Archive for the ‘Life’ Category
I was thinking about fractals the other day. Some of you are suddenly very impressed while others are wondering what the heck a fractal is. According to Wikipedia, a fractal is “a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” I think my first exposure to the concept of fractals came from a Michael Crichton novel! Hey, learn from smart people no matter who those smart people are.
When I first read about fractals, Crichton, or whomever it actually was, used a mountain as an illustration. He said that the mountain basically looks like a mountain whether you are standing back looking at the whole thing or whether you look at a small piece of rock chipped off of that mountain. Even down to the microscopic level, a mountain will look like a mountain. Now, to tell the whole truth, I have never actually tried that but I am in love with the concept. Let me tell you why.
I am a big picture thinker. That is the way my mind is wired. Details are not my favorite thing. I love being married to the woman I am married to because she is very detail oriented. It creates some friction but the friction is worth it because, as a couple we have a vision and we get things done.
When I look at the big picture of my career I have career sized goals. For one, I would love to win a Pulitzer. Or two! I always wanted to do big things and work for a big newspaper or news organization like AP or National Geographic. I have dreams man, what can I say. I don’t know if any of that will happen. Who knows where the road leads until it has been walked all the way? Now, breaking my career down to the nitty gritty, what does it look like?
Here is where the fractal idea comes into play. Ultimately, I do not build a career. My career is nothing but a collection of individual performances on my everyday assignments. Those assignments pile up to make a day. The days pile up to make a week. The weeks pile up to make a month and the months pile up to make a year. The years pile up to make a career. You do not build a successful career. You build a successful day and you repeat that over and over again. Your career is not built in the macro. Your career is built in the micro. The macro view of your career becomes a reflection of the microscopic day to day performances you stack up.
Alabama has a football coach you may have heard of. Nick Saban has the habit of saying some variation of this statement over and over again. He says you have to focus on the process of what it takes to be successful. There is such wisdom in that. A great performance on the football field on game day is a reflection of what was done in the weight room, the practice field, the film room and even the classroom. In other words, what my dad told me playing youth league baseball holds true to this day even in photojournalism; you will play just like you practice.
I have advocated many times on this blog to do your best work every single day – no excuses. It doesn’t matter what the assignment is my goal should is to shoot the best photo anyone has ever shot on that job. Then, if I get the same job again next year, or next week, I will strive to knock it out of the park again. That takes discipline and detailed hard work. I learned this concept in prayer. God and I were having a conversation and I was complaining about where I was in my career. He said to me, “If you do not pursue excellence today on the things I have placed in your life for you to do, you will never accomplish your overall goals.” It was a stunning moment and a moment of extraordinary clarity for me.
I am at that point in my career where I am beginning to see the finish with a bit more clarity than the start. I may never win a Pulitzer. I may never work for AP or a big news organization. I may never shoot for National Geographic. In some respects, those situations are out of my control. What I can do is shoot every single day like I already work for one of my goal news organizations.
Maybe you are a few years into your career and you don’t like where you are. Maybe you are a student and haven’t started the journey yet. Take a big picture look at where you want to be when you end your career. Now look at your most recent day, week, month, year. What does the micro view look like compared to your macro goal? If you can’t see your big goal reflected in your everyday work you have a problem. The good news is, this is a problem that can be fixed. The fix is mostly up to you. To change the direction of your career, change your direction today then repeat tomorrow and for the rest of your tomorrows.
This post is not some theoretical junk I am making up. I started putting this into practice with purpose in 2003, the fall of 2003 to be specific. I can even tell you the assignment where it all clicked. I went to Nashville to shoot a Titans versus Redskins football game. I think Steve Spurrier was the Redskins coach that year. That day was my turning point. From that day forward I have applied this stuff every single day and it has totally changed my career trajectory. I still work in the same place I did then but that discovery made my location less relevant. I would still like to to move up to a bigger place but if I don’t I will work today, right here where I am, because where I am is far less important than who I am.
The photos in this gallery represent something that I feel is important in the way I approach assignments.
I remember as a teenager there was this fad out there related to your biorhythms. I was in high school and I could use my TI-30 calculator to see where my biorhythms were. It was never more than just a fun thing for me. I put no stock into it but it was fun. It was a bit like watching the stock market or the phases of the moon. Your biorhythms would wax and wane throughout the month. I say all that to say, if biorhythms were real then I had a photographic month on the crest of the biorhythm wave!
I don’t really know how months like this happen. Most times are about like all other times and then, suddenly, one time rises far above all the others. Life is weird like that. I prefer to think there are times when God just looks at me and smiles. Of course, reversing the logic, does that mean there are times when God looks at me and frowns? I would think those are the times when I have to shoot ribbon cuttings, ground breakings and check presentations but hey, that’s just me. (Memo to all you religious people: It’s okay to smile right now. God has a good sense of humor!)
