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.

The Great Deluge


Four days of Southern California rain.

Haiti is in big trouble. It was in trouble before the quake and now it is in critical trouble.

We all know this now, and we knew it very soon after the deadly quake hit this small Caribbean island.

But after visiting one of the global news sites, and seeing that they had 33 different stories and 23 different films, all about Haiti, all located on the homepage, I was confronted with a question I couldn’t answer.

Is this too much coverage? Is this beneficial, or like my tiny piece of California soil, has it reached the saturation point?

We now have the ability to cover world events in real time, which initially, and in most cases, is still viewed as a great thing. I agree, in some ways.

One part of me says, “The more the better.” “Haiti is in big trouble the the more attention we give this story the more benefit, the more aid will pour in, and it will be impossible for the world to ignore the situation.”

But I’m not sure this system is working.

When I hit the news site that had all these stories, you know what link I clicked on? Guess. Come on, guess.

I clicked on the Golden Globe winners. I did. And frankly, I’m not interested in the Golden Globes, the Oscars, any of that stuff. Nothing wrong with it, but I just don’t follow it. So I was really surprised when I found myself staring at a complete list of winners.

What happened to me was total overload of the Haitian news story. And I AM interested in Haiti. I AM interested in the region. I AM interested in following the story. I AM interested in the photography emerging from the story.

But it was too much. It was short attention span news.

I turned on the television, the first night the networks landed, en mass. Here were lines of reporters on the ground with very little to say. They would pass the mic back and forth and basically explain what they saw, but in most cases they really had little to nothing to add. I just wondered why all of them were there, and how much of the annual news budget were they spending on this one story.(And then two days later some of these same people are hosting cooking segments on the morning shows.)

Wouldn’t it be better to slow down, get the story, secure a few facts, do some EDITING and then present what you know in ONE clear, concise report?

Instead I got a Twitter-feed-like shotgun pattern of reporting. It had little to no effect. Again, I KNOW this situation is horrific, so I don’t need the play by play. I need the facts.

Day One: 100,000 dead
Day Two: 50,000 dead
Day Three: 200,000 dead

All over the map. But I wonder why report this in the first place. We know there are many dead, so why throw around numbers when you have no real idea what you are talking about, and these numbers are impossible to verify.

Look, I don’t have an answer here, I’m just wondering if I’m alone in this. I keep thinking to myself, “No, this coverage brings attention.” But again, I’m not sure it is working like we think it works. Do other people turn off to this?

And as for the photography, the same applies.

Day one, we were flooded with cell phone imagery. Its horrible quality, but at that point it’s not about quality, it’s simply information.

A day later, the “real” photographers arrive, and the imagery looks much the same but the quality level of the imagery, the resolution, the sharpness, etc, gets better.

Day three and on, the photographers land in platoon strength and now all bets are off. Every single day we are blanketed by hundreds, thousands, if not tens of thousands of images from every possible angle. Again, much of this imagery looks alike.

And here is where the pendulum shifts.

By now there are people on the scene with the ability to give us more in depth reportage. Perhaps they are photographers, journalists, with a history in Haiti, and IF GIVEN THE TIME, MIGHT have the ability to tell us what is really going on. But based on the modern news cycle, they too are rushed, and contribute little more than similar photos, stories, that we have already seen.

For me, I would love to say to this small group of people, “Please, take your time, get the story, get what you need, take the time to edit, find the best way to present it and then bring it to me(as in publish it).” “I will stop what I’m doing and give you one hundred percent of my attention.”

But again, this doesn’t happen. What does happen is dozens, if not hundreds of more carbon copy news stories land in the multitude of information channels.

It’s a very strange situation because in some ways what I’m asking for is more thoughtful, perhaps more beautiful work to be created from a horrible situation, but in the end, I think this is what will deliver the most impact, far more impact that the current style of heavy rain.

I’ll give you an example, and I’m pulling this out of my butt, so hang with me.

Back in the early 1980’s, part of the Sahel, or perhaps all of the Sahel was in the grips of a major famine. A photographer named Sebastiao Salgado decided to go and see for himself what was happening. He went on his own, at least I think he did, bulk rolling his own film, living a tough existence.

Now I’m guessing here, but I would imagine he was on the scene for at least a month, perhaps more, shooting, traveling, compiling images. And if I had to guess, when he returned to Paris or New York or wherever he was living, it took another few weeks, months, to collect the work and then…..release it.

Now this photographer is not a spot-news photographer, a front line war photographer, but that is partly what I’m getting at.

Maybe there were other photographers on the scene, wire service people putting out images in rapid fire, but the work that had the REAL IMPACT was the black and white work of Salgado. It is the ONLY work I can remember from that story. I remember seeing it for the first time and freezing because it was so powerful I could not look away. It was thoughtful and presented well.

I would imagine he didn’t send, transmit or publish anything during the time he was there, so you could say, “Well, if he had then perhaps the world would have known about the situation earlier and perhaps fewer people would have died.” That’s a good angle, but I would imagine there WERE photographers doing this….so where was the impact?

There is another layer to this.

So now Haiti is flooded with media personal, and I mean flooded. I would imagine a HUGE percentage of annual budgets are being spent on this story, and maybe that is a good thing. I asked another photographer who had been there why this was happening, why this story was being attacked in such mass and the answer was, “Because they think they can win a Pulitzer.” I’m not gonna touch that one, but it is something you have to consider.

But the real problem with this is when people blow their stack and attack a story like this, it typically doesn’t last long. You hear tales of “image fatigue,” and Haiti is about to experience this.

Then, when the time comes to really solve the situation the world is completely burned out on the story, and the media outlets don’t have the budget remaining to keep covering the story at the depth it needs to be covered.

So you have the NGO organizations suddenly becoming the only way for journalists, photographers, etc to gain access and make work. Most of these folks are working for free, or working for wages that are below poverty level, which contributes to the limitations placed on them. And you see the cycle we have created.

The photographer Sara Terry created her Aftermath Project based on this concept. Just because the bullets stop flying or the Earth stops shaking doesn’t mean the story is over.

I think it is completely unrealistic to think this is going to change anytime soon, but I for one am really growing tired of the superficial, super fast bombardment of information that seems to increase on a daily basis.

When is enough enough?

Fingers crossed for Haiti.