Archive for the ‘Life’ Category
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.
You know what, there are some seriously great photographers running around the planet. I love seeing stuff from those great shooters. I always loved the work of William Albert Allard who shoots for National Geographic. But I love lots of other photographers as well.
I am not William Albert Allard. I am not Jay Janner. I am not Chip Litherland (where does that guy find that light???). I am not Sebastio Salgado. I am not Walter Iooss Jr.. I am not Jahi Chikwendiu or Michael Williamson or Carol Guzy. I am not Al Diaz. I am not Danese Kenon. You know, I seem to “not” be a lot of people. By the way, I know some of those excellent photojournalists and call them friends. Others I have only admired from afar and they won’t ever know who I am but that was some serious name dropping wasn’t it?
But what is the point there Gary? You guys are a great audience.
Know who you are! It helps. Really!
Here we go then. How do you know who you are? I mean, it is far easier to know who you are not. I am most definitely not Chip Litherland. I mention him specifically because that guy exists in a different plane of light than I do. I shot the BCS Championship down in Miami this year. He shot it too. I did a good, literal, job. I saw Chip’s pictures and my first thought was, “Where did he find that light? I was there. I didn’t see that light!” Dang it! The point is, I can’t be him. I don’t see the world the same way he does; therefore, I have to work within the parameters of my gifting. I do have some suspicions though. I think Nikon made that guy a special set of cameras that capture extra light and color!
That doesn’t mean I can’t stretch the envelope every now and then. See, here is the rub. You work day after day and you are who you are, right? But then, something wonderful happens and you grab a photo that expands you, that causes you to grow. Once you have that little bit of growth you can build an entire new way of seeing into your visual repertoire. How does that happen? Man, if I could answer that question… Well, maybe I can take a stab at it.
Most people I know who are photojournalists are discontent. I don’t mean that on the personal level. I mean they are professionally discontent. No matter how good a job I might do on an assignment, I take a jaded view of it because I know I could have done better. I know there were pictures out there I didn’t get. That dissatisfaction drives me to work harder, try new things, fail, grow, get better and repeat. I won’t ever be any of those guys I mentioned but I can use some of their stuff to motivate me.
Let me tell you about Jahi Chikwendiu. I met Jahi while judging the Kentucky News Photographers annual contest a few years ago. We each gave a presentation after the judging and I was so blown away by Jahi’s stuff. The one thing he said that really stuck with me was that he was an advocate for the underdog. I thought to myself then, “that is not me.” I wasn’t sure I liked that about myself. Was I a front runner? Did I side with the majority? Was I fair to the oppressed? Good questions that have helped me modify my approach to my work. I can’t be Jahi. He works for the Washington Post and he gets some serious opportunities around the world working with oppressed people groups. My opportunities happen around Morgan County but, and here is the key, there are oppressed people all over the place, even in Morgan County, Alabama.
You guys just saw a post on here from Jay Janner who works in Austin, Texas. At the 2009 BCS Championship, I met Jay and several of his colleagues. To a person, they told me Jay was amazing and he got shots they didn’t even see. How is that possible? How can a guy get shots no one else sees in this day of the camera being everywhere? It has to be approach and gifting coming together. I noticed a few visual cues in Jay’s work. I noticed he was getting amazing pictures from situations where he probably had a photo assignment but I was pretty sure what he shot was not exactly what was assigned. He was shooting around the edges of assignments as well as shooting the assignment. In other words, he didn’t quit looking for photos even after he had the “assignment” in the bag. I began thinking how often do I quit looking when I have shot the job assigned and been content with that. I can’t be Jay but I can certainly modify my work behavior to keep my visual eyes open. Of course, some, maybe a big portion, of his gift is simply his gift. I can’t have that but I can draw from it.
And that is the key. You can’t be me. I can’t be you. We can draw from one another. We can push the envelope of our own conventions. Here is one of the great truths in life. A major earthquake happens suddenly but it is preceded by many thousands of small slips and shifts beneath the surface no one sees. Likewise, growth happens in small, incremental steps, not in large shifts. When something “suddenly” happens in your life it is usually because a thousand small changes have been going on beneath the surface. Those small changes will someday cause a “break,” or a major shift that everyone notices but only you will know how and why the major change happened.
Here are a couple of suggestions to take away from this piece. First, look at a lot of work. Find some people you admire and become their disciple. I had a professor once who spent a summer with the great photo essayist W. Eugene Smith. He learned so much from Smith and he especially learned how to make a stunning black and white print. When printing meant something, I could make a stunning black and white print too. Printing was not the primary takeaway for my professor. The primary thing I took away from Professor Combs was the primary thing he took away from Smith and that is the power of visual storytelling.
