The email arrived about two weeks before a major annual conference of news photographers. Someone had dropped out — would I come and speak?
I began my career in journalism as a photographer, selling images to Time, the Globe & Mail and others. I had three magazine covers while still in high school. But being asked to speak to others seeking wisdom and advice, while a terrific honor, is always scary. What if I had little or not enough?
So I did what I always do, I wrote out notes — never a formal speech — and started practicing and timing it to the minute. I had 75 minutes, and decided to fill 45 of it with my advice, and 30 minutes for questions. What if there weren’t any? What if no one came? I’m semi-known as a writer —- but not a known quantity in this world.
It was great to have Jose there (collecting an award and giving feedback on portfolios) to introduce me and smile from the back of the room.
Tables full of Canon and Sony and Nikon equipment for sale…
About 50 people attended my presentation — a wide range of ages, men and women at all levels of their craft — even some sitting on the floor. So that felt good.
We talked about how to pitch — the scary and inevitable process every creative person must face if they are to sell their work into a highly competitive marketplace. We talked about rejection. About how to find ideas.
Afterward, to my delighted surprise, a line of a dozen people waited patiently to say hello and ask more personal advice. One was a college student and one even a high school student — both young women.
It’s such a privilege and joy, certainly when I have no children, nephews or nieces, to feel my insights are valued and can help the next few generations.
I came away with fistfuls of business cards and, I hope, some new friendships. I was deeply moved by the talent I saw and met, like Moriah Ratner, a talented 23-year-old (!) who had already attracted major industry attention for her images. So inspiring! Of course, she’d already worked alongside one of our New York Times friends and colleagues.
The industry of journalism — whether words or photos — really is small, so creating and maintaining a good reputation from the start is essential.
I met a Canadian from Montreal, Andrea Pritchard, who made a documentary about three of the industry’s female legends.
New York Times photographer Michelle Agins (left) and Lisa Krantz, a staff photographer for the San Antonio, (Texas) Express-News, describe their work and offer insights into how and why and when they shot some of these images. Both are 2019 winners of the Sprague Award, the highest award offered by the National Press Photographers Association. The image above is by Agins.
Like all conferences, some of the best conversations happened in the hallways and the bar and the bathroom as we dug deeper into why we were there and what we each grapple with — whether health issues or money or lack of support or sexism or where to find ideas. The medium matters less than how we can excel in it.
To get ready to do my talk (and I’ve done lots of them), I read this great new book by client/friend Viv Groskop, a UK-based stand-up comedian, author and executive coach. The book is Own The Room and it’s full of helpful, smart advice for women who can feel terrified of public speaking — even as it can hugely boost our careers.
It’s a life that makes intellectual, physical and emotional demands specific to the business.
We, at our best, share a clear (rarely explicitly discussed) set of values that resonate for those working in nations with a free press — albeit also under the heavy hand of free-market capitalism that makes even the very best job temporary.
If you’ve worked in any form of hard news journalism especially, whether photo, video, digital, print, television or broadcast, you share with thousands of colleagues worldwide the same challenges and experiences:
— balancing the need for speed, to beat every possible competitor, with the need to be 100% accurate
— discerning the many lies and omissions and distortions fed to us by the powerful into a report that, we hope, will help our audiences better make sense of their world, whether climate change, new legislation, economic issues
— working with very few resources (low pay, no assistants or secretaries or researchers)
— entering a cut-throat world where there’s always someone younger and cheaper ready to grab our hard-won spot
— knowing your value is only as great as your last story, not the prizes, awards and fellowships you’ve also collected
— having to persuade scared, dubious, wary sources to share with us their data and images to help us tell our stories thoroughly
— sometimes working in conditions that are dangerous, or merely extremely uncomfortable (heat/rain/conflict zones/war zones/the aftermath of natural disasters)
It all creates a bond that runs deep and strong, knowing that everyone in the same room gets it.
We recognize it immediately in one another, members of a far-flung tribe.
