In the last post I encouraged you to find what matters in your community and pursue it. Here is an example where I did this exactly. Knowing the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II would occur this year, I decided to do a big multimedia project. I wanted to give voice to veterans. I wanted to have them tell their stories in their own voices. I figured that would matter to our community.
I set out on this journey in 2014 doing my research, collecting photos and video footage from World War II. I have always been an avid reader of World War II history so this was not hard work for me. I knew a couple of guys who, I was fairly sure, would share their stories with me. I began by calling those people.
I created a very cheap light set from stuff I already had and I bought some other things from Home Depot and Lowe’s, real high tech, but it all worked. I developed a game plan that would give my finished videos a cohesive look. I emailed and called back and forth with our web designer and had him craft a template for the website so we could showcase the videos. I even created the logo for the pieces that would appear in print. Eventually, I even ended up writing all the stories, something I never intended to do.
What I ended up with was a collection of 15 multimedia stories, with written stories and photo illustrations that we published over the course of months from mid-April through August 15, the anniversary of the cessation of hostilities with Japan. I was very pleased with the finished project and my only disappointment was in not being able to tell everyone’s story. I got fourteen men and one woman who shared wonderful stories with me.
I have even been told that several people came to the paper to buy a subscription based on having seen and read some of the stories. Others came in and bought the back issues of the paper containing the stories they had not read. The greatest part was my own personal enlightenment. I knew the history fairly well. What I had missed in all that reading was the sense of personal sacrifice of the men and women who actually did the fighting. I already had a great deal of respect for veterans. Now I have astronomical respect for them. The burden these, now very old men and women, have carried for these 70 years is simply stunning.
That was a project that mattered. I don’t know what the newspaper would have done for the 70th anniversary had I not done this project. Who knows, they may have done something big anyway, or they may have run an AP story on the anniversary of VE Day and VJ Day. I don’t know. What I do know is I created something special for our readers and online viewers. What I do know is I grew as a journalist and as a person while doing this project. That is what I call a win-win situation.
What matters to your community? What matters to you? I had a wonderful professor in a creative writing class in graduate school. I will always remember him telling us to do our creative writing projects on subjects that mattered to us. If we were not interested in the subject matter it would show. He is oh so right. If you are not interested in what you do it will definitely show. Conversely, it also shows when you are interested in what you are doing.
If you are going to give yourself assignments, give yourself ones you are interested in and ones that are relevant in your community. I have this other big, multimedia project lurking around in the back of my mind. It will come out one day before too long. I have another in there as well and it is going to be extremely powerful. If you don’t know your community, take some time to learn it. How, do you ask, do you do that? Great question – and you have already begun to know the answer by simply asking the question.
You ask questions and you listen. What do people in your community care about? Listen to them talk. They will tell you. If they aren’t talking, or you have not been listening, ask people questions. If you want to find an answer, there is nothing like asking a question! Asking questions is the greatest career builder you will ever have. Make notes when someone tells you something important.
I had a lady come tell me a great story idea at the Friday night high school game. I made a note and I will make sure to pursue that story at my next Alabama football game. Turns out there is a band story at the University of Alabama with great local interest. Who knew? Well, I didn’t but I do now.
If you are interested in seeing the full Vanishing Generation series, please visit this link: http://www.decaturdaily.com/special_reports/the_vanishing_generation/ You can read the text stories by using the site search and typing in The Vanishing Generation.
Every single day a news photographer goes to work in America could be his last. That is not being dramatic. I was talking to friends at al.com recently and they were talking about what the future held for their company. The next week, they were all laid off. Just like that. No warning. They got a call to the office and were told it was their last day. It is going on all over the country and it is affecting photojournalists in large markets and small markets. No one is immune.
The underlying problem is two fold. First, management has no idea where the industry is heading and they are desperately trying to find something that works. Second, management is failing to understand the power and importance of visual communication in the most visual era in human history. These two problems are at the root of layoffs nationwide. For some reason, many media organizations feel they can increase their focus on visuals by laying off visual professionals. I know, it makes no sense whatever. Most companies are trying to increase their video and multimedia footprint which, again, points out the absurdity of laying off the professionals who produce the content.
With all that uncertainty, how do you even function, much less produce high quality work? It can be very distracting to feel the sword of Damocles constantly hanging over one’s head. How then do we go out there and do the kind of work that is important to our communities under such circumstances?
It won’t do any good to rail against the machine. You can’t fix the machine unless you come up with a new idea for the business side to make money. Actually, I will say this. People have a huge appetite for news right now. Probably, the public appetite for news has never been greater. The problem is that everyone is giving away their online content. Ad revenue, for reasons I don’t understand, is lower online than it was in print. Not sure how that works. I am not a business person.
My part of the business is producing the content our viewers consume. Putting all that out of mind and doing great work is what I get paid to do. That is what you get paid to do. That is the essence of being professional. One day the sword may get you but until that day, what will you do?
I decided a long time ago, and I have to continually remind myself of this, the quality of my work depends solely on me. It does not depend on the reporters making good assignments. It does not depend on editors. It depends on me. This means I approach every assignment with the idea I am going to do something great with that assignment. Okay, yeah, there are some assignments I have a problem generating any enthusiasm for, I am human, but I work hard to motivate myself to work hard every day.
