Eighty-One Above the Fold: A Love Letter to Journalism
You know what I miss? The sound of the newsroom. There was one guy in particular, copy editor I believe, who would bang his return key so hard I could close my eyes and tell he was in the room just by the distinctive “WHACK” of that keystroke. It was noisy, the newsroom. People were active on the phones mostly because this was pre-internet, pre-micro attention span and pre-10,000,micro-story day. There were computers but there were also the aging hulks known as typewriters. Had these machines been exposed to the elements they would have been rusting, listing shells, abandoned and run-aground like freighters off the Skeleton Coast. They were a sign of not only the changing of the times, but also a changing of the foundation on which we walked.
I was new to the game, fresh out of school and just trying to claw my way in. A shiny, new photojournalism degree but no real understanding of how to be a photojournalist. Like a newborn I was somewhat at the mercy of my environment and those around me. I got lucky, mostly. There were those who rolled out the journalistic red carpet, making me feel welcome, and those who began to look for cracks in my thin facade of experience, appearance or even my brand of camera or car. I’ve always had a sinking suspicion that an unknown party helped me get my intern slot. Still to this day I wonder. I remember the whispers. “He’s driving a Toyota 4×4, he’s a rich kid.” I guess you could say that both were true, but only in a relative sense.
Me circa 1993, somewhere in Northern Mexico. Photo: The one and only DH.
What I was with absolute certainty was nervous, inexperienced, driven and hungry. There was no question about making it or being a photographer. In my mind that was an absolute certainty. Everything else was a middle shade of gray. The staff was large, the budgets high and the missive of management sloping gently, and at times not-so-gently, toward the conservative side of things. I was put on the 3PM to 11PM shift which gave me an effective deadline of about 7PM. Outside of a UFO landing on the sports arena, if something happened after 7PM, odds were it was not going to make the paper. My little foray into journalism was during the “film days” as we like to refer to it now, which meant a daily stop at the locked drawer which contained the lifeblood called Fujichrome 100, still the best 100-speed color transparency I’ve ever used. This film was dirt cheap and capable of being pushed two stops without a color shift or significant increase in grain. The photography department was also seeing it’s share of change. The paper was transitioning from transparency film to negative and the first rumblings of digital were emerging in the budget meetings. I was in love with color at the time and transparency film, when exposed correctly, something easier said than done, offered the most brilliant palette around.(Still does actually.) The lab was equipped with new, cutting edge, roller-transport processors. After returning from a shoot you would use a small machine to retrieve the leaders of your exposed film, then attach the leader to a large plastic sheet perforated with sprocket holes running the length of the sides which would slowly pull your beloved little roll into the machine. For a long while I used these machines but one day discovered, tucked away in a small closet, a machine called a Wing-Lynch. The Wing-Lynch was a wet process machine that required you to roll your film on reels, like processing black and white negative, then required you to build a “dam” inside the machine, a dam that would allow just enough chemistry to cover the number of rolls you were processing. I was in love. On top of the area where you inserted your film was a array of dials akin to what a pilot looks at when going through their pre-flight checklist. In my mind the new, high-tech processors were easy but lacked control. The Wing-Lynch was like a mini-darkroom and something that could be fine tuned to offer complete, processing control. There was one other photographer who shared my love of the machine, someone I admired and someone I still admire today. He gave me critical bits of advice in regard to the machine, and suddenly I was running film at +1 1/8 or +1 2/3. For the first time I felt in control of my process, but still had a long way to go in regard to the actual photography.
