough this is my last photojournalism job so why not make it the very best job I can.
I have had great colleagues over the years, absolutely great. Some amazing talent has come through the doors of The Daily’s photo department. Some are still in photojournalism while others have moved to other lines of work but they have all been good people and I can’t think of a single one of them I don’t love to this day. Every single one of those colleagues have enhanced my life and I hope I have done the same for them. If I had to leave tomorrow I would say I have worked with some of the best people anyone could want to know.
I get the question all the time, “What is your favorite picture?” I usually stammer around and end up saying I have a lot of favorite pictures. You can see some of them with this post. I mean, twenty years, try and boil that down to a favorite picture. Since that is a good question, let me break it down a little bit and look back over some of my favorite photos and memories.
The best assignment I have ever had is one I gave myself. The Upside of Down, a look at people with Down syndrome will always hold a special place in my heart. My precious son Reece, the inspiration for the whole project and such an amazing love, passed away right in the middle of it. Finishing that project was the hardest thing I will ever do but it is the most rewarding thing I have done in photojournalism
The worst assignment – dang, that is easy. Any man on the street anything. I hate man on the street. Biggest waste of a photographer’s time in the world. Let’s go shoot a bunch of mug shots. Yeah, sign me up. Man, I can’t tell you how bad I hate that. Ribbon cuttings and ground breakings run a close second. Don’t care for those either. As a matter of a fact, anything where I have to pose a bunch of people is just not my thing. I know guys make good money doing that but it just isn’t me.
Favorite sports photo is probably a tie between a photo of Cam Newton walking to the locker room with his little brother after winning the SEC Championship and a photo I shot of Johnny Manziel two years ago when A&M beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Love both those pics. They are both in the gallery too.
Favorite portrait; easiest choice of all. I shot a photo of Jennifer Adair in the rubble of her home after the 2011 EF5 tornado. All time favorite portrait and one of my all time favorite photos.
Favorite news photo; much tougher. If we separate tornado photos into a separate group then I would probably say it is a fire photo. It is hard for me to choose.
Favorite tornado photo; again, tough to choose. Probably my most favorite will hold for another category but almost anything I shot of people in Camden Court following the 2011 tornado.
Related to tornadoes, the most gut wrenching image is a tie between a photo I shot of a firefighter sheltering a kid as an air ambulance lands behind them and a photo from the 2008 Aldridge Grove tornado. The firefighter is shielding a little boy who was the only survivor of a quadruple fatal wreck on Alabama Highway 20. The other four victims including his mother, aunt and cousins. I have never been more sick after covering anything. It is one of the few times in my life I wished I could throw up. I will never forget the image of firefighters doing CPR on those children, never. The tornado image is of James Devaney searching the rubble of his daughter’s home after it was destroyed. After shooting his photo he told me he had just come from the hospital where they had pronounced his daughter, son-in-law and grandson dead. My heart still breaks for him. That photo was the first image I ever had published as the lead photo on page 1 of the New York Times. It ran a bunch of other places too.
Another haunting image is the one of the folks gathered behind an ambulance in Moulton after the death of two volunteer firefighters. Word got around the two had been killed fighting the fire and the community gathered at the scene. I will never forget arriving and getting out of my car that night. I opened the door to hear a woman weeping and moaning somewhere in the dark. That sound haunts me to this day. I know what her heart felt now. It is a terrible feeling. No doubt, one of the firefighters who died was someone she loved.
The most terrified I have ever been on any assignment, or any time in my life for that matter, was the thirty seconds I spent on Highway 31 in front of an EF5 tornado. I thought I was a pretty bold and brave person until then. Never been so scared in my life.
The most popular photo I have ever shot is Greg Cook hugging his dog Coco after the 2012 tornado in Limestone County. That thing has been around the world a few times courtesy of the internet. It’s not my favorite picture ever but people do love that dog.
I suppose if you threaten torture and make me proclaim any one photo my favorite I would probably choose the photo of Kevin Harrison and his family as they emerge from their storm safe room. It is one of those moments where everything comes together. Kevin and Sarabeth are hugging their kids amid all that destruction. It is a close thing but I guess that would be my favorite if forced to choose just one.
The kissing conference is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual assignments I have ever covered. UNA held a seminar about kissing and I got the assignment. Where was that when I was a student at UNA? One wonders.
One more thing, the photo I got into the most trouble for is the one where I cut off Howell Heflin’s head, on purpose. I thought the photo was wonderful and I still love it to this day. Our executive editor was not as thrilled. I got calls from everybody in the newsroom telling me to stay out of the office for a while because the boss was hot. Glad there was a day long manhunt to cover that day!
I have loved the little bit of travel that comes with my job. I have had the amazing privilege of shooting four BCS National Championships. I mean, that is beyond my wildest dreams. I am 4-0 by the way. My teams have won every time. I loved going to Florida to photograph the launch of the first rocket built by Boeing in their Decatur plant. That, by the way, was the assignment I was most nervous about. They told me the rocket would be over the pad for about five seconds. Yeah, right. That thing lit off and it was gone. Man, it may have been there for two seconds. When it had lifted out of sight I stood there in a cold sweat wondering if I had an image. It was a night launch on a new rocket so no one knew exactly what the right exposure was going to be. Whew!