We tend to share characteristics: we’re self-reliant, funny, wary of draaaaaama, able to put strangers at ease quickly, brave, badasses, typically pretty humble, (because we all know someone who’s done similar work much better/sooner than we have!), willing to challenge any form of authority to get the story — and incessantly curious about the world, even after decades of examining it closely.
That can make meeting someone new, even one much younger or older, staff or freelance, editor or shooter or writer, as comfortable as meeting a familiar friend.
I’m the veteran of three major daily newspapers, the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national daily), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, and have written television news and thousands of articles for everyone from Reuters and bbc.com to Marie Claire.
And every day, like my colleagues, I now watch in dismay as our industry keeps firing people like me — people who know what we’re doing, people readers and viewers rely on.
In the past few weeks alone, Ontario towns lost 33 regional newspapers as they were closed down for good, and new owners fired the entire staff of the L.A. Weekly, a respected newspaper — instead asking its readers to offer unpaid work.
Wallace McNamee; photo by David Hume Kennerly
Last weekend, more than 200 veterans of our business, many of them white-haired, gathered in a church in Arlington, Virginia, for a memorial service for Wallace McNamee, one of American photojournalism’s greats.
If you’ve been looking at news photos, in any medium, you’ve seen his work; his, like many of them, were the eyes recording history: elections, assassinations, pop culture, war.
My husband, a career photographer and photo editor at The New York Times for 31 years, knew and worked alongside McNamee in D.C., as did many of the men and women there — some editors, some competitors, all of us gathered to share their love and respect.
Colleagues and friends arrived, as we did, from far away, former awed interns now running the nation’s largest photo agencies and choosing images for its most influential publications.
Two photographers I’d never met both told me the same thing about Wally: “I was the new kid in town. I didn’t know anything and he showed me the ropes.”
Not the typical image of the sharp-elbowed, conscience-free “journalist” you may be more accustomed to.
If you maintain the skewed, ignorant and toxic notion that “all news is fake”, I wish you’d been there in that small white church, sharing the crowded pews, to witness what, at its best, our business really is about.
We recently lost — we being the global community of journalists — two women who made profound differences in the lives of their many grateful editors, colleagues and readers.
Too often, journalism appears to be a business dominated by men: publishers, editors-in-chief, front-page bylines.
Talented, brave women also shape much of what we see, hear and feel.
One, shot dead while sitting in a car in Afghanistan, was Anja Niedringhaus, 48, a news photographer from Germany; in the car with her, also shot (but recovering) is Associated Press veteran correspondent, and Canadian, Kathy Gannon.
The other, Heather Robertson, is a Canadian journalist who led a life-changing lawsuit against Canadian publishers who, in a land grab, decided to “re-purpose” thousands of articles and earn handsome profits from them — without bothering to share those profits with the writers who had actually created them and their economic value.
Two lawsuits took decades to move through the Canadian courts, but they gave many writers fantastic windfalls; I got two five-figure payouts thanks to her work, which allowed me to breathe more easily in lean times, which every freelancer faces at some point.
“Heather was a Canadian nationalist and a feminist,” says her friend and fellow writer, Elaine Dewar. “Her voice was clear, honest and rigorous in a way that was uncommon at the time.”
She embodied her grandfather’s crusading convictions outside of her writing life, too. Aware that writers were underpaid and often treated churlishly by publishers, she co-founded both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Her biggest coup, though, came in the 1990s when she became the lead plaintiff in two lawsuits against the country’s largest media corporations, including The Globe and Mail, over the electronic rights of freelance journalists. (Ms. Dewar remembers that Ms. Robertson was smart enough to be afraid of the responsibility and brave enough to ignore her doubts.) The eventual settlement of more than $11-million remunerated many freelancers for lost income and established that publishers could not simply re-purpose a writer’s work on databases or the Internet without credit or payment.
