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Archive for the ‘Heritage’ Category

Geometry, History and Photography

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LST 325

Crew members on LST 325 prepare to make port at Ingalls Harbor in Decatur, Alabama. Gary Cosby Jr./Decatur Daily

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.


Written by Gary Cosby Jr.

September 30th, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Storytellers On The Square

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Storyteller Carmen Deedy entertains the children with a story about a boy coming of age in a Mississippi swamp.  Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.  10/28/09

Storyteller Carmen Deedy entertains the children with a story about a boy coming of age in a Mississippi swamp. Photo by Gary Cosby Jr. 10/28/09

I covered a job Wednesday that made me smile, even laugh, and that is a big deal right now.  The Athens Storytellers Festival is in its third year but this is my first time to shoot the event.  I loved it.  Not the light.  It is ugly!  The light filters through a big top style tent that is red and white striped and there are two huge halogen floodlights bounced off the top for interior lighting.  Not nice.  But the event is great.

Storyteller Donald Davis entertains the children with a story about baby sitting his baby brother when he was a child.  Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.  10/28/09

Storyteller Donald Davis entertains the children with a story about baby sitting his baby brother when he was a child. Photo by Gary Cosby Jr. 10/28/09

I heard two storytellers Wednesday, Donald Davis and Carmen Deedy.  The lady was hilarious.  She told a story about a boy coming of age in the Mississippi swamp country.  The idea was the boy had to face and overcome his fears made manifest in the form of the ‘hairy man.’  She does great voices and her body language is wonderful.  I could have listened to her all afternoon.  Mr. Davis also told a hilarious story about the time his mom asked he and his brother to babysit their younger brother.  The consequences were a hilarious disaster that involved an entire bottle of Calamine Lotion.

I shot the event with the D3 and an 80-200 at ISO 3200.  This was giving me an exposure around 1/320th at f2.8.  The only problem was the color of the light.  It was mostly red and balancing or toning that out is difficult.  I also mixed in the 50mm f1.4, an old manual lens I found lying around the office and the 17-35 for a couple of shots.  The entire shoot was done available light.  Strobe in that big tent would have been fairly useless and would have changed the light quality which wasn’t actually bad.  It was just the color of light that was hard to deal with.  The light itself was soft and made photographing faces a breeze.

So the story on shooting storytellers is all in the faces.  You shoot the storyteller because they are continually making faces as they tell their tall tales and you shoot the audience reacting to the story.  In this case it was all elementary age school children which is nice because they just react.  They don’t think about what the person sitting next to them will think about it so you get some nice facial expressions from the kids too.

This is a classic ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ type assignment.  There are not any major technical challenges aside from the red light and all you have to do is lock in and shoot.  It is great.  You can have fun, hear some really good stories and bang away to heart’s content.  That is what I call a photo assignment!

Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily.  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

Written by Gary Cosby Jr.

October 30th, 2009 at 2:33 pm

The Spirit of America

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All weekend I have been working on the annual Spirit of America Festival in Point Mallard Park and at Burningtree Country Club.  The festival is a big deal with a beauty pageant, fireworks, games, parades and sporting events.  Most significant are the awards given for patriotism, heroism and community service.  This was the 43rd year for the event which started as a reaction to what many in the area perceived as a lack of patriotism due to the protests of the Vietnam War and the general mistreatment of veterans of that war.  This year, Colonel Leo K. Thorsness, USAF retired, was honored with the Audie Murphy Award for heroism, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Christian, deceased, US Navy, was honored with the Barrett Shelton Freedom Award and Sergeant First Class David Carney, retired, Alabama Army National Guard, was honored with the Humanitarian Award.

No doubt about it, these award presentations usually don’t turn into great photos but this is the one award presentation I will never complain about covering.  Colonel Thorsness is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and you just don’t meet men like that every day.  He fought an amazing air battle over North Vietnam in 1967 for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Six days later he was shot down and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese and held captive for six years enduring torture and horrific conditions in captivity.  During his time as a POW, he shared a cell with Lt. Cmdr. Christian.  You may never have heard of Mike Christian but you should know his story.  Lt. Cmdr. Christian found a scrap of cloth one day in the edge of the prison yard and hid it in his clothes.  Something about the scrap of cloth reminded him of the American flag.