Second, take what you learned from your visual mentor and blend it into your work. Don’t be a copy cat, adapt and innovate. Take advantage of a lot of different stuff and incorporate what you can. You can expand many parameters of your skill set by adapting techniques you have learned from others. Learning how to learn is the most important knowledge you can have. Once you learn how to learn people will be copying what you do because what you do will be worth copying.
There is a wonderful part of the Lord’s prayer that goes like this; “give us this day our daily bread…” Oh no, he is preaching again! Run away, run away! Not really a sermon. Don’t panic. I probably won’t say the “J” word more than once or twice. Settle down. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, daily bread. Which brings me to the idea of keeping it fresh. That prayer that Jesus taught his disciples was actually born out of the old covenant where the priests put fresh bread out daily in the holy place in the tabernacle and the temple. Now, history/theology lesson over.
What this has to do with photojournalism is obvious, isn’t it? Okay, maybe some of y’all don’t think like I do so I will explain. After all, when I do the dishes after dinner I plot the overthrow of small nations so some might not quite follow my logic. Keeping fresh daily in the photojournalism world is one of the greatest challenges you will face as you plough through your career. Think about it. You will do the same kinds of assignments over and over and over again and you will shoot the same events over and over and over again. It can get a little boring. We had an editor once who used to say, “We need a good murder today.” I never want that to happen but there are days when I would sure enough like for something to happen.
Staying fresh is tough. So how do you do it? I am so glad you asked. Please turn in your Bibles with me to… oh, sorry, I forgot. This isn’t a sermon but a photo lesson. I will try to stay on point. But like a good southern preacher, I do like to run down rabbit trails every now and then. (If you don’t know what that means, GO TO CHURCH EVERY NOW AND THEN FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!) Okay, enough, enough. I know.
There is nothing like giving yourself assignments to help you stay fresh. That or getting a new piece of photo gear but the photo gear tends to be expensive. However, when you combine a new piece of photo gear with a self-assigned project you have pure freshness gold! I am not joking. I purchased an iPhone 5 earlier this year. I am easing into its amazing photo capabilities and much of what I am doing is not for publication; however, there is this cool project I am shooting all on my iPhone and it was inspired by a guy named Brad Mangin who is a big time sports photographer. He covers the San Francisco Giants and he recently published a photo book shot using the Instagram app. That didn’t click for me. I played with Instagram and like it but I wouldn’t use it for the paper, or would I?
My ten-year old decided to play baseball this year and we live in one of the baseball craziest towns I have ever seen. These folks are serious! I thought, “No way I can do a Brad Mangin book on major league baseball, but what about a photo project on my little baseball town?” At about the same time, I found a really nice app for my iPhone that lets me do the cool toning stuff that Instagram does but without having to make everything square. A project was born. I am calling it, innovatively enough, Baseball Town. I am shooting it all on my iPhone and processing the images using Photo Toaster. And I am having a blast!
Each time to the ball field I am collecting a new image or two and I am having fun. THE KEY TO STAYING FRESH IS TO HAVE FUN!!! Okay, did anyone miss that because if you did I can always crack open the Bible to where Jesus said we are to all have fun. Gotcha there didn’t I. Some of you are running to get your Bibles to see if Jesus actually said that. Others of you are so stunned that Christians are allowed to have fun that you need a resurrection because your hearts just stopped.
Now you know the secret to fresh photojournalism and you know how to scare Christians to death. Just have fun! Keep a project or two working. Make them something you are interested in because you will do best at projects that interest you. I happen to love baseball. I am learning how to shoot with the iPhone so there is magic there for me. It will be something else for you. Find it and enjoy it and have a ton of fun and surprise your boss with a really cool photo essay.
Enjoy this sample of my project which is just now getting started. By the way, keep an eye out throughout this year. I have another set of special projects I am working on that are going to be phenomenal. I can’t wait to share them with you but I can only hint now. This is a project I have dreamed of doing for many years, for most of my career even, and it is actually under way. If I may paraphrase the Black Eye Peas, this is gonna be a good, good year! (That good looking kid in the catching gear is my son!)
I love special people. I was just like most of you before my wife and I had a son with special needs. Our little boy Reece was born with Down syndrome. In his too-short life he taught me more about love than I had learned in all my years of living. Now, even though Reece has left this life, I carry him in my heart and all the lessons of love he taught. Now when I see someone with special needs, I embrace their love.
