YET ANOTHER bad week in an already grim decade for legacy journalism.
A couple of days ago, the Chicago Sun-Times laid-off its entire photo staff. The next day this news was followed by the sound of the other shoe dropping: Freelanced work. But too — and much more chilling — was word that staff reporters would be “trained” to shoot their assignments using — yes — their iPhones. It made my stomach ache.
Quickly, I sent messages to a couple of close friends who are truly gifted, fearless photo-journalists; both of whom have helped me out in the darkest thickets of a story that was either too abstract or too obtuse for me to figure out what might best visually convey the heart of the story I was collecting string on — the story I was telling.
In the trenches with you, the best of them are already in your head. Then they up the ante, teaching you something that you didn’t know, even though it was right in front of you.
As writers, we deal with a spin of moving targets when we go in to report a story. We’re getting a sense of the layers: the story as it’s assigned; the story as it evolves through the interview. There is also a subject’s willingness (or unwillingness) to reveal, the shadings that come with each source’s perception or understanding of what happened — in other words, the truth as close as we can get to it. That’s not counting going back and sorting through all of it: fact-checking and then putting those facts, quotes, asides together into a narrative that answers a reader’s questions and keeps them moving through the piece. And now add to that, you want me to figure out how to elegantly articulate all of that in visuals?
This is why I count on the photographer — to convey or enhance the part of the piece that words can’t, to interpret the part of the story (or layer of a person) that they may not have revealed.
I was reminded of this a few months back when I was on an assignment. This was a straight-forward piece. A profile. I knew that the publication wasn’t going to assign a photographer and that we were going to have to ask for “hand-out” art — free images that publicists or the subjects themselves provide. (Something a mere five years ago, at this publication, would never have been acceptable or tolerated.)
But as the interview bloomed, found its momentum, a great moment jumped out. I saw it instantly as an image: the light, the composition, the relaxed expression and form finally at ease — the room and its context also held history and another layer of the story. Of course, I had my camera, tucked into my reporting bag. I travel with it always now. But I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of conversation, I’d worked to hard to get it moving. We’d hit a nice comfortable stride — so good that the interview was extended to a tour and then a part-two where I later would procure information that no other reported had. I hadn’t interrupted the flow which allowed the interview to run its natural course.
Yesterday, I was conducting an interview in the northern reaches of the San Gabriel Valley for a piece, and the person I was interviewing brought up the Sun-Times photographers’ firing. (Everyone of late seems to want to take the temperature of journalism’s corpse — wondering what’s left of it — just what it is I might do.) It led to a discussion of logistics and juggling and appropriateness. I told him my story about being on the fence about pulling out the camera — but ultimately the payoff was better for the story. “Trust your instincts,” he said. “I’d have done it at the end or not at all.” And I explained that by the end that expression, the light, the “thing” I’d seen was gone — that moment had passed — what I would have captured afterward would have been just a stand-in for that moment.
This is why I have always valued another set of eyes — the expert who would have been in place to see that moment too while I was busy pulling out history and anecdotes and color. That photographer would be telling a story in tandem, getting at the very thing I’m always trying to get at in words and oftentimes, I have to say, not within the luxury of un-scrolling column inches, but truly in a fraction of a second.