She was long accustomed to the field, and to the dangers getting to it, and back to it. She wrote an essay, ‘Emotions Speak Through Images,’ for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, in which she wrote of her compassion for civilians she met in Bosnia, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere. She said she wanted to ‘understand the situation through their eyes’ during an American raid on a house in Baghdad in 2004. But she was also struck by the youth of the American Marines, ‘just out of school, young boys.’
In a passage, she described how after the 2003 invasion of Iraq she slipped across the border from Kuwait into Basra by hiding inside a Kuwaiti fire brigade truck, then joined up with her A.P. colleagues.
“I remember watching a fierce battle around the city’s university. Shells started to land nearby, and most journalists left the scene,” she wrote. “I had just put on my bulletproof vest when another shell landed so close to me that it injured three of my colleagues. I escaped with bruises and was able to drive them to safety in our Jeep, even though it was also hit, and two of its four tires were flat. One of my colleagues, a Lebanese cameraman, had shrapnel close to his heart and was immediately operated on by a British Army doctor in a makeshift tent. We were flown out to Kuwait for further treatment. Three days later I returned to Iraq in a rented Jeep from Kuwait.”
I honestly don’t think that the AP could have covered that war without her influence. Our entire staff was raised in her image. I’m sure that even now, when they go out the door with their cameras they ask themselves “What would Anja do?” I think maybe every AP photographer has asked themselves that at one point…
“She was one of the best people I’ve ever known. I was so lucky to have known and worked with her. I’m just one of countless people all over the world to have loved Anja. We are all totally devastated,” Guttenfelder said.
It’s a fact easily overlooked — the news we read and hear and watch is brought to us by human beings with hearts.
Some of the stories they gather, and some of the very best in my view, are the ones we skip over because they’re dark, disturbing and deeply painful.
Journalists who gather this material often end up suffering from a condition known as “secondary trauma” which can cause insomnia, nightmares, anxiety and depression. It’s a form of PTSD, which soldiers experience after the violence and brutality of war. I experienced it myself after writing my first book about American women and guns, after steeping myself in reports and interviews of violence, suicide and homicide for months.
A female friend who returned from Haiti after reporting there for weeks began telling her Facebook friends she couldn’t sleep, night after night. I suggested her insomnia was quite likely the result of secondary trauma. Another female friend wrote a searing book about MRSA, the flesh-eating infection, and she too experienced the aftereffects of recounting terrible stories, receiving a Dart Center fellowship to deal with it.
Most journalists aren’t trained in any way to know that this even exists. They work in, or return to, newsrooms filled with colleagues who have no experience or understanding of the horrors they may have seen, smelled, heard or survived, and few bosses with training to recognize or handle it either.
The very compassion and empathy that leads journalists into this tough work can also leave them shattered by it.
The Dart Center is an American non-profit organization whose focus is helping journalists prepare for, and recover from, reporting stories of this nature. I admire them and the men and women who do this work.
A panel discussion is being held tonight from 6 to 8pm at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City honoring this year’s winners.
From the Dart Center website:
The New York Times received the Dart Award for “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” (John Branch, reporter; Marcus Yam, photographer; Shayla Harris, videojournalist; Josh Williams, multimedia producer.) This searing three-part investigative series tells the story of Derek Boogaard, one of the N.H.L.’s most feared “enforcers,” who died with massive brain injuries at age 28. The series reveals the consequences – physical, psychological and social – of the adulation of violence surrounding the sport.
Judges called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer” a “groundbreaking” and “exemplary piece of accountability journalism.” They praised Branch for his “masterful storytelling” and “tender objectivity,” and for focusing on “human beings, science and anguish instead of thrill, agony and defeat.” They commended the series for “taking on the sports page” and “drawing attention to sanctioned violence of fans.” Judges also recognized the far-reaching, and wide-ranging impact of the series that has made it nearly impossible for those most vested in hockey to turn a blind eye to its cruel reality and disastrous impact.
