Creative: Why Photojournalism?

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El Paso, 1990. One of my first real photojournalism images. Leica M4P, 28mm, TRI-X.

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 a news, map, book, and adventure junky. My cousin Bard came to visit. Bard was and is one of the only true adventurers I have ever met. He built a kayak with a sail mount and sailed from the top of the Ohio River to South America over a period of three-years. He was tan, spoke Spanish and was the first person I ever heard utter the words “Tecate with lime.” Bard was exotic. He called me “DR” which stuck and was my nickname for years. When Bard came to visit he pounced on a set of books my parents had. These books were a series, the name of which eludes me, but they were kept in the room of the house that NOBODY was allowed to enter let alone borrow a book from. I remember Bard keeping these next to his pullout bed in our basement. Reading late into the night. I wanted to BE Bard and I wanted to KNOW what was in those books.

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 asstacular masterpiece. I opened with our dog Kody, from behind. Being a male he was sporting a serious pair which I thought set the tone for the entire essay. I gradually filled the entire album, casually tossed it on our coffee table at home, then waited for the bomb to go off. And it did. The grand unveiling happened when my parents had friends over and someone unsuspectingly reached over and picked up my prize. Suddenly the entire room was a rage of uncontrolled laughter, and it was because of me.

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 private investigator and………PHOTOJOURNALIST.”  

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 saidI’m going to teach you to invest.”  

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 years I found myself on a merchant marine ship where I watched a real photographer work for the first time. I’d never seen anyone move that way. I studied this guy and began to realize he was moving based on light, something that hadn’t dawned on me yet. I was locked on content, not on light, but just watching this man work was enough for me to realize I didn’t know what I was doing. I got off the ship and began to search for a place to study this field of photography. I carried my camera everywhere. Due to a superstorm of bad decisions, accidents and poor record keeping I ended up stuck at a community college for one semester. Unbeknownst me to, this particular school had the best journalism program of any community college in the United States. And guess what was part of the journalism program? PHOTOJOURNALISM.

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 was also pulled aside and given the facts of the matter. Don’t fuck around. This is serious. You are a journalist. We have ethics. We are responsible for the truth. You make a mistake and you are gone. You are on deadline and you DON’T MISS DEADLINE.

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. School was great, but perhaps not in the ways you might think. First, I made a few friends. A few. I’m not super social, but I did meet some folks I still know and folks I still respect. I learned how to talk about my work, and how to talk about the work of others. Perhaps most importantly I learned the history of my field. I learned what had already been done, by whom, and what the impact had been. Looking back on this time it feels like pure crazy. There was NO reward for us. We never spoke of fame, finance or a personal gain of any kind. None of us thought we would ever make a living with photography but most of us were cursed with the knowledge that this painful reality didn’t matter. We were gonna be photographers anyway.

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. Nikons and TRI-X for the most part. There was very little time spent on the technical side. Very little. We were given assignments and tested to see if we could handle basic timelines. Some could, some couldn’t. We learned to edit and edit again and again and again. We learned to print, to sequence and how to deliver our work. And we had to present our work to the entire class. We learned how it feels to be doubted, disparaged, disrespected and destroyed. And then we learned how to reload and take down another visual score. It was grand.

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 gone wrong and lots and lots of gang war.

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. Truck is parked, I jump out with two bodies, 24mm and 180mm. Chaos. Screaming. A car has blown through a light, been hit and then careened into a yard where kids were playing. There are bodies. Parents beyond distraught and zero first responders. (I am nearly crying even writing this now. It was bad and not something I’ve thought about in a long time.) The driver is injured. Snap, snap, I shoot wide covering the entire scene. The light sucks but I run to the other side of the scene and shoot back into the light. An adult is down on her knees screaming. I run to her and ask if she is okay. I then shoot with 180mm. The front of the car is smashed into the house. Not a great image but screaming parents or relatives in the background. My first thought is “It’s gonna be difficult getting names for my captions.” (This is cruel but true.) I also think about the paper and how they will use the images. Then suddenly my mind snaps back to the scene. First responders are arriving. Some of the bodies are alive and moving. I shoot wide, then tight, then wide. I move closer and closer. There is a balancing act with police and fire. Respect their space and they will, most often, respect yours. The scene has peaked. Protocols are being followed, staff is arriving. Ambulances are departing. I move into the middle of the scene and casually look down. I see shoes. Tiny shoes. With a body attached. “Oh fuck, there is a child under the car,” I think. And there is. And now the scene really explodes. I hear nothing. Slow motion. 180mm in my hand, standing on the patio looking down at the tiny, injured body. Full-size hand of the fireman across her chest, and there it is. There is my photograph. She is covered in dirt, sweaty and injured but beautiful and innocent in the way that only a child can be. S.N.A.P. Just one. Edges of the frame are clear. Exposure is solid. Lens focused. Perfection. Nothing else matters.

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, haven’t for years, but I still think about it nearly every day. A truly talented individual once told me, “As a photojournalist, you will live in one year what the average person will live in ten,” and still believe this to be true.

Comments 8

  1. Daniel. You had me glued to my phone reading through that post. On so many levels.

    So great that you got glimpses of your future-self during your childhood. At times I look back to see if the interests and hobbies (or really the things you couldn’t help yourself from doing as a child), lines up to who I am as an adult and what I’m doing professionally and creatively. I want to be able to see, it was part of our DNA then, and part of our DNA now, and it’s still oozing out of us.

    And I may have mentioned this before, but I believe there is a writer in that DNA of yours. Truly, I got carried along by the words that framed your imagery.

    In some ways, reading your story made me want to re-live my 20’s, as there is such a sense of discovery and momentum in that time. One thing leads to another, and another, and you keep saying yes, and the adventures continue. Sometimes you land on your feet, and sometimes you don’t. But you live and learn and it makes you who you are; and along the way, if you’re lucky, you have generous people who take you under your wing.

    Now about this photo album, any chance we can see how asstastic it is? Ha.

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      Thank you so much for saying that. I loved writing this post as it brought back a lot of memories. Relive your 20’s? How great would that be??? The photo album MIGHT still be alive. I need to check my mom’s house. If I find it Ill share it for sure.

  2. What a great read – love your writing. I learned a lot about you and the photojournalism drive. Hilarious anecdote about your career tests – hope that Counsellor heard that you actually became one. And as a Canadian, just heard the other day that there was a movement to annex Minnesota to us. Apparently some Americans think it could go. Not sure why? Anyway keep up the fab writing . A.

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      That testing was so old school. Dark, dank office. Guy in suit. Gloomy atmosphere. Typical career guidance. I think we might want to keep MN. You can have….West Virginia or Alabama. That’s only fair. Nothing against these states, but MN has too many pretty lakes.

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  3. Let’s get uncle Dan this far that he creates a book with his stories, please. Oh man, this makes me want to read another 150 pages of your adventures in the bad world. Fantastic!

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