We owe this post to Andrew up near the border. No, not THAT border, the other one. The super dangerous one that protects us from the evil Canadians who have been taunting us with their farm-to-table food, bike lanes and kindness for FAR TOO LONG. I’ve voted for invasion for decades, but hey, nobody seems to be listening. I digress.
Andrew wrote and asked about photojournalism in particular, and how it’s possible for a photographer to roll up on something they have never seen before, or roll up on someone they have never met before, and walk away with solid imagery. Is this something they trained us to do in school? I think this is a wonderful question with a myriad of answers.
In short, yes. We did get training in photojournalism college, but let me back up all the way to elementary school. I began recording things in third grade. When I say recording things, based on my limited skill set at that time, I mean pen to paper, or probably more likely, pencil to paper. Number two of course. Faber-Castell. I began filling notebooks with both fictional stories and overheard conversation. Why? No idea. Just felt like I had to do it. I was a reporter without a badge, a writer without a column. But I did it anyway, and I found this a duty more than anything else. There were times I didn’t want to do it, but during those times I would be overcome with a NEED to do it.
My grandfather was a newspaper columnist for thirty years, and I’ve always wondered if perhaps I received a disproportionate amount of his DNA. Did my father have oysters that night? I have no data to support this theory.
By the time I reached middle school, I was
By sixth grade, I had a camera. A Vivitar point-and-shoot. 35mm. I was pretty small for my age, so in essence, I was ass-level with most of the adults around me. So, what did I begin photographing? Asses. Man or beast didn’t matter. I went everywhere with this camera. And I shot asses. A lot of asses. Dogs, kids, parents, strangers, family. Roll by roll I began to build an archive of the ass. I would give my mom the film and she would drop it at the tiny “one-hour photo” kiosk, go shopping, then return for the film. As far as I know, she never looked at what I was photographing. I pilfered one of those cheap, plastic photo albums we all had, tossed out the original images and began to build my
In high school, I was your typical lost loser. Parachute pants, white high tops and an Izod shirt with the collar up. Need I say more? EPIC LOSER. I was lost. My father, frustrated I was going to end up working at a human waste treatment center paid for me to go to a career counselor who literally put me through a series of agonizing tests. Day after day I was grilled about who I was, what I liked, didn’t like. etc. The only thing missing was the bare lightbulb and car battery attached to my privates. With a shudder, it came to an end and I watched as the man who tested me slowly lost his will to live. He paced and ranted. There could be only one cause. I was broken. Faulty, defective. A toy made of toxic paint. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” the man gasped. “I’ve never seen a score like this.” “Well?” my dad pleaded. “In this entire world, there are only TWO jobs that will work for your son, ONLY TWO.” “The rest of the jobs aren’t even registering on the test.” “Well, what are they?” my dad asked still with a glimmer of hope in his eye. Doctor? Peace activist? Sage? Nope. “The ONLY two jobs that he can do are
Well, well, well. So you’re saying there’s a chance? My father wasn’t thrilled, to say the least. As we drove home from the test he looked at me and said: “I think you should be an investment banker.” Ya, me the solid “D-” math student, that sounds perfect I thought. All I could think about was framing the world through my camera. My father, undeterred, put a small amount of money in an account, turned the account over to me and
I responded “Okay great, sounds cool, awesome,” then eyed just how much was in the account. Why? Did I already have an investment strategy? Why yes I did, thank you for asking. I promptly withdrew all funds, got a ride to The Camera Exchange in San Antonio Texas and bought a Leica M4P and 28mm. Dad was pissed but he also knew I wasn’t playing games. I needed the camera like I needed the air I’m breathing now.
