Have you ever looked back at your life and wondered “How would things have turned out differently if…..I hadn’t have moved to a new part of the country when I was 13 years old or if I had stayed at Syracuse University instead of leaving school after completing my sophomore year and traveling around the world? Or if I had taken the job at Boeing after graduating from Brooks Institute…..or if I hadn’t seen that article in Time Magazine about “Indie” media ventures, referencing the 1st Digital Video Symposium that was going to take place at the American Film Institute?” Every one of those events at pivotal points in my life, carved out my next “chapter “ – determining who I was going to be and where I was headed. Some of my life’s twists and turns, I had no control over – like moving from Rochester, NY to the greater NYC Metro area when I was barely a teenager. But there have been a lot more pages turned in my life since then, and along with that a whole lot of decisions to be made along the way. The best decisions I’ve made in my life happened when I was open minded to possibilities and I listened to my gut. Last week I coached at the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop. It was a perfect example of peers helping peers and a wonderful collaboration between NPPA and ASMP, my trade association that I’m about to be President of next month. Even though these workshops are exhausting in every way, I get as much as I give on so many levels. Ultimately the workshop is about learning good solid video journalism storytelling, but the technical learning curve can be daunting to many coming from a still photographer background. Many of the students were totally green when it came to audio, movement, sequencing or the post-production editing process. Some became so overwhelmed by the gear that they lost focus of the most important part of the workshop – “the story”. It’s easy to lose sight of the “story”. At the workshop, Bruce Strong from Newhouse School of Journalism gave a talk about “Storytelling Basics”. He said something that really resonated with me “Ask the why behind the why. Look for the emotional core of the story”. I realized that I needed a reminder at this particular time in my life, as to what was the essence of a good story. I’m currently working on a documentary film about a family that has a deep and rich history. To be honest, I had been floundering on the story aspects of the film as I had begun to get lost in the details and facts. I had an epiphany as I listened to Bruce and realized that my job wasn’t to document the timeline of this family, that had already been done in written form – my job was to “tell a story”. That epiphany may sound obvious and simple, but sometimes I get blindsided by the daily consumption of life, and the “obvious” gets overlooked. But if I put myself in a different place, in body and mind, at a time in my life when I am open and receptive, the “right” path does become obvious. That path was there the entire time, but perhaps it wasn’t the right time for me. As Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending, than it depends on where you stop the story”.
The Value of Photography
The who’s who of photography gathered last night, at Carnegie Hall to honor the “masters” of their trade at the Lucie Awards. The Lucies are like the Oscars of the “photographic industry”.
I had been asked to step in to present the “2013 Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year Award”. on behalf of the ASMP when Executive Director, Gene Mopsik and President, Ed McDonald couldn’t attend.
I don’t usually get nervous about things like this, but I was last night. As I stood in the wings with photographer John H. White, who was waiting to go on stage to accept his Lucie, for Achievement in Photojournalism, I was mesmerized as I watched John. He seemed to glow and I felt his grace, his humility and his gratitude. It was a moment in my life that will stay with me forever. It was calming. I watched and listened to his acceptance speech on the monitor backstage, and I was deeply touched. So was the audience, as evidenced in their standing ovation.
John H. White is not a “rock star” type of photographer. His images don’t “shock and awe”, not in the way a war photographer’s images do. John’s photographs capture the subtle moments of the human experience. His legacy of images show us life as it really is.
This past spring, after 35 years with the Chicago Sun Times, John and the rest of the newspaper’s photographic staff were fired. It was a huge blow to the photographic community, magnified by the fact that even John H. White, the “chairman” was “let go”, without even as much as a thank you. John wasn’t bitter about it though. Michelle Agins wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times where she quoted John: “A job’s not a job because of labor law,” he said. “It’s just something you love. It’s something you do because it gives you a mission, a life, a purpose, and you do it for the service of others.”
All he had wanted to hear from the executives who let him go was two words that never came: thank you. But even then, he did not respond with anger.
John spoke more about the Sun Times’ firings in an interview with NPR where he said: “I will not curse the darkness. I will light candles. I will live by my three “F” words: faith, focus and flight. I’ll be faithful to life, my purpose in life, my assignment from life. Stay focused on what’s really important, what counts.” He repeated those three “F” words last night as he accepted his award. The audience was humbled. John had shed his light.