Let us speculate together for a moment. Is there any reason we can actually wrap our minds around that allows us to explain why one time rises high above, or sinks far beneath, the average? Consider the surfer. Have you ever watched a person riding the waves. Most of the time the waves are just about the same, average if you will, then along comes a wave that lifts higher, runs farther and crests perfectly. What does the surfer do? He rides any wave that seems like it can carry him but when he sees that magnificent wave he savors that ride and squeezes it for all it is worth. Then, of course, he goes back out and chases the next wave hoping for another great ride to come along and lift him beyond the average.
The surfer does not control the wave but the surfer knows a good one when he sees it and rides it for all it is worth. Now we deduce the first rule of riding our photographic wave; ride any wave but have the sense to recognize when you are riding a good one and ride it as long as it will take you. This is the perfect time to work on special projects. For real, when things are firing on all cylinders get the most out of it. Work that project you have been waiting to do for one reason or another. There won’t be a better time.
I have never surfed so any of you out there who do forgive my amateur analysis. Have you ever seen a surfer riding a big wave really wipe out? Looks kinda painful but I think we can draw a caution from this too. Sometimes when I have watched a surfer wipe out it appears to me he tries to do too much with the wave, tries to get too fancy and looses his balance and then things are heels over head and under water. On the other hand, when the surfer riding that giant wave finds the sweet groove he emerges from under the breaking wave with an awesome ride.
Observation number two for photographic wave riding. When you are riding that great wave, find the groove and let the wave carry you. If you try to get too fancy and force things you are going to mess up. I do know baseball and I can tell you the guy attempting to hit a home run is far less likely to hit one than the guy who is going out there to make contact and maintain good mechanics. The guy on a hitting streak and the enduring the slump are only separated by the one being relaxed and seeing and the other being tense and trying too hard. When you are riding a good wave, allow the wave to do the work and you find the groove and stay in it as long as possible. When you are in the groove the pictures flow out of your camera. I can’t explain it but I can recognize when it happens.
Eventually the conditions that create the great waves dissipate. You know what happens then? The surfer sticks the board on top of the car and goes home and comes back another day. Eventually October gives way to November and the great wave dissipates (that is known as December in my part of the world), and you pack it in and come back another day. Between the SEC Championship and the first of the year there will be a steady diet of shopping photos and Santa Claus (GAAAAAAAKKKK) and I will ride whatever small wave I can find and hope for January. I will always be looking for the next wave and when it comes I will climb on my board and ride that thing for all it is worth. I can’t do anything to force those waves to come but I can certainly ride those suckers when they arrive. Now, dudes, excuse me while I finish riding this most gnarly and excellent photographic wave.
Below is a sample of October images. Hope y’all enjoy and find your next big wave!
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!
One day, Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “freely you have received, now freely give…” I think about that statement when I write a blog post or have the opportunity to speak to groups in person. It was a special opportunity for me to do some “giving back” as a coach at the Picture Kentucky 2014 photo workshop held this year in Maysville, KY. Jonathan Palmer, a former Decatur Daily colleague, and David Stephenson who directs the workshop, gave me the invitation and it was a great experience.
This workshop was co-founded by Dave LaBelle, a man who hovered on the edge of legend in my mind. I had read about him and I had seen his pictures (never read his books but that will soon be amended) and we were Facebook friends but I had never met him. Dave was also a coach at the workshop this year along with Lisa Marie Miller from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio and Matt Detrich from the Indianapolis Star. It was such a great honor for me to be included in that company and to become friends with all those fine folks I would have gone just for the opportunity to meet and get to know all of them.
I will say after meeting and spending most of a week with Dave LaBelle, on the one hand he far exceeded my expectations and on the other I saw him for the very normal, loving man he is. I say this because it is a good lesson to learn not to elevate people too highly in your mind because we are all, regardless of accomplishment, just people. I could see Dave operating in that amazing gift he has with people but I could also see his weaknesses as a normal man. My respect for him is now greater than it was before because now I know him, at least a little bit and I found that, at the heart of the legend, was a real man who looks you in the eye and engages you no matter who you are. He is one who has truly never met a stranger.”
As far as that goes, I knew Matt Detrich only by his photos and they were very good, of course, but we roomed together this week and I found he is a very excellent man as well as photographer. I didn’t know Lisa Marie Miller at all but found she is a wonderful woman and a photo editor at the Dispatch. I don’t think I have enjoyed meeting and getting to know anyone more than I enjoyed meeting and getting to know these two fine people this week. Now, y’all may think I am just blowing smoke here and being polite. I am being polite but it is absolutely genuine. One of the greatest things we have as visual journalists, photojournalist, multi-media journalists or whatever folks want to call us these days, is the relationships we make with one another. I value those relationships above the job and above the pictures. If you have not figured it out yet, this is all about people.