Approach is the key. As we began looking at covering this high school football season, as an example, I decided I would give my maximum effort to produce huge, high quality photo galleries and videos where I could manage the time. I wanted my high school galleries to be every bit as good as my college galleries. Probably the high school galleries are even more important to our readers than the college galleries because they feature “our kids.” I get to my games as early as possible and shoot the heck out of those pregame features, players, fans, band, cheerleaders and random people doing whatever they do at the stadium.
On my regular news and feature assignments I am doing all I can to, not only produce high quality images, but also a high quantity of images. I don’t think about my worries regarding the future when I am shooting an assignment. I focus completely on that assignment and how I can do the best work possible. I push myself to be excellent. I work hard to make the photos the best possible photos I can make from that assignment. I compete with myself. I drive myself. I pretend someone is trying to out shoot me and I use that as motivation. Really, I am just trying to out shoot myself.
How much difference does any of that make? To tell you the truth, I don’t know if it makes any difference in whether I can keep my job or not. Those decisions are affected by the money side of the business. The difference it makes is in my personal job satisfaction. I decided a long time back to perform today as if I were working for the Washington Post or the New York Times. After all, I will probably never work anywhere else in my career. Papers can hire younger, cheaper shooters than me so this may be it. If this is it I want to make this “it” the best I can. When I leave this career, either by my choice or by someone else’s choice, I want to look back and feel proud of the work I did here. It is my name under those photos and on those video tag lines. I want my name associated with the highest quality work.
I am a runner. I have run races as long as a half-marathon. My wife and I both do this. She is better at it than I am and much more disciplined but we do run. I am not fast. People sometimes ask me why I run. Well, there is part of me that hates it that I am not fast and probably won’t ever win a race but winning the race is not the reason I run. I run so I can have good health. Running certainly can’t guarantee a long life but running can help me attain a good quality of life; therefore, I run.
Doing good work, even great work, can’t guarantee a long career or pay raises. Doing excellent work does guarantee I have the satisfaction of knowing I have given my all and, when I do leave the profession, I can leave with my head held high.
If this is a new concept for you, try this as an exercise. Ask yourself the question, “What matters to my community?” When you find an answer, pursue that with vigor. Hey, it may be high school football. It sure is in Alabama. It may be the opening of a new school or a revitalization of an old downtown. It might be crime or poverty. Whatever you determine, let that be a starting point. Give yourself assignments in those areas of community interest. Don’t wait on someone else to do it. You are in charge of you. Be a good boss.
Now, apply your newfound attitude to other assignments. Get the ball rolling and keep feeding that positive momentum. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the length of your career but there is a ton you can do about it’s quality. Pursue excellence and let the chips fall where may. If you learn this lesson here and you lose your job you will have one of the greatest attributes any future employer could hope to find in a new hire. You will have a spirit of excellence.
I was working one day this week and my boss walked over to me and said, “Gary, you are one prolific photographer.” I wasn’t sure it was a compliment. I think he was politely saying, “Why are you printing so many proofs when all I need is one for the budget meeting.” But still, I put the best face on it and decided it was a compliment. It does; however, beg a question and that question is the title.
Back in the old days, you know, before the internet took over the world, I used to turn in about three pictures for your everyday news assignment. For a Friday night football game I would hope to turn in maybe five to seven images knowing only two or three would run. For a college football game I would hope to move about seven photos on deadline. Back in the day we were processing film and then scanning the images into the Leafax and transmitting over standard phone lines. It was slow!
I have covered two college football games this season and I moved a total of about 300 images from the two games. Granted, we are still only publishing about six to eight images in the paper but now photo galleries must be filled and, at least according to the powers that be, the more the merrier. In two high school football games this month, I think I moved about 130 images. My everyday assignments that I used to submit three images for are now commanding between 10 and 20 images. Those numbers represent exponential increases over what I did back in the film days when there was no internet.
Is that a good thing? I mean, seriously, how much is too much? That, my friends, is the question. Have you ever heard the story of the two men going camping and one man worries about bears? The one guy looks at the other and says, “I don’t think I can outrun a bear.” The second guy responds, “I don’t think I can either but I know for sure I can outrun you!” That is about what it is like in the newspaper business today. We are filling photo galleries like we are running away in terror, trying to not get eaten by the layoff bear.
No one really knows the answer to this question but allow me to pose it anyway. How do you know when enough is enough. I mean, we have literally had two people in leadership suggest we simply point the camera at the stands during a high school game and fill the galleries with meaningless pictures of people sitting there doing nothing. I suppose the rationale is if they think they might be in a picture they also might click through the gallery. That is a really warped mindset and it shows how desperate newspaper management is becoming. Believe me, this idea did not come from our managers. They heard it from some consultant somewhere which means these consultants are actually recommending that crap all over the place. I have seen one newspaper website that did this and the results are horrific. No one in their right mind would ever go back to that website again.
Back to my question, how much is too much and how do you know when enough is enough? What is our mission? Our mission is to report the news. That is our core and any business that abandons its core is doomed. Another way of saying this is our core is community relevant news. When we become irrelevant we are doomed. Close the doors and move along because there will be nothing left. So, what is relevant? I don’t know all the answers to that question but I can tell you one thing that is relevant in the fall in Alabama and that is football.
