Archive for category Professionalism
I wrote the following letter to my University of Colorado photojournalism students after two weeks of relentless coverage of that story.
Though it wasn’t the first, 20 years ago it seemed like it should be the last. Columbine started a cycle that unfortunately we don’t appear brave enough to stop. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking of the families who let me deep into their fear and grief to photograph. We all shared a conviction that understanding this pain could bring and end to violence like this. I wish with all my being that it had.
May 4, 1999
Two weeks ago a horde descended upon Clement Park to cover the massacre at Columbine High School. There bereaved families and students found themselves face-to-face with more camera operators than I have seen anywhere, and that collision created a perfect laboratory for us to look at ourselves, the job we do and how the public reacts to our work.
Today was an interesting day for it seems to be the end of the initial media blitz. Monday tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma, killing an estimated 45 people. Off to the next disaster raced most of the out-of-towners, leaving Clement park to the curious visitors and shocked citizens that flock there daily.
Up through yesterday the public’s perception of the media had been steadily sliding downhill. The situations I’ll describe here are not the only reasons for the public disgust and distrust of the media. We’ve been building up public exhaustion with our behavior for years. The Columbine massacre just handily lays it all out before us.
The day this tragedy happened I raced out the door like all the other journalists in town and what I encountered near the scene of the shooting shook me. I spent that afternoon at an elementary school near Columbine where worried parents congregated in wait for their children. Their faces were a terrible sight. The radio and TV were reporting up to 25 dead, making the odds that their children had been injured or killed very real.
That’s a tough situation to photograph. Standing near someone that horrified and frightened makes my camera weigh a thousand pounds. People reacted to me in varying ways — some not noticing me at all, others seeming to understand why I was there. I was also scolded by one man who said, “get that camera out of my face.”
I waited a minute for him to cool down, and apologized to him.
Initially the media who were there acted as part of the scene. I loaned my cell phone out to at least five parents or grandparents. I was constantly asked for updates, and I gave as much information as I could as graciously as possible. I handed out business cards, encouraging anyone to call if they had any questions at all. Later I did get a call from a pair of parents who when I last saw them on that day still hadn’t found their children. They thanked me for my concern and help at the scene, and happily told me their kids were safe.
But as the numbers of photographers increased, the separation between the subjects and the journalists grew. Crying children hid behind their friends and families. A few cursed the cameras. More photographers arrived, some greeting each other with back slaps and smiles. Some bragged about the “great pictures” they had gotten.
I stood and watched with the worried families. How callous that seems to someone in trouble — to see the media react to it as if it were just another excuse to exploit misery for ratings and contests and profit.
I know both sides of that story, though. I think the photographers there who did act that way were just blocking out the horror of the situation in a convenient way. Many of us do that after a few too many troubling scenes. We make the camera a block against reality and shoot pictures as if it were all a play laid out for us to photograph.
We in the media desperately need to realize that our subjects are watching us, too. We must behave in a sensitive manner around the grief-stricken. We need to show that we care and that we do this job because the public cares. We must be ambassadors.
At too many funerals I have seen photographers and videographers arrive in shorts and T-shirts as if they were at a baseball game. Being behind a camera does not mean we are separate from the scene. On the contrary, big equipment and tripods make us stand out like nothing else can.
Please be professionals. Dress for the situation. Wear a tie. Don’t march around with cigarettes dangling from your lips, or worse yet, with a huge dip of Skoal under your lip. If we expect the respect of our subjects, our viewers, and the public that grants us the rights on which we operate, we must be respectful to them.
Please never forget as you enter the working world of journalism that it is the First Amendment under which we operate. But free speech is not a right held too dear by much of the public. In their view, free speech is fine as long as it doesn’t speak badly about them. Free speech is dandy unless they find it offensive in any way.
The only example we need to see is the persistent attempts at a constitutional amendment against flag burning. Why do politicians brandish that idea about so often even if they don’t believe it would be constitutional? Because the public finds the burning of a flag deeply offensive even if it is free speech.
We must deal with our subjects honestly and fairly. We cannot be lazy with the facts. We must maintain the trust of the public we serve. As a journalist I am as afraid of suddenly being the subject of a news story (again) as I am afraid of an IRS audit. That isn’t because I have anything to hide or be ashamed of. Based on experiences on both sides of the act of journalism, I fear that the truth would not be properly portrayed. I fear that I would be a sound bite or quote delivered in a careless context.
