Archive for the ‘Community Photojournalism’ Category
I was working one day this week and my boss walked over to me and said, “Gary, you are one prolific photographer.” I wasn’t sure it was a compliment. I think he was politely saying, “Why are you printing so many proofs when all I need is one for the budget meeting.” But still, I put the best face on it and decided it was a compliment. It does; however, beg a question and that question is the title.
Back in the old days, you know, before the internet took over the world, I used to turn in about three pictures for your everyday news assignment. For a Friday night football game I would hope to turn in maybe five to seven images knowing only two or three would run. For a college football game I would hope to move about seven photos on deadline. Back in the day we were processing film and then scanning the images into the Leafax and transmitting over standard phone lines. It was slow!
I have covered two college football games this season and I moved a total of about 300 images from the two games. Granted, we are still only publishing about six to eight images in the paper but now photo galleries must be filled and, at least according to the powers that be, the more the merrier. In two high school football games this month, I think I moved about 130 images. My everyday assignments that I used to submit three images for are now commanding between 10 and 20 images. Those numbers represent exponential increases over what I did back in the film days when there was no internet.
Is that a good thing? I mean, seriously, how much is too much? That, my friends, is the question. Have you ever heard the story of the two men going camping and one man worries about bears? The one guy looks at the other and says, “I don’t think I can outrun a bear.” The second guy responds, “I don’t think I can either but I know for sure I can outrun you!” That is about what it is like in the newspaper business today. We are filling photo galleries like we are running away in terror, trying to not get eaten by the layoff bear.
No one really knows the answer to this question but allow me to pose it anyway. How do you know when enough is enough. I mean, we have literally had two people in leadership suggest we simply point the camera at the stands during a high school game and fill the galleries with meaningless pictures of people sitting there doing nothing. I suppose the rationale is if they think they might be in a picture they also might click through the gallery. That is a really warped mindset and it shows how desperate newspaper management is becoming. Believe me, this idea did not come from our managers. They heard it from some consultant somewhere which means these consultants are actually recommending that crap all over the place. I have seen one newspaper website that did this and the results are horrific. No one in their right mind would ever go back to that website again.
Back to my question, how much is too much and how do you know when enough is enough? What is our mission? Our mission is to report the news. That is our core and any business that abandons its core is doomed. Another way of saying this is our core is community relevant news. When we become irrelevant we are doomed. Close the doors and move along because there will be nothing left. So, what is relevant? I don’t know all the answers to that question but I can tell you one thing that is relevant in the fall in Alabama and that is football.
Now you see why I have been working extra hard to fill my photo galleries. I will not put crap in my galleries. I will work very, very hard to fill my galleries with high quality content but I will not put irrelevant pictures in my galleries to meet some ridiculous quota. Allow me to explain. This current era is the most visually saturated, and one would assume, visually literate era in human history. More visual content is pouring through more outlets than at any time in our history. This means, this especially means, that to be seen and stand out amid this vast flow of visual information, your content must be excellent and it must be relevant.
High school football is relevant. College football is relevant. Think about this. Why do people go to high school football games? The reason is slightly different from the reason people go to college games. High schools don’t typically draw the rabid fan base that Alabama and Auburn draw. People go to high school games because they have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, brother or sister participating. Those kids play in the band, on the football team and they are cheerleaders. The fans are there for a reason and the reason is to see their kid do their thing.
Now, what do you want to fill your photo galleries with? That’s right, relevant content. I have attended many, many football and basketball games, the two big sports in terms of fan attendance, and the student section will always be animated. Make pictures of those people. They have parents and grandparents, etc., who will look for their photo. The rest of the fans look just flat bored. Once in a while a fan will react to a big play or a bad call but otherwise they just kinda sit there. Not much of a picture.
College games are different. People go to college games because they are rabid fans and because the game day experience is pretty amazing. Fan pictures there are less relevant than at high school games because the fans are from all over God’s green earth and may or may not be relevant to your particular readership. If you can find a handful of locals in that sea of humanity, by all means shoot their photos, but the vast majority of Bama and Auburn fans want to see Bama and Auburn pictures.
So how much is too much? I have developed a theory. When you run out of relevant pictures, stop. That is enough. If I publish a 123 photos in a gallery it is because there is not a worthy 124th. If I publish five pictures in a gallery it is because there is not a worthy sixth. I have worked hard to develop a reputation for excellence and I refuse to throw that away. I will work very, very hard to maximize the number of photos I put in a gallery but I will not compromise quality.
Watermelon is one of my favorite foods to eat. Enjoying a watermelon always conjures up memories of the hot Alabama summers of my childhood. Maybe it was an after church social, what we used to call a dinner on the ground. Maybe it was a picnic down at the river. Maybe it was after playing baseball all afternoon with friends. Whatever the occasion there always seemed to be a watermelon mixed in with the memories of those good times. Needless to say, I love me some watermelon. In fact, being the good southern boy that I am, there is not much I like better than watermelon and fried chicken. I could subsist on nothing more. In fact, if God doesn’t allow fried chicken and watermelon in heaven then He may just have to rename the place “almost heaven!”
Being the alert and attentive readers you all are, I am sure you are asking yourself right about now, “What exactly has this to do with photojournalism?”