Which brings me to team Cosby’s Angels. I had four talented and beautiful young ladies on my team this year; Anne Halliwell, Melanie Nesteruk (whose last name I still cannot say!), Rachael Le Goubin and Tessa Lighty. These young ladies continually surprised and delighted me as they brought in their takes every day. Anne is primarily studying the writing side so photography is still fairly new to her. The other three are all photojournalism majors. Every one of them brought back images I wish I had shot. They did superb work and I had a ringside seat to watch them grow as they worked their assignments.
Anne shot a story on a barbershop and a tattoo parlor. Melanie shot a story on a farm that was run by a woman and her husband. The woman was the lead farmer and her husband helped her in a reversal of the typical roles. Rachael shot two stories, one a candy company that employees handicapped people to make the candy and another on a downtown diner. Tessa shot a story that turned into two stories, one on an immigrant mother and her family and a related story on the tobacco harvest.
They drew their stories out of a hat and my job was to look at their work each day and help them with suggestions and motivation and to edit their takes and prepare the photos for the nightly critiques and for the final show on Saturday night. Having not been a full time photo editor I was surprised at how difficult it is to edit someone else’s work. My greatest pleasure was in watching them progress from day to day, overcoming obstacles and problems and finally pushing through to really beautiful photo stories by the end of the week. As much as I wanted to go out and shoot with them, especially after seeing their photos, that was not my job so I lived vicariously through their pictures and drew great inspiration from them. I am energized after seeing the work they produced.
My other job this week was to make a presentation to the whole workshop one evening and speaking about my passions is one of my greatest joys in life. I used the theme, “Surviving and Thriving In The World Of Small Newspapers.” My presentation went well and I hope it found a place in some of their hearts. The lessons we have learned as adults are so expensive sometimes and I would hate to think that I failed to help someone else learn them so they do not have to pay those bills in their lives and careers.
The photos you see in the gallery below are from my girls, Cosby’s Angels!, and a few from the workshop that I did. I have watermarked their images so you know which ones were shot by which young lady. Hope you enjoy their work as much as I did.
I am a very competitive man and I hate to lose and I hate to fail. I try to keep that beast in the cage because it can be pretty ugly when it gets out and prowls around but the plain fact is I truly hate losing. I begin every assignment with the idea that no one will beat me on this job and it doesn’t matter who else is shooting it. Obviously, I don’t always win and I do fail. In fact, failure is inevitable and learning to deal with failure is very important. If you fail and don’t try anymore then you lose; however, if you fail and get up and learn from it, use it to motivate you then you get better. Ultimately, success is built upon a foundation of many failures.
I was in grad school and was applying for an internship at a big newspaper in Nashville. I had spoken to the photo editor who invited me in for an interview. I assumed it was kind of a formality and I would get the gig. I was, after all, coming from Virginia to do this and I couldn’t imagine someone bringing me down to talk and not giving me the internship. What actually transpired was somewhat less pleasant. That man chewed me up and spit me out and left me with this parting shot, “you should probably be looking for another line of work.” I felt like the worst failure in the world.
I had two choices; I could tuck my tail between my legs and crawl off crying and look for a new career or I could use his criticism as motivation and do something about it. I obviously chose to stay in photography since you are reading this now. I left humiliated but knowing in my gut I was far better than what that guy thought I was. I had actually taken a portfolio of mainly sports action photos to him because that is what I did best so part of the fault was on me and I knew that by the time I left.
I can tell you now that what that man said to me has never left my mind. I have used him as motivation. Now I don’t hold anything against him and I mean that sincerely. What I mean is I let that situational failure, and his parting words, be a driving force that motivates me to always push higher. Maybe, just maybe, what that guy said is why I am where I am today. I hate failure. I hated failing that day but that hatred of failure is a strong motivation not to fail.
Recently I have had two events in my life that have driven this point home. First, back in the early summer I was a finalist for a job that would have been life changing for me and my family. I didn’t get the job. Second, at the same time, the state press association awards were announced and I did extremely well, far better than I have ever done before. Such incongruity! There is a lesson here. Don’t let success go to your head. Awards don’t mean anything, except maybe the Pulitzer. If I ever win a Pulitzer I will crow like Peter Pan and fly around the newsroom on the power of that happy thought! On the other hand, not attaining the gold medal is not the end of the world so don’t allow it to drag you down.
You won’t always win and failure isn’t always a bad thing. Failure wasn’t a bad thing for me this time. It was actually good and it will motivate me to work harder than ever. I may never attain the goal I was shooting for but think about this; even if I don’t attain that goal but I work hard to attain it the end result will be that I am much better tomorrow than I am today. That may not guarantee future gains as it relates to awards or career advancement in the sense of getting a better job or making more money. Those things are largely out of my control. What it does guarantee is that when I hang up the camera someday I will look back with satisfaction knowing that I used ever ounce of talent God gave me to be the very best that I can be.
