Archive for the ‘Community Photojournalism’ Category
I think I wrote some time ago about starting a photo essay shot completely with my iPhone. I have always wanted to do a sports story that takes you from the little leagues to the major leagues. This isn’t really it because I don’t have a major league team handy. I settled for working the great youth baseball in my town, Hartselle, Alabama. We live and breath baseball here. And we start early. Five year olds are hitting off a pitching machine in their league. The 9&10 years old kids start live pitching and they are remarkably good.
By the time the kids reach the high school level they have climbed this metaphorical ladder and look to add to the baseball glory of Hartselle High School, the eight time state champion. Conveniently, they won the 8th on the day the photo essay published. Talk about great timing.
So how does one conceive of shooting a sports story on the iPhone and how does one find the time to pursue it. First, I was inspired by a story I read about pro sports photographer Brad Mangin producing a book on the San Francisco Giants season shot on the iPhone and processed with Instagram. He talked about how the project refreshed his vision. I liked the sound of that. My vision is always needing refreshing.
I don’t like square frames all that much and Instagram only does squares so I began searching for an app that would allow me to do rectangles. I settled on the Photo Toaster Pro app and I love it. Most of the processing is a one touch process that created the feel I wanted, a kind of washed color look that would render a nostalgic feel to the images. Mr. Mangin then was my inspiration. My motivation I found a little closer to home.
My ten year old son decided to play baseball for the first time in his life. I love baseball and was a decent high school player but I promised I would not push my kids to play just so I could relive my baseball dreams. I never want to be that parent. When Peter told us he wanted to play, I decided this would be a good time to try my hand at the baseball photo essay. Plus, it would keep me from getting over involved in coaching him. I want him to enjoy the game and not have his over eager Dad over coaching him! The photo project helped me stay balanced.
I decided to do it solely on the iPhone because I liked the idea of a special challenge. Obviously, I would not be shooting game action. I wanted my essay to be more about the journey, the game, the atmosphere than about the action between the lines. I started shooting at Peter’s practices. I experimented with several different filters in Photo Toaster until I found the one I liked. I shot some around the games and shot fans and kids playing and just tried to get the feel of the game in the images. Then, I almost screwed up.
I was doing this all on my own time so I didn’t have any set plan or agenda for publishing it. In fact, I didn’t even know for sure I would offer it to the newspaper. It was simply a personal project. When I realized I actually wanted to publish it I looked at the high school schedule and they were down to the their very last game of the season and the playoffs were in the balance. I had to wait with fingers crossed to see if they made the playoffs so I would have a chance to shoot a high school game. Without that, the essay was dead.
Fortunately, the high school team pulled through and made the playoffs and I got up there and shot exactly one and half innings of one game with a few minutes of pregame. Like I said, the action was not important. It was the atmosphere I was after.
I probably only shot about 200 images total for the whole project. I would probably shoot more frames than that on a normal news assignment. Narrowing down the take wasn’t difficult because I had been doing that as I shot. I brought 40 images to the table, the 40 I included in the online gallery. I marked about twenty of them and gave them to page designer Kristin Williams. This is the point where it is tough. It is like taking your kids to school for the first day of class. You just don’t know how things will turn out but Kristin did a great job with the layout. I tried to keep my nose out of it and let her do her magic but I did offer a suggestion or two.
The problem with working on your own time is you will never get paid for it. I didn’t try to charge my newspaper. That wouldn’t have worked anyway. I have showed the photos to some other folks who may publish some of it down the line and they will pay. The thing is, I don’t guess any of us photojournalists do this for the pay. I don’t know any photojournalists getting rich. Don’t ever fall into the trap of only shooting what you know you will get paid for or what you know someone will publish. This project is mine. It has lived in my mind for years and years. I was always going to do it and now I have done it and I am pleased with it and seeing it published is very satisfying. Of course, I don’t mind if someone else pays me to publish it! That would be icing on the cake.