On the second day of coverage of the Columbine story it was evident the community was already tired of the growing horde of journalists. At memorial services bands of parishioners began to form human walls even though the media were still being remarkably well-behaved at that point. The consequences of our voraciousness were becoming evident.
At Clement park, many mourners and groups of students were outnumbered by the media everywhere they went. The week wore on and anyone with any shaky connection to the event had been telephoned relentlessly, badgered at the door or offered large sums of money to appear on questionable TV shows.
I’ve heard of two disturbing incidents (surely there are more) — one in which one photographer laid on the ground in the middle of a huddle of crying Columbine students, blasting up at their bowed heads with a flash. In another tale, a photographer chases a disturbed, crying subject down the street, blasting away with a camera.
What must be the public perception of this behavior? Do they see our actions in the field as separate from the final product they see on the TV screen or in print? I think yes. Clement park is a wondrous, sprawling example of that. It is the media that has drawn all those people to send offerings from across the country, or to bring their children to lay flowers or teddy bears on the ever-expanding mounds.
The satellite trucks have made the area the epicenter of grief. We draw them with our images, but they are taken aback when our cameras flash in their tearing eyes. To the public our product is separate from our work.
It is unfortunate that the public misunderstands the concept of privacy. I have long wished that every citizen understood that when they are in a public place they don’t have “privacy.” But the public feels that the right to privacy is something more akin to “the right to be left alone.” This is the only way I can explain why people would flock to a place surrounded by satellite trucks to grieve, and be angry when a camera pops up in front of them.
Saturday an estimated 7,000 people crowded the west steps of the state capitol to protest the NRA’s annual meeting in Denver. Fewer journalists were on hand to cover the event, already more than a week after the shooting. A grieving Columbine father spoke, followed by a family who had lost a son in a shooting. During one father’s speech a counter-protestor was pushed to the ground in a scuffle not far the podium. Most of the photojournalists, all doing their job by capturing a potentially explosive situation, turned away for a few seconds to photograph police dragging the counter-protestor away.
The speaker bemoaned the press for “scrambling to photograph that,” rather than pay attention to him. The crowd erupted in a cheer that gave me a chill. None of the photographers had done anything less than their job in that case, but the giant crowd showed immediately how uncomfortable they were with our actions in general. And surely most of the crowd realizes that without media coverage of the rally, it would have no effect beyond their ranks. They needed us there.
Monday the students of Columbine High returned to classes at a nearby school. As Chatfield students left to make way for the Columbine kids, they passed the small row of journalists reporting from across the street. Insults were hurled from car windows by students who hadn’t even been involved in the incident. A small army of parents stood on the school’s side of the road to chase away any journalists who wished to cross. Another group gave out fliers to Columbine students advising them of their “rights with the press.”
We are shooting ourselves in the foot with our own behavior. Competition for ratings, or circulation, or publication fees makes many journalists forget about the consequences of their actions. Sensationalist coverage breeds more disgust, reduces the public trust and hurts us again.
A touching moment happens in a park full of journalists and the dog pile begins. A Current Affair makes more money when people watch its sensational coverage, and other TV outlets feel the need to follow suit in pursuit of profit. Freelance photographers trip over each other chasing tears, stake out offenders’ homes, and badger neighbors only on the odd chance that they’ll make a few extra bucks.
This profession is not about money nor about winning contests. Journalism is about telling stories — carefully and professionally. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about money, find another career that will make more money for you. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about getting a picture or quote regardless of the effects on the innocent, find another career where you’re less likely to hurt someone.
This is not about money.
This is not about winning contests.
Causing pain or anger in the undeserving is not worth a picture or a sound bite with a news life of one day or less. Angering Pol Pot by brashly making a picture is one thing, angering and aggravating the innocent is another.
In the eyes of the media Columbine is now an old story. There are 45 new victims to cover in another state thanks to Mother Nature. Those journalists have raced off to that story leaving all the baggage of this one behind them, yet the families of the victims, their friends and classmates will be stuck with this story for the rest of their lives.
Please, as you enter the working world, think about what your subjects are seeing in you, and what they will remember about their experience with you after the flood lights have moved on. We need the support of the public to do our jobs well. We need the support of the public to guard our first amendment rights.
Journalism is a profession. Any field associated with that term bears a responsibility to the public — the medical profession, the legal profession, the education profession. From time to time we have the responsibility to expose the guilty with all our investigative talents. But we also have the responsibility to treat the innocent fairly and with careful, respectful consideration.
Let’s guard our professionalism. Know where that line falls.