Now you see why I have been working extra hard to fill my photo galleries. I will not put crap in my galleries. I will work very, very hard to fill my galleries with high quality content but I will not put irrelevant pictures in my galleries to meet some ridiculous quota. Allow me to explain. This current era is the most visually saturated, and one would assume, visually literate era in human history. More visual content is pouring through more outlets than at any time in our history. This means, this especially means, that to be seen and stand out amid this vast flow of visual information, your content must be excellent and it must be relevant.
High school football is relevant. College football is relevant. Think about this. Why do people go to high school football games? The reason is slightly different from the reason people go to college games. High schools don’t typically draw the rabid fan base that Alabama and Auburn draw. People go to high school games because they have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, brother or sister participating. Those kids play in the band, on the football team and they are cheerleaders. The fans are there for a reason and the reason is to see their kid do their thing.
Now, what do you want to fill your photo galleries with? That’s right, relevant content. I have attended many, many football and basketball games, the two big sports in terms of fan attendance, and the student section will always be animated. Make pictures of those people. They have parents and grandparents, etc., who will look for their photo. The rest of the fans look just flat bored. Once in a while a fan will react to a big play or a bad call but otherwise they just kinda sit there. Not much of a picture.
College games are different. People go to college games because they are rabid fans and because the game day experience is pretty amazing. Fan pictures there are less relevant than at high school games because the fans are from all over God’s green earth and may or may not be relevant to your particular readership. If you can find a handful of locals in that sea of humanity, by all means shoot their photos, but the vast majority of Bama and Auburn fans want to see Bama and Auburn pictures.
So how much is too much? I have developed a theory. When you run out of relevant pictures, stop. That is enough. If I publish a 123 photos in a gallery it is because there is not a worthy 124th. If I publish five pictures in a gallery it is because there is not a worthy sixth. I have worked hard to develop a reputation for excellence and I refuse to throw that away. I will work very, very hard to maximize the number of photos I put in a gallery but I will not compromise quality.
It has been a while. I have been more than busy recently and have not had the time nor the inclination to do a blog post. We lost a staff member this year and I have been working on a special project that has been consuming all my time so blogging has been out of the question. I thought; however, it is past time for an update.
The Vanishing Generation is a special, primarily multimedia series, I have been thinking about doing for a long time. In fact, I began preparation for the series last year by researching the National Archives and related online sites for photos from World War II. I wanted to get a series of World War II veterans telling their stories on camera before they are gone. While I knew the generation that has been dubbed “The Greatest Generation” was dying off rather quickly, I had no idea exactly how quickly. The VA estimates World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 500 per day. My project took on a sense of urgency.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and as I began looking at the death rates I figured this would be the last opportunity around what we would call a major anniversary to get these interviews. The youngest man I have interviewed is 88 years old. The oldest, to this point, is 93. I also knew many of these men had either never told their stories or had only told pieces of their stories. My own grandfather was a WWII veteran and he absolutely never talked about his war service. I finally, in the last years of his life, was able to get a little bit of information from him but, even then, he would not tell me much.
My first obstacle was to find some way to create nice lighting with no budget. If you work in the newspaper world right now, you fully understand what I mean. I didn’t bother looking into actual video lighting, instead I went to Lowes and Home Depot and scouted their work lights. I first thought of getting one of those quartz lights like you see on construction sites but my colleague Jeronimo Nisa had used them before and said they created a hum you could hear in the microphones. Scratch one light. I decided on the simplest solution I could find. I bought three clamp lights and bulbs.
Did you know, you can’t actually buy a large wattage incandescent bulb anymore? I think the government has outlawed incandescent bulbs or something like that. I had to purchase CFL bulbs. The 300 watt equivalent CFL, while no doubt cooler, certainly doesn’t create 300 watts worth of light. None the less, I got one clamp light with a 300 watt CFL and two reflectors with 150 watt CFL bulbs. One basic light set created. Now I could use my existing light stands and umbrellas without spending any more money.
I created a list of veterans. When I began the project I had six or seven names and didn’t know how many, if any, would be willing to share their stories. I began with George Mills, an Army vet who was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Mills gave me a great interview and I was ready to kick things off. I created an intro video for the series using photographs and basic information about World War II that ended with an invitation to send me names of any veteran who might be willing to participate.
What I did not expect to do was write stories to go with the series. My original idea was to do a 100 percent online video presentation of each man’s story. In talking with editors, we decided to kick the series off with a couple of stories in print and a reporter friend volunteered to do the writing. Problems arose when, every time I was ready to go shoot a story, he got reassigned to do some other story. I realized if my series was ever going to happen I was probably going to have to write the stories too. While I didn’t mind writing stories, it was an unexpected wrinkle that ate up more time. As the series progressed, I had to fight to continue writing the stories. While I wasn’t thrilled to add all that writing time, most of the veterans were reading the stories in print which is typical of their generation. Most of them don’t spend a lot of time watching videos online.
Here is something everyone should know. In setting up and executing a special project, especially in these days of depleted newsrooms and smaller and smaller newspapers, you must be ready to do whatever it takes to get your project done. If it means extra hours then you work extra hours. If it means you write stories, then you write stories. If it means you have to go and beg for space, then you go and beg for space. If it means you have to go to advertising and sell your idea, then you go to advertising and sell your idea. It would be super if the editors got behind your special project and made sure it happens but you can’t count on that. If the project was your idea that means it was not the editor’s idea and if it is not the editor’s idea he is not likely to push for it nearly as hard as he would push for his own ideas. Editors are human after all.