Using the iPhone means you have limits. The in-phone camera is a sweet little 8 megapixel deal. It is sweet as long as you don’t zoom it! Once you start to zoom you doom image quality. This limits you to one “lens.” Not a problem. In fact, that was part of the charm and the challenge. Additionally, the iPhone 5 has a panorama option. I love it and have used it several times. The dugout shot is a pano. The challenge is in turning off the traditional sports photographer that wants to do peak action and instead being a feature photographer looking for moments. Of course, the iPhone has a serious shutter lag so timing is more difficult. You get used to it but it does take practice. The other limiting factor is the thing can be hard to hold still. Camera shake afflicted a few images. Dim light means you have to seriously support the camera because you are touching the screen to fire the shutter which can easily cause camera shake.
All in all, like any photographic tool, the iPhone has a place “in the bag.” The apps are not something you can use on everyday photos but on a feature project like this one they are great. I tried to recreate the look in Aperture and threw in the towel after about a half hour. Photo Toaster created the look in about one, maybe two touches. Use the appropriate tool for the appropriate job and you will love shooting the iPhone. Try and make it do something it isn’t designed to do and you will get a headache. But I guess that is a pretty accurate description of anything in life.
Below is an image of the layout produced for The Decatur Daily by editor Kristin Williams. If you have not seen the full gallery, visit: http://garycosbyjr.photoshelter.com/gallery/Baseball-Town/G0000mj0pJ8aoM7s/
Two years can seem an eternity. Five minutes later it can seem like yesterday. Such is the nature of trauma and grief.
I was surprised when our editors decided to do a two year commemoration of the devastating April 27, 2011 tornadoes but I was all in. For me, this is the most real story I have ever covered. This is not some iffy government story where there may never be a definite outcome. It is not a short term breaking news assignment that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. This is a story that people will be living for the rest of their lives.
As soon as the idea to do this emerged, reporter Deangelo McDaniel and I simply said, “Give the job to us and we will handle it.” Dee and I were heavily involved with the coverage from the outset of the tragedy and we have shared life and death with so many people over the last two years I would not have had it any other way. For me, giving a voice to those who are voiceless is a great privilege and I would keep telling stories until there were none to tell.
We began the series with Tina Little whose son Chase Adams was among the 14 killed in Lawrence County, Alabama. Day two featured her surviving son, Justin Adams, who lost his leg due to the severe injuries he suffered. We told their stories on two days rather than one because their stories are so different, yet they share so much. To do either story justice, they demanded two different days.
Doing visuals is a little difficult. So much of what happened is now past it can be difficult to tell their story in photos. Tina Little frequently visits her son’s grave. I asked her if we could come with her. She agreed and we tailed along as she kissed her son’s head stone. Her story is tough to hear, especially having gone through the death of my own child three years ago.
Justin’s story is more visual, and I hate to say it this way, but having lost his leg and learned to use a prosthetic, there were more ways to photograph him. There is a “cold” aspect to my job that bothers me but showing his prosthetic limb is part of the tragic story he lives every day. Justin lives on the spot where the tornado took away his mobile home and his mother’s house and within a hundred yards of where rescuers found his brother’s body. There is a small cross beside the road where Chase was found. Even now, it is hard to look at that place knowing the pain his death caused both Tina and Justin.
I know I am going to shoot video on these stories but I frustrate myself from time to time not being ready to do so. Simple things like not having a tripod out or not having at least a shotgun mic turn what could be really good video into so-so video. I have to be more diligent. I plan to do things one way but when things are happening I just jump in and shoot. Not a great way to do it and I have to work on video discipline. I recorded these interviews while Deangelo was doing his interviews and that is tough because I have to jump around his questions and the sounds he is making. Ideally, I would do a separate interview for the video but things didn’t work that way this time.
Knowing that you are going to be digging into painful, intimate details of a person’s life, it helps more than you can imagine to be compassionate. The stories are not about you. We tried to get a couple of people to open up and talk to us and they would not do it. I mean, they were very polite but didn’t want to open up. There is a man in southern Limestone County who Dee and I have gone and talked to twice and he won’t let us tell his story. He told us this time he is always glad to see us and we are welcome any time but he doesn’t want to be in the news. That has to be fine. It breaks the heart though. He has given us two of the most telling quotes anyone has given us and we can’t use either.