By the time the Aurora theater and Arapaho High School shootings struck my city of Denver, I no longer accepted assignments to cover mass murder. A churn in my stomach stopped me.
I covered my first mass shooting as a photojournalist in 1991: Two suburban Florida families were executed on the same night, likely by the same killers. I covered extrajudicial executions, drug gang slayings and police raids on slums in Brazil. I scrambled to two mass shootings on the same day at separate Colorado churches and aimed my lens at the physical and emotional devastation of their communities. By far the most affecting was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. I was on the scene with my cameras as it happened and on that unstoppable story for two years after.
Then at 9:27a.m. on May 25, 2018, I, my wife and all the other parents of my stepson’s Noblesville, Indiana, middle school received the following text message:
“Shots have been reported at West middle school. Reports of one injury. Police are onsite and school is on lockdown. Stand by for more info.”
I grabbed my camera bag because I sensed that the scuffed and worn camera gear would get me closer to my stepson. To the first responders I would look like I belonged at the scene. I could scan through my longest lens for Callum’s face.
Empathy is a key to successful photojournalism. I had imagined being in this situation every time I photographed someone actually in it. I needed to put myself in in the shoes of the subject before I could know what fleeting emotion, glance, expression or light to capture. This time I wasn’t empathizing. I was living it. To not know if a child you love is safe, to not know where he is, to not be able to soothe or protect him is terrifying.
I photographed as I searched, out of recognition of the dizzying fear and shock on the faces in front of me. The earth was being torn out from under us. I was photographing my reflection.
I finally saw Callum with my own eyes three hours later, through the tinted window of an evacuation school bus. I photographed him scrambling past military-armed police to enter the nearby high school gym. His mother waited there with hundreds of other stunned parents.
Through all of this I had not thought as a journalist. The images I made were loose frames captured reflexively rather than attentively. I hadn’t collected IDs of the subjects. After I saw Callum with my own eyes, 30 years of journalism experience turned on. I was angry, shocked, disgusted and I wanted to fight back. The tool I had for that was the photographs I had made.
My first call was to the New York Times, the client for whom I had photographed almost a thousand other stories. The email response was polite, expressed condolences that it had happened at my kid’s school, and declined the images. For the Times this would stay a short story on the web with a wire photo. That was all.
Journalists use the fatality statistics of mass shootings as shorthand for scale. This number is how we have come to compare events like Parkland, Florida, or the Pulse nightclub shootings with this one at Noblesville West Middle School. I stared at that e-mail, angry and incredulous. Mass shootings are now so commonplace that a high fatality count is the measure of newsworthiness. This shooting, according to CNN, was the 23rd such event of 2018, happening in the 21st week.
I knew from living within this story that the more than 5,000 people directly connected to this school would never be the same. One 13-year-old girl was shot seven times, in the face, neck and torso, before her science teacher took three bullets tackling the armed classmate. Both are alive and recovering. The child shooter awaits trial as a juvenile on attempted murder and battery charges.
Fatalities are unquestionably horrible. Those of us on the periphery can only imagine the emotions and pain suffered by the families at the center of the act. But being both the subject of this story and a journalist covering it made strikingly clear how our focus on the fatalities alone unwittingly leads to the ignoring of the larger emotional damage.
I observed this after Columbine, where the focus of reporting was first on the shooters and their parents, then the 13 fatalities and their families. The 24 injured students and their difficult recoveries received far less attention, and the city of Littleton was only covered as a hotbed of suburban dysfunction. Already by the next morning those of us covering the story could feel a palpable chill from the community for doing a job we considered important: to understand the tragedy, its causes and consequences.
At the time, this chill seemed to me to be solely the result of a few journalists behaving insensitively and aggressively in pursuit of the scoop. Now, as a member of a community that has also been forcibly ejected from its sense of self, I better understand the chill that borders on hostility. We do not want our friends and neighbors exploited for ratings or clicks. We want you to understand that the thousands of seemingly unaffected people on the edge of the story are also the walking wounded.
In 2016 and 2017, the FBI reports, there were 50 active shooter incidents in 21 states. In those events 221 people were killed and 722 injured — more than three times as many injuries as fatalities. To add the wider affected communities would raise those numbers to the hundreds of thousands, yet we scale shooter events by the fatalities as we add to the ever-growing list.
I was angry that an event I was so closely living would get limited national coverage. But my awareness of the role journalism likely plays in how these events are inspired also shortened my breath that day. Had my diligent, empathetic and careful coverage of Columbine for the New York Times contributed directly to a shooter opening fire in my own stepson’s school? Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, argues that this may be the case.