That, my friends, is the question and I have the answer. One day as I sat outback at our picnic table enjoying some watermelon with my children I was contemplating photojournalism and it struck me like a lightning bolt. Hey, eating watermelon is exactly how you should shoot an assignment. Think about it. The first thing you do when you eat watermelon is eat the heart of your slice of melon. That’s where the best of the meat is, juicy and sweet.
What are you supposed to do on a photo assignment? Of course, you are supposed to get to the heart of the matter and get the most important stuff first.
Next, you work your way through the seeds. There is still good melon here but you have to work harder to get at it. There are seeds to spit out, and do make sure you spit out the seeds. One does not want to grow watermelons in one’s tummy now does one? At least, that is what some of our moms and grandmas used to say to us kids to make sure we didn’t swallow any seeds. How does this relate to your photo assignment?
This is the part where you experiment, try new lighting techniques, a new angle of view, a different lens or even a different camera. This may be where you whip out the iPhone and work a few images. Who knows? This is the stage where you already have something you feel good about in the bag and now you are working some alternate angles on the main subject trying to find a really tasty bite amid all the seeds. The seeds, of course represent your failures. You will have to do some spitting here. Now need to swallow a failure, you might end up growing one in your creative tummy.
After the heart and seed belt there is some fine meat to be had between the seeds and the rind. If you haven’t been using a knife to eat with up to this point, do yourself and favor and get you at least a butter knife so you can clean out every last bit of the red meat that melon has to offer. Yellow? Don’t even go there. Red watermelon is real watermelon! Viva la red! Okay, I digress.
This relates to working the edges of your photo assignment and this is more important now than it has ever been because this is where you get a bunch of good images for your photo galleries. Here is the deal. You have your shot. You have some experiments. Now this layer of the melon allows you to fill out your report and you may just find an amazing image out there around the edges. You know I advocate working the literal edges of an assignment. Go backstage, go to the locker room, the hallway, the beach. Wait, what, the beach? Yeah, I guess I let that one slip. No handy beaches in my part of the world. It is cold. I was day dreaming. Leave me alone and go eat your watermelon!
Literally, turn your back on the main subject and look around. Walk away from the center and get out where the other photographers are not working. Find something on the way to the locker room. This is where you can express your own unique vision. Go for it.
Now we come to the rind. The rind is the light green part and I was always told it would give you a belly ache so I guess this means we are done. No more watermelon. No more pictures. Time to go to the computer and upload all those fine images then rush out and find yourself a shade tree and a melon. Enjoy.
Below are some photos from Decatur’s recent Carnegie Carnival, a Mardi Gras style event. The heart of the melon is the parade, and to some degree, the people who are heavily engaged who are watching it like the girls reaching out for beads. The seeds are represented in the backlit photo of the kid in the jesters hat and in the horribly lit image of the pirate giving beads to the elderly lady. The lighting alone makes those seed photos but worth the risk. They are two of my favorite images. The third layer images are the three where you are looking at people basically looking at you. These are definitely for the gallery. Nothing wrong with that. It draws eyes to the website. Not all of your third layer images will be bland. Sometimes they will be your very best images. With a parade, this is what the third layer stuff tends to be. Of course, you can also do detail shots and some other things to add visual interest to the gallery.
Last week the state of Alabama underwent a major civil rights shake up, an earthquake really. A federal judge removed the barriers for same sex couples to marry in Alabama. This easily became the biggest civil rights story in Alabama in at least 30 years. I can tell you, having grown up in Alabama and then living here as an adult for the past twenty years, I never thought to see this day happen. Is it a good thing? That is the great debate and only time will tell.
If you have read the blog much at all you know I am a Christian and as a Christian I know what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. I also know what the Bible has to say about all sexual sin so I will just echo the words of Christ, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I dropped mine a long, long time ago. As a civil rights matter; however, things seem to me to be perfectly clear. Our Declaration of Independence says this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Our core national beliefs state that we believe all men are created equally and that all should have equal rights and protections. This is so fundamental to our nation and, I must add, has been tried in the furnace of a terrible Civil War which claimed over 500,000 lives, that it should not even be a source of debate. However, women, blacks and now those with different sexual preferences have all been clubbed by the weight of unjust laws in a nation that believes in “liberty and justice for all.” There is nowhere in any of this that says we have to agree with everyone but we certainly cannot legally discriminate against anyone. And, as a final note to all of my Christian friends, the U.S. law is not the same as Christian morality. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they don’t. No Christian should ever look to civil law to modify a persons behavior to adhere to Biblical standards. That is the work of God and church, not legislative bodies. Only God is capable of changing the heart of man. No law has ever accomplished this.
Now, on to covering this historic event. My boss told me on Friday I would be shooting the marriage events in Huntsville Monday morning. I was excited to cover the assignment. It is not often one gets the opportunity to document such a historical event. I wondered exactly how the couples were going to feel about being photographed. I mean, this could certainly open them to public ridicule and humiliation and possible even affect their jobs, their children and family members. While this does not carry the weight of violence that attended the civil rights movements of the 1950’s and 60’s we are still talking about a state with strong feelings about homosexuality. I was very happy that few shied away from the camera and most of the couples understood they were doing this intentionally as a public statement. That made this part of the job very easy.