In the end, that is the reward.
Today, assuming you are reading this on February 14, marks two decades for me at The Decatur Daily. Wow! That was never my plan. I grew up in north Alabama and, when I moved to Virginia to go to grad school, I never intended to return. Then I got married and we started having children and suddenly there were four and an opening came back near home. I moved back with a five year plan. I would stay here five years and move on. Five became ten, then four more children came and now ten has become twenty. Crazy. I have no idea where the time went.
People sometimes ask, “Why are you still in Decatur?” Well, I ask myself that question sometimes too. The answer is probably tied to the first paragraph. We chose family over a great many things and that includes money and it has meant that staying put and raising that family we chose has been the best thing for us. I haven’t always liked working here. In fact, there have been times I have hated it. There have been times I have loved it too. I once thought it would be great to move on to a big newspaper but after all these years that seems pretty unlikely. Still, plenty of opportunities have come to me right here. Some have stunned me. I just hope when I am done I can look back and say that I gave my very to this job. After all, it is likely enough this is my last photojournalism job so why not make it the very best job I can.
I have had great colleagues over the years, absolutely great. Some amazing talent has come through the doors of The Daily’s photo department. Some are still in photojournalism while others have moved to other lines of work but they have all been good people and I can’t think of a single one of them I don’t love to this day. Every single one of those colleagues have enhanced my life and I hope I have done the same for them. If I had to leave tomorrow I would say I have worked with some of the best people anyone could want to know.
I get the question all the time, “What is your favorite picture?” I usually stammer around and end up saying I have a lot of favorite pictures. You can see some of them with this post. I mean, twenty years, try and boil that down to a favorite picture. Since that is a good question, let me break it down a little bit and look back over some of my favorite photos and memories.
The best assignment I have ever had is one I gave myself. The Upside of Down, a look at people with Down syndrome will always hold a special place in my heart. My precious son Reece, the inspiration for the whole project and such an amazing love, passed away right in the middle of it. Finishing that project was the hardest thing I will ever do but it is the most rewarding thing I have done in photojournalism
The worst assignment – dang, that is easy. Any man on the street anything. I hate man on the street. Biggest waste of a photographer’s time in the world. Let’s go shoot a bunch of mug shots. Yeah, sign me up. Man, I can’t tell you how bad I hate that. Ribbon cuttings and ground breakings run a close second. Don’t care for those either. As a matter of a fact, anything where I have to pose a bunch of people is just not my thing. I know guys make good money doing that but it just isn’t me.
Favorite sports photo is probably a tie between a photo of Cam Newton walking to the locker room with his little brother after winning the SEC Championship and a photo I shot of Johnny Manziel two years ago when A&M beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Love both those pics. They are both in the gallery too.
Favorite portrait; easiest choice of all. I shot a photo of Jennifer Adair in the rubble of her home after the 2011 EF5 tornado. All time favorite portrait and one of my all time favorite photos.
Favorite news photo; much tougher. If we separate tornado photos into a separate group then I would probably say it is a fire photo. It is hard for me to choose.
Favorite tornado photo; again, tough to choose. Probably my most favorite will hold for another category but almost anything I shot of people in Camden Court following the 2011 tornado.
Related to tornadoes, the most gut wrenching image is a tie between a photo I shot of a firefighter sheltering a kid as an air ambulance lands behind them and a photo from the 2008 Aldridge Grove tornado. The firefighter is shielding a little boy who was the only survivor of a quadruple fatal wreck on Alabama Highway 20. The other four victims including his mother, aunt and cousins. I have never been more sick after covering anything. It is one of the few times in my life I wished I could throw up. I will never forget the image of firefighters doing CPR on those children, never. The tornado image is of James Devaney searching the rubble of his daughter’s home after it was destroyed. After shooting his photo he told me he had just come from the hospital where they had pronounced his daughter, son-in-law and grandson dead. My heart still breaks for him. That photo was the first image I ever had published as the lead photo on page 1 of the New York Times. It ran a bunch of other places too.
Another haunting image is the one of the folks gathered behind an ambulance in Moulton after the death of two volunteer firefighters. Word got around the two had been killed fighting the fire and the community gathered at the scene. I will never forget arriving and getting out of my car that night. I opened the door to hear a woman weeping and moaning somewhere in the dark. That sound haunts me to this day. I know what her heart felt now. It is a terrible feeling. No doubt, one of the firefighters who died was someone she loved.
The most terrified I have ever been on any assignment, or any time in my life for that matter, was the thirty seconds I spent on Highway 31 in front of an EF5 tornado. I thought I was a pretty bold and brave person until then. Never been so scared in my life.