Lt. Cmdr. Christian then used whatever he could find to make the cloth look like the flag.  When he got a reasonable facsimile of Old Glory he showed it to his fellow prisoners who came to attention and saluted the colors.  According to Thorsness, a fair bit of imagination had to be used to see the flag in that scrap of cloth but every service man in the prison knew what it was.  During a strip search one day the guards found the flag hidden in Lt. Cmdr. Christian’s clothing.  He was taken away and tortured and beaten nearly to death.  It took weeks for him to recover from the beating.  As soon as he was able to do so, Lt. Cmdr. Christian again began fashioning an American flag.

I really don’t care what you think about war and in particular the Vietnam War.  Our men and women who fought there were sent by the government and not really given a say in the matter.  Their performance in combat, their character under fire and in the torture chambers of the Vietnamese stand as a tribute to America, our nation and our people.  Men like Mike Christian and Leo Thorsness and David Carney whom I have not really talked about here are a tribute to the character and valor of the people of this great nation.  Yes we will always enjoy our fireworks, our cookouts and our fun but we have all that because of men like these who didn’t value their own lives above their honor or above their country or above you and me.  Thank God for men such as these and thank God for a nation that produces them.

During the presentation Colonel Thorsness talked about the time in prison in Hanoi when the POWs decided to have church in their cell.  Forty two men were in the cell together and made the decision knowing that it would lead to torture.  I was able to record a portion of his description on the back of my camera.  The audio isn’t great and there are some breaks but I think you can follow the story.  Next time you are feeling like maybe church isn’t all that great or our country isn’t all that great I want you to remember this.  It will move your heart.

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Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily.   The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

Written by Gary Cosby Jr.

July 5th, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Covering Your Culture – There Is A Point

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Gladys Burgess kisses her daughter Paula Standridge during a birthday party for her at SunBridge Care and Rehab in Decatur.  Standridge suffers from ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease.  photo by Gary Cosby Jr.  10/29/08

Gladys Burgess kisses her daughter Paula Standridge during a birthday party for her at SunBridge Care and Rehab in Decatur. Standridge suffers from ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. photo by Gary Cosby Jr. 10/29/08

Beyond the nostalgia of covering your culture, there really is a point to these posts. You may have noticed how many times I cited my childhood and my family life experience in those four pieces. You see, everything that has happened to me up to this point in my life shapes how I approach a photo assignment. I don’t mean that I sit back and reminisce over every assignment.  What I mean is that you can’t escape who you are.  Who you are shows through in the photos you take.

I was brought up in a loving, caring family with a mom and dad who loved me and cared about me and everything that affects my life.  In fact, I still have those loving, caring parents in my life.  That certainly influences my approach to life so there is no doubt it affects my approach to photojournalism.  Because I came from a tender and compassionate family, I tend to have compassion toward the people I shoot, especially when those people are enduring a tragedy.

Your life experience may have been different.  Your cultural upbringing may have been different.  The way you were brought up and the culture you were raised in will affect how you approach life as well.  One of the things that I have said from the start of this site is that if I see enough of your photos I will know you.  You always shine through in the photos you shoot and the way you approach people, life, faith, and especially tragedy.  I find that you don’t really know anyone until you have seen them under stress or in a tragic situation.  You won’t know yourself as a photojournalist until you have covered these kinds of difficult assignments where you are out there all by yourself with just you and your ethics making those split second decisions on whether to shoot or not to shoot.

I have walked away from several photos because I simply couldn’t bear to press the shutter button because of the anguish I saw through my view finder.  Some would have doubtless won awards but I don’t sleep with awards.  I sleep with myself and what I have done with my life that day.  No editor is going to sing me a lullaby or salve my conscience if I have violated someone with the camera and no one will know if I have done that except me and the person I photographed.

I learned this early in my photojournalism life.  While I was in grad school one of the major spy scandals in US history broke.  As it turns out the guy who was arrested for spying had a daughter who worked for the university.  We interviewed her for our student newspaper and I was assigned to do the shot.  I did all the normal stuff you would expect to do but I had one frame where there was something in the photo that just stopped me in my tracks.  There was a deep pain and hurt written on her face.  I don’t remember all the details but I remember thinking that I had a “real” photo here.  Somewhere deep in my gut I was very uncomfortable with the photo.  The more I thought about it the more uncomfortable I became.  Finally I went to see the young woman whom I had photographed to talk to her about the picture.