I began inside the Madison County Courthouse where we endured a very long wait. Some computer problem or other slowed things dramatically. This is not time you waist. I shot pictures of couples in line and in doing this I was able to identify a few that seemed to me to be good people to follow through the process. That is very important. Don’t waste your down time. Talk to people and find out which ones will be the best and then stick with them. You can get a good feel for who will give you good shots and who will just stand there like a statue. I had about three couples I wanted to get shots of and I managed to get good stuff on two.
Once the licenses began to be issued I started looking for emotion. There was cheering every time a couple came out with the license. Fortunately for me one of the couples I identified early came out and triumphantly lifted the license giving me one of the my three favorite shots from the day. I got another very beautiful image of a couple leaning against one another beneath a row of judicial looking portraits. My final favorite image came in Big Spring Park as the first couple to be legally married in north Alabama shared their first kiss.
My greatest difficulty turned out to be attempting to shoot stills and video at the same time. Like a complete knucklehead, I left my tripod in the car so I was free handing the video while continuing to shoot stills. Yes, it was funny to watch. At one point, as I photographed the first wedding, I was shooting video with the Nikon D4 which was literally sitting on top of the Canon 5D I was shooting stills with. I can only wonder what that must have looked like! It was heavy and every time I moved my 5D the video shook so there are some awkward cuts. Overall, I think I managed it but, as my daughter told me, “Dad, you are a much better photographer than videographer!”
I sent my three best shots to the AP and I was absolutely thrilled with the national play they got. I had about six front pages in big newspapers around the country. You can see them with this post. I can’t even begin to tell you how thrilled I was to have this kind of play. First of all, there is a validation of the work itself. I mean, if it wasn’t good these big papers wouldn’t have used the photos. There were plenty of images from Alabama to chose from. It also points out how very much God has blessed me. Decatur, Alabama isn’t exactly a world wide news hotspot but I have had the front page of the Washington Post a couple of times, the New York Times, several times on USA Today’s front page and sports page. I mean, how is that even possible? I simple give God praise for all He has given me the opportunity to do here and shake my head in amazement.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog taking you behind some of the photos I feel helped define my year.
I can’t ever remember shooting a photo I felt had better compositional balance than this one. This picture hits some kind of sweet spot in my cranium and it just feels right. Best of all, I shot this photo at practice! Yes sports fans, at practice. For those of you who may not be photojournalists you can’t really appreciate having to cover practice. It isn’t just that you have to cover one practice but during a year you may cover dozens of practices and practices are not the cauldrons of visual excitement games are. That being said, you can do things at practice you can’t do in a game.
Back in the early days of photography, and the fairly early days of baseball, photographers would literally be on the field. I have seen old photos of photographers just off the first baseline near the batter’s box in foul territory. I quail to think of a screaming foul ball coming at them but they were there. Obviously, it didn’t take baseball big wigs too long to move photographers off the playing surface. Then along came TV and huge money and now there is a TV guy who is on the field ruining everyone’s photos of plays at home plate and homerun trots and things like that. I guess what comes around goes around and this is back around if you pay enough money to MLB.
Okay, back on track. I can get on a lofty soap box about TV and its effect on the game but it doesn’t matter what I think on that point so I return to shooting practice. This is a Calhoun Community College practice early in the year. They were doing a drill where the coach hits the ball around the park and has live base runners so they can learn situational baseball. This photo is at that moment when the coach has hit the ball and the designated runner is just taking off to first base. The mirroring of their postures is what really sells this image.
The other thing for those of you who may not be regular photojournalists is the angle of view. I shot several images at eye level but they were not anything special. I dropped down on my knees and set the camera on the ground tilted up and then the magical stuff started happening. Now, consider this, not one thing was different about the moment I was shooting standing versus this moment I shot from my knees. The coaches and players are all doing the same drill. What changes is my point of view and by changing the point of view I also change the perspective. The runner in the foreground has the emphasis because of his apparent size but the movement on the coach in the background; although he is smaller, balances the frame. Then there is the nice sky which mirrors the color of the uniforms and we have an image with both visual harmony and visual balance.
Like I said, I can’t remember ever shooting a photo, especially a sports photo, I was more pleased with in a compositional sense but it also captures a nearly perfect moment. The infamous Henri Cartier-Bresson, the man who coined the phrase “the decisive moment” had this to say about how moment and composition work together: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
No photograph is perfect but I do like this one an awful lot.
Now there is a peculiar topic but humor me. Boredom and dissatisfaction are amazingly valuable to a photographer. First, they point to a very important need in your life; the need to change. Second, if you allow them to motivate you rather than depress you they become prime movers in the next step in your career.
Back in the old days when there were still newspaper photo jobs to be had a bored or dissatisfied photojournalist simply moved on to a new job. New scenery, new assignments and the problem was solved, until it cropped up again in the new job. Now that photo jobs are vanishing like dinosaurs at the end of the Cretacious period a new strategy must be employed.
That strategy involves turning your frustrations into your future. Periods of boredom become fertile ground for the imagination as long as you don’t sit placidly. Drive yourself to experiment, to change to try new techniques, give yourself long term projects. Basically, do anything other than remain bored.
Dissatisfaction comes in many forms from problematic bosses to feeling like you are getting only the bad assignments. Your personal life can also encroach on your work life and cause problems for you. Dissatisfaction is a major creativity block because it robs you of motivation. You get frustrated with a boss who, most of the time, doesn’t even know they frustrated you, and you find yourself saying things to yourself like, “I don’t give a crap so I’m not going to do anything extra.” Ummm, yeah, that will teach that boss. You are only hurting yourself.