The most popular photo I have ever shot is Greg Cook hugging his dog Coco after the 2012 tornado in Limestone County. That thing has been around the world a few times courtesy of the internet. It’s not my favorite picture ever but people do love that dog.
I suppose if you threaten torture and make me proclaim any one photo my favorite I would probably choose the photo of Kevin Harrison and his family as they emerge from their storm safe room. It is one of those moments where everything comes together. Kevin and Sarabeth are hugging their kids amid all that destruction. It is a close thing but I guess that would be my favorite if forced to choose just one.
The kissing conference is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual assignments I have ever covered. UNA held a seminar about kissing and I got the assignment. Where was that when I was a student at UNA? One wonders.
One more thing, the photo I got into the most trouble for is the one where I cut off Howell Heflin’s head, on purpose. I thought the photo was wonderful and I still love it to this day. Our executive editor was not as thrilled. I got calls from everybody in the newsroom telling me to stay out of the office for a while because the boss was hot. Glad there was a day long manhunt to cover that day!
I have loved the little bit of travel that comes with my job. I have had the amazing privilege of shooting four BCS National Championships. I mean, that is beyond my wildest dreams. I am 4-0 by the way. My teams have won every time. I loved going to Florida to photograph the launch of the first rocket built by Boeing in their Decatur plant. That, by the way, was the assignment I was most nervous about. They told me the rocket would be over the pad for about five seconds. Yeah, right. That thing lit off and it was gone. Man, it may have been there for two seconds. When it had lifted out of sight I stood there in a cold sweat wondering if I had an image. It was a night launch on a new rocket so no one knew exactly what the right exposure was going to be. Whew!
By the way, it is worth mentioning, my wife’s favorite picture is the one of Philip Rivers making a face during a game against the Tennessee Titans. She laughs every time she sees that one and usually makes a comment about it. Coming from her, that is high praise.
Overall, I have to say that I am best known for the tornado stuff. I am not sure I like that but, as an AP editor recently told me, at least you are known for something. I guess sports is the second thing I am most known for. I really love doing what I do. Like any job there are ups and downs and good days and bad days but I remind myself on the bad days that I still have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I don’t know how many years I will be allowed to continue doing this. I don’t know if those years will be spent in Decatur. The future is far from certain in the newspaper world. Whatever happens moving forward I know this, I am immensely grateful for the past twenty years.
Click on any image to start a slideshow.
You know what, there are some seriously great photographers running around the planet. I love seeing stuff from those great shooters. I always loved the work of William Albert Allard who shoots for National Geographic. But I love lots of other photographers as well.
I am not William Albert Allard. I am not Jay Janner. I am not Chip Litherland (where does that guy find that light???). I am not Sebastio Salgado. I am not Walter Iooss Jr.. I am not Jahi Chikwendiu or Michael Williamson or Carol Guzy. I am not Al Diaz. I am not Danese Kenon. You know, I seem to “not” be a lot of people. By the way, I know some of those excellent photojournalists and call them friends. Others I have only admired from afar and they won’t ever know who I am but that was some serious name dropping wasn’t it?
But what is the point there Gary? You guys are a great audience.
Know who you are! It helps. Really!
Here we go then. How do you know who you are? I mean, it is far easier to know who you are not. I am most definitely not Chip Litherland. I mention him specifically because that guy exists in a different plane of light than I do. I shot the BCS Championship down in Miami this year. He shot it too. I did a good, literal, job. I saw Chip’s pictures and my first thought was, “Where did he find that light? I was there. I didn’t see that light!” Dang it! The point is, I can’t be him. I don’t see the world the same way he does; therefore, I have to work within the parameters of my gifting. I do have some suspicions though. I think Nikon made that guy a special set of cameras that capture extra light and color!
That doesn’t mean I can’t stretch the envelope every now and then. See, here is the rub. You work day after day and you are who you are, right? But then, something wonderful happens and you grab a photo that expands you, that causes you to grow. Once you have that little bit of growth you can build an entire new way of seeing into your visual repertoire. How does that happen? Man, if I could answer that question… Well, maybe I can take a stab at it.
Most people I know who are photojournalists are discontent. I don’t mean that on the personal level. I mean they are professionally discontent. No matter how good a job I might do on an assignment, I take a jaded view of it because I know I could have done better. I know there were pictures out there I didn’t get. That dissatisfaction drives me to work harder, try new things, fail, grow, get better and repeat. I won’t ever be any of those guys I mentioned but I can use some of their stuff to motivate me.
Let me tell you about Jahi Chikwendiu. I met Jahi while judging the Kentucky News Photographers annual contest a few years ago. We each gave a presentation after the judging and I was so blown away by Jahi’s stuff. The one thing he said that really stuck with me was that he was an advocate for the underdog. I thought to myself then, “that is not me.” I wasn’t sure I liked that about myself. Was I a front runner? Did I side with the majority? Was I fair to the oppressed? Good questions that have helped me modify my approach to my work. I can’t be Jahi. He works for the Washington Post and he gets some serious opportunities around the world working with oppressed people groups. My opportunities happen around Morgan County but, and here is the key, there are oppressed people all over the place, even in Morgan County, Alabama.