At the time, still relatively new to photography, I was more enamored with the gear than I should have been. I had a Nikon F4, another 8008s and a range of lenses from 24mm to 180mm, all bought used and fairly “broken in” as they would say. Canon, zooms and autofocus were rapidly taking over the journalism world, but I couldn’t afford the new technology, so I stuck with my aging and often broken down Nikon gear.(Finally sold entire Nikon setup and switched to Canon at the end of my newspaper gig.) At the time I thought a lot about my gear, FAR too much actually, but was still delusional enough to think it was a key component of my envisioned future success. During those times I would cover a news event, or sporting event or anything else where other photographers were present I found myself shooting but also looking at their gear, as if maybe a piece of red tape here or there, or a different belt pack would make me a better photographer. I also began to study the other photographers, dozens of them, and their gear, but ultimately what kind of photographs they were returning with. I realized that arguably the best photographer was using equipment that had to be at least twenty-years-old and that I should probably just forget about gear and get on with it. Most of the staff had been at the game for a long, long while. Each had a style, a look, a feel and each fell into a category based on their skill set, age, history and probably preferences. I think the general idea was that everyone did everything but that really wasn’t the case. There were long term project people, sports people, fashion people and generalists. There were those, like me, working graveyard, and those who were done by about ten in the morning. One of the most intriguing figures was also the eldest and told me stories of segregation, curfews and being armed while on assignment. There was interaction in the newsroom, but if you wanted face time with photographers the darkroom was the place to be. Photographers would gather in the small lunch area and wait for their film. After your film was “souped” you cut it up in strips, made your edit and then ultimately scanned then printed (color copy) your one or two images. After your edit was made you typed your captions and turned in your work. I was told if I misspelled a name I would be asked to leave and not return. Attention to detail was part of the journalism world, something I was both fearful of but also had great appreciation for. I’d been conditioned to it, to some degree, by my time in school and my journalism specific classes where a mistake in written material, something deemed a mistake by the AP Stylebook-the BIBLE of journalism writing-would result in an automatic “F.” We wrote each and every word as if our life depended on it.
This was the end of one era and the beginning of another. I’m sure each paper had their own style, but this was a somewhat “hands off” place. We had a picture editor, someone that was very helpful to me, but we were responsible for making our own edits, most of the time, which added a bit of pressure but also made us better photographers. A generation before there were full-time picture editors. Photographers would return from the field, process, then sit with their editor on a daily basis, pouring over images, fighting for some, sacrificing others. The time for this type relationship was rapidly disappearing. Picture editors were beginning to be let go and the volume of news was increasing. Long-term projects were beginning to be fewer and further between, and the USA Today style of paper had landed with a sonic boom and the dust had yet to settle. There was much in transition.
But for me it was all new, all grand and all uphill. The daily grind was salty and sweet. I typically arrived at the paper before my shift, just to hang out and see what scraps might be offered up. I was also given a “mobile phone” and pager. The phone was enormous and was also broken the day I received it. This phone never worked, but for some reason I carried it for over a year. The pager started out as the tiny, black and white model that ushered in the era, and ended with the giant, color version where you were technically able to write or text, but my unit never worked. I look back on it now and think this was foreshadowing of my luck with all things electronic. The truth is, at this time, I was NOT a good photographer, far from it. I was fairly normal, fairly personable and most of my images were in focus. I was also willing to shoot just about anything, anywhere at any time, which gave whoever was working the photo desk an outlet. That’s it. That’s what I was. An outlet. A last minute portrait, a brush fire, a high-profile funeral where an extra body was needed. (no pun intended) Each day was a complete unknown. I would enter the photo area and check the basket containing my assignments. Some days there was a single sheet and other days there were several. These assignments were the planned shoots, but as you know, news waits for no one. Most days felt very chaotic with last minute requests, tricky situations and the dreaded 3PM URGENT page for “wild art” which is a random photograph that requires no story, survives only on it’s visual elements, and is basically used to fill a hole in the publication after someone fell asleep on their design job. Speaking of pages, within months of these pagers arriving, the idea of a “911” page became a reality. Hypothetically, the “911” page was an urgent page, one that should really be paid attention to, but like all things of this nature, within weeks every single page I received was a “911.” If I didn’t respond immediately the “911” pages kept coming in rapid fire mode. I remember driving through a neighborhood at high-speed, swerving around cars, kids and random debris as I punched the roof of my truck and yelled at the top of my lungs, tachometer redlining as my broken mobile phone failed in its duty to allow me to return my urgent pages. The feeling of the pager buzzing on my hip became an automatic blood pressure control. A vibrating hip meant an exploding heart.
