Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011: The year in pictures ... and more

I haven't been much of a blogger for a while, but I still wanted to post my year-end retrospective. No clicky-click slideshow here. I've done narrated looks back for the past four years. This year, I wanted to explain how photographs can create connections between people and help us see ourselves in others. And that I am a biased journalist. What's my bias? You'll have to watch to find out ...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Private Presidential Pathways: last chance for "transparency?"

Of his famous photo of President John F. Kennedy, Tames said ""I wanted the blackness,
the mood that I saw with my eye."

Interested in seeing honest, revealing photographs of your American President on the job? You know – candid, un-choreographed visual records which give us glimpses of the human being occupying the most powerful office in the world?

If those kind of images might appeal to you, then run! As fast as you can, to the Averitt Center for the Arts in Downtown Statesboro. Don't delay, because this may be the last opportunity to see photographs like this.

The Averitt Center's main gallery will be featuring an exhibit titled "Private Presidential Pathways," displaying photographs by former New York Times photographer George Tames. While he covered many aspects of Washington, D.C. for nearly half-a-century, Tames developed a reputation for capturing unguarded, honest moments of Presidents with his camera.

What made Tames different were his instincts and persistence for finding something visually profound – his refusal to settle for the "herd" mentality that still often plagues news photography. Tames had an ability and desire to develop easy and informal access to powerful politicians, including – especially – the President.

Since Tames' death in 1994, both photography and politics have changed. The implementation of digital photography in reporting the news has accelerated the notion of being the first and the fastest, over all else. George Tames, on the other hand, emphasized thoroughness and familiarity to create his images. Tames was often the last to produce an image because he stayed later and shot longer than those clinging to the "herd."

And politicians have learned a lesson – all too well. Image is everything.

It started, perhaps, with Ronald Reagan. Tames daughter, Stephanie (who lives here in Statesboro), told me Wednesday that her father got frustrated with Reagan, who first made his mark as an actor in Hollywood and was quite comfortable with the traditional method of producing moving pictures, whether film or video. Television producers, editors, and their ilk seemed all-to-willing to produce multiple takes and get things "right."

A posed-but-spontaneous photo of Harry S. Truman.

Reagan was surprisingly uncomfortable with still photography, however. Once the photographer clicked the shutter, the record was made. Period. No re-takes. The image could be published. Or not. The President and his staff had no control over that.

 Stephanie Tames related a story about an image her father made of Reagan. It was an exercise in frustration. The newly-elected President invited photographers into the Oval Office. Tames wanted a picture of Reagan at work. Reagan simply wouldn't stop posing. Tames stayed longer than every one else. Finally fed up, he started packing up his gear. That's when the President picked up his papers and got back to work. And that's when Tames was able to rattle off a frame or two to get the real picture.

Today, in 2011, getting even that picture is practically impossible. Not saying that most Presidents haven't been concerned with their image, but each one since Reagan has become exponentially more guarded, especially when it comes to photography.

Much has been made of the news media's alleged infatuation with Barack Obama. It's been vilified by some. Parodied by others. However, I can tell you about one group of journalists that is not enamored with our sitting President - the pool of White House press photographers representing dozens of publications from all over the world.

It's ironic that a President who's election platform included a commitment to government "transparency" has become so elusive to those assigned to cover him.

The previous administration became frustratingly adept at limiting public appearances to simple, choreographed "photo ops" where photographers were typically allowed to make as many photographs as possible while walking between the entrance and exit of a room.

I participated in one of these events when I worked in Savannah and the G-8 conference was held in Sea Island in 2004. I got the honor of waiting hours to photograph George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin sitting in a small room in chairs next to each other. It was like a very short rock show with all the strobe lights going off as many photographers simply laid on their shutter releases until we were ushered (herded) out. The whole thing lasted about 20 seconds. Rattle rattle, here come the cattle.

After promising greater "transparency," the present administration has gone so far as to eliminate even the cattle call photo op. Right from the start, the photographers assigned to covering the White House were excluded from the President's first day in the Oval Office. From the controversial "do-over" oath of office. And a month later, from a historic meeting between the President and the Dalai Lama.

In all these instances, the White House preferred, instead, to allow only Official White House photographer Pete Souza to witness these events with his camera, who's images were subsequently distributed via the Flickr photo sharing web site. The response from photo editors everywhere was immediate.

... information is "more valuable to the public if you know where it's coming from."
Michael Oreskes, Managing Editor for U.S. News, the Associated Press

It's clear that the White House staff saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of the internet. To "democratize" the process of distributing photographs by allowing anyone to download these photos from Flickr rather than letting the wire services distribute pictures to subscribing news outlets. See for yourself: here's a link to the Flickr White House photostream. That's good, right?

Well, it's also clear this was seen as an opportunity to exert greater control over the image of the President. While the credibility of Pete Souza, a veteran news photographer and educator who also served as Ronald Reagan's personal photographer in the White House during the 1980s, is widely-respected, wire services refused to distribute these photographs based primarily on two concerns: 1) this practice eliminates the potential diversity of images available to the public, and 2) the difficulty of determining the authenticity of an image not produced by someone on their staff.