Five days later the New York Times published a story on the “seemingly contagious” nature of school shootings. It features a disturbing slideshow of images — many of them my own — identifying the visual vernacular of mass shooting photojournalism. “The phenomenon (of school shootings) is feeding on itself,” psychologist Peter Langman told the Times. “It’s gaining momentum, and the more there are, the more there will be.” In one paper, Langman mapped the influence of the Columbine shooters through a cascade of the style trappings they inspired in others. “We don’t do this intentionally, but we glorify shooters by showing the damage they’ve done — all the crying, all the empty seats — and for people with rage that has a particular appeal for them,” Klebold also told the Times.
I had heard her observations several times before, and as I scrambled to get my pictures into publication on May 25 her sentiment gnawed at my gut. Was my son’s school paying the price for my own coverage of Columbine 19 years earlier? What if the work good photojournalists do to show the human toll of these events was fueling disturbed young men to repeat the Columbine shooters’ actions and bring glory to their own suicides? For decades we avoided coverage of suicide due to its correlated contagiousness.
Our coverage has led, positively, to such movements as Never Again MSD and has fueled and informed political and social debate for more than 20 years. We now better understand what drives these events, who may be likely to aim a firearm at classmates, coworkers or the other, and how to better react as a community when they do. Noblesville West Middle School and the community surrounding it handled the event and its aftermath with far more expertise than any other shooting I covered.
Despite those better outcomes, a debate over a fundamental change in news coverage of mass shootings appears in the pages of journalism professional publications since at least 2015: Should we publish the names and faces of shooters? Criminologists have argued for a decade longer that this contributes to a contagion effect, and the data they use to support the argument are compelling.
Prior to reading these arguments I, like many of my journalism contemporaries, would argue that the name is fact No. 1 in reporting. “Who” starts that familiar list of interrogatives. When two decades of my photojournalism students turned in photographs without IDs, I would flunk their assignment for failure to get the most basic fact. USA Today argued the same in a 2015 editorial. While acknowledging the contagion effect and the need for compassion for victims and their families, that editorial most strenuously argued that withholding names might lead to censorship or a violation of the public’s right to know.
However, these arguments put journalistic dogma before the thoughtful pursuit of professionalism. There are many precedents for journalists withholding unnecessary information, from FDR’s wheelchair to our decades-long avoidance of suicide and bomb threat coverage. We often use our journalistic dogma for good — to argue a first amendment right, to limit undue influence from the outside, to lend voice to the voiceless. But like all dogma, ours is also used as a lazy excuse for not thinking hard enough about what we do. We work too often on autopilot, arriving at the events, collecting facts, quotes and images, and publishing them simply because that’s what we’ve always done. The profession of journalism is far too important to not have constant reevaluation of practice, motive and ethics.
Other researchers argue that the media plays far less of a role than before or that campaigns like #NoNotoriety oversimplify a complex issue. But as a profession, we need to do better.
Professional journalists show their values through their actions. Ignoring a data-supported public concern on behalf of an aphorism like “the public right to know” appears to put our internal needs or wishes above those of the public we serve. Though anyone with web access may find a shooter’s name, it wouldn’t be us delivering it, repeating it and adding to his fame.
Journalism is far from easy. It relies on an instinct about when to put a neighbor’s pain on display for a greater cause of public safety or to fuel the fight against injustice or terror. The practice of journalism must constantly be rethought, however, balancing tradition and experience with the constant evolution of the world we cover.
A few days after the shooting, my wife and I found ourselves at a school lunchroom table with other parents. None of their children had been in the room and all were physically safe. Yet tears streamed down the faces of sleepless, stressed, unable-to-work parents lucky enough to mourn only the loss of a sense of security. They had lived too close of a call to quickly step back into their prior lives. We were all enormously fortunate — we didn’t have to bury anyone, sit beside a hospital bed for weeks, help a child through the intense counseling required after witnessing a horror.
We will recover, but we want you to understand that we exist.
This article originally appeared in the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter on October 18, 2018.
I first published this post on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings. It’s been rolling around among the knots in my stomach today, after a yet more devastating and senseless shooting in metro Denver. I am rerunning these events in my head once again.
April 20, 2009
Here is a professional truth:
We carry every story, good and bad, with us. It’s the result of the empathy we need to do our journalism job fully. All the good journalists I know feel their stories to the bone despite professional detachment and analytical scrutiny.