Since I am not telling you his name, I can tell you when we went by last year he told us he felt like he was still in the storm a year later. This year we dropped by and he said he didn’t want to jinx himself by talking to us. It is April and what if another storm came. We realized this man, who was hit in 1974 by an F5 tornado and again April 27, 2011 by an EF5, has spent the last 39 years watching the sky in fear every April. That is the thing you have to respect. The man has an amazing story but doesn’t want to share it.
On the other hand, Tina and Justin want to tell their stories. We go, we listen, we tell the story and, yes, we cry. Journalism, real journalism, involves you in the lives of the people you cover. The camera and the notebook are no shield. That compassion thing goes a long way toward opening doors but it can also lead you into places of pain and suffering that are almost beyond imaging.
Below the photo gallery you will see the two videos that accompany the stories. I hope you take the time to watch both. They are moving stories.
Life in many small towns revolves around the schools, particularly the high school. Painted on water towers all over the place you see something like, “Welcome To Hartselle, Home of the Tigers.” We all take pride in the schools and towns identify with them and, in many cases, the schools are the life-blood of the community. Hartselle, Alabama is just such a town.
Hartselle closed out the old school and opened a new one over spring break a few weeks ago and we played it up big time in the newspaper. We did a double truck of photos for the opening day and sent another photographer to shoot video. We also did a photo page one the final day at the old school as the students and teachers moved out. For opening day, we sent two writers and two photographers which is a nearly unheard of level of coverage for our newspaper.
No one does better video than my colleague Jeronimo Nisa and his video is very good. He followed the senior class president around and let him show off the new school. I wandered the hallways and classrooms and did the still images. I think the four of us produced a very nice opening day package. But why pay so much attention to a new high school opening?
The city of Hartselle has a population of about 14,000 and a pretty limited revenue stream. The school, at a cost of more than $40 million, is a significant investment that will take a generation to pay for. The political wrangling to get the money for the high school was part of the news for at least a year and the continuing struggles with design and contracting and Title Nine issues to make sure the girls programs got the same facilities as the boys played a big role in the newspaper.
I think too, the decision to build a new high school in Hartselle will significantly impact whether Decatur builds a new high school and Decatur is our primary market. Newspapers play a role in influencing public policy by what we decide to cover and how we decide to cover it. By playing up the new Hartselle High, one would expect the people in Decatur to react in a way that would increase demand for Decatur to build a new school in order to not be outclassed by a much smaller neighboring town. There are already some natural rivalries there so a new school in Hartselle could provide the impetus to build in Decatur. We shall see.
The photo gallery attached to this post features some images from the last day at the old school and also from the first day at the new school. I found the assignment very interesting. First of all, I live in Hartselle and my children will likely benefit from the new school. Secondly, so many of the people in town graduated from the old Hartselle High there are great feelings about the old school. Those feelings will now be transferred to the new school along with the new generation. In other words, I am bearing witness to a passing of the torch, a generational change. Any time one has such a privilege it is special. Sometime in the future the community will decide to replace this new high school and people will then be looking back at the pictures I shot, probably long after I have gone from this earth. That is a tremendous privilege and I am thankful I was there to bear witness.
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.
While down in south Florida shooting the BCS Championship I had the awesome opportunity to talk to several members of the Miami Herald photo staff. I met Al Diaz a few years ago at the SEC Championship. In one of those small world kind of things, his wife’s mother lives in the little town in north Alabama where I live. We have become friends and stay in touch through social media. I also met his colleagues, Peter Andrew Bosch, Charlie Traynor, Joe Rimkus and editor David Walters who used to shoot for the Herald.
All those guys were telling me some incredible stories about chasing great stories all over the world. I had a nice long chat with Bosch who was telling me he has been a combat and conflict photographer most of his career and how he sat next to the fuel tank in an ancient Soviet era helicopter flying across the border from one of the ‘stan countries into Afghanistan with rpg’s zipping all around the chopper. Nice stuff. He must have been bored at BCS media day! Walters told me about his exploits back in the film days running around Central America for several weeks following the Pope and shooting in Panama during the American ouster of Noriega.
