The Pack

Snappers descend on an anti-abortion doll, San Diego political convention, late 1990’s.

This photo says a lot about a lot of things, but I’m going to narrow it down to just a few. Perhaps one or two are relevant.

I used to love covering events. Big news events, political conventions(which is where this image was made)football games, protests, etc. I loved the thrill of the action, the packs of roving photographers, the idea of covering something considered news.

But today I’m a different person, and a different photographer. Now, I search out other kinds of work.

Working around a pack is a strange experience, especially now when the pack is so much larger than it has ever been. The switch, for me, was flipped when I covered the political convention in downtown Los Angeles a few years back(Upcoming Post!). Johnny Law was out in FULL FORCE, out of control in many ways, clubbing civilians, gassing and shooting rubber bullets for no particular reason. It was exciting in some ways but there were so many other photographers, camera people, etc, that in some ways the most difficult part was cropping out all the other snappers. I realized I was losing interest in working around other photographers.

At one point the LAPD was arresting a young woman who was carrying a pocket sized video camera who screamed, “I’m a filmmaker.” Her protest did nothing, but it did make we wonder what level of filmmaker she was, why she didn’t have a credential and why she was getting arrested? Again, the police were way overboard on how they responded to the crowd, but her plea made me realize the days of really earning a credential, really learning the craft were probably in transition. This is magnified ten-fold today, when it seems EVERYONE with a DSLR is a director of photography or cinematographer or filmmaker or producer overnight, and the internet as final destination-no quality bar- has also added to this mess.

As the years went on this reality became more and more evident. At the Super Bowl it seemed there were as many people on the field as there were in the stands(And this was the Super Bowl I covered years ago). If you have ever covered the Super Bowl then you will know the guy with Pentax K1000, 50mm and monopod that has a credential and prime spot. Seemingly everywhere I went everyone had a camera and was a “journalist” or “filmmaker” of some sort. In theory, doesn’t this democratize the process? Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? Then why isn’t it?

I found myself looking for quiet, space, solitude and my own stories. When I would encounter even a single other photographer I would head in another direction.

There were exceptions. I worked in Sicily, five times, and each time with at least one other photographer, sometimes two or three, but we were doing it because we were friends and because we were sharing cars, sharing gas money, etc. And, what we were covering was large enough we all had our own working space.

Sometimes when you work in a pack the people you are photographing will do things they would never do simply because they are getting so much attention. This can even happen when you are working solo, but in that case it is easy to just stop shooting. Getting a pack to stop is nearly impossible. When it comes to a big news event, these packs can really create a whirlwind of their own news.(Check the articles about Lebanon from a few years ago.)

The only downside to not working these events is that I have several friends in this picture, and I do miss being around them in the field. But, I see them “off the field” so it works out.

All I know for sure is that I’m a “quiet” photographer. I think there is an upside and a downside to this. The upside is peace of mind, and quiet reflective moments on MY negatives, moments that ONLY exist for me and no one else in the world. Think about this. When I work on stories, I’m the only one there, and nobody else on the entire planet has what I have. The downside, depending on your point of view, is the lack of interest in quiet moments. Loud places tend to get more attention, but even so, when I look at my future, I see more quiet, less noise.

I think the real signature photographers don’t work in a pack, never have, never will. And I’m not referring to myself here, just others of more important historical significance. Their work requires more time and a different concentration applied in a different direction than the news photographer. Think AM vs FM radio waves. Great news photography is a fantastic thing, but again, I think a very small percentage of those in the pack are doing great news work. Maybe it comes down to motive?

I keep waiting to see signature work from Haiti that shows me a relationship between photographer and community but I have yet to see it….and I’ve been searching. Granted, it’s early days and it’s difficult to do, and perhaps I should not expect this from pack made imagery. I’ve seen work that is clearly “better” than others, but still superficial, probably due to the need to get things out as fast as humanly possible. I keep waiting for the portrait level of intimacy, and not portraits of maimed or bloodied people. I keep waiting for relationship and story telling that comes with speaking the language-even with translator-and a simplification that relays the entire picture in one image, but again, this isn’t typically what the pack provides. I’m sure it will come. The good news is that Haiti is at saturation level in the news, which has led to some great things.

What I’ve seen FAR too much of is the dead, burning rubble, heavily manipulated images of smoke and mangled bodies and tilted overly complex imagery that seems to puzzle readers but seems to be the favored snap of the modern journalism world, especially young photographers and younger photo-editors. And I see reportage from photographers who are there for a few days, fill up their drives, and have already moved on to other stories. I’m not sure what the point is other than to say, “I was in Haiti” at gatherings where a statement like that holds water. And granted, there are plenty of places where it does.(It is precisely these places that I pronounce myself a wedding photographer and watch people scatter. Just a little game I play to satisfy my juvenile tendencies.)

Or contest time, when we all know that Haiti will dominate the winning portfolios. Again, motive comes into my mind. Pack areas tend to provide contest winning material. The suburbs don’t.

I’m sure at some point in my life, I’ll be around a pack once again. I’ll say hello to my friends and then go the other way, searching for my cherished solitude.

17 responses to “The Pack”

  1. Eric Labastida says:

    In 1980, Brian Eno commented about the “firehose mentality” of the American news media.