I can tell you, this has frustrated me so much over the years. To do work beyond the obvious daily grind of assignments means you have to scrap and fight for every single bit of it from resources to time to publication space. There are times when I have gotten so frustrated I have thrown my hands up and sworn never to do a project again. Then I get bored with the daily grind and go do another project. Really, it should not be that way. I swear, if I were the editor I would be different. Yeah, right! At least, I would like to think I would be different. My direct supervisor, our photo editor John Godbey, is now, and has always been, very supportive of these special projects. He does what he can but John doesn’t have the power to create space, or support, for these projects.
This is turning into a rather long post so I am going to cut this off here and bring you into the shooting and production phase in a second post.
For those of you who may not be up on your civil rights history, Selma, Alabama was a major battleground. In 1965 as black marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in support of civil rights Alabama State Troopers and local law enforcement officers attacked and beat many of the marchers driving them back into Selma with billy clubs and tear gas. Blood ran on the bridge named for a man who once headed the Klu Klux Klan in Alabama. As a direct result of this day which has become known as Bloody Sunday, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 opening the polls to black Americans and putting an end to many egregious methods of keeping blacks away from the voting booth.
This past Saturday President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, their daughters, former President George Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush along with many congressmen and senators came to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that
historic day. I was assigned to do photo coverage alongside reporter Deangelo McDaniel and I was pretty excited. I have always wanted to photograph the reenactment of the march and; although, I would not be there for the march itself I would get to photograph a historic day with America’s first black president giving the keynote address.
I covered one other presidential visit when George W. Bush came to Limestone County’s Brownsferry Nuclear plant to deliver an energy address so I knew there would be limitations to my ability to cover the event. The Secret Service takes a dim view of the media having freedom of movement especially when that freedom of movement might get you close to the President. Even with that, I was excited to have an opportunity to document history.
The atmosphere in Selma was amazing. About 100,000 people showed up to hear and see the President and my only problem was being tied to one place. I could move in a very crowded box about five feet wide and about 25 feet long and that is only because I didn’t want to be on the risers set up for the media. Kristin Williams was designing our front page and she had an idea of what she wanted to do with the design so I needed to get a photo that would fit her design. From the riser there was no angle where I could accomplish that. I managed to find one small spot on the ground at the base of the riser where I could get pretty nearly what she wanted. I stood there for over three hours waiting and hoping no one was going to come and move me. You just never know.
I was very limited in what I could see from my position and being stuck in the photographers area prevented me from roaming among the people as I would normally have done. Several people came through the area on the way to their seating areas and I managed a few images of people who actually marched in the Bloody Sunday march 50 years ago. I also got the expected images of people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
When the president came on stage the problems became a bit more interesting as everyone in front of us stood on their chairs to get a better look or to take a picture. There was massive yelling from the photo compound. Not from me, I was busy laughing at all that yelling and trying to get a shot through all those raised cell phones. And people, please stop with the selfies! Good grief. So many people turned their backs to the platform to take a selfie with the president way, way in the background. Really folks, chill.
Due to some problems getting into town, like traffic coming to a standstill, Deangelo and I deciding to walk, I left the 300mm lens in the car. Good thing too. The photography area was so incredibly crowded it was difficult to even swap between my wide angle camera body and my telephoto camera body. Tight does not begin to describe the situation. It got real friendly down there before all was said and done.
The actual photography was not difficult, at least it wasn’t difficult after all the people took their seats in front of us. Then it was a matter of trying to get into the exact position I wanted to get that photo of the President with the Edmund Pettus bridge behind him. The composition was not perfect and I probably transmitted ten to fifteen images of the President with compositional variations trying to give Kristin the most options for her front design.
President Obama spoke for around thirty minutes. I photographed him for about 15 of those minutes. Then I moved back in that photo box toward the crowd. People were stretched out up the street for what looked like a mile. Fortunately for me there was a very animated man in the front row and he was cheering and applauding. I kept an eye on him because I figured when the President finished speaking he would get up and yell. I was not disappointed. He stood up yelling with both hands lifted up and that sea of humanity spreading out behind him. That was the picture I wanted.
I think that image summed up the mood of the day very well. This was a celebration of victory, a celebration for people who, as they were beaten by law enforcement 50 years ago, never dreamed they would see someone who looked like them in the White House. His enthusiasm and joy were exactly what I was feeling from that crowd. It is always nice to get an image that encapsulates an event. The photos of the President were required, we don’t often get a visit from a sitting president in Alabama, but the photos of the people were the ones that mattered the most.
One final humorous item. There were work tables set up for us on the sidewalk beside the photo corral. It was a bright, sunny day and we are all trying to see our screens. Most opted to cover our heads and computers with a jacket so we all looked like old time photographers working with a black cloaked view camera. Either that or we looked like a bunch of turtles! Below is a selection of images. For the full photo gallery please visit www.decaturdaily.com
I was thinking about fractals the other day. Some of you are suddenly very impressed while others are wondering what the heck a fractal is. According to Wikipedia, a fractal is “a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” I think my first exposure to the concept of fractals came from a Michael Crichton novel! Hey, learn from smart people no matter who those smart people are.
