The Photographer Drone

This post is really a continuation of the last one because I forget something I wanted to mention. Where we are today with all this technology is actually slightly back from the brink of where we were once headed. Believe it or not.

In 1996 I covered one of the United States political conventions. At least I think it was 1996. San Diego. This was not my first convention. In 1992 I covered the Houston event and made some of my first wire service images, photos that were picked up and used in varying outlets around the world. 1992 was all film, not just for me, but for everyone I was working with. We shot color negative, then breached the protest lines to enter the convention center where the wire services were processing film. A quick edit, one frame chosen, a caption written and boom….you were golden.

By 1996 everything had really begun to change. Digital was the special of the day and the first real digital machines were landing on the news industry. Not many people had these beasts, and when I say “beast” I mean it. These cameras were unwieldy and were about the size of a small child but much harder and lacking in any human features. I remember seeing the cameras, mostly on wire service photographers and thinking “God, my back hurts just looking at those things.”

Over the short, few days the convention unraveled I spent the bulk of my time OUTSIDE the San Diego Convention Center. Shooting inside was okay, buttoned up tight in all the right political ways, but outside was where the chaos was, and being a young photographer that I was I thought I needed for great images. There were many other photographers around, both well established and others like me, completely unknown. I met Philip Jones Griffiths walking on the street, and he and I had a wonderful, in depth conversation about photography and things like Magnum, which at the time I viewed as being the Holy Grail of photography. He told me what I am always harping to you, “Shoot your own pictures.”

Late in the day I looked west into the setting sun and walking toward me was the outline of a guy I knew all too well, a wire service photographer who I had spent some time with in other locations. I not only recognized his shape, but also the shape of two, brand new, digital beasts hanging from his shoulders. As he walked up I began to speak but was met with his raised arm and a tilt of head, his index finger pointing at the sky as a warning for me wait before I continued my communication. At first I was puzzled but then I noticed a TINY headset wrapping around the back of his head with tiny earbuds nearly invisible to anyone not searching for them. He was talking to someone.

Minutes passed as he continued his “That crazy guy is talking to himself” cellphone-like conversation with an unknown caller, something that is so common today but not common at all in 1996. Finally he turned to me and said something along the lines of “I can’t believe this is happening.” “What are you talking about?” I asked. “What is going on?” “He’s telling me what to shoot.” “Who?” I asked. “My boss,” he said. “I don’t get it,” I said.

“I have this little headset and he’s in my ear asking me what is in front of me, what I’m seeing, and then he’s telling me what to shoot and how to shoot it.” My first thought was “Geez, what if that little headset was a little camera and his boss could actually SEE what he is seeing?” A virtual, real-time photographer being controlled by some dude in an office somewhere.

You know what this was people? This was our brush with………THE PHOTOGRAPHER DRONE. Remote controlled. Kept alive on fast food and bad coffee and sent into the most insane or mundane locations the world has to offer. Make him, or her, sign a contract, own their rights, underpay them and on top of it all you get to constantly tell them what to do. Perfect. Unless you happen to be the photographer.

I wish I was making this up, but unfortunately this is a true story. The good news is we pulled back from this brink. Remember, at the time we were hearing all the same shit we hear today about this technology. “It’s better than oxygen or gold.” “Women swoon for it.” The talk reminded me of the snake oil salesman in The Outlaw Josey Whales who is promising his elixir will cure all diseases, depression, a hangover and hunger and Josey spits a huge glob of tobacco on the guy’s pristine white jacket and asks “How does it work on stains?” I’m not sure who it as but someone spit on someone else and slapped people to their senses.

We need not look long or hard to find these things in our history, and ten years from now we are gonna look back and CRINGE as some of the things we are professing. Um, like “You won’t survive if you aren’t on social media.” There are many, many more I will skip for now.

Our industry is filled with bat shit crazy people, which is what makes it so interesting an so much fun, but these bat shit crazy people can work for you or against you. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize in real time, but just go with your heart and your gut. Look, my dad once took me to a underground shooting sport when I was very young. I could really shoot, still can, and he knew it, so he took me to this underworld go round and BET ON ME. I was in middle school and was thinking “This feels like something I can never tell anyone about.” Just the feel was enough to tell me this was not PTA night material.

