Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Story of Us

Insider. Outsider. Gate-Crasher. Ghost. The television news photographer is all of these things - often within the course of a single shift. Nature dictates that we don't fit in.  So we lurk around the edges, training our spotlights on the triumphant and befuddled while we think, mostly, about lunch. I suppose it's always been that way. Shortly after the founding fathers fashioned the first TV test pattern out of a stolen Indian blanket, it occurred to someone in a suit that a new breed was needed. Up from the dust, the first photog rose. No one bothered to learn his name, but all understood that this restless, jaded beast would come in damn handy. So the suits sent this new creature to the edge of happenstance, armed with heavy glass and the odd notion that he'd be welcome anywhere. It shouldn't have worked. But as their lack of luck would have it, vagabonds, stragglers and the criminally insouciant took a liking to the lens. Soon, a craft of sorts was forged - one that required patience, a steady hand and, tragically, cargo shorts.
I should know, for I count myself among their diminishing number. We all have different origin stories. Some are failed athletes, relegated to the sidelines of life. Others are film school nerds who lacked tuition or A/V geeks with more free time than friends. Me - I blame Steve Bottoms.  It was that smug bastard who showed up to my house one late 80's day with a newfangled camcorder under his arm. Dude let me look through it and I was hooked. Something about the viewfinder's soothing blue shine drew me in and I've been loitering in its dying light ever since. Years later, I'd barge into my first TV station, blustering my way into a minimum wage position I was in no way qualified for. Looking back, I should have aimed higher than the six o clock news. But when you're 22 and high on other people's lives, that bolder on your shoulder can feel like a pair of wings.  Since that fated day, I've driven all kinds of cars slathered in peacocks, eyeballs and foxes. I've floated over school buses, flattered world leaders, flown in everything from balloons to bombers and dropped in on more sudden deaths than I can possibly recall.   

But a strange thing happened on the path to backache. The business changed - or to be more precise - never stopped changing. Cameras shrank, as did budgets. Edit bays turned into laptops and lumbering live trucks became magic backpacks. But nothing transformed more than the women and men behind those unblinking lenses. News crews of two shed a full sized human. Folks who once refused to pick up anything heavier than a microphone grew Sonys of their own. Kids mastered the art of editing on their parent's iMacs and the rise of Youtube made it okay for video to look like shit. These days, your average camera scrum features more polished presenters than true blue news shooters. But don't get me wrong. Some of these youngsters - with their plastic cameras and winning grins are fiercely talented. Most, however, are not and while this bothers me more than it does you, it seems to upset viewers not one whit.Which leads me to this existential question...

Serge Brockman Reporting
"Stay Classy, Greenville!"
If a tree falls in the forest and the news crew that comes to cover it consists of a bored nihilist with a camera the size of a baked potato, does anyone (besides a few funky photogs) care? Most probably not and those that do can trace their ancestry directly to those gasbags who lamented the loss of the buggy whip industry circa 1908. That ain't me. Hell, some of my best friends are Multi-Media Journalists! That's what we call One Man Bands these days. And while that old term is probably considered impolitic these days, I utter it with reverence. For way back in the butt-crack of 1990, I considered myself just that and I got the goofy pictures to prove it. So don't take my diatribe as (just) the ramblings of a soon to be artifact. I got much love for anyone who wants to point a lens at something unplanned. It's a weird way to want to spend your day, but I can tell you from experience that if you stick with it, you're sure to become the most interesting person at the party ... wearing cargo shorts.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Pride and Petulance

As a longstanding member of the broadcast media, I’ve been heckled, threatened, shoved and spat at by people who didn’t like the coverage I was providing.  I’ve always tried to chuckle and dodge, knowing that undue animosity was the price I paid for thrusting my lens this way and that.

Once, the elderly matriarch of a trailer park crack-house crew hocked a loogie my way that - I swear to you - flew in slow-motion. It hung there in the air, roiling with venom and denture juice as I leaned back all Matrix-like to avoid it. It was a memoir-worthy moment; one I’ve come to treasure long after her spittle dried in the dirt. I just wish I could still bend like that.

Many Halloweens ago, I rode shotgun with a cocky young deputy who loved the way my camera looked at him. Late in the evening, we pulled up to the scene of a reported stabbing. Before I could unbuckle my seatbelt, Officer Starstruck jumped out, drew his weapon and ran around the corner of an apartment building. I was in my 20’s, so of course I followed him, only to quickly learn I wasn’t invited to the drunken rugby player kegger knife fight. My cop buddy intervened before I got too bounced around, but not before my eyeglasses got shoved down my shirt. Those frames never did fit right after that.

And then there was last summer, in which I spent a fun filled week walking backwards in front of an angry mob. The city of Charlotte damn near came undone over the shooting of Keith Scott and the memories of that meltdown won’t go quietly either. There are places in the city I still cannot go without triggering instant recall of broken glass, tortured shrieks, revving engines, barking bullhorns, angry rain, torn shoulders and the sickly sweet stench of tear gas in the air. What I witnessed that week is something I never want to see again. But I wasn’t there by choice. I was there by vocation: a lowly ignoble craft that’s increasingly regarded as … fake.   