Although I had worked at smaller papers before this time, this internship was my first taste of the big boy newspaper world. The paper was large, covered the entire state as well as international issues. It was immediate “sink or swim,” and at the end of my first WEEK I was asked to get on a plane, fly to a location I had never been, and complete my first “foreign” assignment.(Alabama) The photo editor asked “Think you can handle this?” I said “I don’t know.” He said “Go home, have a beer and relax.” The paper had to do some string pulling to get me a rental car because I wasn’t old enough to rent one. I was given a bag of lighting gear, but when I got home and began to attempt to figure out how to use it I realized it was a bag of broken equipment. I took the gear anyway thinking I might find a use for it, or perhaps it would miraculously heal itself and I would be a hero, lighting some dramatic scene like the cover of a Danielle Steel novel. I had never done anything quite like this, so when I got to the location, instead of being the investigative reporter I should have been, I just found the first cop I could find, asked him where things were and he literally told me to follow as he drove me around and gave me the lay of the land.
This was my formative time as a budding photographer, it really was. I knew nothing but was rapidly learning, and I think rapidly improving. The other photographers were my guides, offering suggestions, advice and even precise details in regard to what a particular assignments would offer. Remember, some assignments pop up each and every year, and if someone had worked at a paper for any length of time, it was entirely possible they had done the same assignment multiple times. One day I received an assignment to photograph a Latin American dance troupe. A long-time staffer pulled me aside and said “Okay, here is what you do, 24mm, from the balcony, slow shutter speed, DONE.” I realized it was nice to have the advice, but preconceiving what I would encounter was the wrong idea because nothing was what I expected, and my preconceptions could also be called “delusions of grandeur” especially when an assignment was to photograph three city workers in a windowless room under florescent light.(On 100-speed film, +2, with magenta filter and green gel on strobe.) There was also a healthy competition between photographers. The paper I was working for was one of two papers owned by the same company working out of the same darkroom. One was the morning paper and one was the afternoon, at least I THINK that’s how it worked, and even though they were owned by the same company they were in direct competition with each other. They also had different editorial policies and different looks, feels and styles. As a photographer you wanted to make great images, satisfy the bosses and the public, but if you could stomp the competition in the process it was all that much better. I was never that competitive and got along with both staffs relatively well. There were certain photographers who were so interesting, so good and so fun to hang with or shoot against. There were “wild art” specialists who could pull a picture out of their ass within blocks of the paper. One photographer, a solid sports shooter who worked for the competing paper and someone who knew I was a terrible sports photographer, approached me before a pro basketball game and said “Okay rookie, you shoot the entire game, I’m going to shoot ONE FRAME, then we are going to compare negatives and whoever wins gets the other guy’s paycheck.” I sat court side, panicked, as he sat in the first row eating popcorn and laughing at me. There were spot news junkies who worked the police scanner like magicians, materializing at fires and crimes scenes before anyone with a badge. These front line types would return to the paper smelling like smoke, or soaked in water or caked in mud with a gleam in their eye and tragedy on their negatives. Journalism was a drug. There is no other way to describe it. As one staffer said to me, “You live in one year what most people do in ten.”
As I navigated my new world I began to learn. I made many, many mistakes and also made a few good images, images that created mini-tremors within the paper, or the audience, only to fade away rapidly as the next day’s news crept up and in. When you made a solid image a local journalism instructor would cut it out of the paper and mail it to you with his thoughts and suggestions. I also began to learn about journalism and things like policy and slant, yes slant. I realized there were photographs the paper would run and others they would not. I also realized that there was a daily 3PM meeting with the powers that be, and that meeting, in great part, determined what the news would be. I realized what we were offering was a version of the news, our version, and that the paper was dependent on advertising. I learned about compromise.