Self adjusting the old attitude is one of the most difficult things a human can do but if you can do it you will grow and mature both personally and professionally. Frustration comes to everyone from the Pulitzer Prize winner to the newest college grad who doesn’t even know which end of the camera to aim with yet. The question becomes, “how do I change my attitude because for sure I can’t change the person frustrating me?”
The first thing you have to do is remember who you are shooting for and, here is a hint, it is not the boss. If you are shooting to make the boss happy you are already heading toward the dark side. Shoot to make you happy. If you are happy with your own work then the boss probably will be too. If you have to, avoid the person who is causing you the dissatisfaction. If not, find a way to deal with it. Focus on the positive rather than the negative. What we look at is ultimately what we will be. If someone continually looks at the negative in a boss or colleague that is all he will ever see. Focus on something else. Find a good trait.
Another big thing you can do is change your perspective on the situation. Here is a trick I like to teach. Hold your hand directly in front of your face. What do you see? Your hand, of course. Now, move your hand away from your face as far as you can reach. What do you see? Your hand, of course, but now you see it in proper perspective. It doesn’t dominate your field of view. It is still there but you see so much more. When you have a problem, back off, check it out from another point of view and see if it still looks all that horrible.
Boredom can also be turned into motivation to go out and find something on your own. Stop waiting for an assignment. Go make yourself an assignment. Then, if you don’t like what you are shooting you can really give yourself a good cussing for making such a bad assignment. No, really, then you will have no excuses. I remember being in a creative writing class in grad school and the instructor gave the best advice I got in school, write about what interests you. When you make yourself an assignment, make one that you find interesting. You will put more effort into it and you will have something to be proud of when you are done.
Let’s face it, unless you are assigned to cover the ebola outbreak in Africa, pretty nearly any assignment can be perceived as boring. Believe me, you can become so jaded nothing really makes you happy. An antidote to this is push yourself inside any assignment to find something beyond what is assigned. In other words, drop a bomb on your boredom by forcing yourself to make a picture. Do this over and over again until it becomes a habit. Not only does this make you a better photographer it also helps you become boredom proofed. It is very difficult to be bored if you are always looking for “the” picture.
Almost forgot, and this is a big one, force yourself to go to spot news. I absolutely hate covering wrecks and I do mean hate. As much as I hate doing them I will go out and cover wrecks when necessary and I will do fires, floods and disasters-that is kinda what we do. There is one absolute rule, you can’t make a picture sitting on your butt in the office. If you go out and shoot stuff you will make pictures, sometimes you will make a great picture. Spot news is a big deal on the internet too so you get double points for getting out and doing spot news no matter how uncomfortable you may be. Not everyone digs covering spot news but it is a great boredom buster.
Finally, do excellent work. No matter if the assignment is a “good” one or a “bad” one there are moments to be had. I had an assignment the other day where a local church daycare was having a pizza restaurant come in and talk to the kids. I thought, “great, what kind of photo assignment is this?” I could have gone in all down and out and shot some crappy photo and left. Or, I could have gone in and shot five really nice photos from a bland assignment. Care to guess which one I did?
Your career is really up to you. Make something out of it, or don’t but it really is on you and not on your bosses. Go shoot something good!
Lately I have been giving some extra thought to building an audience. Obviously, newspaper circulation numbers are falling and newspapers are transitioning to more and more web content. Ultimately, printed newspapers will cease to exist and news websites will be the only remnant of what was once a great and proud industry. As far as I can see, there is no salvation for printed newspapers. That leaves us with the pressing need to build a loyal, online audience and we must do it now. The question becomes how do we do it?
There is a real rush toward posting content as quickly as possible, especially visual content. Here is where the first major rub comes in. We are living in the most visual age in the history of man yet newspapers and news websites are laying off visual professionals in droves. Many of these sites are turning to their reporters who are using iPhones. These reporters generally have a very low level of visual literacy and visual skill but they are being called on to replace the visual content previously created by professionals. To say these organizations are throwing the baby out with the bath water would be the understatement of the 21st Century.
The first thing I want to emphasize here is quantity alone does not generate reader loyalty. So what does? Back to the baby and the bath water, the bath water is the old method of delivering content, the printed newspaper. The baby is content. You can’t toss content while tossing the delivery system. What generated reader loyalty in the printed product? It was relevant, quality news in both word and picture.
First, what is relevant content? That is the easy one. Relevance is determined by the readers. What matters to them? If it matters we should be reporting it. In the great state of Alabama I can tell you relevant content revolves around football, faith, government/education and, above all, weather. I look around and wonder why no news sites have their own weather guy/gal. If not that, why don’t we have a partnership with the popular weather dude on TV and simulcast his forecast and especially the wall to wall radar coverage of storms. I mean, what else is as popular as that in Dixie Alley? I think websites must, and I mean really must, get in the weather game if we are serious about building a loyal audience. At bare minimum we should have a live radar feed right on the front page of our websites.
Now lets talk about visuals. People go to YouTube to watch stupid people being stupid. We all get that so why do people go to newspaper websites? How about to get the news? There is no way we can go head to head with YouTube but we do have our niche. We must exploit that niche. If we are a community news site we must really nail the local content. If we have a state audience then we have to get the most important stuff from around the state and really hammer it. We have to provide top quality visuals of our audience doing that thing they do whatever that thing is. We absolutely have to cover sports from stem to stern. In Alabama you have to hit Alabama and Auburn football and basketball, gymnastics and occasionally baseball and swimming. We also have to go after the high school sports aggressively.
