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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.
After the basic facts are covered the interpretation must happen – the hunt for images that not only say, ‘Fidel was here,’ but those that convey why, and what this moment means.
“When Fidel dies I am dropping everything and getting on the next flight to Havana,” my friend and photojournalism colleague Phillippe Diederich proclaimed over several beers sometime around the turn of the millennium.
“¡Yo también, compay!” I slurred, punctuated with a fist pound on the bar table.
At least that’s how I remember beer- or rum-soaked conversations that repeated themselves several times over the next 5 years. We were steeped in Cuba then. The “Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union put much attention on what would happen in Havana and the hemisphere after El Comandante en Jefe Máximo expired. Phillippe was on and off the island, producing photo essays on its Harley riders, covering first papal visits for the New York Times and starting a novel which is set then and there.
I went four times over the next three years, the first to photograph Fidel’s speech on the 40th anniversary of his revolution. It was an incredible assignment to document a man who, with his band of barbudos, wedged a small island nation between two superpowers and had refused to leave, give up or die for decades. Fidel had been an unpredictable-turned-obdurate symbol of the Cold War.
Everything about that first trip was nostalgic for classic (or mythic) photojournalism. I was pulled aside in Cuban customs and interrogated for what seemed like an eternity about a small gift-wrapped package in my bag. “It’s a birthday gift for a colleague,” I explained. “You can open it if you like.”
“No no no. We won’t do that. So why are you here again?”
“I am here to photograph the anniversary speech in Santiago, for the New York Times.”
“Oh! The New York Times! So what’s in this box again? Who is your colleague again? Can we call her?”
“Yes. A gift. Feel free to open if it you like. It’s for the Tribune Company correspondent. Yes, you may call her. Would you like her number?”
This cycle repeated five or six times until they let me through, not accepting my offer to open the gift for them, and not calling my dear friend who was stationed in Havana. No money changed hands either. My oldest friend had come along, too, for sport and curiosity. He waited for me, puzzled, outside of customs.
On New Year’s Day, 1999, we climbed aboard a decaying Tupolev Tu-154 passenger jet flown by Cubana de Aviación. The creaking air conditioning steamed, the seat-back locks were broken in the reclined position. The toilets were locked shut, bleeding fecal aroma into the cabin. The hand-me-down Soviet plane was almost as old as Fidel’s revolution.
That night I stood among the crowd gathered in the central plaza below the same balcony where Fidel had greeted the masses 40 years earlier. El Jefe walked out fashionably late, waved, fist pounded and pontificated for several hours about el período especial and the imperialistas on the base across the bay.
I photographed for the first 30 minutes before I had to leave to develop color film in the hotel bathroom, scan and tone color images on a grayscale laptop and upload them at only 2400 bits per second over ancient Cuban phone lines to New York. Each image took almost a half hour to transfer, and I got two images through before the late edition deadline. I was beat in all the earlier editions by wire photographers using gigantic new digital cameras that cost as much as my whole bag of Leicas.
Standing in front of the world stage has always attracted young photojournalists. The importance or attention surrounding an event like this adds weight to every decision and frame you make. I photographed in inverted-pyramid style, making nut-graph images of Fidel waving and speaking from the podium, the rapt crowd and the excitement of the event. But that can take mere moments at a scripted event where little is likely to change. After the basic facts are covered the interpretation must happen – the hunt for images that not only say, ‘Fidel was here,’ but those that convey why, and what this moment means.
That’s when I saw his shadow. By 1999 the septuagenarian insurgent was a frail old man. He was gaunt and no longer intimidating. A strong gust of wind could have accomplished what the CIA had attempted for the entire 1960s. But his shadow, stretched a bit by the angle of light, was the Fidel of the Sierra Maestra, the man who had scolded the UN and kept American influence out for decades. That was the picture. A shadow of the Cold War.
For the next week my two best friends and I wandered Havana, soaking in its cigars, rum, anachronisms and relishing in the rusty, smoke-belching ghosts of American influence. The only contemporary sign of my country was the in the ‘gringo green’ bills that changed hands on an officially blessed special-period black market.
Once, Phillippe and I waxed fantastic about what it would have been like to bushwhack our way into the Sierra Maestra in 1958, find the revolutionaries and photograph their march onto the world stage. Fidel died yesterday, just as I and colleagues Chip Litherland and Rob Mattson — my former students — and Ross Taylor traded stories of our trips to Cuba. Today is the day that I swore I would be on the next plane to Havana. But I am not, and neither is Phillippe.