When I first read about fractals, Crichton, or whomever it actually was, used a mountain as an illustration. He said that the mountain basically looks like a mountain whether you are standing back looking at the whole thing or whether you look at a small piece of rock chipped off of that mountain. Even down to the microscopic level, a mountain will look like a mountain. Now, to tell the whole truth, I have never actually tried that but I am in love with the concept. Let me tell you why.
I am a big picture thinker. That is the way my mind is wired. Details are not my favorite thing. I love being married to the woman I am married to because she is very detail oriented. It creates some friction but the friction is worth it because, as a couple we have a vision and we get things done.
When I look at the big picture of my career I have career sized goals. For one, I would love to win a Pulitzer. Or two! I always wanted to do big things and work for a big newspaper or news organization like AP or National Geographic. I have dreams man, what can I say. I don’t know if any of that will happen. Who knows where the road leads until it has been walked all the way? Now, breaking my career down to the nitty gritty, what does it look like?
Here is where the fractal idea comes into play. Ultimately, I do not build a career. My career is nothing but a collection of individual performances on my everyday assignments. Those assignments pile up to make a day. The days pile up to make a week. The weeks pile up to make a month and the months pile up to make a year. The years pile up to make a career. You do not build a successful career. You build a successful day and you repeat that over and over again. Your career is not built in the macro. Your career is built in the micro. The macro view of your career becomes a reflection of the microscopic day to day performances you stack up.
Alabama has a football coach you may have heard of. Nick Saban has the habit of saying some variation of this statement over and over again. He says you have to focus on the process of what it takes to be successful. There is such wisdom in that. A great performance on the football field on game day is a reflection of what was done in the weight room, the practice field, the film room and even the classroom. In other words, what my dad told me playing youth league baseball holds true to this day even in photojournalism; you will play just like you practice.
I have advocated many times on this blog to do your best work every single day – no excuses. It doesn’t matter what the assignment is my goal should is to shoot the best photo anyone has ever shot on that job. Then, if I get the same job again next year, or next week, I will strive to knock it out of the park again. That takes discipline and detailed hard work. I learned this concept in prayer. God and I were having a conversation and I was complaining about where I was in my career. He said to me, “If you do not pursue excellence today on the things I have placed in your life for you to do, you will never accomplish your overall goals.” It was a stunning moment and a moment of extraordinary clarity for me.
I am at that point in my career where I am beginning to see the finish with a bit more clarity than the start. I may never win a Pulitzer. I may never work for AP or a big news organization. I may never shoot for National Geographic. In some respects, those situations are out of my control. What I can do is shoot every single day like I already work for one of my goal news organizations.
Maybe you are a few years into your career and you don’t like where you are. Maybe you are a student and haven’t started the journey yet. Take a big picture look at where you want to be when you end your career. Now look at your most recent day, week, month, year. What does the micro view look like compared to your macro goal? If you can’t see your big goal reflected in your everyday work you have a problem. The good news is, this is a problem that can be fixed. The fix is mostly up to you. To change the direction of your career, change your direction today then repeat tomorrow and for the rest of your tomorrows.
This post is not some theoretical junk I am making up. I started putting this into practice with purpose in 2003, the fall of 2003 to be specific. I can even tell you the assignment where it all clicked. I went to Nashville to shoot a Titans versus Redskins football game. I think Steve Spurrier was the Redskins coach that year. That day was my turning point. From that day forward I have applied this stuff every single day and it has totally changed my career trajectory. I still work in the same place I did then but that discovery made my location less relevant. I would still like to to move up to a bigger place but if I don’t I will work today, right here where I am, because where I am is far less important than who I am.
The photos in this gallery represent something that I feel is important in the way I approach assignments.
We had a bit of a snow storm in north Alabama this week. I mean, a real snow storm, not your garden variety dusting of snow or sleet that is typical to our part of the world. The snow started around 1 pm yesterday and fell for about 12 hours piling up very nearly a foot of fluffy white flakes. I think it is the most snow I have seen fall in Alabama. That’s great if you work a normal job where they close the business and you get to stay home. Photojournalism is not a normal job! When the weather gets bad we get to work and get the pictures. This means we are on the roads and in the elements in the worst possible conditions. I drove more than a hundred miles on snow covered roads over the last day and a half.
One of my daughters spent the better part of the day chastising me about risking my life for The Decatur Daily. She would have a point if I were actually taking a big risk but today there was almost no traffic on the roads and my top speed for most of the day was about 25 mph. It is kinda hard to drive fast in eight or nine inches of snow. Still, her point has some validity. We do get out in very bad conditions. We run to tornadoes, winter storms, hurricanes and if we had earthquakes in the south we would be running to those as well.
I don’t remember being taught about this stuff in college so how do you deal with the hazards of covering storms and their evil kindred? Were you ever a Boy Scout? They have a motto-be prepared. The first step in minimizing risk is simply to be prepared. I don’t have one of these yet but I am in the process of putting together a bug out bag, a bag with basic survival gear to keep in the car. You may only need it once in your life but that once may be the difference between living to shoot another day or being the subject of someone else’s news story.
On a more mundane level, always have rain gear handy. Rain is the most common form of bad weather we face; therefore, it is the easiest to take for granted. I have a rain suit made by Frog Togs I keep in my car at all times. Not only does it turn water quite well but it takes up very little space and the rain jacket can double as a wind breaker when needed. I usually have at least a light weight jacket in the trunk of my car at all times, even in the summer, because you never know what you will be up against.