You guys just saw a post on here from Jay Janner who works in Austin, Texas. At the 2009 BCS Championship, I met Jay and several of his colleagues. To a person, they told me Jay was amazing and he got shots they didn’t even see. How is that possible? How can a guy get shots no one else sees in this day of the camera being everywhere? It has to be approach and gifting coming together. I noticed a few visual cues in Jay’s work. I noticed he was getting amazing pictures from situations where he probably had a photo assignment but I was pretty sure what he shot was not exactly what was assigned. He was shooting around the edges of assignments as well as shooting the assignment. In other words, he didn’t quit looking for photos even after he had the “assignment” in the bag. I began thinking how often do I quit looking when I have shot the job assigned and been content with that. I can’t be Jay but I can certainly modify my work behavior to keep my visual eyes open. Of course, some, maybe a big portion, of his gift is simply his gift. I can’t have that but I can draw from it.
And that is the key. You can’t be me. I can’t be you. We can draw from one another. We can push the envelope of our own conventions. Here is one of the great truths in life. A major earthquake happens suddenly but it is preceded by many thousands of small slips and shifts beneath the surface no one sees. Likewise, growth happens in small, incremental steps, not in large shifts. When something “suddenly” happens in your life it is usually because a thousand small changes have been going on beneath the surface. Those small changes will someday cause a “break,” or a major shift that everyone notices but only you will know how and why the major change happened.
Here are a couple of suggestions to take away from this piece. First, look at a lot of work. Find some people you admire and become their disciple. I had a professor once who spent a summer with the great photo essayist W. Eugene Smith. He learned so much from Smith and he especially learned how to make a stunning black and white print. When printing meant something, I could make a stunning black and white print too. Printing was not the primary takeaway for my professor. The primary thing I took away from Professor Combs was the primary thing he took away from Smith and that is the power of visual storytelling.
Second, take what you learned from your visual mentor and blend it into your work. Don’t be a copy cat, adapt and innovate. Take advantage of a lot of different stuff and incorporate what you can. You can expand many parameters of your skill set by adapting techniques you have learned from others. Learning how to learn is the most important knowledge you can have. Once you learn how to learn people will be copying what you do because what you do will be worth copying.
There is a wonderful part of the Lord’s prayer that goes like this; “give us this day our daily bread…” Oh no, he is preaching again! Run away, run away! Not really a sermon. Don’t panic. I probably won’t say the “J” word more than once or twice. Settle down. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, daily bread. Which brings me to the idea of keeping it fresh. That prayer that Jesus taught his disciples was actually born out of the old covenant where the priests put fresh bread out daily in the holy place in the tabernacle and the temple. Now, history/theology lesson over.
What this has to do with photojournalism is obvious, isn’t it? Okay, maybe some of y’all don’t think like I do so I will explain. After all, when I do the dishes after dinner I plot the overthrow of small nations so some might not quite follow my logic. Keeping fresh daily in the photojournalism world is one of the greatest challenges you will face as you plough through your career. Think about it. You will do the same kinds of assignments over and over and over again and you will shoot the same events over and over and over again. It can get a little boring. We had an editor once who used to say, “We need a good murder today.” I never want that to happen but there are days when I would sure enough like for something to happen.
Staying fresh is tough. So how do you do it? I am so glad you asked. Please turn in your Bibles with me to… oh, sorry, I forgot. This isn’t a sermon but a photo lesson. I will try to stay on point. But like a good southern preacher, I do like to run down rabbit trails every now and then. (If you don’t know what that means, GO TO CHURCH EVERY NOW AND THEN FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!) Okay, enough, enough. I know.
There is nothing like giving yourself assignments to help you stay fresh. That or getting a new piece of photo gear but the photo gear tends to be expensive. However, when you combine a new piece of photo gear with a self-assigned project you have pure freshness gold! I am not joking. I purchased an iPhone 5 earlier this year. I am easing into its amazing photo capabilities and much of what I am doing is not for publication; however, there is this cool project I am shooting all on my iPhone and it was inspired by a guy named Brad Mangin who is a big time sports photographer. He covers the San Francisco Giants and he recently published a photo book shot using the Instagram app. That didn’t click for me. I played with Instagram and like it but I wouldn’t use it for the paper, or would I?