One day I went to lunch with the intern from the competing paper, a guy I really liked and someone who is still in journalism today. We took my truck, so he piled his gear in the tiny space behind the seats. Returning from lunch I looked out the passenger side window and right outside was a guy with a gun holding it on another driver. I stammered with excitement as we both dug for our gear. In the confusion the other photographer grabbed my gear and began shooting, so I grabbed his and blasted away. I left my truck running, in traffic, jumped out and started shooting. We realized the guy with the gun was a cop and the guy in the car was an alleged bad guy. We didn’t care. Nothing mattered but the photographs. Slowly the driver’s window rolled down and as the ink black tint slipped away out came tiny arms and hands of a small child, crying, putting his arms in the air as he too surrendered to the police. It was simply a visual, mathematic-style word problem. Driver + boy + hands in air + crying + cop + gun = GREAT PHOTOGRAPH. I didn’t feel bad and didn’t think about the problems of the inner city, but what I did think about was the photograph, the reaction and the potential accolades, but there was one problem. The the paper wouldn’t run it. Our competing paper did and they ran it well, gave it space, celebrated the moment and the realities, but our policy makers decided it was too risky, too controversial and I’m guessing might not lead to more advertising dollars from things like golf courses and tourism offices.(I’m guessing here.) This was not a significant defeat in my mind, just something to be factored in to the realities of my position and who I was working for.(US magazines don’t run images of dead US soldiers, something I never really felt until opening a European magazine and seeing a double truck image of an IED blast in Afghanistan.)
As the months passed I began to take an interest in the dramatic. I dug out my ancient police scanner and another photographer helped me program it. After my daily assignments were completed I would aim my truck south on Central Ave and drive into the underbelly of the city. I would pull over, turn off the engine, turn on the scanner and wait for the mayhem to begin. I was suddenly privy to a buffet of awfulness. Suicides, homicides, domestic violence and the seductive beauty of fire. I got to know the police and fire units that worked that part of the city. Arriving on scene at a homicide and suddenly the police tape would be lifted up, I would be allowed inside and given access to what death looks and smells like. I was once asked to translate at a domestic violence call because the responding offices didn’t speak Spanish. I was intoxicated by this world and at one point thought I wanted to be a war photographer. I contemplated leaving the paper and flying to South Africa which was experiencing the first convulsions of the end of Apartheid. I started finding stories that gave me fears and made me question if I should be there at all. I also realized the paper had no interest in these images. I kept a file of all the images I made during these late night missions, only showing it the photo editor the day I left the paper. I remember saying something like “You know this stuff is really happening here.” Again, I wasn’t making a political statement, only offering up my confusion. My new favorite words were “shots fired” and “box alarm,” expressions used over the scanner to signify shootings and structure fires. Then one day, in the very early morning hours, I was sent to cover a homicide. As I walked up to the shack where the shooting had taken place I remember thinking “Too bad the body didn’t fall out here because the light is so beautiful.” I had begun to have an internal dialogue with myself, on a regular basis, about why I was so drawn to these strange and savage things. I had begun to doubt my own reasons and rationale. I wouldn’t describe this as a crisis, just the first hint of trouble. As I stepped into the shack I introduced myself to the commanding officer and began to visually dissect the scene. There were pools of blood. The body had been removed but the event that transpired was clearly defined by the empty shell casings, spray patterns and coagulated lakes of crimson. It was, by far, the most bloody scene I had ever witnessed. The family who lived in the shack were defending themselves from an armed intruder, but they, and their kids, were destroyed and sat near the entrance, sobbing and in obvious distress. I felt like a trespasser. In the subsequent hours the story unfolded, as did the potential use the paper was aiming toward. There was an element of promotion with everything we did. The idea is to get eyes on the work, period, end of story. This is the same for photographers who do shoot war and famine who enter this work in contests, win prizes and gain things for images of people suffering. It’s the underlying truth that is difficult to talk about but a very real part of being in business as a photographer. Suddenly I realized I didn’t want to be at these scenes any longer. I realized I could make solid images, but I felt a physical pain driven by a sense of complete and total failure as a species. I stood in the doorway of the shack and thought “For this to have happened there had to be a fundamental break down of so many different societal issues we all need to be ashamed of ourselves.” But I knew that few really cared. My own cousin had been gunned down and killed in a gang shooting, and I was painfully aware of how one shooting, one death, was like throwing an enormous rock in a dead calm lake. Yes there would be waves, but to those not directly involved, those waves rapidly became ripples and before long the lake was glass once again. I was changing, perhaps maturing in my own flawed way, and my exit plan began to take shape.