I began to feel like a very, very small time, provincial photographer who didn’t belong in that kind of company. My aspirations, even from my childhood, have always been to be the very best at whatever I am doing. I don’t mean I want to be the best in my town or my state. I just want to be the best, period. I know that sounds astoundingly arrogant. That is not how I mean it but I am sure that is how it comes out sometimes. I mean that I want to be the absolute best I can be.
I remember sitting in my car praying one day which means I was really just out there whining at God because I felt like I was trapped at a small newspaper in a small city and I could see no way out. At least, that was the way I saw it. God is pretty wise, perhaps you have heard that. After a while I quit whining and I felt a question rising up in my heart; why are you not acting like you work for the best newspaper in the world? That was a turning point in my career and since that day I have tried to work for The Decatur Daily with the same energy, vision and tenacity I would if I worked for the New York Times. It has made a huge difference in my career and I think it is safe to say that I have maximized my opportunity here.
Then I listened to all these stories and I began to question myself. I remember joking around with David Walters at the media party the night before the game and telling him I had to go get some rest so I could kick Al’s butt next night at the game. He just looked me in the eyes and said, “Good luck with that. I would put my four guys up against anyone in the country. They are that good.” I smiled and nodded and began to doubt myself. Was I really facing off with people I couldn’t shoot with, much less out shoot? I went back to the hotel questioning myself.
I sent my wife an email that night asking many of these same questions I am sharing with you and some I am not sharing with you. It took me several hours to work through the questions. Maybe I am not in their league. Maybe I will get my rear end kicked real good. Maybe I don’t belong on the sidelines with these guys. Maybe I am just a small-time, provincial photographer who really shouldn’t be shooting a BCS Championship. Maybe, maybe, maybe….maybe not.
Somewhere in the dark night I put all those questions to rest. I found my confidence deep inside, remembering a promise God gave me on another quiet night a few years ago. That promise is mine and I won’t tell you that one. Suffice it to say that, when I find myself in doubt, it is the kind of promise I can go back to and put my feet on and feel solid ground under me again. I found that place and I answered my doubts. The Bible has a couple of great verses that came to my mind. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Ephesians 6:7 says “Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” One final verse which I remembered imperfectly from II Corinthians 10:12 says, “or we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with [a]some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.”
What I was doing was trying to compare myself to men who have had both the privilege and the curse of working in some extremely adverse conditions; wars, natural disasters, starvation, and death in many forms. Those are situations I will seldom, if ever, encounter in my career especially if I spend my entire career in a community newspaper which seems likely enough. There is no wisdom in my comparing myself to someone who has had the opportunity through much adversity to excel in ways that I have not had. If you stop to think about how we define “great people” you will almost always be looking at someone who had to overcome major adversity to reach their mountaintop.
Could I have done the same thing if I were in the same circumstances? Could I have risen to the occasion and delivered amazing photographs like they did? Well, I would like to think I could but honestly, it is a question that has no answer. All I can do is make the most out of each opportunity that comes my way whether that opportunity is large or small. The answer to my question was a solution I have given you in the blog over and over again. Make the most out of each photo assignment. Don’t cheat, don’t take short cuts, don’t halfway do the job because you are only cheating yourself. The question that needs to be answered is what will I do with the opportunity in front of me right now.
I got up the next morning down in Florida and got my game face on early. It was hours before game time. I was traveling with our sports editor, Mark Edwards, and he must have thought I was nuts. I set my mind on performing to my utmost ability in the BCS Championship game. That was my opportunity. That was my chance to shoot on level ground with the best of the best. That was my opportunity to prove myself to myself. When the dust cleared and I had a chance to look around, I was fairly well pleased with the results. I didn’t get every picture but I got a bunch. I had a pretty pathetic post game but that stemmed from a single bad decision, one I will correct if the opportunity comes up again. Will I ever be the best photojournalist in the world? Highly, laughably, unlikely, but, BUT, I will approach every assignment with the idea that no one is going to out shoot me today. Is that arrogant? Don’t know, all I know is if I don’t go out every day with that mindset someone else will be eating my lunch and in this day and age of the newspaper world, that isn’t figurative language!