Over the course of the next few
This was the real deal. No nonsense, “you better get your shit together” paper. The staff was seasoned. It was like Taylor showing up to Vietnam and going out with the Platoon for the first time. The new guys didn’t count. I was given a camera, lens and an assignment the first moment I walked into the building. I
The first assignment I ever had was a bomb threat. Building on campus empty. Students all standing in the parking lot. And I show up and walk right inside. The press pass on my chest acting as my shield. And suddenly the adults around me began to part. Firefighters, school admins, faculty GOT OUT OF MY WAY. I knew I was home. Not in the building about to explode. I was at home in photojournalism. I was bred to do this. A curse of all curses. The need to record. Simple as that.
I ended up transferring to The University of Texas where I got a degree in photojournalism with minors in Spanish and Anthropology.
The technical side of being a photojournalist isn’t interesting nor does it make much difference one way or the other. We were all working with the same stuff back then.
But the actual making of the photographs was NOT something they taught us. I don’t think there is anyway to actually teach this. You can encourage, and they tried from time to time, but putting yourself out there was a singular and personal experience that is part psychology, part insanity and part reading human tea leaves. I can remember the dean telling me he wasn’t worried about me becoming a photographer but that he couldn’t get some of the other students to do anything outside of the required coursework. I was a junky.
I bought a used police scanner at Radioshack and began spending my nights parked in my Landcruiser underneath the I35, listening and waiting for the mayhem I thought I needed in my life. And it came like a warm summer wind, night after night. Shootings, fires, domestic violence, car accidents, drug deals
I was noticed by the official fire department photographer who took me under his wing. Erwin taught me how to print color and how to behave at a crime scene. Erwin wore a tie, always. And he shot a Hasselblad, something I’d never seen before. I began hanging out with the fire department. The guys nicknamed me “The Black Cat,” because every time I showed up the world seemed to burst into flames. I almost died once. Coming about a foot away from a live wire that would have popped my heart like a balloon. A yell from a fire fighter prolonging my career.
I don’t remember ever thinking about food, sleep even water. I just wanted to be in the field recording. Through the crime scenes I met the Anti-Gang Unit. I asked if I could hang with them, and after filling out a form that said my parents couldn’t sue if I got killed, I was in the back of the blacked out Crown Vic cruising the streets of East Austin. It was bloody. And I loved it. Gone was the idea of “public good,” and in was “Jesus, this is fun, but am I supposed to be having fun photographing heroin addicts sitting on boxes of M203 shells?”
Let me explain how this would work. My scanner would sound off with either “box alarm” for structure fire, or a bevy of code for homicide, shootings, burglary, armed robbery, etc. I would fire up the Cruiser and aim in that direction, often times landing at the scene before any police or medical responders. Getting out with my gear set for the conditions I knew I would meet, I would first look to park where I could easily get away and where I wouldn’t get towed or boxed in if things went sideways. I would then move toward the scene, and this is where things get a bit gray.
You have to feel what’s happening. Doesn’t matter so much what you are seeing. You are taking the visuals into account but you are also judging in real-time a host of other necessities. Is the shooter still here? Is there anyone trapped in the house that’s on fire? Who are the bystanders? Are they involved and how are they going to feel when they see me? Is this an active crime scene? Are there injuries and do I need to help? And HELL YES, you are shooting the entire time, but your mind plays the revolving door of immediate decision making. Fluid, fast, adrenaline filled. Drip, drip, drip.
Case Study: Phoenix, 1996. Post Graduate.
Driving through South Phoenix when my scanner pings. The location is four blocks away.
So maybe now this is beginning to make sense. Photojournalism, perhaps more than any other genre, requires a massive amount of practice and requires the skills to deal with an ever-changing playing field. Photojournalism gets more and more difficult each year. There is more suspicion and the world now edges toward the concept of “post truth” where many of us would rather live our own fabricated version of reality than deal with the actual truth of the matter. We find it easier to believe the camera does lie.
Also remember, as a photojournalist, you don’t often win. Nobody wants you there, your work doesn’t sell advertising and the pass/fail ratio of images is remarkably low. But for those of us who have the curse, well, we just keep finding reasons to leave the house. I don’t do this work anymore,