I had been exposed to people with special needs both mental and physical, perhaps more than most in the general public, due to a variety of photo assignments. I did not know how to embrace them. No photo assignment could do that for me. I never allowed myself to really get inside their world. It was a strange and alien place to me and I allowed myself to be pushed away by the physical and mental issues.
I learned my lesson through Reece’s life. I now understand there is no purer form of love than the love a special needs person gives every day unless it might be the pure love of God. I might even be so bold as to say that God allows special needs people to exist because He wants to demonstrate that extremely pure love to us and I don’t know of any other human being who could possibly show such love. Or maybe that pure love can only be shown through pure people. Now, on to Special Olympics.
I had the chance to shoot the regional qualifier for the Special Olympics State Games at the Aquadome pool. I have done this event several times but this year I paid more attention to the special part and a little less to the athletic part. Some of the swimmers are quite fast. Some float along at a snail’s pace. You know what, it really doesn’t matter. The very act of competing is an accomplishment that should be lauded. There are winners who qualify for the state meet and some of those will qualify for the national games and I am pretty sure there are international games as well.
One of the more remarkable things happens outside the pool. Look around and you see special needs people who have great friendships, who carry on about like anyone else would. You see others who are completely dependent upon someone else and have to be helped in and out of the pool. It is a remarkable mix of people. I decided to look more for those interactions this year. One of the mysteries I could never explore with Reece was the question I had of how he perceived the world. I still wonder. I wish I could ask someone with special needs, “How do you see the world, how do you perceive it?” It would, of course, be an absurd question. How could anyone answer such a question without having both my frame of reference and his own to compare.
So I watch and I wonder and I wish. There is a lesson here that all of us so called “normal” people can learn. We all perceive the world a bit differently. The world comes to us through different sets of filters. Some are genetic and beyond our control. Others come from our environment. Some are religious. Some are political. Some are given us by our parents. Some are given us by our friends and social relationships. Some are even given to us by the media we consume. The bottom line; we are all different. The Bible has this really interesting quote from Jesus. He said for us not to judge others because the measure we use to judge others will be used to judge us.
We are all alike and not alike. The line between a person with special needs and a “normal” person is pretty thin, sometimes it is only a chromosome. We have much to learn from one another and if we will try to see the world from someone else’s point of view we might be surprised at how very right they suddenly seem. Who knows, it might make the world a better place.
One thing I learned in doing a special section on people with Down syndrome a few years ago was how diverse their interests are. One or two of those guys are in these photos. Lucas Compton was one I interviewed and photographed for that section. He is a big wrestling fan. I asked him if he still like wrestling and he still does but he has changed heroes. Now the guy he used to like is a bum! How very like us.
One thing I will share with you about photographing people with special needs. They are the most unpretentious people in the world. They are generally so open with you it is stunning. I think it comes from they way they see the world. They are very trusting people and I have usually found the parents or guardians to be very easy to approach and get along with. So many caregivers and parents and guardians want people to know their children, brothers, sisters, whatever the relation may be, and know what great people they are.
I will never forget being at a basketball game one time and seeing a woman caressing a young man who was in a wheel chair in what most would consider a completely helpless and dependent state. The love that woman had for her son was amazing to me. All I could see were difficulties. She saw those too, I am sure, but the love made the difficulties seem not so bad. Having some experience in this area I can tell you that your capacity to love grows exponentially when you love someone with special needs. It is amazing and I will never the same.
Sometimes I write a post that isn’t so much about photography but good photojournalism is empathetic at its core. I can’t tell you anything here about the x’s and o’s of photography but I can tell you about being a human. That always comes first whether it is photojournalism or life.
This title is the perfect lead in to me doing my best impersonation of Jagger, but I am going to spare you. The satisfaction issue is one that drives me a little loopy sometimes. I am never satisfied or, perhaps more accurately, I am never satisfied for long. Photojournalism is a weird task master. It drives you and drives you and drives you but never lets you get well and truly satisfied.
I sometimes wonder, when I stop doing this, will I look back and feel like I left stories out there untold? Will I feel like I never got “that picture?” I shoot photos sometimes that I am pleased with but then I want to shoot one better the next time. Two problems with that; there may never be a next time and there may not be one better than that. I know after spending the most part of a year consumed with the coverage of the April 27th tornado and the recovery I felt like I had done a pretty good job. Then I heard about stories I never even knew about, stories that were out there but went untold. Dismay! Frustration! Drive!
