Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What, No Grease?

So I'm looking at the Washington Post website today, as I do every day, and one of the features is a picture series on the annual Herndon climb at the Naval Academy. As the academic year ends at Annapolis, the first year students -- Plebes -- are sent out to climb the large obelisk and retrieve from its top a Midshipman's hat (one styled like the standard naval officer's saucer cap) and replace it with a Plebe's cap (which looks like a traditional sailor hat, but with a black stripe around the edge). It is a final bit of struggle, signifying their promotion out of the purgatory that is being a lowly first year student. However, this year, for the first time ever, the Herndon Monument was not greased.

Anyway, it cast my mind back.

Plebes climb the Herndon Monument, 1996.

First, I thought of the above picture. I'm proud of it. It gives me real pleasure, and I have given it a permanent place in my portfolio. Ironically, the story behind it can leave me nervous and frustrated to this day, although it confirms my decision to move to Lexington and make a try at documentaries.

In the spring of 1996, shortly before I quit daily news work in Washington, the Chief of Naval Operations committed suicide after he was accused of wearing ribbons and medals he had not earned. The Navy and its traditions were very high in the news, and so my boss at Reuters decided that year to cover the Herndon climb, about which we had shown no interest before. Off I went to Annapolis...

I had been given little background or even information on the event. I sense the idea to cover it had been a spontaneous act, and I was seen as expendable for the day (my boss and I did not play well together). Arriving that morning, I asked around to find out what a "Herndon climb" was, and found the event was not until the afternoon. Nice enough -- who am I to refuse a lunch in Annapolis, especially as Jennifer had come along.

Returning, I positioned myself with several other photographers and TV to watch the festivities. Jennifer comfortably ensconced herself amongst the watching crowd, apparently near some alumni. And the event began with the Plebes roaring up to the giant, stone edifice and flinging themselves at it like Vikings at a particularly rich castle.

Jennifer learned from the alumni that this enthusiasm either drives them directly to the top through sheer momentum alone, or breaks against the stone, dissipating in increasingly frustrated efforts until someone finally organizes a proper human pyramid to get the thing done some hours (yes, hours) later. This, it soon became apparent, was going to be one of those hours-long days.

Climbers formed a base, layers were pushed and pulled up, then slid down. I began to notice that the girls seemed more intellectually adapted to the job, trying to make their carefully conceived plans heard over the macho drive of the boys. It was a perfect photo op, giving me time to get past pure coverage to look at opportunities for more interesting angles and moments. I shot close-ups of reaching hands and straining faces. And then it happened: I saw the Plebe pause and look up as he took a breath before continuing, standing on layers of his classmates. I shot it. I knew it was great. It was one of those rare, special moments (lost now that digital allows you to immediately check on your pictures) when I saw the moment in the viewfinder and knew, knew I had the picture. I checked the frame number, and made a special note on the film envelope -- Go to THIS frame.

I forget now how long we stayed -- I want to say it was three hours -- before deciding that to wait longer would put us back in Washington too late. We left them still struggling. And I can't remember if Reuters ever shipped any of the pictures. The two top guys there had little regard for me or my work by then, and it wasn't unusual for my stuff to be completely ignored. (Sometime I'll tell the story the return of Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady to Andrews Air Force Base, but then I'd have to find the pictures from that...) Fortunately, I do know my note was completely ignored, and when I retrieved the negatives, that picture was among them.

We moved to Lexington a year later. I welcomed my new world...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

... and one thing leads to another

A series of things have struck me in quick succession lately. They could be a bunch of blog posts ... or one long one. I think I'll do the latter.

One thought -- a short one -- occurred to me Sunday while covering the VMI graduation. In a relatively calm moment, I realized that, of all the colleges around here with graduations clustered together this May, it is the Virginia Military Institute that is the only one that doesn't set off explosives right next to our house to celebrate.