Since those effusive conversations years ago, Fidel has passed power to his brother who already has plans in place for his own retirement. The Obama administration pried open a diplomatic door with a rusted lock. Cuba is now just a curiosity. What Phillippe and I imagined would be a historic change event will come and go in a set of lead-story obituaries and a little bit of news analysis. Tomorrow the media’s eye will be back to a power transition that’s more timely and arguably less predictable than Fidel’s. The obdurate symbol has left the balcony.
I’m proud to have a print in A Photo A Day’s (APAD) auction to fund their valuable “Backyard Storytelling” documentary photography grant.
Auction runs through September 19, 2016.
In an era when funding long-term personal projects is difficult at best, this fund provides for important work that would otherwise be skipped, cut short or denied the public traction it needs to inform the world. The $4,000 grant funds work within 350 miles (one tank of gas) of the photographer’s home. In past years the grant has received more than 150 entries from around the world, and winners produce insightful and genre-challenging work.
Click on the image above to bid on my personally-hard-printed archival silver print (that means darkroom, yep). It’s a limited edition of 25, matted and signed and ready for the wall. But there are many many interesting works to be had there, from a print of John Lennon by LIFE magazine photographer Bill Eppridge, to former student Chip Litherland, colleague Ross Taylor dozens of others.
Please bid on something today.
Henri Cartier-Bresson… Garry Winogrand… Helen Levitt… Robert Frank… André Kértész… William Klein… Jacques Henri Lartigue… Marc Riboud… Raymond Depardon… Elliot Erwitt… Joel Meyerowitz…
I started this list as I thought of who all the great street photographers might be. But I stopped early, realizing that in photojournalism (or any of its other pseudonyms) we all photograph life in the street.
Some of these photographers have made street photography the central aspect of their work, like Winogrand and Levitt. For others, like Frank and Klein, it is the piece of a complex work puzzle that made them most famous, or led to other opportunities.
It started when I was asked recently by student Danielle Alberti:
“The second you put the camera up to your eye, it seems strangers suddenly become very aware of you, and often suspicious. And because it’s in public, it’s rare that you’ll have enough time for them to relax. So we often find ourselves doing the subtle ‘lower the camera and hope autofocus works’ trick. Of course, when this trick works, I think it works well. But do you have any other street photography suggestions that might help when you want to photograph an interesting stranger without disturbing the scene (or pissing someone off)?”
This is a very common problem for young photographers (and old). We love how photographing someone pulls us into their world. But street photography can feel a bit more like an attack, or sniping. You’re often making images without explicit nor even tacit approval.
This is also the single hardest thing to which young students of photojournalism must adjust. Even those who have worked cameras for years grew up posing family or making live images of friends with whom they are comfortable. Then I come along and ask them to hunt. It’s an initially daunting task.
Many sense that the world has changed and the streets are meaner to a camera than in the past of Cartier-Bresson, Levitt and Evans. I do agree that there was perhaps a sweet spot, when cameras were familiar enough and photos not easily published in a way that the subject would feel harmed. There may be some truth in the idea that today, with the Web’s ubiquity and possibility, that any image can affect or harm you.
Maybe today, a camera can steal your soul more easily than before.
But I think this is only a partial truth. On any given street, in any time, you could find the camera-suspicious alongside the camera-nonchalant. The situation hasn’t changed that much. And official restriction on images has waxed and waned throughout photography’s two centuries.
So how did the greats act on the street?
Wait, watch, shoot. Cartier-Bresson was the cat. “Like an animal and a prey,” he said in The Decisive Moment, an educational program produced by the ICP and Scholastic in the 1970s. A nervous hunter, he scanned the world in front of him to anticipate the moment where something slight or something grand would unfold.
“That’s why it develops a great anxiety, this profession. because you’re always waiting… what’s going to happen? What what what what?
In photography you’ve got to be quick quick quick quick. Like an animal and a prey, braaam like this. You grasp it and you take it and people don’t notice that you’ve taken it.
I’m extremely impulsive. Terribly. It’s really a pain in the neck for my friends and family. I’m a bunch of nerves, but I take advantage of it in photography. I never think. I act. Quick.”
