I used to take offense and get all worked into a lather when I heard stories about reporters being given cameras. I'd rant and rave, and now, I just laugh. A tossed-back head type of a laugh, usually coupled with a hearty "good luck". How else to respond to such an absolutely absurd suggestion? A second place to this is the eye-roll that takes place when someone asks, of a non-Holga/lensbabies-type image, "what camera did you use". Ok, when it looks like a Holga or Lens Babies, I get that you *might* want to know if it was done that way, or in Photoshop. But now I just roll my eyes when I hear this question.
Next up is my "welcome to the real world" sentiment when I hear that an editor thinks they can shoot an assignment.
Now, don't get me wrong - I know many editors who were amazing photographers, and either their knees, wrists, back, or a combination thereof got a bit worn down, and they opted for the steely grip of a two-buttoned mouse over the elbow-to-the-gut wrist-inverted pose that is required when you're shooting with a 300mm 2.8 sans stick(s). Or, they decided that the cool breeze from central a/c coupled with the office latte machine and reasonable (or atleast predictable) hours was more conducive to the family life they promised their spouse when they said their "I do's". This is, usually, when the spouse starts asking when the 'for better' part is coming along, as the insane hours had the marital gearshift stuck in the 'or worse' direction.
It's those editors who are new to town and somehow believe Google Maps when it says you can get from point A to cross-town point B in 25 minutes. Or, it's the editor who doesn't know that there's a problem with 1100 West Capitol Street or 111 First Street. (hint: in DC, #1 doesn't exist, and there are four of #2). Lastly, it's the editor who complains that you didn't get the shot, and brushes aside excuses like: 1) You didn't tell me that the concert promoter expected me to sign a form which gave all rights to the photos I would shoot for you to the band, for free; 2) I got arrested trying to make this photo and have been 'indisposed' for the last four hours; or 3) the subject decided once I got there that they didn't want to be photographed, so they left to get ice cream with their girlfriend.
It's like this: You can't know war until you've fought in it; you can't know parenting until you've been a parent; you can't understand death or divorce unless it's smacked you upside the head on some idle Wednesday; and you can't know what goes into - and can go wrong with - and assignment, unless you've been on the street trying to make something out of - literally, nothing.
Enter Reuters. Reuters' blog has an interesting entry, which is worth a read: Stepping into photographer’s shoes…, (4/25/08). In it, one of Reuters intrepid editors, who no doubt has gotten upset with the failings of an assigned photographer in the past, gets put out on an assignment. Not because she wants to, but because she has to, as a part of her "performance target" for the year (as, apparently they all are now required to do). Her name is Shahida. I'll apologize now to Shahida for my criticism of her experience, because it comes about 1/10th close to what we go through for our editors, but serves as a lesson worth reading.
First things first - Shahida gets to pick a day when she's working for her first foray out as a photographer. In other words, she left the desk, and is being paid her salary, while making photos. This isn't reality. There's nothing on the line, like - 'miss the shot, you don't get paid for the day', or 'miss the shot, get yelled at because the other wires beat you', or 'miss the shot and the A1 front page story now has missing art', kind of pressure.
Next up - Shahida was overconfident in her first outing, and she was looking for static images of old and new buildings. This isn't iStockphoto you're producing image for, it's Reuters - the highly regarded wire service! Anyone I know would get laughed off the phone if they, well, phoned in a performance like that.
Then, Shahida encountered the human condition, as it is prone to wanting it's privacy. "Go get me people in suits, and be sure to get their names..." now seems a bit harder than before? I guess that's the point of this exercise.
In her post-mortem of failed assignment #1, Shahida tells herself to plan ahead, be mindful of the weight of your gear, and that an assignment (even as simple as this one) requires time, patience, and a fresh mind.
Plan ahead - yes, good idea. Did you just think you could go out and make images that were worthy of a being wire image?
Mindful of the weight of the gear? I presume this will give you some compassion and cause you to not ask "why didn't you chase after that guy to get a shot" - because I was carrying 100 lbs of gear, and they outran me. Lesson learned.