I remember asking her how she felt about the photo and she asked me a simple question, “Why?”  Why would I want to run a photo that showed her in anguish?  That pretty much stopped  me cold.  I had no answer except that I thought it would be a “great” photo.  As I squirmed in my seat I came to realize that the real reason I wanted to run the photo was not that I felt it told the story best but that I thought I would get the most praise from it.  When I saw that I was trying to garner praise at her expense I just apologized and got up and left.  I ran anther photo that told the story just fine and I could sleep with myself knowing that I had not violated my subject.

Was I within my rights to run the picture?  Certainly.  But do my rights to run a photo supersede my subjects rights to expect fair treatment from me?  Is there a clear cut answer?  Not really.  I hate situational ethics but sometimes they really do apply.  There are times when I would run a similar photo without hesitation.  In other times I would not even offer it.  Sounds wishy washy doesn’t it.  Try it sometime and you will see what I mean.

I recently shot a soldier’s homecoming, the kind where the soldier is coming home to be buried.  The family was reluctant to let the media out onto the tarmac because they wanted to maintain some privacy in this very difficult moment.  Finally they allowed us to shoot from a distance of about one hundred yards.  No big deal.  I didn’t even know where they were standing.  I shot and left and edited a selection of photos of the casket being unloaded.  Later, an editor asked if I had photos of the family.  I didn’t think so but went back and looked again.  Sure enough they were in a few frames and there was one frame in particular where there was tremendous emotion, especially on the young man’s little sister.  Initially I turned the photo in.  Over the course of the day I just kept going over that photo and it was a great moment but was it a moment worth violating this family’s desire to have some privacy?  In the end, the expression on the little girl’s face was one that would haunt me for years to come and I went to our executive editor and talked to him about it.  We decided to pull the photo from the edit.

We could have run the photo.  But could I have lived with it?  I didn’t think so and my editor agreed.  We could tell the story without the photo and I can sleep with myself.  Did my heritage play into that?  You bet.  All the values I learned as a child affected my photo editing at 45 years old.  Maybe there will be one less award on the mantle but there will be many more nights of good sleep.

The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Written by Gary Cosby Jr.

June 29th, 2009 at 9:53 am

Covering Your Heritage – Gospel Music

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Growing up in the Christian culture of the rural South in the 60’s and 70’s meant a fair dose of gospel music.  This genre ranges from quartets to old time gospel hymns sung congregationally.  I always liked the hymns.  Well, most of them anyway, but the quartets, that was another story.  There was something about the style that just ran up my spine.  It is not like the music wasn’t done well.  It was.  I have heard some really great quartets.  My dad sang in several and quartets were a fixture in church in my youth.  That couldn’t make me like them though.

I remember services where we would just go and sing.  Many times the people in the congregation would nominate their favorites and we would all turn in the hymnals and sing hymn number 189, first, second and final stanzas.  I never knew why no one ever sung the third stanza but you just about always sang either two of the three or three of the four but seldom all four stanzas.  Weird.  The point being I was never far away from gospel music growing up.

Times have changed.  Gospel music is now nowhere near as prevalent as it was in my childhood and those who still sing gospel and go to gospel singings are aging.  This means that a musical form is also aging and in danger of passing away.  When I was assigned to cover the Morgan County Singing Convention last weekend I had a mix of emotions.  First of all I have to admit that I actually dreaded it.  I knew it meant quartets and I still have never really grown to like quartets.  Secondly I was kind of excited about the chance to document a part of the culture that was so much a part of my youth.

When I arrived I was not surprised to see mostly older people in the little country church.  In fact, I may have been the youngest person there with the exception of one little boy I saw wiggling around in the pews just like I used to do.  I took my Ipod Touch along with a microphone and recorded some of the show and you can hear it with the slide show below.  (Be warned, my splicing together of different songs to fit into a couple of minutes is a bit rough.)  Still, the music was much as I remembered it from years ago.  There is a very heavy piano feel to gospel music and the quartet brought along a bass guitarist but it is mostly vocal.  The quartet, yes there was one, was actually pretty good.  The only problem now is I will not get those songs and melodies out of my head for weeks.