    Have you ever tried showing your work to a mostly Asian audience? I think they would love it. This assumes of course that, that culture is a quiet culture.
    I really think the only truly liberating method of making interesting pictures is the slow and arduous handmade way.

    • smogranch says:

      Nope. Never have. Would love to. I really admire many Japanese photographers, from Moriyama to Hiroshi Watanambe. And I have a real hankering to get over there more.

  2. Paul Gero says:

    Having done my share of — well, I won’t use the words we used describe it — “group journalism”, I can relate oh so well (five years in the biggest place for this style of work — DC). It’s something that was very appealing when I was younger, but the more I did it the more dissatisfying it became.

    I just didn’t want to leave a legacy of photographs of press conferences, perp walks, and politicians at microphones.

    Sure it was always nice to see colleagues and friends at events, but after a while the thrill was gone from doing this type of work.

    Now, like you, I do mostly weddings and portraits and for some that might seem like a step down from the world I once knew, but it’s actually much more personal, much more lasting and so great to be the only one there commissioned with a camera.

    The best part, I don’t have to elbow anyone with an 16-35 to make sure I get my shot…usually.

    • smogranch says:

      Oh God, speaking of perp walk. I had to do one, NASTY one, where the guy was INNOCENT. Wrong guy, and it got UGLY. I felt horrible. The upside, don’t think I ever did another one. But, I did have a string of funerals that were equally as crushing.

  3. Eric Labastida says:

    I think as a whole, we as photographers, to some extent lose our compassion and perhaps a little of our humanity when we are sometimes forced into making pictures for the man. But we were young and it was exciting.

  4. suzannerevy says:

    You know, Paul, the pictures you make today at weddings will be far more important to their audience for years and years than anything you shot in DC. I would say it’s a step up, and I don’t miss that world one bit.

    • smogranch says:

      Hey Suzanne,

      I think you’re right, but there is something about the buzz of that work, that at least for a while, or in some way, is like the drug. I didn’t do it very long, not nearly as long as Paul, but there are things I regularly think about regarding that time. The feeling of the deadline, the sound of the newsroom, the feeling that something was coming at me and I didn’t know what it was. Now I get these feelings from my own work, and by working alone. And sometimes from my wife. I rarely know where she is coming from, but nobody really does.

  5. Paul says:


    I agree with you completely. Though in the community of photographers that you and I came from there’s disdain for any thing wedding related — even if the work is documentary in nature.

    Though I suspect that has changed as of late as the old markets have gone away and oddly enough weddings are still one of those places where you have the time and appreciation from the clients.

    • smogranch says:


      Yes, there is disdain, which is one reason I’ve had to have two websites all these years, but I have to say, in the past five years I’ve had so many calls and emails from photographers who once thumbed their nose at wedding types, calling to beg for help. Their genre has gone under, due mostly to bad biz practices by photographers, and word on the street is you can get rich in weddings. But this biz has changed as well, and it isn’t what it was in 2000.

  6. suzannerevy says:

    Daniel… I know what you mean about feeling like you are on the pulse of things… a witness, which is an important role, but I always felt like “the pack” of photographers barely skimmed the surface of stories, and then vanish as quickly as they appeared after the next “hot story” like a flash mob.

    Paul… it’s a shame photographers do that to each other, ghettoize the medium, (fine art photographer vs. wedding photographers vs. photojournalists etc. etc. ) it only serves to weaken picture making in general, when it really comes down to… are you making good pictures or not?

  7. David Wissinger says:

    I have none of the experience that everyone else who has replied to this topic has, but that won’t stop me from commenting.

    Dan, I’m thinking of your prior post about the surfing photo pack and the comment you made that if everyone shows up at the same place with the same gear, won’t they all get the same shot? And what’s the point? I’ve been noticing that when I watch the news and see a swarm of photographers. Same thing.

    Joe McNally has a book out where he mentions the idea of not photographing something the instant you see it. He suggestes walking around a little to get the context of the thing, seeing it from different angles. I think this is what you mean, and it seems to me that it’s the real fun of photography.

    • smogranch says:

      Well, I think Joe has a good point, but also the luxury of not being a news person. I think the news world is moving so fast, there is no time to study. It is get there as fast as possible, shoot as fast as possible, trasmit as fast as possible and then move on. Our attention spans are getting shorter by the day.

  8. Irenee Dove says:

    Daniel; Having interned under a photojournalist for several years, (literally! lol) it so happened this man had a soul. We shot what was necessary, got it back to the money makers, the paper had what it wanted.
    Then if time allowed, & for us it usually did, went back to shoot with heart.
    Looking back on my subsequent minuscule-career, I remember eventually making the decision that the stress wasn’t worth it any longer.
    That decision gave me the time to shoot whatever, with heart… and I poor as p***.
    Having freed my soul, I’m happy to pay the price.

  9. Great read. I really enjoyed in.

    In regard to Haiti: Have you checked out Jeremy Cowarts work yet? It’s golden.

    • smogranch says:

      Don’t know Jeremy but I’ll check out the link, thank you for sending. A tough, tough deal there, and if this oil hits those shores I can’t imagine. Thanks for reading.

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