WNYC received the Dart Award for “Living 9/11,” which was presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange (Marianne McCune, reporter and producer; Emily Botein, producer; Karen Frillman, editor; Fred Mogul and Beth Fertig, reporters; Eric Leinung, Jillian Suarez, Erin Reeg, Norhan Basuni, Radio Rookies; Courtney Stein, Sanda Htyte, Radio Rookies producers; Kaari Pitkin, Radio Rookies senior producer; Chris Bannon, executive producer; Andy Lanset, original 9/11 recordings; John Ellis, composer; Paul Schneider and Jim Briggs III, mix engineers.) This hour-long documentary guides listeners through the stories of people who were deeply affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks and who are still struggling to make sense of the events. The documentary is built around a diverse range of viewpoints, capturing visceral and immediate emotional reactions to the attacks while also illuminating universal truths about 9/11’s lasting impact.
Judges called “Living 9/11” “insightful,” “hard-hitting” and “deeply sensitive,” going far beyond more conventional anniversary programs in its integration of history, science and narrative.
For anyone who loves great documentary photography — here’s its future — the four student winners, first place and three awards of excellence, from the White House News Photographers Association, whose annual gala dinner is in D.C. May 15.
The winner is Diego James Robles, just hired by the Denver Post, at 25, as a staff photographer. The awards of excellence went to three young men, two from Western Kentucky University and one from the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Their images are also powerful, moving, spectacular — see number 15 in Chris Jones’ photo-essay on a small child with cancer.
I met Diego this January when he was chosen to join The New York Times Student Institute just as he was starting to collect an astonishing pile of awards:
*White House News Photographers Association 2009 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2010
*Ohio News Photographers Association 2009 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2010
*Alexia Foundation Student Award of Excellence, March 2010
*Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles 2009 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2010
*1st Place Hearst Competition II: News/Sports, February, 2010
That’s after winning:
*Gold, Sports Feature, College Photographer of the Year, Nov. 2009
*Award of Excellence, Portfolio, College Photographer of the Year, Nov. 2009
*1st Place, Week’s Work/Student Portfolio, Sports Shooter, Aug. 2009
*Pepsi Leadership Scholarship, Ohio University, May 2009
*Ohio News Photographers Association 2008 Student Photographer of the Year, March 2009
*The California Chicano News Media Association Scholarship, Aug. 2008
*Chips Quinn Scholar, Feb. 2008
A military veteran, Diego remains calm, low-key, quiet, soft-spoken. And driven.
Here’s my interview with him:
Tell us a little bit about your history
I am originally from a suburb of Los Angeles, Torrance. When I was in the fourth grade, we moved to Orange County. I attended high school, like Tiger Woods, in Anaheim’s Western High School. My parents are both retired lawyers. My stepfather, the man who raised me, is a retired machinist.
How did you become a photographer?
Nobody in my family is a journalist but I am the first of many. Well, I got into photography when I was twenty. I was deployed with the army in Kosovo. I was slightly injured in the mountains of Serbia and I was forced to go back to our forward operating base and recover for a short time. There, a really goofy, funny army friend of mine had an old fully manual SLR camera (a big camera with interchangeable lens). He let me borrow it for maybe 10 seconds and I was automatically hooked. I thought the prism and shutter mechanism were the coolest thing ever. I immediately bought an entry level SLR on eBay and started shooting everything…except people. I think a lot of people start like this actually. My parents didn’t know for a long time that I was into photography. I think they were just worried that my job was dangerous. In retrospect, I think I was always into making images. I liked to draw and paint throughout my school days; still do a little bit. When my family went on summer vacations, I was always the photographer but my parents didn’t encourage it since I was always taking wacky pictures, mis-loading film, and jamming the mechanics in some way.
When and why did you join the military? How did this shape how you think and work?
I joined the military after high school. A very influential high school teacher of mine was a former Marine and was wounded several times in Vietnam. He showed us one of his platoon photographs, before everybody but him was killed in action. That had an affect on me. I went to Kosovo and some other places in Europe. I was deployed for close to two years but served another four or so inactive or active in some form. I have the army to thank for many of the good qualities I have and maybe some of the bad habits too. I eventually switched from the infantry to public affairs, basically the journalism/propaganda arm of the military and I learned a lot. Those guys worked hard and sacrificed their bodies for the shot. I also learned how to write which comes in handy when I apply for grants and write proposals.