Today is the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the story that has followed me most intensely for a decade. I write this exactly ten years after Eric and Dylan went bowling.
My career has been filled with wonderful stories. I have been overwhelmed by fascination and joy, happiness and friendship. My life has been changed for the better by most of my subjects. The good has outnumbered the bad by tenfold.
I have also seen horrors beyond Columbine. I’ve tiptoed around the bodies left by drug gangs and corrupt cops in Rio, looked into the eyes of sudden widow in India, and faced the grief of the family members of the Oklahoma City bombing. I’ve listened quietly to people tell me of personal losses and fears, and I have seen the aftermath of scores of fatal crashes and deadly fires.
That’s the job.
And though we feel all these things, you would have to add up the background pain of a hundred journalists to equal that of any of the victims of an act as senseless and violent as Columbine.
Not long after the event my colleagues at the university wisely took the opportunity to discuss stress and trauma issues among journalists. It’s a valuable discussion. But at the time it smacked of too much self pity to me. By comparison to our subjects, I felt, our pain was trivial. But trivial as it may be, I now look back on how that story changed me. I have yet more empathy for the victims in any story.
For them multiply what I experience by 100.
I felt the first blow of the story days after photographing the tortured faces of terrified parents and shell-shocked students. On my way out of a big public memorial service the weekend after the shooting I came across the first paramedic team on the scene. The small group stood under an umbrella at the back of the huge crowd — not in a place of honor as I would have hoped. There gazing blankly at the space above the stage were the men and women who held the dead, dying and injured.
I snapped two poorly composed frames, crumpled to my knees and sobbed for five minutes. I gathered my wits and went off to develop film and send my images to New York.
I am sure that catharsis helped me get through the next months of covering the story again and again, listening to the harrowing details from survivors and steeling myself to the growing hostility from the larger community.
That hostility is another difference from all the other stories I’ve covered. Our heavy presence, rush to deadlines and competitive streaks left a foul taste in the mouths of anyone who watched it happen. Within days the surrounding community, which had no connection to the story beyond proximity, let its discomfort with our process be known.
In a few cases we deserved it. Our behavior was terrible in spots, and all it takes is one nasty action to create a rumor, a stereotype, an expectation. But all the good and sensitive journalistic behavior I saw was trumped by the bad.
Not only was this story tough in subject matter, but we had a very tense relationship with the subjects.
All these emotions well up in me at every subsequent Columbine stop — the funerals, the shot-up school tours, the exhibition of the weapons, the ticking anniversaries. It caught me this year as I heard the father of victim Rachel Scott speak about his daughter.
The reactions vary, from a jaw clenched to soreness, to sleepless nights like last night. But my expectations of subjects have also changed.
In August 2007 I was in Price, Utah, to cover the ongoing tragedy of the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine. My jaw clenches now whenever I imagine covering a community struck by tragedy. I wrongly anticipate excessive resistance if not outright hostility.
I walked out of my motel room on the first morning I was on the story to find a new tire flat. I looked around it and found no nails, no holes. Rather than my assumption being that a seal or a valve had broken, I instantly jumped to the completely irrational conclusion that someone in town had taken it upon themselves to go empty a few tires in the lot of one of the journalist motels.
I was, of course, wrong. And, despite losing nine local miners and rescue workers, the community was no more difficult to interact with than any other.
Over all the other tragedies I’ve seen, perhaps it is because Columbine was so senseless and unexpected that it has stayed with me. Drug wars in Rio and untimely death in India can unfortunately be expected. Crashes and fires happen every day. In 1999 a school shooting in an affluent suburb with such a toll of dead and injured was not expected. Unfortunately now stories like that are just another part of the tragedy landscape.
Again, all of this reaction is trivial by comparison to the victims, or to those who have seen mountains of tragedy.
To see and hear the tales of journalists really haunted by what they have covered, watch in “Dying to Tell the Story” Don McCullin’s thousand-yard stare as he describes his war-dead subjects climbing out of his film filing cabinets at night and walking the halls of his English country home.
And listen to Paul Watson in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross describe his inner conversations with Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, the dead man he photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
My point is not to show obsession with my reactions to one story. It is to make clear that no matter what stories we cover, we carry them with us forever after.
This is one of those terms you’ve heard before, but might not have ever gotten to fully understand. It is what it sounds like — thoughts out of tune. More particularly, it is the feeling we get when our thoughts, beliefs and morals clash with our actions. It’s that uncomfortable feeling we have after we buy something we really couldn’t afford, or do something we know we shouldn’t do.