That is one of those situations where it may never repeat and even if it did would you want it to? No. No way I would want people to have to go through that again. So I either did it or I didn’t do it. Strange how often my mind wanders back down those pathways searching for what I didn’t do. It is almost unfair. Then there are the national championships. They may never repeat. Oh, yeah, bad example. Scoreboard! Four in a row for the great state of Alabama! Even there, I left stuff on the table, stuff I couldn’t get to, didn’t know about or just didn’t have the energy left to do.
No matter how well you have done, the question is always there, “could I have done better?” Then there is the ultimate Chicago Cubs mantra, “there is always next year.” But is there? That is the question that keeps me hungry. That is the question that keeps me motivated in times when pay is stagnant or falling, raises non-existent and the prospects of staying in this business long term seem dim.
I remember being very thankful for a pretty nice football season in the late 90′s. As it turns out, if I compare that season to now there is no comparison because I am a much better sports shooter now. I look back at my spot news coverage from years past and it seems nearly timid by comparison to the way I am shooting now. Great, right? Well, yes and no. We should all improve year by year but it begets the question, “where and when will I top out and not get any better?” Will age drain my will to keep doing this? Will the lack of money force me to leave this business? Will I reach a point where my skills erode and I can no longer shoot to the level I expect of myself?
Honestly, I don’t know. Pro athletes hit a peak in their careers when their bodies are still strong enough to perform at a high level and they have gained the wisdom of the game and they exist in a special place for a short period of years when they are the best they can possibly be. Then their physical skills begin to erode and time wins. Eventually the greatest athlete is forced to retire. Do you think that happens to photographers as well? I mean, I guess.
When I was a young guy I used to think that a fifty year old was practically in the grave. I am turning 50 this year. I never dreamed that I would be approaching my performance peak at this point in life. Perhaps I am a late bloomer. Perhaps it took me a long time to reach that confluence of body and mind. Perhaps I work in a place where the pace is a little slower than say, the pace at the Washington Post or New York Times. Maybe I am just having a mid-life crisis.
I don’t know how to look back and say I am satisfied. What would it take? A Pulitzer would help! Or two!! But really, what would help me, or you, feel satisfied when we ultimately have to leave this business? I suppose if I knew the answer to that question I would not have to ask it. Since I have had a while to think about this, let me share with you a couple of things that I think might help.
First, ignore what goes on above your head. I can’t control it and neither can you. I used to think I could make myself so valuable I would not have to worry about staying employed and getting raises. Obviously, that was a wrong assumption. It seems like we live in an age that would make Orwell proud especially if he were to look into the newspaper world. Does the marketing phrase, “Exciting Changes For Our Readers” remind you of the doublespeak in 1984? The best thing I can say is just ignore what goes on over your head, don’t let it frustrate you and focus on what you can control.
Next, make the most out of every situation. I don’t think I have left many assignments feeling like I got every picture there was to get. That goal is about as unattainable as reaching the moon so focus on the good stuff in the camera rather than the stuff you couldn’t get. As the old saying goes, the bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush.
One final suggestion, don’t worry too much about how you will feel at the end of your career. (I need to heed my own advice!) You will never attain your ultimate goals if you don’t accomplish the goal that is in front of you today so knock that next assignment out of the park, then repeat on the next assignment.
One final, final suggestion, enjoy the people you are around; the people you work with and the people you photograph because ultimately life isn’t about pictures at all. Life is about people.
Let me take you behind the curtain for a while. I like to shoot onstage events from behind the curtain. It is all dark and mysterious back there and you see things the audience can’t see and wouldn’t contribute to their enjoyment of the show even if they did see but it enriches your experience covering the show. I like that area backstage where the performers are waiting for their moment on stage, where they are making last-minute adjustments to costume and makeup and getting their game faces on. So let me take you on a journey and lets see where we end up.
I ask myself a lot of questions. Introspection is really healthy and keeps you on track. Last post, I introduced you to me, to why I am what I am. Now I want to pick it apart a little. At heart, I am a teacher and I like to understand things and then make them understandable to others. It is part of my nature. That is actually one of the major reasons for this blog.