So when I look around today and see former stills only photographers juggling multiple duties I feel sorry for them…kinda. There are those who LOVE it, and power to the people, good on ya and have fun, but I know for a fact there are A LOT of miserable, frustrated photographers out there. And for those of you wondering how I know this, I get emails from these people EVERY SINGLE WEEK. Their frustration trickles down to me, and then I burden all of you with it! My blog, my rules! There is no shame in “only” being a still photographer, and there is no shame in NOT being a photographer, or being someone who loves photography and makes photos because they enjoy it. In fact, these folks have A LOT of advantages, but I will leave this for another day and another post.

Now the truly epic news is that my friend, as far as I know, is STILL with the wire service and that makes me intensely happy. He’s made a true career out of it, and I have great appreciation for that.

10 responses to “The Photographer Drone”

  1. I remember the 96 convention. That’s the point where I met the Milnor known as Dan. I too talked with PGJ about Magnum. To this day he gave me the best advice ever to be given to a greenhorn photographer. Shoot YOUR pictures, & the world will take care of itself. Period! I have always lived my photographic life by this credo. And you know what? I still get an emence amount of pleasure from photography 24 years down the road. Oh yeah, & I still use the same “starter” Leica that I bought at a used camera shop in 1994.
    There Are many creative outlets. Find one and stick to it. Your life will be better for it.

  2. Reiner says:

    The drones wil stay. Remember 1984. Orwell was precisely right in predicting our society. The result is I’m not even watching the photo’s in/on the media anymore. I just read the words in the newspaper/websites. I don’t care anymore. Visual data overflow. TV is going the same route, too much useless and crappy visuals combined with non-essential small talkers. Thank you drones,thank you drone commanders. You made words become more important to me. Maybe just the opposite of what you where heading for. I could’t care less…

    • Smogranch says:

      Ya, you gotta pick your battles. This is why I really don’t look at work online. I’m trying to follow the missing plane story at the moment, and I find myself having to outthink the main news sites which are just delivery vessels for advertising. You want something quick, “Oh wait, sit through this ad first.’ The copy is SO BAD, and just a rehash of what they posted thirty minutes before, and is comprised of microbits of other stories.
      One story I saw had THREE retractions. In my day that was three job openings. I told my wife, ignore news issues till the books come out.

  3. Reiner says:

    Dan, I still think the non-tabloid newspapers and their paid for view/read subscriptions in Europe (eg The Guardian,Le Monde in UK and France and De Morgen,De Standaard in flemish Belgium) bring the facts and a good background story as it should. There’s a lot to read and to learn from them. It’s the free internet crap -which pays the bill they say- which is horrible, text and visuals included. Tv is another story. I can’t tell for the usa but for Belgium and for me it’s evolved into the go-between of free internet crap and worth viewing. Problem is a lot of people only get the free meal on the net or tv, which can be frightening. I must admit tv is gone for me as a news medium, I prefer radio, yes the almighty radio, be it streaming or free to air or satellite… spoken word is good enough.

  4. lionelB says:


    One of the problems with “the news” is the urge of the media to fit a story into a standard narrative. The mass market thrives on dropping items into nice familiar boxes. The plane story is a classic example. A novelist might approach it very differently. The media narrative of ‘plotters’ might easily become one of ‘fall guys’ in their hands. Sometimes the novelist is much closer to the truth than the newspaper hack.

  5. Tom says:

    I guess it’s like any new technology. We try and see how to apply it and then look at the results and determine if it worked. In the case you mention I can’t see how it would work all that well although I can understand why some people might think it was a good idea. Conceptually maybe it would solve some problems but in actual use I can’t imagine how a photographer could keep a proper focus with someone talking in his ear. It’s like driving with someone taking in your ear….and we all know how great that works.

    • Smogranch says:

      I think what we replaced it with was the mobile phone, and as you know, many of us have those things to our heads FAR too frequently.

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