Cartier-Bresson was as subtle as he was quick, carrying one small camera and typically one small lens. He often saw a setting and waited patiently for a character or moment to complete the scene, making only a frame or two. “You shouldn’t overshoot,” he said. “It’s like overeating or overdrinking. You have to eat, you have to drink, but over is too much. Because by the time you press and arm the shutter once more, and maybe the picture was in between.”
Granted, now we have cameras that can make more than ten frames per second. How could you miss?
You miss by becoming a massive presence on the street. The big cameras that do that can be intimidating enough. But add to that the assaulting power of a motor advance ripping at you like a machine gun, and suddenly everyone feels attacked rather than honored by the image.
Indeed we may soon find that some of the most important street images are being made with ubiquitous and inoffensive cell phones.
If Cartier-Bresson was the cat slipping elegantly and unnoticed from portico to portico on the street, Garry Winogrand was the nervous, fast-walking, bemused, gleeful, grunting American bear rumbling down the sidewalk.
His approach was as different from the French style as his images were. He waded into the stream of street traffic and deftly snatched salmon from the upstream flow.
Joel Meyerowitz described working the streets with Winogrand in Bystander: A History of Street Photography:
“Yeah. Oh yeah. You know, he set a tempo on the street so strong that it was impossible not to follow it. It was like jazz. You just had to get in the same groove. When we were out together, I wasn’t watching him — we were both watching the action around us — but I did pick up on his way of working and shooting. You could see what it was in his pictures. They were so highly charged, all you had to do was look at them and you began to assume the physical manner necessary to make pictures. They showed you right away that they were an unhesitating response.
Walking the streets with Garry gave me clues to being ready, to just making sure that I was. I had been a third baseman, so being ready came naturally. I was a quick study on that stuff, darting and twisting and the kinds of moves that were necessary to get a picture.
You know, if you hesitate, forget it. You don’t have but a fraction of a fraction of a second. So you have to learn to unleash that. It was like having a hair trigger. Sometimes walking down the street, wanting to make a picture, I would be so anticipatory, so anxious, that I would just have to fire the camera, to let fly a picture, in order to release the energy, so that I could recock it. That’s what you got from Garry. It came off him in waves — to be keyed up, eager, excited for pictures in that way.”
Winogrand was so keyed up about making photographs that he is said to have left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and 300,000 unedited images at his death in 1984.
With those numbers you might have expected him to have loved the motor drive. But he used the same little rangefinder cameras as Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and others. He was just a relentless hunter.
He also moved quickly, pushing his Tri-X film to ISO 1200 and higher so he could shoot a 1,000th of a second shutter speed at f/16 and never miss a moment from blur or focus. He did this through much wider angle lenses than Cartier-Bresson. He marched down the street, straight toward his subjects and whipped up the camera the moment he or they passed. It was like a surprise punch. He wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t look and wouldn’t engage. He simply marched on with a bemused smile.
Of course, in my classes he would also be forced to engage with subjects in ways he didn’t. I require IDs and full captions to build reporting skills and skills of engagement with subjects. The game changes when you must shoot at, then talk to, a subject.
Winogrand’s work is amazing, visceral and live. But it did not need the journalist’s caption. “I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.”
Helen Levitt, who died only last year at 95, had an eye for busy streets. Though the famously private Levitt said little about her working methods, she did tell New York Times photo critic Sarah Boxer in various interviews, “You’re talking about the past, honey. I’ve been shooting a long time.”
When asked if she followed people to photograph them, the nonagenarian said, I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t remember following anybody.”
“I go where there’s a lot of activity. Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.
The streets were crowded with all kinds of things going on, not just children. Everything was going on in the street in the summertime. They didn’t have air-conditioning. Everybody was out on the stoops, sitting outside, on chairs.
In the garment district there are trucks, people running out on the streets and having lunch outside.”
Was she disarming? Maria Morris Hambourg, curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tells NPR’s Melissa Block, “She’s very quiet. She’s like a cat — very slight. She moves softly. There’s no imposition of a mood or a tone or a need. If the picture didn’t present itself she would not have ever forced it.”
But Levitt did admit to Block that she used a right-angle lens from time to time, deceiving people around her about where her camera was aimed.
Perhaps Helen Levitt simply made a natural act of photographing on the street, analyzing not the act but the result.
So how do you roll, then, looking for Cartier-Bresson’s complex fleeting moments, Winogrand’s sanguine street document, Frank’s dark beat poem or Levitt’s sensitive and charmed glance?