Another very important thing to have is a safety vest in bright orange or bright yellow with reflective stripes or lettering. We tend to cover a bunch of stuff on or very near roadways and being visible to motorists can absolutely save your life. I wore my vest today, all day, over my coat. I want people to be able to see me because if they see me they probably won’t hit me.
Shoes cannot be overrated. Today, my shoes were actually a well worn pair of work boots. I actually used some old plastic grocery bags wrapped around my feet to help keep them dry. I was allowing my children to use my rubber boots so they could play in the snow. The rubber boots you can pick up at almost any mass merchandiser like WalMart or Target will keep your feet dry and they are cheap. I keep these in my trunk as well. There is nothing more uncomfortable than shoes and socks that are soaked, especially in cold weather. I have ruined more shoes in this job than any other clothing item, most of them while covering fires, floods and tornadoes. Step on something hot and it will melt your shoe soles. Yep, done that. There are days when you need boots, days when you need sneakers, days when you need dress shoes. My everyday shoes are a pretty well-worn pair of nondescript brown leather shoes made by Skeechers. They have proved to be the most durable pair of shoes I have ever worn at work. They are tough, keep my feet warm and dry and have a durable sole.
Gloves are really important too and I have had the devil of a time finding gloves that will keep my hands warm and still allow me to sense the controls on my camera. I have a pair right now I will not name because they are falling apart after only a couple of months of very limited use. I asked my friend Corey Wilson about gloves since he worked Green Bay Packer games in the winter and he suggested a pair of thermal glove liners that accept hot hands type chemical hand warmers and put a pair of wide receiver gloves over the liners. I will be doing that next.
A good jacket or coat can’t be undervalued. You may think it doesn’t get cold here in north Alabama and you would be right to a point. We seldom have sub-zero temps and our real seriously cold winter days are few; however, it doesn’t make much difference if you are in New York or Alabama if the temps are below freezing and there is a strong wind blowing. That will put a chill in you. I have a two part jacket made by Columbia. It has a zip out liner that can be worn by itself and it has a shell that is also a stand alone jacket. Normal winter days I can handle with just the shell. When it gets below freezing or I know there will be a strong wind I put the liner in. It is a very solid combo.
I wear hats year round. In the hot Alabama sun my poor, balding head gets burned easily. Skin cancer will kill you. Wear a hat. Make sure it has a brim to cover your neck and ears. My standard hat is a beautiful Australian cowboy hat one of my other daughter’s gave me. It is useful in all seasons but it does get a bit toasty in the summer. I also carry a light weight toboggan and a heavy weight toboggan. Keeping your head, hands and feet warm will keep you working. Medically speaking, you lose most of your body heat out of your head so keeping it covered in cold weather is important. For high heat days I do usually buy some form of straw hat. I have not yet been mistaken for Nick Saban.
The last thing is a little bit odd until you think about it. Carry a helmet in your trunk. I have my dad’s old helmet he used back when he was an electrician. It is a simple plastic shell with an adjustable web liner that gives it a relatively decent fit. You would be surprised how many assignments I do where a safety helmet is necessary. After covering the 2011 tornadoes I decided to never be without a basic helmet. If you ever get caught outside in a hail storm you won’t need to wonder why. You can pick one up for a few dollars at a Lowes or Home Depot or similar store.
There are other things you might carry in your safety kit depending on where you live and what conditions you face regularly. In the long hot summers in the south it is always a good idea to keep some water in your vehicle. If you deal with a bunch of snow and ice then tire chains would be needed. The main thing is stay safe while you work. Sunblock and insect repellent are also good items to keep handy and it never hurts to keep some hand sanitizer in your car. We do tend to eat on the run quite often. Clean hands equal good health.
One word about driving, especially to you guys who are new to this business. Don’t ever kill yourself getting to an assignment. Too many photojournalists are injured or killed in car accidents. Don’t let it happen to you. No matter what you are going to cover I guarantee you it is impossible to make a picture from a hospital bed, or a morgue. Worse still, if you were to cause someone else to be killed because of your driving it would be an emotional mill stone around your neck for the rest of your life.
The pictures with this post are from my coverage of the snow storm. Most of this stuff is just people having fun. We didn’t suffer through any major problems other than transportation and even those were less than they could have been since most people actually did stay home. Enjoy some chilly fun.
Watermelon is one of my favorite foods to eat. Enjoying a watermelon always conjures up memories of the hot Alabama summers of my childhood. Maybe it was an after church social, what we used to call a dinner on the ground. Maybe it was a picnic down at the river. Maybe it was after playing baseball all afternoon with friends. Whatever the occasion there always seemed to be a watermelon mixed in with the memories of those good times. Needless to say, I love me some watermelon. In fact, being the good southern boy that I am, there is not much I like better than watermelon and fried chicken. I could subsist on nothing more. In fact, if God doesn’t allow fried chicken and watermelon in heaven then He may just have to rename the place “almost heaven!”
Being the alert and attentive readers you all are, I am sure you are asking yourself right about now, “What exactly has this to do with photojournalism?”
That, my friends, is the question and I have the answer. One day as I sat outback at our picnic table enjoying some watermelon with my children I was contemplating photojournalism and it struck me like a lightning bolt. Hey, eating watermelon is exactly how you should shoot an assignment. Think about it. The first thing you do when you eat watermelon is eat the heart of your slice of melon. That’s where the best of the meat is, juicy and sweet.