As adaptable beings we dispatch that feeling with justifications. “I really need that new [insert toy name here] even though I ain’t got the cash, and here’s why…” Aesop had a good fable that fit this too. A fox sees some grapes hanging too high to reach. After trying to get them and failing, he struts off arguing to himself that they must not have been worth eating. It’s where the old “sour grapes” saying comes from. We are also prone to justify away the dissonance we would otherwise feel when we take a shortcut we know we should not take.
In journalism justifications like that pop up frequently to argue why something considered unethical should be seen as okay “under the circumstances.” You’ve heard them: “magazines are different from newspapers” or “the cover is an advertisement” to explain away a breach of journalism ethics. Our ethics should determine our actions, of course. But there seems to be an unending stream of ways journalists justify letting their actions determine their ethics. Neither market forces, ease nor style should trump ethics in the images we produce or how we use them. If we act like we are delivering truthful information, then we must follow through on that promise.
It happens among photojournalists more often than we might think. We pay a lot of attention to the egregious breaches of our ethics: major alterations, serious cases of reenactment or direction of what would appear to be a spontaneous moment. But as professionals who document reality we need to stay aware of how we might let convenience, competition, drive for a style or a wish for the approval of an editor or producer affect our work. This can come down to many of the mundane tasks we perform in our work, including — to pick only one example — things like toning an image.
There’s a difference between choosing a moment of perfect light and color that actually existed and fixing dull light to make it more dramatic in a photo. We like dramatic images. They attract reader interest, appeal to editors and feel satisfying to us. But isn’t the satisfaction and pride much stronger when we took the time and energy to seek out the light and color rather than pumping it up with software tools? And isn’t it simply more honest?
Our talent — the one that separates us from all the other flavors of photographer — is that we capture reality quickly and delicately and without influence. It is an incredible skill that takes great attention and effort to develop. We take pride in our ability to think and act quickly and to know the story as we are seeing it happen. We slice telling moments out of the unstoppable flow of time, and when we miss, we miss.
Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson said, is “…an immediate sketch, done with intuition, and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. Life is very fluid, and, well, sometimes the picture has disappeared and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘oh, please smile again, do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”
Having made all that effort to catch the decisive moment without any before- or after-the-fact fixing, why would we let any overrated sense of market pressure discredit that work? Look again at Cartier-Bresson’s images in which the moment and geometry are so perfect that trivial stylistics like color and contrast don’t matter at all.
I am not making an excuse to shroud dull images in a cloak of ethics. Our challenge is to find the impressive image in any circumstance — no matter how colorless or flat in light — without needing to embellish it after the fact. We do that by skillfully getting to the right place at the right time to capture true storytelling images and minimizing our influence on a scene.
If any of our actions need a justification to exempt them from our core ethical standards, then those actions need to be reconsidered. It is our ethics that must determine our actions, not the converse.
For an entertaining and disturbing look at cognitive dissonance at work in the cable TV world, have a listen to radio producer Rebecca Hertz’ piece on how process trumped ethics in the production of a reality TV show, for NPR’s Snap Judgement. In the show segment she compares the experience of the producers and participants to the Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s.
I was walking on a beach in northeastern Brazil several years ago, taking a few hours break from an assignment there for the New York Times. I was in the middle of a rough patch in my personal life and the stream of thoughts and imagined conversations was rolling so fast I actually forgot where I was and what I was doing.
I stopped, looked down at the sand, and watched — straining to turn off that stream of words and just see what was below my feet. I was in an amazing place, covering a wonderful story. And I was forgetting to be there and savor it.
When I let my thoughts return, it wasn’t about what was happening in my personal life. I realized that my images — whether personal or professional — were much more successful when I had been truly emotionally and personally present in the scene I was photographing.
We work in a medium that can either engage us with a subject in an intimate way or separate us from our subjects with a big mechanical device to hide behind.
There are several ways we should come out from behind that camera to be present.
That old photojournalism dictum of “250 at f/8 and be there” always applies of course. We do our jobs by getting to the scene above all other considerations.
But if we are mentally present — really seeing the subject — our compositions are better. If you are struggling to understand how Richard Kalvar constructs so many complex layers of action from a single fleeting moment or how Stephen Crowley sees amusing irony around him, then try to stop that inner narrative and just watch every corner of the frame.
We should also be present with our subjects as something of a collaborator.
