Monday, November 15, 2010

The Selfish, Unconcerned Photographer...

"A blog is a means of sharing your pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories of everything with the entire planet."

-Louis Menand in the New Yorker

I have a confession to make. Though I love Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eliot Erwitt, Robert Frank and any number of others in their tradition, I am not, as Capa's brother Cornell termed it, a "Concerned Photographer." The main thing that concerns me is making a picture ... and making a living at it.

This confession was finally triggered by a number of things, most recently this Tweet:

@: Just launched, the Magnum Emergency Fund site, supporting photographers with a commitment to documenting social issues.

My first thought? "Damn, wish I had some 'meaningful' (done with those finger quotes) social issue thing."

Okay, so maybe I'm old and cynical, though I think I've always felt this way. It's just that I'm not in journalism in general and photography in particular to change the world. As a matter of fact, I think it's pretty freaking rare for either journalism or photography to change anything in any significant way.

So, if I'm not here to change the world, just what do I think I'm doing? Mostly, satisfying my own curiosity. I like to know.

And I like to make pictures

I don't know if it comes across here, but I do feel a bit guilty about this. It's like that debate about if there can be a thing as true charity, or if we still do it, in the end, because people thank us and act like we're so good for being so generous. As a matter of fact, this posting is the product of days of work, not because it is such finely crafted language, but because I have struggled over what it is I mean and what it is exactly that I mean to say.

I asked my wife (who is now more than used to my guilts), telling her about what I was writing, and she (as always) explained it for me instantly. "I don't think it's a good thing to be a 'concerned photographer,'" She said. "That implies there is something to be concerned about, that you find some part of the story right and some part wrong, that you're biased. What you are is a curious photographer." I'm not, she explained, going in with a point of view, just a desire to see what is.

Former AP Director of Photography Hal Buell seems to agree. "To take a position of hate or love in order to be a war photographer," he told News Photographer editor Don Winslow in a piece in the November issue about war photography, "is to be an advocate, and advocacy leads to spin and distortion. For the advocate, one side is right, one side is wrong, and the pictures must show that in order to validate the photographer's reason for being there."

Don's piece starts with Robert Capa's premise that "In war, you must hate somebody or love somebody; you must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on." Buell dismisses Capa's thought as "romantic." It was Capa's brother, you'll recall, who coined the term "concerned photographer" -- apparently romance ran in the family. I'll have to ask Don to get Buell's thoughts on the Cornell's ideas. (And, by the way, if you're a member of the NPPA, you're in for a real treat -- Don's article is a work of art as good or better than pieces in the New Yorker.)

So what am I? Curious? Definitely. Concerned? Apparently only about myself. Typical? I dunno'. Maybe all that counts is whether I make a decent picture...

NOTE: This one took a while to crank out. As I discovered with the election pieces, apparently the blog places them as they were started, not finished, so it may appear this was written longer ago than it was. As I post, it's Dec. 5.

Once again, I promise to do more, more often...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Meanwhile, During the Election...

This is Morgan Griffith, Republican candidate for the 9th District of Virginia, campaigning in Pulaski, deep in the Southwest of the state. It's the Saturday before election day, and I was filming the rally -- which seems a rather grand term for what it was, truly, a gathering of about 30 or 40 people at a landscaping company, standing about amidst bins of gravel and mulch -- for WDBJ. My reporter, Chris Hurst, can just be seen behind Griffith, between him and the garden shed. He's holding a radio microphone, so we can get better audio of the speech.

Griffith was a long shot. Although he was the majority leader in Virginia's legislature, his opponent, Rick Boucher, was a 20-plus-year veteran of the US House of Representatives. As anyone with a passing knowledge of American politics takes for granted, an incumbent is difficult to dislodge. A 20-plus-year incumbent is all but undefeatable. It's a "safe seat."