I have been thinking a lot lately, about the value of photography and the value that a professional brings to this craft. John H. White and his archive of work is a stellar example. His images, capturing the subtleties of life stand out amongst the noise. They make us take notice of what is often over looked – the quieter moments of life.
As far as what a professional photographer brings to the world, I think John stated it best: “Every day, a baby is born. Every day, someone dies. Every single day. And we capture everything in between. You think of this thing called life and how it’s preserved. It’s preserved through vision, through photographs.”
As John walked off the stage and back into the wings, I felt enveloped by his glow that had seemed to magnify. I caught his eye for a moment and said “thank you”. He nodded, and flashed his wonderful smile and in that moment, we connected and shared our understanding, of the “value” of photography.
Teaching Video Journalism in China
I’m sitting in the Continental (United) airport lounge at EWR, waiting to board a flight for Beijing. I’m headed to China for 4 weeks to teach Chinese journalists, video journalism. My mind is spinning with ideas, questions and the usual array of “what ifs” as I take on another adventure.
About two years ago, I started saying “yes” to opportunities that presented themselves to me – or at the very least, I began to consider opportunities, rather than to talk myself out of things, right off the bat. Because, of that mind set, I’ve been going where life seems to take me and it has presented quite a few interesting adventures. It’s not that I’m foolhardy and doing things on a whim – it’s that I have been listening to myself – my inner voice – and it has been my guiding force.
I’m told that the Chinese are hungry for “western” knowledge. But what I have to teach them is something universal, and that is – how to tell a story – using the medium of video. Seems so basic and simple – how to tell a story – and I suppose it is, but like anything else, it’s simple if you understand it. The key to understanding something is to have the desire to learn. Some people say they want to learn – but that’s different than really having the desire to learn.
Some folks feel threatened by this seemingly insatiable desire of the Chinese to learn all things western. I’m also finding that when people feel threatened by something – they try to “stop” whatever it is they are feeling threatened by. It’s one of those stupid human tricks that folks have played since the beginning of mankind. I process this behavior pattern as unproductive and unsustainable. It rarely works as far as eliminating a perceived threat. You simply can’t totally eliminate desire.
Rather than stop others from growth – a better way is to better yourself. I’d rather put my energies into where I want to go in my life – than in trying to squash other people’s hopes and dreams. I’ve also found that what goes around – comes around. When you “give” and “help” others – you ultimately create a better world – or “space” for everyone.
So, as my mind races this morning with my hopes, my expectations and enthusiasm – I try to keep the nagging doubts and fear at bay. I tell myself that it’s natural to have concerns. But I also tell myself that I can either let my concerns consume me and turn into fear or I can welcome the “unknown” and embrace the opportunity at hand. I’ll let my inner voice guide me because it seems to be doing a good job.
The Eyes of Our Times
I was looking through my emails and social media posts and I saw something on my Facebook feed that Daymon J. Hartley posted. It was a link to a lightbox of 9/11 images on Time Magazine’s website. It was a collection of images that had run in a variety of magazines and newspapers in the days that followed that tragic event. Along with the images ran comments from the picture editors, why they had chosen that particular image.
As I looked through the images, I was overcome with emotion and moved right back to a very deep place within, remembering the pain, the fear and disbelief of what happened that day. This time I looked at the images online. Ten years ago I first saw these photographs in print publications. Regardless of how I saw these images, in print or electronically – the effect was still the same.
It reminded me of how powerful our photographs and videos are. We are the eyes of our times, the ones to document history. We not only record history in imagery, sound and motion, but we have the power to create the future. History has been rewritten by imagery. Take the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s in America. Photographs created awareness of what was happening in the South and put the eyes of the world upon us. That forced change.
As photojournalists and video journalists and non-professionals as well, we need to realize the power of what we do and the influence it can make. It’s a responsibility I take seriously. I feel that it’s not just my duty to document history as it unfolds, but it’s my right to do so as well. These days those rights are being questioned in some places. We need to be diligent in keeping those rights in America. Isn’t that what makes our country different?
As we race towards a destination unknown with technology quickening the pace – let’s be mindful who is controlling the portals of the future – so that future generations can learn from the past.