Everybody goes to see those high school photo galleries. Fill those things with excellent content and be aggressive about it. I hear some managers who suggest just pointing the camera at a section of the bleachers and clicking away, no visual point to it, just put as many people’s faces on the site as possible. That is flat out visual suicide and it is an audience killer. I have heard suggestions that every photo gallery should be crammed with as many pictures as possible, no worries about editing, cropping or toning. I have heard those same people propose slapping unedited video online just as fast as possible. Really?
I don’t think there is much reason to go beyond 20-30 photos in a high school sports gallery unless you have a ton of killer content. I would go to 75-100 for a college gallery, again unless you have killer content and can deliver more. On your everyday assignment galleries there is seldom a reason to go more than 10-15 photos deep. Why? If you have more photos you get more clicks, right? Nope. What you get is a jaded audience who you train to only look at the first few images. Think about it. If you have a hundred photos in galleries all the time and the readers see after about ten pictures the quality goes to pot you have trained that audience to not bother going more than ten images into your gallery. If, on the other hand, they see each photo contributes to the whole and doesn’t waste their time you are training an audience to go all the way to the end of your gallery. Make it worth their while to check out your work.
How about video content? Same principle applies. Whenever I go to a news website and check out videos I last only as long as the quality and relevance lasts. When you bore me you lose me. When you have crap quality you lose me. When there is no content to the video, no reason for me to be there and spend my time, you lose me. Video can be one of the most powerful tools we have to build an audience but the videos must have great quality regardless of whether they are 15 seconds long or a few minutes long. It takes so little extra time to make a quality video why not do good quality work? I don’t care for advertising on news site videos but I recognize the necessity to have those ads. The caveat is if I am going to endure an ad before I can see your video you dang well better have a video that was worth my trouble. My biggest objection over the years to newspaper videos has been quality. The biggest danger we have in this rush to create content is losing the quality and thereby losing the viewer.
Audience loyalty is a fickle thing and cultivating it requires both quantity and quality and a regularly updated site. Of course, we are part of the 24 hour news cycle now and if we are going to compete for those all important viewers and those even more important advertising dollars we must create a relevant, top quality product that is updated all the time and then cross promoted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else pops up in the social media world.
As a new high school graduate with no idea what to pursue in college, my mom suggested I try accounting. I took a class in high school and did well but I knew that math and I don’t actually speak the same language and my complete failure in college algebra proved the obvious. The only math I ever liked was geometry. I still like geometry. It is a math that makes sense to me and try as I might I was never able to see much use in working formulas with the alphabet. The alphabet belonged in English class, not math. Geometry is all about lines and shapes and angles and it is such an integral part of photography they are like brothers.
I don’t mean the kind of brothers that are always fighting, I mean the kind of brothers that complement one another and work together to form great things. You know, now I think of it, maybe brothers is a bad metaphor! Maybe they are more like a great marriage where one completes the other. At any rate, geometry forms the basis for composition and photography loves shapes, triangles, circles, squares even squiggles. Not so sure about trapezoids. I have always been slightly suspicious of the trapezoid. Still, geometry and photography are great friends.
I also love history. I spent the summer at the pool with the kids and they played and I read three great volumes by Rick Atkinson known as the liberation trilogy, a look at the US Army’s growth from its infancy in north Africa to its maturity as it marched into Germany. As I read the books, the LST came into play a number of times. The LST, Landing Ship Tank, was key to allied success and delivered armies to the beach in every theater of war. The perfect photographic storm came together for me this September when LST 325 sailed up the Tennessee River. I was invited to ride the ship from Wheeler Dam to Ingalls Harbor in Decatur and it was a dream assignment for me. I was able to ride on a piece of living history. This ship participated in the invasions of Sicily, Italy and Normandy. LST 325 was on the beach on D-Day and made 44 trips across the English Channel delivering men, equipment and supplies supporting the army in Normandy.
The ride was not spectacular. The Tennessee River is pretty calm and nothing like what the ship faced in open ocean. The crew members, most all retired Navy, told me when the ship is in high seas it flexes so much you can stand on the tank deck in the stern and watch the bow flexing up and down. Now that is freaky. Over 1,000 were manufactured during World War II. LST 325 is the only one that remains operational. There were plenty of areas I could not go, some due to regulations imposed by the Coast Guard and others because not all the ship has been restored. What I could see was just awesome. The LST class was the first class of ship that was welded together rather than riveted. One of the men on board told me he heard stories where an LST broke into two pieces while in heavy seas but did not sink. They pulled the two halves together with cables, towed it to port and welded it back together and sent it back to active duty. Now that is something.
I roamed everywhere they would let me with the only instruction being not to get in the way of the crew. As we were making ready to pull into harbor I must have gotten in the way of the crew. The captain sent my escort to escort me to an area out of the way. He put me in the forward 40mm gun mount. It was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch. I would have asked to be there if I thought they would let me but here they did what I wanted without me even asking! I was able to look straight down as they opened the bow doors and lowered the tank ramp. I was told this operation could even be done at sea and not compromise the watertight integrity of the ship.