Time/patience/fresh mind? Right, so don't go giving a photographer four assignments and expect the same talent and attention on the first as you do on the fourth, unless they have atleast 10 years under their belt. Also, don't go repeatedly calling the photographer asking "have you got it yet". We know the pressure of the assignment - it's weighing on us. Your phone calls aren't helping. In fact, they're a distraction.
Outing #2 for Shahida wasn't much better. She thought she could outrun a train, even having "dressed comfortably", and carrying "a lightweight backpack." She wasn't discreet (or, perhaps aggressive) enough and got the boot from railway station. Her lesson - "a little bit of research beforehand doesn't hurt." Uhhh, that's a given. Again - lesson learned. Maybe next time Shahida will help her assignee out, and do some research and include it in the e-mail to the photographer? What, no? Heck, can't I just dream a bit for all the future photographers to be assigned?
Outing #3 is sold as the point where "thing really started to come together". Uh, no. Not from what's shown on the blog anyway. But, she did learn that what the photographer sees on the LCD screen is small, and can't always yield information we need - like sharpness. In her case, sharpness may not have been an issue, but what about the photographers you're working with? And, you were able to get back to that office to view your files, not on a laptop in the bright sun trying to make out color and tone. Count your blessings on that one. There was, of course, the distraction and fear of barking therapy dogs. Please remember this when the barking is from police/military/guards with guns, or protestors weilding sticks. Your fear of "stepping on a dog's tail" does not equate to our fear of having thugs stealing your gear and giving you a beat-down, or worrying as you are being detained if you swapped the CF card with the images you want for a blank image card that is going to get confiscated.
I laughed the other day - out-loud, when I learned that the fabled photo editor at the Washington Post, who, it has been reported, left his perch atop the Photo Department at the Washington Post, to "get back to shooting", had an encounter with the reality his team worked in for years. As the story goes, on one of his first days out (if not the first), for a weather feature, Elbert was decked out in his new "photo clothes", and headed out to make some art. Upon returning, perspiration making it's way through his attire, his colleagues wanted to see what he had made. Elbert demured, saying he didn't think he had anything worthy to share. Come on - for a weather feature? So, back out he went, for a second attempt. Coming back again, exhausted and his now nice outfit in need of a heavy wash cycle, something akin to "it was a hard assignment" passed his lips. More than one of his former team mates (and I use that term, which suggests a high level of morale in the department), whom he had chewed out for missing a worthy picture in the past, chuckled under their breath. Welcome to the real world Mr. Elbert. Atleast Michel DuCille had come from the street to take over for you, and put in some solid time covering Katrina, so I know he knows what reality looks like! Next time you're in a press scrum doing the back walk, remember - knees bent, no cameras behind your back to fall on and break (and jam into your kidneys), and work with your colleagues so everyone gets the shot - get in, get the photo, and get out before you take a tumble. Maybe this story, as recounted, isn't exactly as it transpired (but I believe it to be), but it's worthy to make the point about an editor's newfound perspective. Now only if this clarity had come along a decade or so earlier.
Interestingly, Shahida (and other Reuters desk positions) was the beneficiary of US/EU outsourcing, and Elbert has downsizing/buyouts to thank for his current state of affairs - the idea being something like "I want to end my time here as a photographer", and so, he has - he's among those partaking in the latest buyout, according to sources. Two peas-in-a-pod, on opposite sides of the globe, one getting their sea legs, one sun-setting themselves before the ax falls of someone else's doing.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about what we do. I just enjoy anyone's newfound respect for the profession. Don't give a photographer a pencil and expect cogent questions during a press conference, and then have it turned into a solid lede, or even a quality product post-jump . Don't give a reporter a camera and expect images that will keep your readers buying the paper. And don't give your photographers both still and video cameras, and expect both to come back equally well shot.
Hopefully, the Reuters "performance target" will make more understanding editors out of their staff, with a newfound respect for those filing the images. One can only hope.
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