Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Shooting meetings: Bored rooms?

Meetings. Ugh!

Covering them is a staple in journalism. It's gotta be. By covering public meetings, journalists are representing every citizen in their Constitutional right to open and accountable government. Few citizens have time to attend every city council or school board meeting, but they can pick up a newspaper or log on to a web site to find out what happened and make informed choices, especially come election time. Our democracy depends on it. Right? Transparency, I believe, is the buzzword.

I have great respect for government beat reporters who sit through endless hours of meetings: culling, sifting, waiting for that little nugget of vital information that needs to be examined by the public at large. It's grunt work, but infinitely vital. Meetings can be a great place to, well, meet people. The players and the folks who will benefit or suffer from public policy. Making contacts and learning about issues can help journalists generate ideas for additional news or feature stories.

A question that comes up in newsrooms, at times, is just how much value there is to having photojournalists cover meetings. What is discussed at these meetings can be extremely important. What they look like while they discuss??? That's highly debatable.

Admittedly, their is some mild documentary historic value. In fifty years, some may be curious about what their leaders looked like, or what the facilities looked like. Not enough to assign a photographer to cover a lot of meetings, however.

I've listened to editors and writers plead "There will be a ton of people at this meeting," or "People are going to be angry at this meeting," and they imagine this will make compelling photographs. The reality is that meetings rarely produce newsworthy photographs, unless you consider pictures of people sitting, standing, or with microphones in front of their face to be newsworthy. Even angry people typically produce a photograph of someone pointing or shaking their fist, with their mouth open - with a microphone in front of their face. Hardly enlightening.

Honestly, if we really want to serve our readers and viewers, it's better to do some research, understand what the issues are and who the players are, and make photographs that succeed in expanding the understanding of the issues and people involved -- outside the meeting rooms. After all, that's where life happens. Of course, that takes planning and making the time to execute such assignments.

But there are legitimate reasons to photograph meetings. Often, it's the only place where citizens can approach and confront their leaders with their concerns. Big crowds are not only a sign of community concern, but of community action. That's newsworthy. Some hot-button issues are bound to create drama, as well. Human drama and emotion played out before our eyes is newsworthy, even in a meeting room.

I've always approached covering meetings the same way I cover sports: often, the most story-telling moments happen away from the obvious action. I look away from the podiums and microphones, and try to key in on the faces and actions of the spectators. I try to pick up on a vibe ... Are people happy? Sad? Angry? Concerned? Often, faces or body language can communicate that. Are there groups of people attending that seem to be connected, and what is their demeanor?

Shooting meetings is hard work, unless, of course, you just don't care. You really have to work it and look hard for sometimes just the smallest story-telling element. Boredom is the enemy. 

I covered a meeting today. The Statesboro City Council was seeking public input because the parking variances for a couple of businesses are set to expire. The choice? Pave your parking lots or lose your business licenses. Individuals representing the local flea market and a local night club made their cases - behind a podium, behind a microphone, with their backs to the audience. Council members, behind their microphones, listened. A lot was at stake, but the tone was cordial.

I found my front page picture after the meeting. There was a large contingent of flea market vendors who attended. They gathered in the downstairs lobby after they had their say, talking, laughing, swapping stories, embracing. They looked like a big family. Aha! I focused in on a large vendor with tattoos who was very animated. When he hugged a fellow vendor, I had my picture. My point-of-view was validated by the first person I spoke to. "It looks like all you vendors are pretty close," I commented. "We're like family, " was the immediate response. That's what was at stake in that meeting room, and I made a visual document to confirm it.

Back in April, there was a school board meeting that was bound to become contentious. The school superintendent had made a decision not to renew the contract of a very popular principal at one of the high schools. Parents and students made passionate pleas -- at the podium. One student brought tears, and I focused on reactions instead of the student himself. The board decided to uphold the decision with no explanation, and people wanted answers. The defining moment came after the meeting was adjourned, and a group of students approached the superintendent. He listened for a few minutes, but had little to say. The faces and gestures told the story, obviously much more quickly than I've just been able to explain it. And that's the beauty of photography.

So meetings can produce compelling, newsworthy photographs - if you pick your spots carefully. But if you really want to bore your photographers -- and your readers -- send them to a lot of meetings. You'll see.

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