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2008/03/23

Existence, with Evidence

Yes it is Easter weekend, and yes there are a lot of other things that needed my attention. It still didn’t mean I was willing to actually do them. Instead I plunked myself down and pored through the pages of an autobiography by Jim Lo Scalzo. Don’t know who that is? That’s okay. I wasn’t familiar with him either, until I saw his book praised on a photography web site (Sportsshooter perhaps?) Jim does a good job of painting a vivid image of his 17 years in the business of photojournalism. He reveals a lot about himself and does not hold a lot of things back, including his shortcomings. He explains the trade-offs of the life he chose. The globe-trotting photojournalist always looking for his next fix of adventure, at the expense of his relationship with his wife.

He has a chapter in his book about time he spent here, on the Navajo Nation. He mentions Gallup as his arrival point, and his nearly immediate departure for Window Rock, and then on to Chinle, Ariz. It was interesting to see another photojournalists take on this place, on his interactions with the people here more than a few years before my arrival. The book’s cover even features an image he made in the Chinle area, while participating in a sweat (bottom row of the film strips on the cover, frame #34). The image is not included on the book’s web site gallery, nor are any other images from his visit here.

The images are available in a piece titled Along the Byways of the Navajo Nation, and was published by the Washington Post. The catch is that the only way I could find the article and images now is through a pay to read library site.

The book title is Evidence of My Existence. He has a web page dedicated to the book posted through the US News and World Report web site.

Here is a quote from his book –

Photojournalism is accessible; it is about the world, for the world. And its players take more risks, endure more hardships, witness more misery in order to practice their craft than any other artisans I can think of. When they make a picture, they are not imagining a scene but standing right before it. The crackheads and Russian whores and people dead or dying all an arm’s reach away. (pg 71)

In the end Lo Scalzo deems his wife, his newborn child, to deserve a priority in his life. He has an epiphany in Iraq – he is not the greatest in the photojournalism world. He gave it his best and it still wasn’t enough. On that I can certainly empathize. I have given up entering photojournalism contests. I have a box full of awards from the Associated Press. They mean absolutely nothing to me. I am not some great photojournalist that will be singled out as being somebody that others want to emulate. Instead, I think that I am a solid shooter that can do the job and deliver what the editors and readers need from a story. That does not mean that I don’t put in effort in my work. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have passion for making images. It just means that my priorities have shifted.

When I used to hear of severe wrecks or fires or other spot news I was excited about the chance to make some powerful images. Now when I hear such thins over the police and fire radios I cringe and try to prepare myself for seeing somebody’s life drastically, even tragically, altered. Yes, I still am excited about making images, but not for the same reasons. Even though the image may come out the same, the thoughts and feelings I have making the images has changed. I don’t show up at most of these things wondering what I can take away from the scene that will make me look better as a photographer. I come away from these scenes, most times, wondering if the readers will understand why they should care about what has happened.

Photojournalism is about people, and the most interesting stories and images are about people overcoming obstacles. Sometimes they don’t, the obstacles beat them. When that happens it can suck the life and energy right out of a journalist there witnessing it. Or at least it should. If a photojournalist walks away from the scene of a fatal accident with excitement about what he has done, then that photographer has missed the point. The people we interact with, document, have lives and feelings and problems and anguish and joy.. they feel. The people we put in front of our lenses do not exist just for the sake of being targets for our cameras – things to claim like a hunter during deer season.

So many times I have met young photojournalists that are all about their egos, about their work. They want the accolades and the bragging rights. Somehow they have managed to enter the profession with the idea that they can be cool and artistic; or else they have lost sight of things along the way IT IS NOT ABOUT US! It is not about the ability to show up full of ourselves and look down on people that are not as talented as we are. Photojournalism is an obligation to give people a voice that they otherwise would not have, and to let that voice speak, not be tramped upon by our enormous egos. Realizing that I am not, and likely will never be, this great photojournalist is not a bad thing for me. It means I can sit back and look at what my subjects have to say, and then use my skills to try and focus that voice into a visual that the readers will understand.

If my work was about myself, my ego, then I would be running to New York and selling images in Galleries and covering celebrities and making easily ten times more money.

There is nothing wrong with not being the best in the world. Not as long as you are doing your job with honest effort and a true spirit of trying to let your subjects be heard, instead of trying to drown them with your ego.

Always remember that even though that local spelling bee is agonizingly simple to cover, it is still an even that means something to the people there. It is their life you are observing. Treat them with the dignity they deserve. We get so jaded in our newsrooms, complaining that things are beneath our skill levels, not worth our time. Are we really that much superior to these other people in our towns that we can be condescending to them? What if that person you blow off and are rude to happens to have three great stories lined up after that nothing event?

As Bill and Ted said, “Be Excellent to One Another.”

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