My ten-year old decided to play baseball this year and we live in one of the baseball craziest towns I have ever seen. These folks are serious! I thought, “No way I can do a Brad Mangin book on major league baseball, but what about a photo project on my little baseball town?” At about the same time, I found a really nice app for my iPhone that lets me do the cool toning stuff that Instagram does but without having to make everything square. A project was born. I am calling it, innovatively enough, Baseball Town. I am shooting it all on my iPhone and processing the images using Photo Toaster. And I am having a blast!
Each time to the ball field I am collecting a new image or two and I am having fun. THE KEY TO STAYING FRESH IS TO HAVE FUN!!! Okay, did anyone miss that because if you did I can always crack open the Bible to where Jesus said we are to all have fun. Gotcha there didn’t I. Some of you are running to get your Bibles to see if Jesus actually said that. Others of you are so stunned that Christians are allowed to have fun that you need a resurrection because your hearts just stopped.
Now you know the secret to fresh photojournalism and you know how to scare Christians to death. Just have fun! Keep a project or two working. Make them something you are interested in because you will do best at projects that interest you. I happen to love baseball. I am learning how to shoot with the iPhone so there is magic there for me. It will be something else for you. Find it and enjoy it and have a ton of fun and surprise your boss with a really cool photo essay.
Enjoy this sample of my project which is just now getting started. By the way, keep an eye out throughout this year. I have another set of special projects I am working on that are going to be phenomenal. I can’t wait to share them with you but I can only hint now. This is a project I have dreamed of doing for many years, for most of my career even, and it is actually under way. If I may paraphrase the Black Eye Peas, this is gonna be a good, good year! (That good looking kid in the catching gear is my son!)
I love special people. I was just like most of you before my wife and I had a son with special needs. Our little boy Reece was born with Down syndrome. In his too-short life he taught me more about love than I had learned in all my years of living. Now, even though Reece has left this life, I carry him in my heart and all the lessons of love he taught. Now when I see someone with special needs, I embrace their love.
I had been exposed to people with special needs both mental and physical, perhaps more than most in the general public, due to a variety of photo assignments. I did not know how to embrace them. No photo assignment could do that for me. I never allowed myself to really get inside their world. It was a strange and alien place to me and I allowed myself to be pushed away by the physical and mental issues.
I learned my lesson through Reece’s life. I now understand there is no purer form of love than the love a special needs person gives every day unless it might be the pure love of God. I might even be so bold as to say that God allows special needs people to exist because He wants to demonstrate that extremely pure love to us and I don’t know of any other human being who could possibly show such love. Or maybe that pure love can only be shown through pure people. Now, on to Special Olympics.
I had the chance to shoot the regional qualifier for the Special Olympics State Games at the Aquadome pool. I have done this event several times but this year I paid more attention to the special part and a little less to the athletic part. Some of the swimmers are quite fast. Some float along at a snail’s pace. You know what, it really doesn’t matter. The very act of competing is an accomplishment that should be lauded. There are winners who qualify for the state meet and some of those will qualify for the national games and I am pretty sure there are international games as well.
One of the more remarkable things happens outside the pool. Look around and you see special needs people who have great friendships, who carry on about like anyone else would. You see others who are completely dependent upon someone else and have to be helped in and out of the pool. It is a remarkable mix of people. I decided to look more for those interactions this year. One of the mysteries I could never explore with Reece was the question I had of how he perceived the world. I still wonder. I wish I could ask someone with special needs, “How do you see the world, how do you perceive it?” It would, of course, be an absurd question. How could anyone answer such a question without having both my frame of reference and his own to compare.
So I watch and I wonder and I wish. There is a lesson here that all of us so called “normal” people can learn. We all perceive the world a bit differently. The world comes to us through different sets of filters. Some are genetic and beyond our control. Others come from our environment. Some are religious. Some are political. Some are given us by our parents. Some are given us by our friends and social relationships. Some are even given to us by the media we consume. The bottom line; we are all different. The Bible has this really interesting quote from Jesus. He said for us not to judge others because the measure we use to judge others will be used to judge us.
We are all alike and not alike. The line between a person with special needs and a “normal” person is pretty thin, sometimes it is only a chromosome. We have much to learn from one another and if we will try to see the world from someone else’s point of view we might be surprised at how very right they suddenly seem. Who knows, it might make the world a better place.
One thing I learned in doing a special section on people with Down syndrome a few years ago was how diverse their interests are. One or two of those guys are in these photos. Lucas Compton was one I interviewed and photographed for that section. He is a big wrestling fan. I asked him if he still like wrestling and he still does but he has changed heroes. Now the guy he used to like is a bum! How very like us.
One thing I will share with you about photographing people with special needs. They are the most unpretentious people in the world. They are generally so open with you it is stunning. I think it comes from they way they see the world. They are very trusting people and I have usually found the parents or guardians to be very easy to approach and get along with. So many caregivers and parents and guardians want people to know their children, brothers, sisters, whatever the relation may be, and know what great people they are.