What are you supposed to do on a photo assignment? Of course, you are supposed to get to the heart of the matter and get the most important stuff first.
Next, you work your way through the seeds. There is still good melon here but you have to work harder to get at it. There are seeds to spit out, and do make sure you spit out the seeds. One does not want to grow watermelons in one’s tummy now does one? At least, that is what some of our moms and grandmas used to say to us kids to make sure we didn’t swallow any seeds. How does this relate to your photo assignment?
This is the part where you experiment, try new lighting techniques, a new angle of view, a different lens or even a different camera. This may be where you whip out the iPhone and work a few images. Who knows? This is the stage where you already have something you feel good about in the bag and now you are working some alternate angles on the main subject trying to find a really tasty bite amid all the seeds. The seeds, of course represent your failures. You will have to do some spitting here. Now need to swallow a failure, you might end up growing one in your creative tummy.
After the heart and seed belt there is some fine meat to be had between the seeds and the rind. If you haven’t been using a knife to eat with up to this point, do yourself and favor and get you at least a butter knife so you can clean out every last bit of the red meat that melon has to offer. Yellow? Don’t even go there. Red watermelon is real watermelon! Viva la red! Okay, I digress.
This relates to working the edges of your photo assignment and this is more important now than it has ever been because this is where you get a bunch of good images for your photo galleries. Here is the deal. You have your shot. You have some experiments. Now this layer of the melon allows you to fill out your report and you may just find an amazing image out there around the edges. You know I advocate working the literal edges of an assignment. Go backstage, go to the locker room, the hallway, the beach. Wait, what, the beach? Yeah, I guess I let that one slip. No handy beaches in my part of the world. It is cold. I was day dreaming. Leave me alone and go eat your watermelon!
Literally, turn your back on the main subject and look around. Walk away from the center and get out where the other photographers are not working. Find something on the way to the locker room. This is where you can express your own unique vision. Go for it.
Now we come to the rind. The rind is the light green part and I was always told it would give you a belly ache so I guess this means we are done. No more watermelon. No more pictures. Time to go to the computer and upload all those fine images then rush out and find yourself a shade tree and a melon. Enjoy.
Below are some photos from Decatur’s recent Carnegie Carnival, a Mardi Gras style event. The heart of the melon is the parade, and to some degree, the people who are heavily engaged who are watching it like the girls reaching out for beads. The seeds are represented in the backlit photo of the kid in the jesters hat and in the horribly lit image of the pirate giving beads to the elderly lady. The lighting alone makes those seed photos but worth the risk. They are two of my favorite images. The third layer images are the three where you are looking at people basically looking at you. These are definitely for the gallery. Nothing wrong with that. It draws eyes to the website. Not all of your third layer images will be bland. Sometimes they will be your very best images. With a parade, this is what the third layer stuff tends to be. Of course, you can also do detail shots and some other things to add visual interest to the gallery.
Last week the state of Alabama underwent a major civil rights shake up, an earthquake really. A federal judge removed the barriers for same sex couples to marry in Alabama. This easily became the biggest civil rights story in Alabama in at least 30 years. I can tell you, having grown up in Alabama and then living here as an adult for the past twenty years, I never thought to see this day happen. Is it a good thing? That is the great debate and only time will tell.
If you have read the blog much at all you know I am a Christian and as a Christian I know what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. I also know what the Bible has to say about all sexual sin so I will just echo the words of Christ, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I dropped mine a long, long time ago. As a civil rights matter; however, things seem to me to be perfectly clear. Our Declaration of Independence says this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Our core national beliefs state that we believe all men are created equally and that all should have equal rights and protections. This is so fundamental to our nation and, I must add, has been tried in the furnace of a terrible Civil War which claimed over 500,000 lives, that it should not even be a source of debate. However, women, blacks and now those with different sexual preferences have all been clubbed by the weight of unjust laws in a nation that believes in “liberty and justice for all.” There is nowhere in any of this that says we have to agree with everyone but we certainly cannot legally discriminate against anyone. And, as a final note to all of my Christian friends, the U.S. law is not the same as Christian morality. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they don’t. No Christian should ever look to civil law to modify a persons behavior to adhere to Biblical standards. That is the work of God and church, not legislative bodies. Only God is capable of changing the heart of man. No law has ever accomplished this.
Now, on to covering this historic event. My boss told me on Friday I would be shooting the marriage events in Huntsville Monday morning. I was excited to cover the assignment. It is not often one gets the opportunity to document such a historical event. I wondered exactly how the couples were going to feel about being photographed. I mean, this could certainly open them to public ridicule and humiliation and possible even affect their jobs, their children and family members. While this does not carry the weight of violence that attended the civil rights movements of the 1950’s and 60’s we are still talking about a state with strong feelings about homosexuality. I was very happy that few shied away from the camera and most of the couples understood they were doing this intentionally as a public statement. That made this part of the job very easy.
I began inside the Madison County Courthouse where we endured a very long wait. Some computer problem or other slowed things dramatically. This is not time you waist. I shot pictures of couples in line and in doing this I was able to identify a few that seemed to me to be good people to follow through the process. That is very important. Don’t waste your down time. Talk to people and find out which ones will be the best and then stick with them. You can get a good feel for who will give you good shots and who will just stand there like a statue. I had about three couples I wanted to get shots of and I managed to get good stuff on two.