Here we see Janey and Caty watching the late night festivities for Washington and Lee's law school graduation. The light coming through the window is just from the fireworks. It's a 5-second exposure on a Nikon D80.

Then there was the moment, as the morning show prepared to start Sunday, when the producer turned to me and said, "You want to go check out a Car-B-Que?"

It took me a moment to figure out exactly what he meant, and then I found it rather funny in that dark, newsroom sort of way. He explained that a "Frito truck" -- that amused me too, for some reason -- had caught on fire, and he would like me to go out and get some footage.

After a quick look at the map (and a good thing too -- Route 220, a road that passes through Roanoke, but also heads up north and west of the city to Daleville, which was the location of the fire; I very nearly headed south and east), I shot out, onto 81 and off at the exit. On the crest of a hill a short distance from the interstate, flares and State Police cars marked my target. I quickly parked in a nearby gas station ... only to find after topping the hill on foot that the actual truck was some 200 yards further down the road. But now I had the camera and tripod out (and bloody heavy they are, too, I'd like to say), and it seemed more work to go back, load up again, get in the car and drive down there than to just walk the distance.

I stopped as I went, shooting wide, then close and closer, until I finally was in the midst of the firemen, who were cleaning up as the fire was long since out. One came up and explained the details, and later I heard the voice of another from the other side of my camera. "Hey, News 7," he said. I turned to see him. "Do ya' know what caused it?" Innocent that I am, I was about to explain that his colleague had just given me the information, when the smiling fireman answered by holding up a charred bag of Extra Hot Barbeque chips. "They just got too hot!"

The "Car-B-Que" on 220. Firefighters shovel Frito bags clear.
Shot with my M3 on Tri-X.

Still chuckling to himself, he then tossed the bag into the heap spilling out of the charred tractor trailer. Which was quite the surrealistic scene, I thought. The first fireman had explained that the entire load would have to be trashed because of the fire, so the cleanup involved literally shoveling piles of potato and corn chip bags away from where they'd been hastily pulled out to get at the fire. Not something you see every day.

I got back before the morning show was over, and so had the tiny triumph of getting it on the air. (News is all about right now, so when you get on the air with pictures of an event that happened after the show began -- as opposed to the older, pre-canned stuff -- it's better.)

And speaking of newsgathering (and lunken segues), I had the unfortunate experience of encountering a Nikon D5000 commercial again the other day. I've managed to avoid the recent Nikon campaign starring Ashton Kutcher lately because the ads tend to frustrate me, but sometimes one tumbles across these things all by accident, and there you are, suffering through it again. Interestingly, it's not on YouTube, although a couple of the other insufferable Kutcher ads are. I'm amused that, in searching for a link to the ad, I found that others hate it as much as I do, and that there is a much better ad concept for the camera as well.

However, this particular ad makes me nuts because it places him at a fashion show, where he is shown supposedly making pictures just as good as the professionals there (at one point tumbling across the runway itself, causing a chorus of protests from the pros as he blocks their view) because he has this whiz-bang camera. The theme, I guess, is that it not only lets this bumbling idiot make great pictures, but that his amiable anti-establishment attitude pricks the snooty, self-important bubble of the fashion world. This I think is supposed to make him appealing.

Anyway, if they hadn't lost me the moment they hired Ashton Kutcher, they certainly did when he gets in the way of the pros. Because, as you might have noticed, I'm one of those pros, and our job is hard enough without a bunch of goofy, self-satisfied prettyboys stumbling through the middle of everything because they think their do-it-all-for-you DSLR will let them do a job I've worked at for over 20 years. I tell you what, how about I shuffle onto some movie set and take the star role for a while, and he can forfeit his big paycheck to me for the day? How's that for fair? You are not welcome to my world ...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Haven't I seen you before?

Around the station, it's called "Fat Running Cop." What they are talking about is a piece of footage from the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, made by Lynn Eller, a photographer at WDBJ. The station is the nearest CBS affiliate, and we regularly cover Tech and the town of Blacksburg, so when the newsroom heard of problems there, they sent Lynn to get some footage and see what was going on.