As we pulled into Ingalls Harbor we were just creeping along at one or two knots, very slow. I was able to lean out of the gun tub and look straight down on the open bow doors and the lowered tank ramp. Several crewmen in bright red and yellow shirts walked out on the ramp as we prepared to dock which essentially meant, pull right up the boat launch ramp and drop the ramp on the concrete. You see, the LST is a flat bottom boat and was designed to sail right up onto the beach and disgorge its 20 Sherman Tanks or trucks or artillery or supplies or even men. When I looked down and saw all that geometry I was delighted. The frame you see at the top of this post is my very favorite image from the trip. You see all the cool lines and angles and shapes and then you move from the very fixed geometry of the ship to the very amorphic clouds being reflected in the surface of the water. Talk about a nice contrast! I was blown away and just thrilled with the image. I always love boundaries. You have the boundaries of steel ship, water and reflected clouds plus the implied boundaries of technology and nature, steel and water and it all gives me the photographic quivers.
The cap on the assignment came for me on the last night of the ship’s visit. I suggested we might get a nice shot at sunset for our Riverfront section front since the ship would be leaving early the next day. I was able to take enough strobe power out there to light one side of the ship against a decent sunset. I then turned the strobes off and cranked up the ISO and shot some available light images which were very nice as well. Overall, I have not been more pleased with an assignment in quite a long time.
I was reading a Facebook post the other day from a friend and it said something like, there is no secret to success. I paused. I thought about it. Maybe there is no single secret to success. I don’t actually know but something about the statement didn’t sit well with me. That is usually a good thing because when I start to cogitate on something I don’t initially agree with I usually learn something.
Success, especially in photojournalism, is a funky formula of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment, looking in the right direction and having the right vision. There is an old Photo J expression, “f8 and be there,” that comes from the days of the Speed Graphic camera with the big flash bulb. Be there and be ready and get it in focus was the essential message. That is the first and most important part of the success formula. If you are not there you certainly can’t get the picture. Reporters can do big parts of their job on the phone. No such luck for us. We have to be there.
Some folks say that luck is not really some blind set of chances that combine out of the blue rather, luck is the intersection of planning and preparation with a moment. In other words, luck favors the prepared. Sometimes a photo does just drop out of the sky in your lap, so to speak, but those are very rare. Luck is planning and preparation – the right place with the right equipment – and then witnessing and capturing the moment as it unfolds.
These seem to suggest there is more to photography than pushing a button. Indeed! Consistently high quality performance is not something you get from Joe Citizen with his new camera who just happens to be standing in the right spot. Consistently high quality performance is what you get from a seasoned photojournalist who is continually putting himself/herself in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and who is paying attention to what is happening in front of the lens and occasionally behind their backs, off to the sides or behind the tree where no one else is looking.
This suggests something that has not been said. I have a great friend and mentor who passed away on New Year’s Eve. Dave Martin, whom we all affectionately knew as “Mullet,” and who was one of the legends of the Associated Press, once told me something that I will never forget. He said, “Gary, I am not the greatest photographer the AP has but I get great assignments because my bosses know when they send me on a job I will work harder than anyone else.”
Hard work is the last part of the success equation. I remember Mullet showing me a portfolio of images of sports jubilation he was putting together. I was expressing my amazement at the collection of images and that was when Mullet gave me that little secret to success. I know I am not the best photographer in the world but I also know that I can work harder than anyone else and put myself into a position to succeed.
What does hard work for a photojournalist actually look like? I tell people all the time that watching me work is about one step below watching paint dry on the excitement scale. After all, what am I doing; pushing a button? Yeah, that, but what I am really doing is what goes on before I push the button. When I am shooting sports I tend to be very active, not always, but most of the time. I run, literally, from one place to the next to get into a position to shoot something I think might happen. Sometimes I miss. Sometimes it doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen the way I think it will. But more times than not I find myself in the right place at the right time with the right gear and then I push the button.
The same goes for breaking news. You have to be there and you have to be there at the opportune moment. That is where the work comes in. Getting into a position to shoot breaking news can be the biggest challenge. A weather event is tough to predict and tough to get into a position to shoot and still maintain a margin of safety that gets you in and out in one piece. Many times you will have to deal with police barricades, road closures, property issues, personal safety concerns and you still need to get the photo. The hard work comes in getting yourself into the right place to do the job. Then, of course, you have to get the photo or video on the web as soon as humanly possible – or sooner.
How about shooting a portrait, or a standard news feature assignment? What is hard work there? Much of it is mental. It involves imagination and it involves planning and you finally get to execute the photo. Many times I am making my plan on the fly while driving to an assignment. I usually don’t have a tremendous amount of advance time on a job so I have learned to quickly adapt and to minimize gear except in rare circumstances. For instance, there was a portrait I did a few years ago of a couple who reconstructed a log cabin on their property. I wanted to do a portrait at dusk that showed off the cabin and would have them standing on the front porch. I strung together ever light and every pocket wizard I could come up with. I think I had six strobes, maybe it was seven, hanging here and there to get the natural effect I wanted. I love the shot but it took a ton of work to set up and execute. That is the exception. Most of my portrait work for the job is a one light umbrella set up that is light and portable.
What about you now? What will your secret to success be? Whatever it is, please don’t outwork me. That is what keeps me employed!