By now I had been “practicing” my photography at the newspaper level for almost a year. My internship had turned into a “We can’t hire you, but we don’t want you to leave,” type situation. I had nowhere else to go, so I was happy to stay and continue to try and learn what I was doing with a camera in my hand. As I mentioned, I had begun to have doubts, but the positive still outweighed the negative. There were things I truly loved about the job. This was the mid 1990’s and at that time the press credential and the camera really meant something. I’m sure the badge still means something today, but based on my experiences in the field now; I’m assuming that like all things traditional media there has been an erosion of power, but back then when you said “I’m with the paper,” it really commanded attention, access and respect. This was pre mobile phone, pre inexpensive digital cameras, so I rarely if ever got the “Hey, I’m a photographer too,” scenario that plays out just about every time I make images these days. The credential was a permission slip into the lives of nearly anyone at anytime for any reason. The credential represented trust. Not just anyone could work for the paper, so this guy must be someone I can put my faith in to accurately depict me, my life or my side of the story.
Gradually I took on the roll of freelancer. I began working for magazines, outside of the paper, and began to realize the magazine was the outlet I was searching for. I began assisting for several photographers who were magazine shooters and they began to help me devise a plan to make the jump. I made my first trip to NYC to see editors and agencies. I had shoulder length hair, a necktie with cameras on it and portfolio containing exactly twenty images.(No,I’m not joking.) One day I met someone I knew I would be with for the rest of my life. I left the newspaper world, left the state and moved on. I’m still friends with several of the photographers from the newspaper, and some are still there, something I have tremendous respect for. Working at the paper taught me many, many things. The paper was a way to truly understand a community. If you put decades into one place you can begin to understand it.
I haven’t read any newspaper in over a decade. I no longer follow journalism, or photojournalism. I can’t define any one reason specifically, but I will tell you another short story. Several days ago I went to the online version of a very popular newspaper. I allowed the browser to load the front page, then I scrolled to allow just the “above the fold” half of the paper to be visible. Then I counted my choices, my active links or options I had as a viewer. There were eighty-one options “above the fold.” It is simply too much. It is not humanly possible for anyone to consume this, including me, even if I wanted to. Journalism begs for attention and yet the modern mode of delivery makes it impossible to actually gain that attention. Stories are written, posted, tracked and if they aren’t commanding the views they are changed, sometimes shortened or replaced by something that might. Mistakes are steamrolled, retractions buried and forgotten.(My last name was misspelled in a story about me within the past three months.) We are really moving too fast to care. I also viewed several photo galleries, all of which were superficial, boring and showed no visual dexterity by the contributing photographer. There is a big difference between content and photography, and one glance at the imagery being displayed proved that content was king. There was a feature on yet another photographer using mobile phone photography in a conflict zone, something that I find truly puzzling. Not that using a phone is good or bad, only that this is STILL considered news. The entire experience reeked of desperation, of confusion and of the belief that the audience must be multitasking at all times.