I was having a conversation before Friday night’s high school game between Decatur and Austin with Lt. Col. James Walker who heads the JROTC program at Austin. We have been friends a long time and he was asking me if I loved the big games. I do. I really love the big games. I don’t care if it is a city championship in the Dixie Youth baseball leagues or the BCS Championship in college football, I want to be shooting the biggest thing going. I told him how I loved covering the tornadoes last year. I felt like I was made for that situation, to shoot those pictures, to meet the people I met. When I am right in the middle of the biggest mess, or biggest event I can find, I am right at home. I told Col. Walker it was probably a good thing I had never covered a war because I would probably love it too much. I don’t expect most of y’all to know what I mean but I trust a few of you will.
Actually, let me explain so no one is confused. I am not hoping for wars, fires or tornadoes. That is absurd. With that said, when something like that happens, being right in the middle of it suits me. I once worked for a retired Army Lt. Colonel. He ran a printing business and I was a pressman in his shop. He once told me did two combat tours in Vietnam, volunteering for both. I thought he was crazy. He said the reason he did it was he was trained to fight and that was the only war going. Something clicked. I understood that. He was a warrior. Warriors fight wars. Made sense. I had been a firefighter. I was never more fulfilled than when I was fighting fires. As a photojournalist, I find my fulfillment in doing my job, the bigger the event the better I like it.
Conversely, I get bored with the mundanaeity of life. I totally sympathize with Sherlock Holmes who could not abide boredom. Give me activity. Give me a big assignment. Give me a disaster, a championship, anything. Just please don’t bore me! Boredom has its place and it is not entirely bad because if I get bored I have to challenge myself. That causes me to go look for stuff. When I look for stuff I usually find stuff and finding stuff is good. I got bored this summer and found mud bog racing. It didn’t quite turn out the way I hoped but it was certainly better than the stuff I was doing without it. The Bible has this great advice; seek and you shall find. Nothing like looking if you want to find something. Borrowed that one from Thorin Oakenshield. If you have to ask…
When I played baseball, I just about always hit third in the lineup. I took a lot of pride in that. The number three hitter is usually your best hitter. That is still where I want to be. I want to be the guy you go to when there is pressure to get the job done. I want you to depend on me. Back in the day when I was a volunteer firefighter, I wanted to be the guy on the nozzle attacking the fire or the guy doing search and rescue. Danger as a photojournalist isn’t comparable to that except in the rarest situations, maybe like when you drive out in front of a tornado! I was pretty terrified that day, but on balance, I want to be in the middle of the action. I want to be the guy up with bases loaded in the last of the 9th with two outs and the game on the line. If I fail, I’ve got no one to blame but me and I really hate failure.
One of the greatest challenges for me is staying motivated when I am not in the middle of a big assignment. Here comes a really important point. Notebooks ready? Motivation must come from inside you. If you are internally motivated you will bust your rear end to get a good shot every time, not just when you are standing in the middle of a tornado. Seriously, internal motivation, the drive that makes you want to kick butt and take names even if you are shooting the chess tournament at the local middle school, will keep you career happy for a long time. If you are externally motivated you are subject, almost completely a slave, really, to the whims of outrageous fortune otherwise known as the assignment log book. I have been externally motivated. It stinks and it made me very, very unhappy. I am now an internally motivated photojournalist and I am happy with myself.
One of the other greatest challenges for me is not being a jerk. Or arrogant. I have taken the DISC profile, a personality profile test, many times over the years and I have a very high “D” aspect to my personality. That kind of personality can get things done but it can also make you a jerk, pushy, arrogant and unpleasant. You need to know your strengths, for sure, but even more importantly, you need to know your weaknesses. Since my son Reece died, I think I have become more impatient. I hate that but I have no idea what to do about it.
What in the world does this have to do with photography? It is a valid question. I believe it is very important to understand yourself, your motivation, your strengths and your weaknesses as a human being because who you are is how you will shoot, how you approach your work and the people you encounter. In fact, this is every bit as important as understanding lighting and f stops and shutter speeds. Have you ever been looking at a map and there is a “You Are Here” indicator on it? If you don’t know where you are you don’t have any way of knowing where to go; however, if you know yourself you know where you are and you have at least some idea of what your next step ought to be.
Now you know a lot more about me than you should but I open my book a little bit to help you be able to get into your own book. Take this post and look inside yourself, see who you are, why you approach life the way you do. Identify your strengths but also your weaknesses. Knowing both is important.
The movie savvy amongst us might recognize the title as having been borrowed from a very cool movie by Tom Hanks called, “That Thing You Do.” It does cause one to stop and look at the man, or woman, in the mirror and ask, “Why do you do that thing you do?” It is a healthy question and one you should ask from time to time.