I have a selection of photos with this post that are simply some of my favorite pictures. I have no idea how to illustrate a post like this so I just pulled out some favorites. Some are personal, some were made through extreme adversity and some are just pretty but all of them have some meaning to me. Hope you enjoy them.
Being a photojournalist has many appealing aspects and some noteworthy negatives. Among the negatives are the seasonal photo assignments. Christmas may be the worst of all for seasonal, highly repetitive photo assignments. The longer I have worked in the community newspaper world the more I have come to dread December.
First of all, I hate shopping so there is that, which means I also hate shopping photos. Secondly, I have come to hold a pretty low opinion of Santa Claus. I know, he is putting me on the naughty list right now. I can’t help it. I used to love the whole Christmas thing, Santa and all; however, after photographing a bevy of jolly old impersonators, I have about had my belly full of Santa, photographically speaking, of course. Thirdly, I have no desire to ever photograph another Christmas light. Fourthly, is that even a word, I have about worn out on manger scenes as well.
Over the years there has been one particularly, nearly demonically, difficult Christmas photo assignment. The annual Parade of Lights on the Tennessee River has been an assignment to run away from for years. I remember trying to make a picture out there using a Nikon D1. Oh My! There may have been a beautifully lit boat somewhere out there but one would have had a devil of a time finding it amid all the digital noise. The D1 didn’t like black too well.
Then there was the D2h and the D2hs. No great shakes there either. Then, I must have gone unconscious for a few years or, more truly, just didn’t work the night shift and have to deal with that assignment. This year; however, I could not dodge it. I approached the job with a measured dread. All the bad memories of horrible photos shot on the black river came flooding back. Then, I suddenly remembered, I have a D4!!!
I think the Hallelujah Chorus began somewhere in my mind. Perhaps it was the angels singing from on high. I could shoot at any ISO I wanted to. I could turn the dark, black river into a medium gray river if the notion struck me! I got a touch of the Christmas spirit. Well, almost. I did remember the dynamic range would be far, far beyond what any digital sensor can handle but I would at least have a picture!
Now all you amateurs, put away your little strobes and don’t even pretend to use one. Have you ever actually shot with a strobe, at night? The night sucks up strobe light, like a sponge. The strobe also blows out your highlights and does nothing for those black shadow areas. So just don’t do it. Find a happy medium between whatever ambient you have and the Christmas lights and hope for the best.
My strategy was two fold. One worked, one worked a little. I went down on the river bank at a place I had never shot from. I was across the river from Decatur so whatever light I had in the background, say street lights, would create light streaks on the river thereby breaking the darkness into slightly smaller slices of darkness. The closer to the water you get, the longer those streaks of light become. My other idea, and the one with the highest chance of success, was to get the boats as they exited the harbor where there was actually a fair amount of light from the other boats still in the harbor. This worked okay, not great, but okay. I think a giant softbox suspended from the Hudson Memorial Bridges would have been ideal but since the ALDOT would have a little problem with that, I just winged it. Besides, a softbox big enough to do the job would have required its own nuclear reactor to power it. Brownsferry was definitely not down with that!
The surprise, and the reason I almost got some Christmas spirit, came as I was leaving. I parked on the elevated section of highway leading up to the bridge. It overlooks the water, but there is a lot of random tree growth that obscures the view. However, as I walked back to my car, I looked over my shoulder and saw the boats strung out in a line right over the roof line of the Hard Dock Cafe. I was freaking out. And actual picture could be made here! I shot a bunch of frames hoping I would have one sharp enough in the foreground and the background to use. Sure enough, I got one. I was very, very happy.
You can see people out on the deck of the restaurant, a canopy of light over them, and the boats out behind them. I had beat the black hole and the Christmas lights demon at the same time. SWEET! I swear, just like the old Grinch standing on Mount Crumpet, I think my heart grew three sizes right then and there. I almost said, “Ho, ho, ho,” as I got into my sled to drive back tot he newspaper. Okay, almost.