Changing of the guard. Lyndon B. Johnson eyes Richard M. Nixon.

Even in a clearly controlled situation, each photographer makes decisions about how to compose their photographs. When to click the shutter. How to interpret what they witnessed. And each publication makes a choice about which photographs to publish.

No more. What's the harm, you say? Well, in an era where the authenticity of every digital photograph is in question, a multitude of photographers shooting the same event helps minimize the potential for deception. Photographers, or editors, or staffers in charge of publicity, are unlikely to manipulate, digitally or otherwise, photographs or situations for their own purposes if there are a multitude of images available from different sources.

One of the core principles that makes the news media relevant and useful is its diversity of voices and points-of-view. Information often becomes credible when a consensus is produced from many independent sources. And this principle is just as true of photography as any other medium of communication.

Ultimately, the question for you, the audience, is whether or not you are satisfied with our government representatives being the only source of visual information about themselves. I'm all for breaking with tradition as long as it serves a greater good. Are you being best served by this policy?

 Before you answer, though, please go see Tames' photographs. They will be on display until June 15.

He left us with lasting images of our Presidents. Ones that really stick in our minds, individually and collectively.

 Tames' photographs are ones that tell us something of the human beings who occupied the office of the President of the United States – their emotions. Their personal style. Their egos. Their strengths. And sometimes their frailties.

Why are these images so important? Why am I telling you to run – as fast as you can – to see them?

Because we may never see their like again.

The Averitt Center’s main gallery is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The cost of photographing war and tragedy

I have not blogged in a long time. Balancing a demanding job and a home life have drained me recently. Today, given many recent world developments, I simply felt compelled.

While chronicling Statesboro and Bulloch County is my primary role as a photojournalist , I still feel a strong kinship with those who choose a larger role on the world's stage.

I probably will never be able to change the minds of those who see some photojournalists as nothing more than paparazzi who choose to cover tragedy instead of celebrity – vultures preying on human suffering for the sake of personal recognition and awards. Or appealing to base, morbid human curiosity.

However, I firmly believe there is a higher calling abided by many, if not most, photojournalists who chase human conflict all over the world.

There will always be a debate about the value of photographs depicting tragedy. It's a necessary and healthy debate, in my opinion. Amongst the photographers who make them. Amongst the editors who choose to publish them. And amongst the audiences who view them.

This recently became the topic at a photography conference in Italy, and photographer/writer Enzo dal Verme blogged about it: Misery Is Photogenic.

However, I feel compelled to share some thoughts and links about those who have recently suffered imprisonment, horrible injuries, or even lost their lives in order to enlighten us.

The conflict in Libya, especially, has been costly for photojournalists. Numerous journalists have been captured by pro-Qaddafi forces or have gone missing. Academy Award-nominated photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist Chris Hondros of Getty Images were killed in Libya on April 20th.

"I wanted to photograph their lives as fully as possible."
Photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Heatherington on American troops in Afghanistan for his book "Infidel" and his film "Restrepo"

Especially the deaths of Hetherington, a true pioneer in "multi-media" story-telling, and Hondros have given many in the profession reason for pause.

Others, on the other hand, are more committed than ever. War photographer Joao Silva, who lost both legs and suffered internal injures in Afghanistan, has displayed the same indomitable spirit in his recovery that made him so effective on the front lines, and is excited about sharing his personal story. Not to mention itching to get back to work.

Perhaps photographing tragedy is an adrenaline rush for a few photographers. It's not about an addiction to danger, for most, however. There is something much more profound in the hearts of most of these individuals. These folks have little desire to tell sterile "objective" stories from the front lines. They are so moved by what they see and feel, they are compelled to keep sharing, over and over, regardless of the personal cost. In fact, more than once, I have heard photographers describe this kind of work – to photograph people in the most private, vulnerable kinds of situations – as a privilege not to be taken lightly. I feel their kind of courage should be recognized.

These folks stalk the front lines, often shoulder-to-shoulder with military combatants, or amongst those caught in the crossfire – the "collateral damage." Their only weapons? A camera and a conscience. This gallery, Photographers in Peril, gives us a few examples of  the search for humanity contained within often inhumane conflicts.

We Americans laud our military. Rightfully so. Those individuals make incredible personal sacrifices, put their lives on the line, do their duty and carry out orders without question. We owe them much, much more than gratitude. But what of those who risk their lives to tell us the stories of our soldiers and those they fight on behalf of? Stories spun by compassionate souls, not spun for the purpose of "official" agendas, that sometimes painfully reveal the true cost of conflict?

What is your opinion of the men and women who make images, still and moving, of human conflict and tragedy? Are they simply the bearers of bad news? Or do you see value in their chronicles? Is it worth the cost?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Birthday Pi(e)

Today was a first for me.