Let me explain why I do this thing I do and how I arrived here. It may help you both ask and answer the question yourself. I graduated high school with plans to become a professional firefighter. That’s a long way from professional photographer. Back up a bit. I actually left high school with the plans to become a professional baseball player. Please hold the laughter! I kept that dream alive until I tried out for the Cincinnati Reds in the summer after graduation. Now you may laugh. It was either laugh or cry so might as well laugh. Although, Roger Clemons is making a comeback at 50. That leaves me at least one more year to give it a shot. Hmmmm.
Okay, so I bought a Canon AE-1 with my graduation money. It had the ubiquitous 50mm lens that pretty nearly every camera came with back in the day. I learned to hate that lens. I still don’t use one. My Mom was encouraging me to study accounting in college. Love ya Mom but I can’t count. I looked around for a major and UNA offered a photo major. I had a camera. They offered a major. Why not? I was going to be a firefighter. What did it matter what my major was? Then a problem arose.
I really liked photography. There was an awakening in my soul of something I didn’t know was there. Photography sparked a creative fire in me that had heretofore lain dormant and unnoticed. I liked it but I wasn’t very good at it. I have since learned my Mom and Dad thought I had a screw loose. Not really. It was just the shutter in my head clicking away. Then there was the wonder of black and white printing. Then there was the utter frustration of color printing. But there was the student newspaper and yearbook. I loved shooting for them. I truly loved shooting sports. My very first published pictures were from Cherokee Vocational High School football games published in our community weekly. The first signs of ink began showing up in my blood.
Through some amazing friends, Dr. Harry and Dr. Jan Gebert, I was afforded the opportunity to attend graduate school. I went to CBN University in Virginia Beach to study photojournalism. My professor, Bob Combs, had done some time in an internship with the legendary W. Eugene Smith. What a wonderful guy. It was he who put the idea of news photography in my head. He died in my final year at CBN and how many times I have wished I could have talked to him over the years.
When I began looking for my first job, I had no idea what I was doing. I sent out 30 letters to various newspapers across North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania. There was only one I hoped would not respond to my query. Of course, it was the only one to reply and they offered me a job. I was now a full-fledged newspaper photographer. I spent four years in Elizabeth City, NC shooting for the Daily Advance and loving it. When an opportunity came to come back to Alabama, my wife and I talked it over and decided this was the time to move. I have been in Decatur now for nearly 19 years. I love photojournalism now more than I have ever loved it. Photojournalism is much more than a creative outlet. It is my ministry. It is my worship. It is my expression of what God put in my soul.
I took me literally years, a decade or more of shooting every day, to actually come to the place that I knew beyond doubt I was doing what I was made to do. There are so many frustrations in this line of work, so many hours, so many late nights and weekends worked, so many times away from family. What makes it worth it? Why keep doing something when the pay can never equal the work? Why keep doing something that can be the most intensely frustrating job on earth?
When I look at the man in the mirror and I look into his eyes I see a man who is doing what he was made to do. In 2002 I was so deeply frustrated I was seriously contemplating trying to find another line of work. I called my friend and mentor Dave Martin who is the AP photographer in Alabama. I was moaning and whining about work conditions and management and photo assignments and Dave gave me some great advice that was to the point and spot on. The edited version was, “Shut up and shoot. There are a whole bunch of guys way better than you out there who are out of work.” Slap in the face? Heck no! It was the best advice I have ever received. Sometimes you have to look at that man in the mirror and see a black eye and that black eye has to motivate you. I did and it did.
Since the fall of 2003, yeah, it took a while for me to strongly apply Dave’s advice and it took another year or wrestling with God, but my career has taken off and my satisfaction has blossomed and I could not be happier to be a photojournalist. What does this all mean? I hope it means what wise people have said for thousands of years; follow your heart. Jobs change. Times change. Even the expression of your passion changes. But, your passion is yours. Let your passion burn in you, drive you, move you, inspire you. There is nothing I would rather do. Of course, the major league baseball thing is still hanging out there so there is that!
What is your parachute plan? That is a question that David Hobby, the founder of the Strobist blog and the small strobe phenomenon, asked me several years ago. When Strobist took off, David was able to leave his job as a daily newspaper photographer and live off a new-found reputation as a blogger of international importance and an expert in a field that he and, perhaps Joe McNally, created. My blog has not done so well. Alas! But David’s question is now one we must all consider and act on.