However, this year, the tide was turning, and Griffith sensed the flow. As he said during this speech, if others in Virginia -- like Tom Periello in the nearby 5th District, a one-termer -- lost their races, pundits could say that the seat was traditionally Republican, and thus the election just a readjustment to the norm. (Periello defeated longtime veteran Virgil Goode, riding on the coattails of President Obama.) But, Griffith said, urging his followers to action -- specifically the action of voting -- if Boucher lost, then it would be a real sign, a symbol that the recent liberal actions really were rejected by all the voters.

This is Rick Boucher that same day, just a few miles away and a an hour or so later, being interviewed by the competition after a rally. The chairs were all full when he and Sen. Mark Warner spoke, and the followers enthusiastic. As I left, I overheard one say, as he walked out the door with a friend in front of me, that he couldn't understand the polls. From what he saw, Boucher should win by a landslide.

However, the polls -- especially WDBJ's Survey USA poll -- showed a dead heat. Our most recent results actually had Griffith ahead by a point. Boucher was adamant, in his speech (when he pointed out our camera) and in an interview afterwards, that his poll results showed him ahead. It was just bad methodology.

That was Saturday. On Tuesday, as the results came in, the "shellacking" -- as the President would later term it -- became clear. And in the 9th District, there was a double surprise: Griffith not only won, he won by a margin large enough to have that election called before the long doomed Periello race in the 5th. As Griffith predicted, I think, his race is symbolic. There was more than a pendulum swinging back to the center here.

and that's how election day went. Welcome to my world...

Excitement on order...

This is what election night looks like, literally behind the scenes. You can see the teleprompter there, in the center of the scene in the background, Behind the prompter, of course, is a camera.

Election night is an interesting phenomenon in the news business. It's breaking news, but breaking news you can plan for. Usually, breaking news is unplanned, something that just happens, like a plane crash, but an election is constitutionally scheduled. You've known it's going to happen for 200 years.

All the same, it's exciting.

Here we see Producer Cara Stein working with the anchors Jean Jadhon and Keith Humphrey. As you can see from the pile of papers, there's a myriad of details and information to work out.

Of course, if you're the weather guy, it's just another night. Jay Webb, the meteorologist on duty that night, filled his time with texting.

I was the "night shooter," basically on duty in case something unexpected -- actual breaking news -- happened. This year it didn't, so I had some time to make pictures on the set. They've gotten used to me and my Leicas at WDBJ now -- even looking forward to the pictures -- but I had some extra insurance that night: in the background of this image, back behind the desk and slightly to the left, you can see Lawrence Young (no relation), the chief photographer at the station, with his digital Canon also making still photos on the set.

Back in the newsroom, the Assistant Producers gather data and deal with the detail work. If you watch News 7, you'll know that you actually can see the newsroom in the background during the show. Again, this is the view behind the scenes, so it's a reverse view. You can see the lights and set in the upper left corner of the picture.

And here, we're on the air. Actually, we're just about off the air; the floor director (in the center) is indicating to the anchors that there are only seconds left in their cut-in. This is a rather remarkable picture -- everyone on the set gets a little uncomfortable with people wandering around the cameras and stuff while we're live on the air. Trip over one cable, drop something with a loud THUMP! and out it goes, live, to everyone who owns a TV.

It's only my known position -- and some trust that I know what I'm doing -- that let me make the picture...

And now's the moment to confess: I've taken a small liberty with the pictures -- or rather one picture -- in this post. The first image is actually the last. It shows the anchors, Producer Cara Stein, Assignment Editor Dave Seidel and News Director Amy Morris meeting after all the cut-ins, late in the night, reviewing what they did and how well it went. (It did go well, aided by the results quickly indicating the elections' trend.)

But it was the best picture of the bunch; one I'm rather proud of. Stepping aside from the subject of the election, it's one of those pictures where everything falls into place: the legendary Cartier-Bresson "Decisive Moment." (I read recently he came to dislike that term; it drew away from what he really meant to say.) And look at how the lens -- a Zeiss 21mm Biogon -- reacts to the lights shining into it. It's just a ... nice image. Welcome to one of my tiny pleasures ...