Which photographers’ work do you most admire and why?
I admire a lot of different photographers out there. I admire the intimacy and cleanness of Carolyn Cole’s conflict images for Los Angeles Times. Having worked on Native American reservations, I deeply admire the photography of Edward Curtis and his devotion to the craft. Others I greatly admire are Shaul Schwarz, John Moore and Vince Musi.
What do you want viewers to take from your work?
I want viewers to feel something when they look at my work. Anything will do. Photographs don’t always have to be intimate and meaningful. To draw a laugh or a tear is a great honor. So any kind of reaction or emotion response is okay with me. Hopefully, they’ll want to see more.
What do most enjoy about shooting?
Right now I am completely obsessed with portraiture. I love to plan, execute and edit environmental portraits. However, it’s not what I do best and I wish mine were more intimate like fellow Ohio University photographer, Peter Hoffman. However, I really enjoy quirky photo-stories about people with interesting jobs and complicated personal relationships.
What do you least enjoy shooting?
I am not a fan of shooting meetings or poorly lit high school basketball games. Also I loath shooting anything about ghosts, ghost hunters or anything involving the paranormal. It’s always the same photographs of somebody looking at a “energy detection” gadget and inebitably, when the photographs are published, somebody will find a ghost in the pictures.
Tell us about all these awards!
I have been pleasantly surprised by my recent success this year. I’d always won something here or there, even in the army but this year has been special. It feels funny because all the awards are for last year’s work as a senior and I know this year’s stuff, so far, is not as good. I am also very surprised about doing well in major competitions especially since there are photographers way more talented and experienced than me.
Tell us what you learned about shooting at college
I learned most of what I know as a photographer in Ohio University. I think it was a great combination of talented passionate instructors paired with the best talent in the nation. The atmosphere was highly competitive and inspiring. Although successful and talented people will always find a way to rise to the top, I don’t think I would have been as successful, not even close, if I had gone somewhere else.
What advice would you offer to other young shooters?
The best advice anybody gave me was decide what kind of photographer you want to be. This will determine what you need to do and what kind of life you will have. As you climb the ladder and everybody works hard, has talent and is creative, you realize the separating power of sacrifice.
Why does sacrifice matter when achieving excellence?
Sacrifice is something I learned in the army. You sacrifice yourself for the well-being of the unit and the success of the mission. I sacrificed much in Ohio. I sacrificed personal relationships with friends and girlfriends. I never went out to parties and bars but not because I didn’t like my peers but because I am so obsessed with the craft of photography.
The digital revolution has turned photography and photojournalism on its head. I am a product of it. If it wasn’t so easy to take hundreds and now thousands of photographs in one sitting, I don’t know if I would have gotten into it. My first SLR was a digital and I didn’t shoot any film until I got to college. I believe digital has made a lot of people think photography is easy. However, digital has flooded the market and internet with really bad photographs by the millions. The relative cheapness of digital, once you make the ridiculously expensive initial investment, has allowed people to get better and improve their photography. I’m all for it and thankful of its emergence but am slightly uncomfortable with overall drop in photographic quality.
Tell us about the Denver Post — how did you get such a great first job in a recession right out of school?
There are about 15 photographers on staff at The Denver Post. I am by far the youngest and greenest of them all. I don’t know how they found me. The director of the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University told me my name came up when my boss, Tim Rasmussen, was looking to hire somebody. However, I am unaware if he knew of me beforehand. I think I had a total of three phone interviews. The last one was a telephone conference with most of the staff. I didn’t know what to expect so I was just myself and tried to be as honest as I could. I detailed both my strength and weakness. I told them who I am as a photographer and what I am all about.
Anything you want to add?
The photographic life is worth living but the photography itself has to be the reward and ultimate endgame.