It’s easy in an emotional scene to hide behind the camera and burst forth with streams of motor-driven frames as the key emotional moments reveal themselves. Those pictures can even be quite impressive. But few would say that this one-sided interaction with a subject is not predatory.
I once watched an intern for a local paper bound up to within inches of a crying subject who had just learned she and her family would not be receiving government aid for health problems resulting from work in a nuclear weapons plant. His pictures certainly conveyed emotion to the paper’s readers. But all the other photographers present wanted to chase him out of the room for wrecking the intimacy we had gently tried to build with the subjects.
No matter how we would like to be flies on a wall, we never are. We are the biggest presence in the room and almost always work with tacit cooperation of subjects. When we have that cooperation and intimacy, our pictures are more true, and the subjects take away with them a sense that we were there to understand them rather than just use them.
We also need to be present to understand ourselves and what we bring to that collaboration. Our mental state matters in how we see a subject, what we understand of that person, place or event, and what about it we relate to our readers.
Though true objectivity is impossible, we gain the trust of our readers by making the best, most valiant attempt to see a subject clearly. And when I leave my own baggage at home, my subjects let me deeper into their lives.
And lastly, we work in an amazing profession that takes us into the homes, offices and lives of fascinating people, to locations most only dream of visiting, and into the rarely seen inner workings of the world. Be present and enjoy it. Put down your camera and absorb where you are or who that person in front of you is.
If you seek in your images the complexity of Cartier-Bresson or Kalvar, the emotional intimacy of Krisanne Johnson or Paolo Pellegrin, the spiritual metaphor of Kathryn Cook or Michael Ackerman, or the joy and humor of Elliot Erwitt, then be there — 250 at f/8 or not.
Remember that you are here, now, and wherever or whatever that place is, you are exceptionally lucky and you may never get back there.
The following is a journal entry I love, from a day at the beginning of my freelance career in which I left the camera at home, stopped to breathe-in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and just watch. I smiled at the cinematic little ballet happening in front of me, glad for a change to not be distracted by trying to photograph it:
July 14, 1995
I stood at a corner in my neighborhood of Flamengo today, leaning for a moment against one of thousands of one-meter-tall concrete obelisks that line the sidewalks here to prevent space-frustrated drivers from parking their cars in the path of the wretched pedestrians.
I watched people pass.
Around the corner a woman begged, cradling a child on a blanket while her son of perhaps four years skipped among the pedestrians asking for a “trocadinho” — a bit of change.
An ancient woman struggled across Rua Senador Vergueiro on small deformed legs. She planted the cane carefully in front of herself and pried her way across the street with it. Half-way across, the light changed against her, but she held to her lever.
Impatient horns erupted from the line of cars who waited for her to move. The other cars, view blocked, honked at a cabby who defended himself with high-fisted protests. He waved back to the impatient to signal his innocence.
A tall, chivalrous-as-only-a-gentleman-can-be, old man with polar white hair and neat yellow pants rushed out and took her arm. They walked together like they were propping each other. The moment she cleared the cabby’s path by a hair he blasted forward around her.
The chivalrous old man deposited her on the other side of the street, and took the arm of yet another elderly woman. He helped her across the street in the opposite direction and kept going with her. I thought she must be his wife until she yanked herself loose in protest and turned up another direction on the sidewalk with a huff.
The helpful gentleman raised his palms to the air, incredulous at her lack of appreciation for his great knightly aid, and followed her for a moment with his gaze before he disappeared.
The first woman he helped never looked up from her path.
Rounding the corner on the curb to step out onto the perpendicular street, she dragged herself — a small grocery sack on one arm — against the traffic again. The cars waited until they could pass her without killing her, then broke loose like greyhounds.
She changed the hand her cane was in and reached out to the fender of a parked car. Her fingers stretched out for it. The car lingered just out of her grasp.
Her stride stopped completely, and she reached forward slowly — like honey dripping from a spoon. She teetered forward on her toes, and I got ready to catch her and the 2 liter bottle of Sprite hanging in a sack on her left arm.
Four or more people let out their breath when her fingers made contact and she pried her way past the car and onto the curb.
I turned back toward the other street.
A large delivery truck came through the intersection with a blue passenger door open slightly. It moved past me. The passenger hunched out of the door releasing his half-digested lunch to the pavement in heaving foul streams. He looked up between heaves with a pained grey face.
The light changed and two directions of traffic spread the bile in plaid patterns across the pavement.