I will never forget being at a basketball game one time and seeing a woman caressing a young man who was in a wheel chair in what most would consider a completely helpless and dependent state. The love that woman had for her son was amazing to me. All I could see were difficulties. She saw those too, I am sure, but the love made the difficulties seem not so bad. Having some experience in this area I can tell you that your capacity to love grows exponentially when you love someone with special needs. It is amazing and I will never the same.
Sometimes I write a post that isn’t so much about photography but good photojournalism is empathetic at its core. I can’t tell you anything here about the x’s and o’s of photography but I can tell you about being a human. That always comes first whether it is photojournalism or life.
This title is the perfect lead in to me doing my best impersonation of Jagger, but I am going to spare you. The satisfaction issue is one that drives me a little loopy sometimes. I am never satisfied or, perhaps more accurately, I am never satisfied for long. Photojournalism is a weird task master. It drives you and drives you and drives you but never lets you get well and truly satisfied.
I sometimes wonder, when I stop doing this, will I look back and feel like I left stories out there untold? Will I feel like I never got “that picture?” I shoot photos sometimes that I am pleased with but then I want to shoot one better the next time. Two problems with that; there may never be a next time and there may not be one better than that. I know after spending the most part of a year consumed with the coverage of the April 27th tornado and the recovery I felt like I had done a pretty good job. Then I heard about stories I never even knew about, stories that were out there but went untold. Dismay! Frustration! Drive!
That is one of those situations where it may never repeat and even if it did would you want it to? No. No way I would want people to have to go through that again. So I either did it or I didn’t do it. Strange how often my mind wanders back down those pathways searching for what I didn’t do. It is almost unfair. Then there are the national championships. They may never repeat. Oh, yeah, bad example. Scoreboard! Four in a row for the great state of Alabama! Even there, I left stuff on the table, stuff I couldn’t get to, didn’t know about or just didn’t have the energy left to do.
No matter how well you have done, the question is always there, “could I have done better?” Then there is the ultimate Chicago Cubs mantra, “there is always next year.” But is there? That is the question that keeps me hungry. That is the question that keeps me motivated in times when pay is stagnant or falling, raises non-existent and the prospects of staying in this business long term seem dim.
I remember being very thankful for a pretty nice football season in the late 90’s. As it turns out, if I compare that season to now there is no comparison because I am a much better sports shooter now. I look back at my spot news coverage from years past and it seems nearly timid by comparison to the way I am shooting now. Great, right? Well, yes and no. We should all improve year by year but it begets the question, “where and when will I top out and not get any better?” Will age drain my will to keep doing this? Will the lack of money force me to leave this business? Will I reach a point where my skills erode and I can no longer shoot to the level I expect of myself?
Honestly, I don’t know. Pro athletes hit a peak in their careers when their bodies are still strong enough to perform at a high level and they have gained the wisdom of the game and they exist in a special place for a short period of years when they are the best they can possibly be. Then their physical skills begin to erode and time wins. Eventually the greatest athlete is forced to retire. Do you think that happens to photographers as well? I mean, I guess.
When I was a young guy I used to think that a fifty year old was practically in the grave. I am turning 50 this year. I never dreamed that I would be approaching my performance peak at this point in life. Perhaps I am a late bloomer. Perhaps it took me a long time to reach that confluence of body and mind. Perhaps I work in a place where the pace is a little slower than say, the pace at the Washington Post or New York Times. Maybe I am just having a mid-life crisis.
I don’t know how to look back and say I am satisfied. What would it take? A Pulitzer would help! Or two!! But really, what would help me, or you, feel satisfied when we ultimately have to leave this business? I suppose if I knew the answer to that question I would not have to ask it. Since I have had a while to think about this, let me share with you a couple of things that I think might help.
First, ignore what goes on above your head. I can’t control it and neither can you. I used to think I could make myself so valuable I would not have to worry about staying employed and getting raises. Obviously, that was a wrong assumption. It seems like we live in an age that would make Orwell proud especially if he were to look into the newspaper world. Does the marketing phrase, “Exciting Changes For Our Readers” remind you of the doublespeak in 1984? The best thing I can say is just ignore what goes on over your head, don’t let it frustrate you and focus on what you can control.
Next, make the most out of every situation. I don’t think I have left many assignments feeling like I got every picture there was to get. That goal is about as unattainable as reaching the moon so focus on the good stuff in the camera rather than the stuff you couldn’t get. As the old saying goes, the bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush.
One final suggestion, don’t worry too much about how you will feel at the end of your career. (I need to heed my own advice!) You will never attain your ultimate goals if you don’t accomplish the goal that is in front of you today so knock that next assignment out of the park, then repeat on the next assignment.
One final, final suggestion, enjoy the people you are around; the people you work with and the people you photograph because ultimately life isn’t about pictures at all. Life is about people.