Being a good photographer has relatively little to do with the camera in your hand or the lens mounted to said camera. Being a good photographer comes down to finding moments and capturing them with whatever camera is in your hand. I am a community photojournalist and every single day I am faced with the challenge of finding a photograph. I know something is going in the paper regardless of how good or bad I do, something is going to be published so I have the challenge of finding the moment in every assignment.
To be honest, there are days when I don’t want to try. There are days when I would rather just grab the easy shot and get on out of there. In truth, ninety-nine percent of the time the bosses wouldn’t say anything as long as they have something to fill that slot. The problem is my name is under that photo. That alone motivates me to make every shot as excellent as I can make it. Maybe you don’t have that everyday challenge or maybe you do and it has worn you down. That is the thing about newspaper photojournalism, it really can wear you down. Exactly how many high school basketball games can there be in a season? How many community play promos are you going to shoot? Do I really have to shoot that festival again for the umpteenth year in a row? All that stuff weighs you down and makes finding a shot difficult.
The question then is how to stay fresh and keep on finding those nice moments amid the mundane routine of life? I like to think of edges. Take a piece of paper and look at it. Pretty dull isn’t it. Now, tear the paper into two parts. Tear it any direction you like. Now hold it up and look at the torn edge. It is vastly more interesting than the straight, factory cut edge. It has character. I has something real about it. Now, take your photo assignment and just rip it up. Yeah, I know, you still have to shoot the assignment but look at it differently. Tear up the assignment and find the edges within the assignment. Find where it is ragged, real, alive.
To do this doesn’t take nearly as much work as you might imagine. You already know what is expected so go ahead and grab that straight edge of the paper photo and get it out of the way. Now, look at it differently. Rip it up and look for a moment within the assignment. Life is real even when it is being stage managed and manipulated. There are still real moments there. You will see a photo with this post of two women hugging beside a house. That is a very typical assignment for a Habitat for Humanity home dedication. They do the same thing at every one of these and I have shot at least a dozen, maybe twenty of these home dedications over the years. This moment happened before the ceremony began with the director of the Morgan County Habitat hugging the new home owner. It was my best shot from the day and it was not the “planned” photo.
We do frequent play promos. Mostly the night guys get that assignment but I was working a night shift and caught one. This one was based on the Aristocats. One of the directors was teaching the geese how to waddle before the rehearsal. I was overhead in a balcony and had a great angle for a shot. That was my favorite image from the night. The cop photo was from a shooting. It happened in the parking lot of a cheering academy and I had all the standard cops investigating images. I was looking for a better angle and noticed the little girls peering out the window. It turned a normal cops photo into a cool image.
I was at a high school football practice one day and arrived near the end. I shot the expected photo to go with the story and noticed the kids in the tubs. I walked down to investigate and started chatting. The kids were sitting in the ice baths after practice to cool down and help with recovery. I had a wonderful shot because I took a little extra time to look around. The kid spitting seeds was another photo where I already had plenty of shots but came back one more time because I just wasn’t satisfied. This kid was one of the last ones to compete and I got this wonderful expression as she spit her pumpkin seed. Again, I took a few extra minutes and came away with a much better photo.
Sometimes you just have to turn around and see what else is going on. I love shooting sports action but many times the photo is going on behind me. The kids reacting to the touchdown is a classic example of noticing something behind me that was better than what was in front of me. I mean, how many times can you make a photo of a football player scoring a one yard touchdown? The kids reacting to the one yard touchdown was far better than any action photo I could have made.
Maybe you are seeing a pattern. Look around, be curious, spend a few extra minutes and work for something beyond the ordinary. Trust me, it is far too easy to capture the ordinary and simply walk away. Force yourself to never be satisfied with ordinary. Look beyond the assignment. Literally rip it up and look for those torn edges where the real picture is waiting to be captured. You will be happier with yourself and your bosses will be much happier with your work.
Today, assuming you are reading this on February 14, marks two decades for me at The Decatur Daily. Wow! That was never my plan. I grew up in north Alabama and, when I moved to Virginia to go to grad school, I never intended to return. Then I got married and we started having children and suddenly there were four and an opening came back near home. I moved back with a five year plan. I would stay here five years and move on. Five became ten, then four more children came and now ten has become twenty. Crazy. I have no idea where the time went.
People sometimes ask, “Why are you still in Decatur?” Well, I ask myself that question sometimes too. The answer is probably tied to the first paragraph. We chose family over a great many things and that includes money and it has meant that staying put and raising that family we chose has been the best thing for us. I haven’t always liked working here. In fact, there have been times I have hated it. There have been times I have loved it too. I once thought it would be great to move on to a big newspaper but after all these years that seems pretty unlikely. Still, plenty of opportunities have come to me right here. Some have stunned me. I just hope when I am done I can look back and say that I gave my very to this job. After all, it is likely enough this is my last photojournalism job so why not make it the very best job I can.
I have had great colleagues over the years, absolutely great. Some amazing talent has come through the doors of The Daily’s photo department. Some are still in photojournalism while others have moved to other lines of work but they have all been good people and I can’t think of a single one of them I don’t love to this day. Every single one of those colleagues have enhanced my life and I hope I have done the same for them. If I had to leave tomorrow I would say I have worked with some of the best people anyone could want to know.
I get the question all the time, “What is your favorite picture?” I usually stammer around and end up saying I have a lot of favorite pictures. You can see some of them with this post. I mean, twenty years, try and boil that down to a favorite picture. Since that is a good question, let me break it down a little bit and look back over some of my favorite photos and memories.