What plans have you made to facilitate the next step in your career and your life. When David asked me that question, I had some vague idea that I might like to work for a non-profit such as Samaritan’s Purse and be involved in international relief efforts or something like that. Of course, I never thought in a million years I might actually need such a plan. My newspaper was insulated, right? I suppose it remains to be seen whether any newspaper is insulated. As it became more and more clear that, industry wide, the newspaper world was shrinking and I might not be safe after all, I started to not just think about it but to do something about it.
My first step was to pull together a portfolio which I had not done with any degree of sincerity in several years. You may think this is an easy process you could do in a couple of hours. Not so for me. It was a painstaking process that took weeks of sorting through old files, putting photos in categories and editing and re-editing until I had a working number of about 100 images. That is way too many for a portfolio you might send to an editor but it was a good place to begin.
My next step was to research and see what kind of web site I would need. I looked at many online and talked to several friends who had web sites. I selected Photoshelter for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I am not a web head and have no idea how to code a web site so it had to be simple to use and Photoshelter filled the bill. The second thing I needed was a site that I could afford not expecting any immediate revenue from it. The Photoshelter basic site was a good fit for me and more than meets my immediate needs and gives me the ability to upgrade should the future place more demands on me. The last thing I wanted was a place where editors and art directors would see my work and, again, Photoshelter was the right choice for me. No, I am not a billboard for Photoshelter. I am simply trying to give you a window into my reasoning.
Now I had a venue to display the images. I began showing my photos to trusted friends and associates to whittle down the portfolio to a manageable level. I mostly used images that gained a consensus from these trusted friends. The site has been great and I have gained some excellent exposure through it. I am able to use the site to develop some clients and I have had several inquiries come to me directly through it. That means I am happy with my choice and I am about to begin some basic marketing using my site. You can see it at http://garycosbyjr.photoshelter.com
Several years ago, I also began working as a second shooter for an excellent friend who also happens to be a premier wedding photographer. David Higginbotham and I worked together at the newspaper and when he got married, asked me to shoot his wedding with another of our friends. That led to him inviting me to be his second shooter and assistant at David Higginbotham Photography which has been great as well. I never liked shooting weddings back in the film day but digital imaging and ordering has completely revolutionized wedding photography for me. Plus, DHP tends to get lots of travel work and I love to travel. Rome, anyone!
Additionally, I take any assignment I can get from an occasional portrait to a commercial shoot. I have developed a little bit of a working relationship with a couple of PR firms and have sold photos to ad agencies and PR firms and even a couple of book publishers. The key to all of this is having an online presence. Frankly, if you don’t have an online presence, there is no way you are ready should the worst happen. My online presence actually began with this blog. The aforementioned David Hobby took me under his wing for the first couple of years putting my site in his blogroll and featuring some of my photos on Strobist.
Having this online presence has literally transformed my career. Back in the day before internet, no one outside of this area would have ever heard of me or seen my work. Now, people all over the world read this blog and see my photos. While not all of them are buyers, art directors or editors, there have been enough to have given me a trickle of work here and there that I hope to parlay into a stream of work down the road.
The bottom line is this; I have to do all I can to make myself indispensable at work but I also have to prepare for a future where my current job does not play a role. I never thought I would have to contemplate this but in something like twenty days, a fair portion of my friends in photojournalism in this state will begin the next phase of their journeys. No one is immune. Do all you can to keep your job but also do all you can to be ready in the event the boss calls you into his office with that sad look on his face.
It was hot. It was muggy. It was August and high school football practice was open. It was the kind of day when wilting in the heat and humidity seems the best option. It was, in short, the kind of day when you would like to be anywhere other than a high school practice field shooting summer practice. This is the kind of assignment we have all shot hundreds of times. This can mean, especially when influenced by heat and humidity, there is a strong temptation to mail it in and not go the extra mile to get something special. It is, after all, practice.
Errrrrrrrkkkkk. Slam those breaks on right there my friends. This is exactly the kind of situation we can not allow to happen. I have said for years, a blind squirrel can find an acorn when there are acorns all over the ground. For those of you who are not southern by birth, let me explain. The expression means when the shooting situation is excellent any photographer can come back with a picture. Got it? Where a photojournalist makes a reputation is in situations just like this where the pictures are not falling from the trees like ripe nuts. Because we have shot football practices so many times, it becomes easy to coast through the next one. After all, how important it is it?