By the way, it is worth mentioning, my wife’s favorite picture is the one of Philip Rivers making a face during a game against the Tennessee Titans. She laughs every time she sees that one and usually makes a comment about it. Coming from her, that is high praise.
Overall, I have to say that I am best known for the tornado stuff. I am not sure I like that but, as an AP editor recently told me, at least you are known for something. I guess sports is the second thing I am most known for. I really love doing what I do. Like any job there are ups and downs and good days and bad days but I remind myself on the bad days that I still have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I don’t know how many years I will be allowed to continue doing this. I don’t know if those years will be spent in Decatur. The future is far from certain in the newspaper world. Whatever happens moving forward I know this, I am immensely grateful for the past twenty years.
Click on any image to start a slideshow.
This is the twentieth, and final, post of the Twenty Moments News series for 2013.
You are already smiling! I like that. What a great way to start off the new year. School assignments are not always this entertaining. In fact, far too many involve children looking at computer screens. This assignment was for a fall festival at one of Decatur’s elementary schools. The schedule of events didn’t look all that visually promising except for the pumpkin seed spitting contest. Needless to say, I spent most of my time there.
In fact, I shot one class going through their competition and left to go to another area of the school. Something was nagging me about that seed spitting contest so I went back a second time and went through it with another class. These kids were a bit older and I shot child after child, and a few teachers, taking turns at the spitting line. Some would run up and try to launch the seed with the force of their run and jump. Those didn’t tend to go all that far.
I was having a hard time with my autofocus and I think that is what was nagging me. As I reviewed images I could tell there was a consistent AF problem. This was the only time I noticed the AF trouble I mentioned in an earlier post apart from sports assignments but there was a lot of movement and the AF was not tracking well at all. This little girl toed the line and she launched her seed. I had no idea she was making the entertaining face until I reviewed the image. I zoomed the viewer and was delighted to the point of laughter when I saw the image come up with that great expression and I was even more delighted when I saw it was tack sharp!
I shot a couple more kids before moving on. I knew I had my shot but I did want to finish out that class. No point in making the kids feel bad I didn’t shoot their picture too. It was nothing to me but a couple of extra minutes but these things matter to children and I try to accommodate them whenever I can. This one was easy.
Well, Twenty Moments is over for the year. I had a really wonderful year and there are many, many more images I wish I could show you but one or the other of us would get bored. I hope y’all made it all the way through both the sports edition and the news edition. I have no idea if I will ever do that again. Writing forty posts is no joke! Still, it is so much fun for me to share these images with all of you. I hope you all have a highly successful and prosperous new year. May your days be blessed with life, health and lots of love.
This is the twentieth, and final, post in the Twenty Moments Sports series for 2013.
We have finally arrived. Twenty Moments concludes today with a special picture. It is special because it is a photo of my son on his first day of baseball practice on the field. I kicked off a personal photo essay project with this image. Peter had never played baseball before and baseball is my favorite sport. I had seen a Sportsshooter post about photographer Brad Mangin doing an entire book of iPhone images processed through Instagram. He covers pro baseball but I thought I could try a more limited project with my town.
Hartselle is a baseball crazy little town and I had always wanted to do an essay going from the little leagues to the major leagues. I figured I may never get a chance to do pro baseball, at least not consistently enough to pull that off, but I could do a progression from the little kids up through high school. Hartselle has a really great high school program and this would turn into another magical year for them culminating in a state championship. As it happened, the day we published Baseball Town the high school team won the state baseball championship. It was the eighth title in school history. That fit like a hand in a glove!
I began shooting on Peter’s first day of outdoor practice. This image was not the first one I shot but it was certainly among the first. I had no experience shooting with the iPhone so both he and I would have a learning experience. I knew I would have almost no image of baseball action so I concentrated on the flavor of baseball rather than on peak action. I shot day games and night games and tried to have some fun and not be a slave to the project. My number one goal was to enjoy Peter’s first season.
I showed some images to my editor and he liked them and said to go ahead with a photo essay. I began negotiating with our advertising department to get an ad free double truck that was also in color. I was processing the images I was shooting in PhotoToaster using the Park Place filter. I had to tweak a number of images to adjust brightness and contrast levels. The filter doesn’t work the same on high contrast, low contrast or night or day images. I gave it a border too. I figured if I was going to do all that tweaking I may as well go all the way.
We published a beautiful double truck designed by Kristin Williams and I felt very happy about my little photo essay. I decided to send a link to an ESPN photo editor who I know in hopes he may like the images and keep me in mind for some future freelance assignments for the magazine. My submission coincided with an issue they were planning on youth sports. Before you know it I had an image from the essay published in ESPN The Magazine and I had a full photo gallery at ESPN.com. Talk about a project exceeding my expectations. Wow! I am still blown away by all that.
What a wonderful year it has been. I think this has been the best sports year of my career. This football season has been very memorable. I had more fun with baseball this season than I can remember. I can hope now, on January 1, 2014, that this year may somehow be better than last. And that is my wish for you all as we enter a new year full of pitfalls and promises. May your new year be blessed beyond measure and may at least some of your dreams be fulfilled. God be with you all.