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.
I had intended to close out this series but, after some encouragement, I decided to do one more. Change is inevitable. Change comes, like it or not in one of three forms; revolution, evolution or extinction. The question that hangs in the air in the news business is which one is happening to us?
It seems there was a change, subtle to be sure, in the management structure of newspapers over the years. Hometown newspapers were often owned by people with ink under their fingernails. They had worked their way up from throwing papers as a child to working in the mail room or writing stories or selling ads and into upper management. Whatever they did coming up in the business they were connected, not only to the business, but also to the community. That began changing when large news corporations began buying up those smaller papers and sending in people from all over the place to run them. The community connection in the ownership of the papers was broken. That disconnect proved to be the beginning of the end.
It was, as a single event, not enough to sink a business that was so incredibly profitable. The advent of digital technology added fuel to the fire. I have no idea which was the first news organization to give their content away online but whoever they were, they certainly did us no favors. From a purely business standpoint, that was simply insane. The revolution-evolution-extinction was now in high gear. Those years of extraordinary profit were long in the rear view mirror. Managers were struggling to maintain even a semblance of the high profits that drew large, publicly owned companies into the news business. And they were failing. The jobs started to vanish. Two newspaper cities found the two papers merging their production facilities and eventually their staffs closing down one or the other of the papers.
Even that failed to stem the tide. The internet monster had taken over. What to do? And that is still the question. What to do? The news business failed to heed the old adage, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” We now sit here wondering, are we evolving or are we dying? The idea of revolution seems so ridiculous it has been dropped from the discussion.
Now the stage is set for the real question; what do I do as a working member of this evolving, or dying, business. I think there will be a news organization where the newspaper used to be. It will almost certainly be internet based. It will almost certainly not be anything like the current newspaper. Judging by the pace at which society is now moving and changing, it will have to be very flexible and nearly continuously updated. But, and this is where I think there is hope for people like me, the internet also provides a format for in-depth news like we have not had in print for many years with the added bonus that we can incorporate audio and video in a true multi-media form.
What kind of person will be able to thrive in this new environment? Well, if you are reading this blog, a person like you. You are online. You are seeking knowledge. You are flexible. All those things will drive the new news business and the people who work in it. “Hey,” you may be saying, “newsrooms are full of those kinds of people right now.” Yes, yes they are. The person reporting the news, visually or on screen or in writing is exactly the person who will do well. Think about what drew you into the business to start with. Was it the thrill of seeing your pictures in print? Was it your passion for people? Was it your passion for storytelling? Yeah, you see, you are already here, already doing what you love to do and your passion will help you evolve.
The truth of the matter is there is a tremendous need, especially in the internet era, for accurate information delivered in a timely manner. If anything, there is a greater need now than there has ever been. The concept of the citizen journalists will quickly fade into more of a background thing with the first major lawsuit for defamation or invasion of privacy filed against a news organization for use of unscrupulously gained material. People will figure out the business side of this thing. I am sure of that because there is money to be made in information. The key for journalists is to evolve. If you look at nature, creatures that adapt well to changing environments are the ones who survive. Creatures who cannot adapt become extinct. I am no evolutionist in the Darwinian sense, but there are some points to evolution theory that are not completely absurd. Adaptability is a key component in survival. That much is clear.
That means we have to roll with the punches, stay current on technology, learn how to use the various social media to communicate the news, even, God forbid, tweet. It causes me to shudder even to write such a thing. Within this period of evolution, (lets be optimistic!), we have a chance to affect change and we should make sure the visual voices are heard. We may have to do some pretty insane things because the bosses say so but in doing them we may be able to show them a better way, to make suggestions to push this change in a positive direction for visual journalists. What suggestions you may ask? I don’t know. Be creative. See the situation and see how to make it better, how to shape it and move it in a positive direction. Most of all, don’t follow the pack. We can all see how that is working.