Maybe going the extra mile and working a football practice like it is the best assignment in the history of mankind won’t earn you a single extra dollar. Maybe it won’t win you any prizes. Maybe the photos will never end up in your portfolio. Maybe. Maybe not. When it comes time to make cuts in your department your boss might look around at the staff and wonder which one he can do without. Maybe then that extra mile you walked shooting football practices will pay off. Maybe you will be the one with a job when others get laid off. Even if the boss is forced, for economic reasons, to lay you off, you will at least make it a hard decision because letting go of his hardest worker is not something he will actually want to do.
Be the guy it is hard to lay off. Economic realities are what they are and layoffs come even to the best shooters. Don’t make it easy for them to lay you off. Work hard on everything. Shoot football practice like it makes a difference. The fact is, not only will you make it difficult to cut your job, you will benefit directly from working hard at practices. You will get better. You will cause yourself to grow as a photographer. You will be able to take stuff you do at practice and apply it on other jobs. Simply making a better work ethic, an ethic that refuses to be mediocre, even on hot, humid, August days at football practice, will pay off both in the immediate and in the long term.
Fact is, none of us know if we will have jobs next year. Who knew that photojournalists, really excellent photojournalists in Alabama’s three largest newspapers, would be out the door when the year started? Who knows just how long the print news industry will last? I don’t know. All I know, all I can control, is how I work today. Stay sharp and use those dull assignments like a whet stone on a knife. Make yourself better, sharper, keener with every assignment.
As we face lean times in the newspaper business, we are all looking for what to do to keep us viable in the new media world, meaning, we want to keep getting a paycheck. So what do we do to be as valuable to our organizations as possible? This is part 2 of a multi-part series on on surviving, and hopefully thriving, in this environment where newspapers are cutting and then cutting more.
This is an easy one. Have fun! Really. With all the uncertainty surrounding us every day it is very easy to walk around under a dark cloud always wondering if today is it. Will I come to work tomorrow and find I have been laid off? How will I pay my bills? Will I be furloughed? Will my pay be cut or my hours reduced? All that weighs on the mind and can create a truly nasty work environment because it is not just the photo staffs who are worried. Everyone, including editors, are worried and it can turn a work environment bad.
Having fun with your assignments is a great antidote. This nasty, negative, doubtful environment can cloud even a good assignment and makes the less desirable ones seem nearly pointless. Editors and upper managers are trying all kinds of things to try and stay afloat. Some of the those things won’t make any sense to you. I can say this because some of the things we are doing at the paper I work for don’t seem to make any sense to me. I remind myself I am not charged with driving the boat and being a backseat driver is only an irritation to those who are driving. Solution, enjoy the work. Even a “bad” assignment usually involves people and people are the reason we work.
Think back over the first half of your year. How many cool people have you met and photographed. We take it for granted because we do it every day but this is an amazing privilege that few in the world have the opportunity to enjoy. That’s what we get paid for. Pictures aside, meeting the people we meet is just cool and we need to remember that and not get bogged down but what we have no control over.
Attitude translates. A positive, good attitude translates to excellence because we are driven by out attitudes. It is a normal human trait that we work harder when we do things we enjoy. Conversely, if something is not enjoyable we tend to slog through it with the attitude, “just let me finish….please.” If you allow the circumstances to control your attitude your pictures will suffer. Motivation must come from within you and not from circumstances. We are so shortsighted as humans that when something happens to us we are blind to the future and can only react to the event. Been there, done that, got the t-shirts! We don’t know how things will turn out when the situation is fully played out. Something that looked like a disaster may turn out to be good in the summation.
What am I saying? Work every day, in fact, live every day, as if it is your last. If you have to hang up the camera tomorrow, will you be satisfied with what you have done? If the answer is yes then you are doing every day what you need to do to be excellent. If the answer is no then why are you not doing all you can to be excellent today? I have walked down the negative side of that road and it is a rut that leads to frustration. Stay on the positive side and do your thing with enthusiasm and excellence. We have absolutely no real control over tomorrow, our bosses, the economics of the news business or very little else. What I do control is my attitude and my work ethic. I can make myself so valuable it is difficult to lay me off or I can slog around under that cloud of depression and make it an easy choice to lay me off. That, at least, is up to me.
The photos and video with this post are from the Distinguished Young Women contestants having an oyster eating contest. Obviously, this is a good one and easy to be excited about. Still, it was a two minute event and I had to squeeze both photos and video out of it. That has a tendency to make me grumpy because I feel the pressure of trying to do both well. I used natural sound for the video and shot video at the start and then near the conclusion while getting my still in during the middle part and after the winner was announced.