There’s a spot I love to camp in Utah, on the edge of a red rock canyon miles from the nearest town. On a clear moonless night the stars are so rich that I can never sleep. I spend most of the night gazing at the curls and eddies of the Milky Way, smiling at passing satellites and listening to wind hiss off the wing feathers of diving swallows working the cliff-edge currents.
“I’ll find a deal on a clock drive,” I’d think to myself, wondering how I could photograph this amazing visual. I’d get the star-tracking device astronomers use to keep a far-off celestial object in their lens for longer than a few seconds.
Using film, or a digital camera only three years ago, it would have been necessary to expose for hours to get the detail I wanted. And without complex engineering the stars would all move and become the clichéd star trails in a camping photo. The clock drive would be a compromise too, as in relation the ground would move. Capturing both that sky and the canyons below it would be a daunting task.
Now camera manufacturers have reached astronomical heights in low-noise ISO, and making that photo is remarkably simple: A bright lens, ISO 1600 or so and maybe 30 seconds. In that time the stars don’t move much and the camera’s sensor seems to see into even the shadows of light cast through the atmosphere by a city a hundred miles off, or from the stars themselves. I just have to get back to that favorite spot under a new moon.
But it’s not just about stars and gimmicks. As the photographers of the last century must have felt when film reached ISO 100, “You can photograph anything now.”
ISO has become such a versatile and useful element in the equation of photography that I wish camera makers would promote the controls for it to the same level as shutter speed and aperture. I want to change it as often as I change those two.
For Harry- or Mary-DSLR-owner this means great cushion in getting that family moment onto Facebook. For a professional photojournalist, though, it is versatile power. Some of the world’s most disturbing, telling or satisfying moments happen after the sun is down, in only the smallest hints of light. What every storyteller wants are better tools with which to tell the full story.
This power was immediately put to use in the toughest places. Images of conflict and injustice in the night started appearing as fast as this generation of cameras appeared. Look, for example, at the work of Tyler Hicks and Michael Kamber. Also, while searching unsuccessfully for one image (possibly by Hicks or Kamber) I found the work of Michael Yon.
And in their latest edition, National Parks magazine filled their cover and several inside spreads with starry landscapes. The story was written by my colleague and sometime student Anne Minard.
Another of the great gifts of digital photography is the perfect ability to correct color in white balance. This has been there since the first RAW files on my notoriously bad Nikon D1. (Give it a break. It was first out of the chute for truly usable digital cameras.) Film corrections took exposure-robbing filters that needed a huge investment in time and money to reach commercial perfection.
These wonderful tools are certainly helpful to amateurs too, and lately a few colleagues have admitted being nervous about them in the hands of just anyone. I suppose in days of old it was as much the technical craft of photography that separated us pros from the great un-hypo-cleared masses as anything. Only we had the know-how to correct fluorescent lights and expose at ISO 3200. But what has separated us from just anyone with a camera is the ability to tell the story well and accurately.
It’s not the tools that do the job. It’s the experience of the photographer that does.
This is a beautiful age in our art. Not only do we have almost all the power of the film world still at hand, but we have the ever expanding power of the digital world at our fingertips.
This is my ode to the digital age. Never has our toolbox been so full.
Thank you for being patient between posts as I teach, study and shoot. Summer is here!
Haiti could be the story of the year, and scores of international photojournalists are there now, more than a week after the devastating earthquake. Their work has been powerful and has unquestionably influenced the amount of aid headed there in the aftermath.
Though some journalism about the disaster (as usual) has been an embarrassment, overall the coverage has made me proud of my profession. Those photographers will eventually leave gratified, exhausted and permanently affected by their work.
But for the rest of us who are not there I suggest we support causes and charities that matter to us as photojournalists.
Here are a few photojournalist-related favorites:
Another one of very great importance is Internews, an organization that trains and supports local journalists around the world. Basic support of democracy, information and the Fourth Estate does not come from international journalists who parachute into the disaster. It must come from the locals who work the streets of countries like Haiti every day. And though those parachute journalists certainly help draw attention and support from the wider world, it is local information, delivered on the spot in local languages that can save lives immediately. Help Internews help Haitian and other local journalists get back up and running on their life-or-death jobs.
Read or listen to Bob Garfield’s interview last week with Mark Frohardt, the group’s vice president for Health and Humanitarian Media, on NPR’s On the Media…
…and then send a bit of help to any of the above.
To my readers I apologize for the sparsity of posts of late. Jobs of shooting and teaching now matched with study of my own has my schedule thoroughly filled. I hope you’ll stay tuned for monthly posts.