As he approached, Lynn remembered later when telling me about his experience, he was passed by State troopers driving at that high speed that only cops headed to an emergency can do. He called the station immediately, recommending they send everyone they had as well as the satellite truck.

On arrival, Lynn found a community in chaos. Cops were everywhere, and as one approached, Lynn thought, "This is it. He's throwing me out." Instead, the cop warned him to be careful. "We don't know where he is yet." Lynn spent the entire day taping the events around the shooting, much of it being the police reacting to the massacre. One of those police was an overweight cop, weapon in hand, rushing down the sidewalk. The "Fat Running Cop."

Poor guy. Lynn says now he almost regrets even shooting the footage. You see, you saw the Fat Running Cop everywhere that day, and in the weeks after. Frankly, I'm surprised that, when the anniversary passed last month, we didn't see him again.

I thought of the Fat Running Cop (geez, I'm sorry for calling you that over and over, but I don't know who you are) recently because of the United-Continental airlines merger. There's a leap, you might think, and you'd be right without seeing it from my perspective.

I edit the B-Roll -- that's the footage that they show while the anchor reads the story -- for the morning news show on Mondays. This past Monday, United and Continental announced they were going to merge. That, like most economics stories, doesn't really lend itself to visuals, so what I edited was pictures of planes and terminals. United-marked jets took off and Continental-marked jets landed, passengers waited at a United counter and luggage handlers sent bags up into a Continental airplane, and the anchor explained that it was a billion-dollar deal while we watched that. The one only marginally has anything to do with the other, but you use what you can get. This ain't radio.

Here's the sad part: That evening, after eight hours of continuously editing news footage, I watch the evening news. I am that much of a news junkie. And what appears on Fox (unrelated to WDBJ, as far as I know, in any way)? The exact same footage of United jets taking off and Continental jets landing and passenger sullenly moving through terminals.

Now this is understandable. The footage was probably some stock that had been given out by the airlines in good times, and laid around in various archives for just such an eventuality. But it was not just some part of a larger collection, it was precisely the same stuff.

And this brings me to my point: A CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, and an international cable news network are using, of all the thousands -- millions! -- of hours of footage of stuff related to United and Continental and airports, the same few seconds, probably because some guy at a network once said, "This'll probably come up; I'll save about a minute of it."

And then I thought of the hyper twenty-something that had been interviewed earlier about the attempted Times Square bombing, telling in breathless tones how everyone had rushed from the area. He was on all the networks too, probably because he was the effusive and cooperative one still on the scene when the cameras arrived. And this is a problem.

We spend a lot of time talking about journalism in crisis: Newspapers closing, one-man-band coverage (instead of a cameraman-reporter team), bureaus closing ... Bureaus closing. That's what this is a symptom of. Fewer and fewer journalists (and I'm enough of an elitist to differentiate -- there is such a thing as a real, professional journalist) covering more and more, often by not bothering to go to the place and ask real questions. Rather, too many stories are covered by getting footage or information sent in to some roughly nearby bureau (like London is nearby Afghanistan) and adding a voice track to the TV story, or just passing on whatever has been said, like a giant game of Telegraph with all the accompanying miscommunications.

One of the few times this didn't happen was after the Haiti earthquake, which was a story big enough to focus everyone's attention yet close enough to make covering it directly affordable. And yet, complaints were common that there were too many journalists (and especially photographers) there. Too Many? You'd rather get the whole tale of that monumental catastrophe from the Haitian version of the panicky twenty-something in Times Square? What's the Kreyol for: "And then we all ran, 'cause we didn't know what was going on?"

Noooo. This is a bad thing. It's something we need to think about. Because I'd like to be able to edit new and interesting pictures on Monday morning, or better yet, get sent to make those pictures.

Welcome to my world of concerns...