The best assignment I have ever had is one I gave myself. The Upside of Down, a look at people with Down syndrome will always hold a special place in my heart. My precious son Reece, the inspiration for the whole project and such an amazing love, passed away right in the middle of it. Finishing that project was the hardest thing I will ever do but it is the most rewarding thing I have done in photojournalism
The worst assignment – dang, that is easy. Any man on the street anything. I hate man on the street. Biggest waste of a photographer’s time in the world. Let’s go shoot a bunch of mug shots. Yeah, sign me up. Man, I can’t tell you how bad I hate that. Ribbon cuttings and ground breakings run a close second. Don’t care for those either. As a matter of a fact, anything where I have to pose a bunch of people is just not my thing. I know guys make good money doing that but it just isn’t me.
Favorite sports photo is probably a tie between a photo of Cam Newton walking to the locker room with his little brother after winning the SEC Championship and a photo I shot of Johnny Manziel two years ago when A&M beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Love both those pics. They are both in the gallery too.
Favorite portrait; easiest choice of all. I shot a photo of Jennifer Adair in the rubble of her home after the 2011 EF5 tornado. All time favorite portrait and one of my all time favorite photos.
Favorite news photo; much tougher. If we separate tornado photos into a separate group then I would probably say it is a fire photo. It is hard for me to choose.
Favorite tornado photo; again, tough to choose. Probably my most favorite will hold for another category but almost anything I shot of people in Camden Court following the 2011 tornado.
Related to tornadoes, the most gut wrenching image is a tie between a photo I shot of a firefighter sheltering a kid as an air ambulance lands behind them and a photo from the 2008 Aldridge Grove tornado. The firefighter is shielding a little boy who was the only survivor of a quadruple fatal wreck on Alabama Highway 20. The other four victims including his mother, aunt and cousins. I have never been more sick after covering anything. It is one of the few times in my life I wished I could throw up. I will never forget the image of firefighters doing CPR on those children, never. The tornado image is of James Devaney searching the rubble of his daughter’s home after it was destroyed. After shooting his photo he told me he had just come from the hospital where they had pronounced his daughter, son-in-law and grandson dead. My heart still breaks for him. That photo was the first image I ever had published as the lead photo on page 1 of the New York Times. It ran a bunch of other places too.
Another haunting image is the one of the folks gathered behind an ambulance in Moulton after the death of two volunteer firefighters. Word got around the two had been killed fighting the fire and the community gathered at the scene. I will never forget arriving and getting out of my car that night. I opened the door to hear a woman weeping and moaning somewhere in the dark. That sound haunts me to this day. I know what her heart felt now. It is a terrible feeling. No doubt, one of the firefighters who died was someone she loved.
The most terrified I have ever been on any assignment, or any time in my life for that matter, was the thirty seconds I spent on Highway 31 in front of an EF5 tornado. I thought I was a pretty bold and brave person until then. Never been so scared in my life.
The most popular photo I have ever shot is Greg Cook hugging his dog Coco after the 2012 tornado in Limestone County. That thing has been around the world a few times courtesy of the internet. It’s not my favorite picture ever but people do love that dog.
I suppose if you threaten torture and make me proclaim any one photo my favorite I would probably choose the photo of Kevin Harrison and his family as they emerge from their storm safe room. It is one of those moments where everything comes together. Kevin and Sarabeth are hugging their kids amid all that destruction. It is a close thing but I guess that would be my favorite if forced to choose just one.
The kissing conference is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual assignments I have ever covered. UNA held a seminar about kissing and I got the assignment. Where was that when I was a student at UNA? One wonders.
One more thing, the photo I got into the most trouble for is the one where I cut off Howell Heflin’s head, on purpose. I thought the photo was wonderful and I still love it to this day. Our executive editor was not as thrilled. I got calls from everybody in the newsroom telling me to stay out of the office for a while because the boss was hot. Glad there was a day long manhunt to cover that day!
I have loved the little bit of travel that comes with my job. I have had the amazing privilege of shooting four BCS National Championships. I mean, that is beyond my wildest dreams. I am 4-0 by the way. My teams have won every time. I loved going to Florida to photograph the launch of the first rocket built by Boeing in their Decatur plant. That, by the way, was the assignment I was most nervous about. They told me the rocket would be over the pad for about five seconds. Yeah, right. That thing lit off and it was gone. Man, it may have been there for two seconds. When it had lifted out of sight I stood there in a cold sweat wondering if I had an image. It was a night launch on a new rocket so no one knew exactly what the right exposure was going to be. Whew!
By the way, it is worth mentioning, my wife’s favorite picture is the one of Philip Rivers making a face during a game against the Tennessee Titans. She laughs every time she sees that one and usually makes a comment about it. Coming from her, that is high praise.
Overall, I have to say that I am best known for the tornado stuff. I am not sure I like that but, as an AP editor recently told me, at least you are known for something. I guess sports is the second thing I am most known for. I really love doing what I do. Like any job there are ups and downs and good days and bad days but I remind myself on the bad days that I still have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I don’t know how many years I will be allowed to continue doing this. I don’t know if those years will be spent in Decatur. The future is far from certain in the newspaper world. Whatever happens moving forward I know this, I am immensely grateful for the past twenty years.
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