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Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. All rights reserved. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Written by Gary Cosby Jr.

June 26th, 2009 at 7:39 am

Covering Your Heritage

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Morgan County archivist John Allison found Confederate money and financial records in an 1865 estate file for a slave owner named Riley Davis.  This fragment of paper is a handwritten note from Davis.  Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.  6/01/09

Morgan County archivist John Allison found Confederate money and financial records in an 1865 estate file for a slave owner named Riley Davis. This fragment of paper is a handwritten note from Davis. Photo by Gary Cosby Jr. 6/01/09

I grew up in Alabama and growing up in a particular area can make you take your heritage for granted.  There is a lot to like about southern heritage and there is a lot to be ashamed of too.  The South is just like a family.  There are some really good relatives you like to hang out with and then there are those relatives that make you cringe and wish you could forget.  Just over the last week or two I have had several assignments dealing with spiritual heritage, racial heritage and family heritage of the South.  In some cases, the people involved are literally carrying out the last acts of a dying part of the culture.  In other stories I was covering people who are hoping to hand that heritage on to the next generation.

I think we just might do a little mini-series here on covering heritage and begin with the story of Riley Davis who died in 1860 in Morgan County.  Davis was a slave owner but not an overly rich man by the look of his records.  Morgan County Archivist John Allison discovered Davis’ records in the Archive files and found $493 in absolutely  pristine Confederate money.  When Davis passed away he had no will and his estate was settled by the Sheriff of Morgan County.  At some point after his death, Riley’s slaves were rented out to various people around the county and $493 was uncollected.  Allison believes the Confederate money was inserted  into the file to balance the account in the settlement of the estate.  The bills were mostly uncirculated, hand signed and hand cut bills and one hundred forty nine years after Davis’ death Allison discovered the bills and the account ledger detailing the slaves by name and by value.

For those of you wondering which part of the southern heritage is the embarrassing part, that would be it.  Placing a value on the lives of fellow human beings, sometimes valuing them lower than farm animals, is simply not right in any culture at any time.  America learned our lesson the hard way and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands in both the north and the south to settle the question.  In fact, the American Civil War still remains the conflict that has cost the most lives in American history.  I think it is still true that the Civil War has cost more American lives than all the other wars we have fought combined.  Unfortunately, many parts of the world are still trafficking in human lives and have yet to learn the value of their fellow human beings.  The fact that America now has a black president, whether you agree with his policies or not, indicates how far we have come as a nation.

To my knowledge, I did not have anyone in the family who fought in the Civil War nor did any of my ancestors own slaves.  I remember when I was a small boy my grandfather had some black men who worked for him on his farm.  They always called him Mr. Helon (thank God I am not named for that grandfather!) and would never even come in his house.  My grandfather invited them in for lunch every day and every day they would decline and eat out on the back steps.  Its all just a distant part of my childhood memory now but those memories are part of what forms me and you alike.

Translating those memories to photographs can be a daunting challenge and not the least part of that challenge is in simply being cognizant  of what is going on around you.  I guess  you could say this is about translating your past into your present with the camera.  Maybe shooting a bunch of confederate money or a handwritten list of the value of a man’s slaves is not the best way to do that but it is the story that I was doing that day and the money and the list are touchstones to a now thankfully distant past.  Those few dollars of Confederate currency and that slave list do; however, translate a piece of the community heritage into today.  We can see and compare how our ancestors lived, thought and behaved and we can hold up the mirror of that past and take a look at ourselves in it and see how we compare.

That is a valuable part of our job as photojournalists.  What we document today will be in the archives of our great grandchildren and they will look at those photos and wonder who we were and how we lived and what we thought.  And maybe they will have a better idea of who they are by looking at our mistakes and seeing where they have bettered us.  I used to wonder what value a story about the Civil War or an old graveyard had for today.  Now I know.  Sometime we look back in order to move forward and as photojournalists we are aiding that search for who we are and we are providing a look back at us for future generations.

Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily.  All rights reserved.  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Written by Gary Cosby Jr.

June 23rd, 2009 at 5:24 am