There is great work being done. Still. This is only my opinion, which I’m entirely sure no one in the journalism world actually cares about. Michael Robinson Chavez from the Los Angeles Times did this story. (I only saw this story in digital form because someone sent it to me knowing my link with Peru, but I’m assuming there was a print version.) I feel like this piece is for those of us who eat lunch and actually speak to the person we are sitting with instead of staring mindlessly at our phones. When I see a good piece of journalism it makes me feel so good and immediately brings me back to every single positive aspect of my brief encounter with the field. Just a few days ago I checked in on the sites of two guys I really thing are doing it right. Ron Haviv and John Stanmeyer, both of the VII Agency. There are parts of me that wish I was still playing, posted in some remote outpost with the nation’s ear to my keyboard, but I know that will never happen. I’m a believer that deep down there is still the same journalistic potential there always has been. We just need to give the audience more credit, stay out of the way, TAKE OUR TIME and give journalism a chance.
As for photojournalism, I fear the fight is about to be stopped. Photojournalism is being given a standing-eight-count and about to be TKO’d due to our own electronic cleverness. In its current form it still has a sluggers chance but really lacks a power punch. There are exceptions to this rule, but in general it isn’t working because it’s too much about the now. Yes, journalism and photojournalism has both the time and news element, and always has, but the impact of the now is what has changed dramatically. For me, photojournalism is currently about the long term in a world unable to spend the time to understand even the short term. Good photojournalism isn’t afforded the time to be appreciated, so it waits like a virus in the annals of history, waiting for someone a generation from now to happen upon it, and ultimately perhaps add meaning to it. The skittering, twittering masses just don’t allow it enter their brains at the level it requires. Let’s hope all those ones and zeros in hard drives and laptops stand the test of time. Photojournalism is now about the book. Breaking news is old news a day after it breaks, but books are nearly eternal.
Telling stories has been in my blood since elementary school when I began carrying a journal and writing short stories. I also, for some strange reason, began writing down overheard conversation. Perhaps I missed my calling as a spy. All these years later I’m still afflicted. I shoot, write, print, record and then do it all over again, the only audience being the feeble number of you who will see this post here on this blog. I would be doing these things without the blog, without any audience because it’s really, still, the only thing I know how to do. I wish the best for journalism, and photojournalism, but it’s difficult to pay much attention these days. I’m as guilty as anyone in regard to the attention span, just see my post from a few days ago. And if you check this post for grammar, spelling and punctuation you will realize that any progress I made in school has long since been forgotten.
But I hold out. I hold out for the promise of it all. I hold out for that one good piece that changes our lives. I close my eyes and wonder where we would be without it.
UPDATE: Since writing this draft I have overheard and witnessed a few interesting things. I just heard a major on air journalist say “God, what has happened to the media,” in disgust as he covered the angles of a recent news story and how the idea of holding the middle ground is a thing of the past, and this is someone who actually has a bit of credibility. I also got my hands on a newspaper. HOLY S*IT, it felt like I was standing in a puddle of glue. There were TWO options to read above the fold. TWO. How many? TWO. Now I was a captive audience at the time, but I read both articles and I also looked at the photographs and read the captions. A much easier way to consume content, and certainly more peaceful. Third, print is not only NOT dead, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. ANYONE who tells you that print is dead is either so hopelessly out of touch, a lifer geek or is selling technology. The print/digital battle is PRECISELY the same as the lame ass battle of technology geeks running the halls of photography yelling “film is dead” because THEY have chosen not to use it any longer. People, there is no line in the sand. There is no either or, and to be frank, I’ve never ever found a photographer who says “film is dead” who actually makes interesting work because anyone who focuses on the how isn’t that interesting to begin with. Harsh? Maybe, but it’s true. And finally, I miss journalism more than I admitted before. What I miss is the simple power of words. I watched a documentary about Hunter Thompson, something I had seen before, and was once again reminded of the power of an individual voice. You can sit in a cabin in Woody Creek, Colorado or Santa Fe, New Mexico and change the world. We all have equal access to roughly the same words yet only certain people hold the keys to put them in the right order. This is intensely interesting to me, and I’m guessing something I will at some point explore further.