Body language is everything. We have a choice of being quick like Cartier-Bresson, elusive like Winogrand, or disarming like Levitt.
Carry yourself with sincerity no matter what method you might choose. If you appear to have the right to be there with a camera, passers-by will assume you do. If you relax, appear to be having fun and mean no harm, you might be more easily tolerated.
Let your intent for photographing appear on your face. If you are charmed by someone’s antics, smile as you photograph. If moral outrage shared with a subject drives you, carry yourself with concern and sincerity.
Never appear critical, unless you are as big as Garry, as surly as Weegee or as fleet as Henri.
When caught, engage. Walk up with a charmed smile and explain who you are and why you’re photographing.
Be ready to share. Offer images to your subjects and they will feel less like they’ve been exploited. Give them your e-mail address. Don’t ask for theirs.
Expect the protective concern of parents. Children are one of the most fun of street subjects because they live their young lives with little restraint or self- consciousness. But thanks to the creeps out there, they may fear for their child’s present and future safety when someone makes a picture.
Photograph those kids just the same, if possible without affecting the scene by asking first. But as you do, glance around for parents, and if found, make eye contact as soon as possible with a nod and a smile. As soon as you can, introduce yourself and offer a business card and copies of the pictures. Proud parents will love the images and trust more the person who is unafraid to say hello.
If there are no parents apparent, ask the children where they might be and find them. If unfound, give the child a card, because Johnny or Mary will surely talk about “that nice bearded photographer with the sunglasses who took pictures of me in the park.” You’re asking for calls to the police if they don’t know who you might be.
But there is no specific recipe for success. You will surely find fun, pleasant and trustworthy people who feel honored by your attention. And even the most bright-faced young photographer with the biggest smile will encounter people accusing her of being a freak, a creep or a terrorist.
Get your street legs by photographing public events. People are not surprised by being photographed for no apparent reason at a parade, festival or event. Then take your confidence out to the everyday world.
Though you have a right to photograph on the street in the U.S. and most places, when you encounter resistance, apologize and walk away with a smile. You’ll never convince them of your rights anymore than they will convince you with their indignation.
Make those images. Explore the visions and moments of the street and leave a document of the 21st century as valuable as the one our predecessors left of the 20th.
…Michael Ackerman… William Albert Allard… David Alan Harvey… Werner Bischof… David “Chim” Seymour… Weegee… Edouard Boubat… Willy Ronis… Bruce Davidson… Jodi Cobb… Walker Evans… Josef Koudelka… Ben Shahn… Martine Francke… Roy DeCarava… Miguel Rio Branco… Leonard Freed… Antonin Kratochvil… Manuel Alvarez Bravo… Dorothea Lange… Marion Post Wolcott… Dan Weiner… Wayne Miller… Diane Arbus… Graciela Iturbide… Danny Lyon… Berenice Abbott… Martin Parr… Eugene Richards… Larry Towell… Alex Webb… Sylvia Plachy… Lee Friedlander…
Others have written at length on this subject and their work is a valuable resource. For further reading have a look at:
Bystander: A History of Street Photography, by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz
Thames and Hudson, London, 1994
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.
Hah! Sorry for the tease. Really, there will be a full blog post here soon. But in the short term, know this:
I’ll be presenting on Transmedia Journalism at the NPPA Business Blitz Road Show in Boston on July 14, in Austin on September 29, and possibly in two more cities to be announced. My co-presenters include my former student Matt Slaby of Luceo Images, Allen Murabayashi of Photoshelter and intellectual property attorney and photojournalist Alicia Calzada.
Registration info is here. Join us for interactive presentations on the future of photojournalism, the media business, your freelance career and the future of storytelling.
This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.
You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.
It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”
So what makes now so great?
To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.
We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.
But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.
Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.
In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.
My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.
And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.
In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.
The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.
Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.
But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.
Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.
Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.
Like for Reznor, the Internet’s reach is a valuable tool for photographers to sell their work. Once forced to use agents and portfolio reps to market themselves, we now have — for better and for worse — the unfiltered channel of the Internet to find new buyers, collectors and clients. It is a crowded market out there to be sure. Everyone wields a camera, thinks they are brilliant and shares their images for free with everyone. But competition forces us to think harder, work harder and be better image makers to rise above all that noise. And this is not a new phenomenon.
When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”
So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.
This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.
Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.