It's National Pi Day. Not to be confused with the confectionary delight we know as pie (although I'm quite certain there must be a National Pie Day, as well). We're talking about π. The Euclidian geometric constant used for calculating the circumference of a circle. I never knew there was such a day, but March 14th makes sense since the value of Pi is approximately 3.14.

March 14 also happens to be my birthday. Working on my birthday is certainly no first. It's the rule rather than the exception, as it is for most folks. And I usually go about my business without mentioning the personal significance of the date.

Today, I photographed a math class at Statesboro High School where the teacher celebrated National Pi Day in her classroom with, well, pie.

I mentioned, in passing, that it was my birthday because I couldn't help but note the irony that I shared a birthday with Albert Einstein on National Pi Day. Ironic because math was, uh, not my best subject in school. And that's putting it mildly.

Today was not a first because I was photographing an educator who finds ways to make learning fun. The students also shared a slice of delicious chocolate cream pie with me. And I have to admit that it wasn't the first time I had sampled some goodies while on assignment. Today was a first because I got serenaded by an entire class.

Yes, before I could make my exit, the students, who overheard my birthday observation, all joined together and sang "Happy Birthday" to me.

"... Happy birthday dear Camera Guy ..."

So thank you Paige Sutcliff and all your tenth graders. It's tough to share a birthday with Albert Einstein on National Pi Day. You made me feel special.

Did I mention it's also National Potato Chip Day?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Farm voyeurs beware: Florida Senator gunning for photographers

Ever see a really pretty field of corn or cotton while driving down the road, or perhaps a herd of cattle or sheep huddled in an idyllic pasture, and felt like pulling over and snapping a picture?

Well, don't even think about doing it in Florida. Even if you're not a socialist or an animal rights activist, it could be a first degree felony if State Senator Jim Norman gets his way.

Read this: Cracking Down on Croparazzi

This is dumb is so many ways, I just can't even begin. I'm both entertained and scared to death about the level of an almost utter lack of rational and informed thought.

I supposed I'm posting this to get back in the swing of blogging. Sorry for the layoff, folks. And I'm hoping others might appreciate this episode of Stupid Human Tricks.

And I'm game for some discussion, if you are.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Beyond the obvious: images from Egypt

© 2011 Laura El-Tantawy/ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

I'm sure many of us are following the developments in Egypt. We're inundated with thousands of images chronicling the anti-goverment protests. Most of them being moved by the wire services are just what you would expect. Violent clashes. Danger. Drama.

There is another side to these protests. A more human side. And some photographers are doing their darnedest to chronicle that, as well.

I ran across some of these image at burn. magazine, an on-line photography site curated by great Magnum and National Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey. The photographs are by Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy, who also writes about her experiences while covering the protests.

Visually, these photographs are haunting and atmospheric. We get to see the faces and begin to understand some of the participants in a much more intimate way than the rock'em sock'em wire photos allow.

As El-Tantawy says:

"Tahrir (Liberation) Square has become a microcosm of Egyptian society. The protesters here represent all classes of people, from the art world, politicians, engineers, lawyers, bankers, school teachers, government employees, construction workers, plumbers. They all came here to fight for something."

The best photojournalism not only addresses the "what," but also the "who" and the "why." The best photographs are the ones that move us. The ones that appeal to our humanity, whether the subjects are halfway across the world or right here in our own backyards.

Take a look. Tell me what you think. What images have you viewed from Egypt, and which ones stick with you? Why?

Link: Cairo: Quest for Liberation

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Wanted: conversation with YOU

I'm a slow starter.

It's almost an annual ritual. While many kick off every new year in high gear, it seems to take me a while to get my bearings and get rolling. At the end of January, I'm moaning and groaning, wondering why I haven't shot many, or any, pictures worth much discussion.

I could say the same thing about my blog. I follow many blogs and have several friends who write blogs, and most of them have been furiously posting since the new year was ushered in. Me? I'm recharging. Refocusing. Searching for topics and stories worth sharing with the Herald audience.

Also, for the first time in three years, I'm not teaching the Spring Intro to Photojournalism course at Georgia Southern University. And that's something I have mixed feelings about. It's a huge commitment – constantly updating lesson plans and refining teaching techniques to give college students a base of knowledge in order to discuss and practice visual journalism. It takes up almost all of my free time when I'm not on the job for the Herald.

Then again, it's kept me sharp and focused about what I do for a living. More plugged-in to a constantly changing profession. And I've really enjoyed the exchange of knowledge and discourse with students.

To fill that void, I'm tossing out an invitation for conversation to Herald readers, and anyone else who follows. That's the real reason I started this blog, in the first place.

So, what do you want to talk about? Almost anything is fair game. Do you have questions or want tips to help you take better pictures? Are you curious about what goes on behind the scenes when I cover news events? Questions about the news business, it's practice, and the ethics involved? Any suggestions about how I can better cover our community?

All of my posts are open to comments, but I'd love to hear your thoughts now. So toss out those questions and make suggestions. I can always write about my experiences and share relevant links. I'd like to take your ideas, though, and make them the subjects of my blog posts.

Ball's in your court ...