Once the licenses began to be issued I started looking for emotion. There was cheering every time a couple came out with the license. Fortunately for me one of the couples I identified early came out and triumphantly lifted the license giving me one of the my three favorite shots from the day. I got another very beautiful image of a couple leaning against one another beneath a row of judicial looking portraits. My final favorite image came in Big Spring Park as the first couple to be legally married in north Alabama shared their first kiss.
My greatest difficulty turned out to be attempting to shoot stills and video at the same time. Like a complete knucklehead, I left my tripod in the car so I was free handing the video while continuing to shoot stills. Yes, it was funny to watch. At one point, as I photographed the first wedding, I was shooting video with the Nikon D4 which was literally sitting on top of the Canon 5D I was shooting stills with. I can only wonder what that must have looked like! It was heavy and every time I moved my 5D the video shook so there are some awkward cuts. Overall, I think I managed it but, as my daughter told me, “Dad, you are a much better photographer than videographer!”
I sent my three best shots to the AP and I was absolutely thrilled with the national play they got. I had about six front pages in big newspapers around the country. You can see them with this post. I can’t even begin to tell you how thrilled I was to have this kind of play. First of all, there is a validation of the work itself. I mean, if it wasn’t good these big papers wouldn’t have used the photos. There were plenty of images from Alabama to chose from. It also points out how very much God has blessed me. Decatur, Alabama isn’t exactly a world wide news hotspot but I have had the front page of the Washington Post a couple of times, the New York Times, several times on USA Today’s front page and sports page. I mean, how is that even possible? I simple give God praise for all He has given me the opportunity to do here and shake my head in amazement.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photos I feel helped shape my year.
This is the final post in the Twenty Moments News for this year and it is a somewhat sad topic, the funeral for one of the finest men to hold public office I have ever met. Former Decatur mayor Bill Dukes passed away just a few days before Christmas. He was 87 and had battled with Parkinson’s disease for several years. Dukes served the city of Decatur as mayor for 18 years following terms on the city council. He then moved on to serve 16 more years in the Alabama legislature. I think he is the only man I know who has held public office for such a long time and I have never heard a person speak ill of him.
Everyone knew him as Mayor Dukes, even after all those years in the legislature he was still just “Mayor” to the people in Decatur. I think the only fault anyone would ever point out is that the Mayor never met a microphone he didn’t like. He was known for rather lengthy speeches, planned and impromptu, and I do seem to remember him referring to himself in the third person from time to time. That’s it. Nothing bad about the man who loved God, family and the city of Decatur. During his funeral, Rev. George Sawyer asked those gathered to mourn Dukes, “How many of you thought you were Mayor Dukes’ best friend?” Everyone there acknowledged that’s how they felt. The man had a special gift that way.
I don’t like photographing funerals. If you ever want to feel like a creeper, show up at the funeral home for visitation or to the church for a funeral with a camera in your hand. That camera starts to sound like a gun going off and feels like a Speed Graphic in your hands. You feel like an interloper. Of course, we asked permission to cover the funeral and the family, knowing the Mayor’s love for the public, said it was fine to be there. Still, it feels like everyone in the place looks at you when you shoot a picture. Uncomfortable!
I shot inside the church, outside the church and at the graveside service in the cemetery. I arrived very early, partly to see if the family needed to place any restrictions on my shooting and partly because I wanted to make sure there would be room for me inside the church during the funeral. By arriving early I was in place when the Decatur Police Honor Guard entered and took up watch positions on either side of the casket.
I happened to be kneeling right up near the front of the church to shoot a photo of the flag draped casket when the honor guard marched up. I shot several different photos of the honor guard standing watch over the casket and they were all nice images. I went outside, it was still about 30 minutes before the funeral was to begin, and was talking with the staff from the funeral home. Turns out one of them knows my father so we were chatting about that. I happened to glance through the open front doors of the church and I saw the reflections of the flag draped casket in the sides of the pews. As soon as I could I excused myself from the conversation I moved down the steps until I was at just about floor level. I shot the image and bracketed my exposure to best emphasize the flag and reflection and the officer’s face.
This is by far my favorite image from the funeral. You may think that sounds somewhat callous but my true desire was to shoot photos and video that would honor Mayor Dukes. That meant I planned to work this funeral as diligently as I would any assignment, anywhere, anytime with the caveat that I didn’t want to disturb the service. This is another benefit to arriving early. I was able to look for different images and not simply shoot the photos of the funeral service itself.
There is one final and very important thing to tell you about covering a funeral; dress well. A funeral is not a casual occasion and your comportment and your appearance should reflect the gravity of the event. I have actually seen some of my colleagues from television news stations show up to cover a funeral wearing shorts and t-shirts. They were behind the camera but that should not matter. If you are a man you should be wearing a suit, not just a shirt and tie but a full suit. If you are a woman you should be wearing your best formal clothing. It is completely disrespectful to show up at funeral improperly dressed. Not only does it reflect poorly on your personally but also upon the news organization you represent.
It has been a great joy to share Twenty Moments with you all again this year. I love teaching and I hope you have found some things in these posts that will help you grow and be a better photojournalist and, perhaps, a better person. Have a great 2015!
Below is a video I shot at the funeral.