We are not alone you know. Almost every business and every facet of life is undergoing major change right now. Everyone is figuring out how to survive and thrive in this new world. I think back to the social upheaval in the country during the Vietnam era. There was tremendous change wrought by the Great Depression, by the World Wars. Was any of that easy? I don’t think so. Times of upheaval and change seldom are easy. I have heard it said, each generation has its war. I suppose that most generations have their times of change and upheaval as well. It is easy to give up and fall away during those times of change. It is a bit more difficult to move that change in the right direction but that effort will be important. You and I have a great opportunity in the midst of all this mess. We can be the agents of positive change. What more could anyone ask in this life than to be an agent of positive change?
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.
Daily Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
J.D. Power watches harvesters work Thursday evening, August 2, 2012, as he helps with the corn harvest in a field along Lindsay Lane near Huntsville-Brownsferry Rd. A summer thunderstorm is looming up behind him as he waits on the last load of the day. The yields are down this year due to the extremely dry month of June and the harvest has begun about three weeks earlier than normal.
It is difficult to deny that our world of print journalism, which seemed so solid for so many years, is deteriorating around us every day. Circulation loss, declining advertising and the continual migration of readers to free web content are creating a less and less hopeful world for those of us who still bleed ink. The question we are trying to answer here is simple; what do I do to maximize my chances of staying employed?
Many of these things I have said before in other posts but they have never been more important than they are right now. I have said this before, photo departments are way, way too passive always sitting around waiting on someone else to bring photo assignments and then complaining about the quality of those assignments. That was never a great idea. It is now a horrible idea. We must be the most aggressive journalists in the newspaper out scouring around, not just for stand alone photos, but for stories, for people, for characters, and become the initiators of stories.
Some may be shaking their heads thinking, “I am already too busy to worry about doing anything other than making it through another day.” That certainly may be true on the surface but we have to dig deeper. Every day we are out in the community covering assignments and talking to people. It only takes another minute or two to ask one extra question. That one question may lead to a story for another day or help you develop a new contact who can feed you stories for years to come. If you have worked in a community for several years, you already have these contacts even if you have not given it much thought. Think about it now.
I came to work a couple of weeks ago with absolutely nothing on my assignment board for the day. I hate those days because then I am expected to chase traffic accidents and other breaking news events all over the place and look for stand alone art. Not my idea of a fun day. I did my thing and turned in a couple of stand alone photos. Some sporadic thunderstorms showed up in the early evening and I decided to drive toward one that looked promising. I didn’t really think the storm itself would make a picture but I hoped to find someone doing something interesting that I could juxtapose against the storm.
One key to finding good stuff is to, wait for it now, ready, look for it! The thunderstorm gave me a hook now all I needed was content. I drove toward Athens and then up Lindsay Lane still seeing nothing worth a photo. It was then I saw the corn harvest going on just outside the envelope of the storm. I drove past it, turned around, drove past it again, still not sure I could make a picture. When I turned back for the third pass I saw a guy standing on top of the trailer with the storm behind him. Glory! Of course, he climbed down as soon as I drove up but I had a workable idea now. I could just see him standing up with that big storm behind him and a lighting bolt striking in the background. Sweet!
It was a fine idea but lightning can be notoriously difficult to shoot when you can’t do a timed exposure from a tripod. Too much light for that and the guy was no longer atop the trailer. Still, I had a good situation with some potential and there was the storm and the early evening light. Anything could happen now. I hung around and talked and shot for about a half hour before the light was gone and the guys were finished. During that time I found out the drought in June had really hurt the corn crop. Now I had a news hook for my feature photos and my time was well spent and, even though I never got that stroke of lightning, I did leave with a nice set of photos from a job I didn’t have to shoot and no one expected.
In fact, it was too late to publish these in the newspaper so they ended up simply being published online only. I was not troubled. Feeding the internet beast is now at least as important as getting content in the printed edition. Truth is, I could have sat around in the office and done nothing, played on the computer or caught up on burning DVD’s for file. No one would have said a word and I would have gone home frustrated at a wasted day. Having a little bit of an aggressive edge will get you out the door like it did for me. If nothing else I would have enjoyed chasing the light even if it got away from me. That happens too! But no one ever made a great photo sitting at the computer desk in the photo department so get up and get out and find your own stuff.