Now, I awake one splendid Sunday morning to find the elected leader of the free world striking out against my broadcasting brethren with, of all things, a doctored wrestling video. It’s the kind of scenario that young dude who dodged the Granny spit simply never would have believed. And it’s enough to make this career cameraman worry about what’s to come…

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Specter's Regret

I was weaving through traffic in a midday haze when the sound of a ringing phone broke my stupor. ‘There goes lunch’ I thought as the station’s call letters appeared on my iPhone.

“Unit Eleven…”

“Hey - I need you to go to 650 Swindell Drive… Sounds like a body found.”

I grunted, tossed the phone in the passenger seat and pulled my third u-turn of the day.

Twelve minutes later, I raised the tailgate of Unit 11 and fished out my lens and sticks. Two police cruisers blocked Swindell Drive. I sauntered past the cop cars, my tripod on one shoulder and the camera strap digging into the other. Up ahead, police officers gathered on the porch of a clapboard house. A young woman in a pink robe sat at the bottom of the steps, her shoulders hitching as she told a detective what she’d seen.

“And I said ‘Daddy, come home NOW! Keesha won’t move!’

Her voice broke and she buried her head in hands. When she did, I twisted the barrel of my lens ever so slightly, sharpening the edges of the woman’s pain. Cold blooded? Perhaps, but I didn’t haul ass to the hood to pass out Popsicles. I came to shine a light on the unadorned truth - and maybe fill ninety seconds of newscast in the process. So there I stood, a street corner specter, saying nothing but seeing all.  I was almost out of shots when the yelling began.

I swung my lens toward the sound and focused on it source. A round man in workers’ overalls, lumbering under heavy breath and wearing an expression I’d seen before.

“Dee! Dee! What happened to Keesha, Dee?”

Leaping to her feet, the woman in the pink robe ran toward her father, causing the officers on the porch to stop talking smack long enough to crane their necks and fondle the butt of their service pistols.

When Dee reached her Daddy, they crumpled into each others arms. As they sunk to the ground, their voices rose, fell and melded until only the guttural sound of grief remained. On the porch, the cops went back to their gossip, leaving the sad passion play to finish out its tragic act.

That’s when I realized I wasn’t rolling anymore.


Keesha was fifteen years old when she died that day. I know nothing else about her, other than what the one cop told me as he gathered up crime tape.

“Sister found her in the kitchen. Looks to be self-inflicted. Coroner’s on the way.”

I nodded, walked away and called the station.

“Slow your roll. Suicide. I got video just in case.”

Walking back to my news unit, my thoughts tuned to lunch. At one point, I had to stop to let the coroner’s van pass. I knew then that the footage I’d just shot would never be reach a TV screen and in a couple of days, most of the details would fade away. It would be like I was never even there. Chances are Dee and her Daddy never even noticed the cameraman quietly framing their pain that day.


But he remembers them. And twelve years later, he doesn’t need to play back any video clip to hear their hearts break all over again. He’ll take that sound to his grave -- along with a twinge of guilt for having even been there to hear it.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Brothers in Scrum

"G. Lee, you on scene yet?"

"Negative. Interstate's at a standstill."

"Well, once you're there, throw up a picture. We're taking you at the top of the six."

G. Lee dropped the cell phone in his lap and stared through the windshield. A sea of brake lights stared back. He glanced at the dashboard clock. 5:40. Twenty minutes to get to what was sounding like the city's seventh homicide in as many weeks. In his lap, the cell phone began to vibrate again. Looking down, he saw it was The Desk again. 'Jesus', he muttered, before noticing the helicopter circling in the distance. G. Lee grabbed the steering wheel, yanked it to the right and stood on the gas pedal. Trapped commuters looked up from their own cellphones and watched the SUV with the oversized 7 on the door race by them in the breakdown lane. G. Lee didn't return their angry looks. He didn't have time.

Eight minutes later, he pulled into the housing development as his GPS chirped in her sunny, female voice.

"You've arrived at your destination."

Overhead, the Channel 3 chopper hovered, as if parked on a cloud. G. Lee didn't give it much thought, but he knew it was why his bosses were blowing up his phone. Up ahead, swirling blue lights bounced off the crumbling brick walls of the housing unit and washed over the curious faces of the crowd  assembling on the sidewalks. Only a few of the faces turned to watch as the news unit park behind a police cruiser. Even fewer kept watching as a shaggy-haired man in his mid-forties climbed out and walked around to the back of the SUV.

G. Lee raised the hatchback lid and without even looking, grabbed his gear. TV camera, industrial-sized tripod, bulging fanny-pack and what looked like an astronaut's lunchbox. He clicked the fanny-pack around his waist, hung the camera by its strap over his right shoulder, hoisted the tripod onto his left shoulder, grabbed the case with his one free hand and trudged up toward the clot of police cars.

At the edge of the yellow crime tape, a tall black man with a salt and pepper beard stood intertwined with his own tripod, his face buried in the blue glow of the Channel 4 camera's viewfinder. Several yards away, uniformed cops made small talk as detectives in rumpled dress clothes loitered on the porch of one of  the housing units. Hoyle Laxton twisted the barrel of his lens ever so slightly, bringing the detectives into sharp focus. He kept his eye glued to the viewfinder as G. Lee joined him at the crime tape.

"Where you been, G? Thought the coroner was gonna beat you here."         

G. Lee planted his tripod on the ground beside Hoyle's, lifted his camera atop of it and framed up a wide shot. As the camera rolled, he popped open the astronauts lunchbox, pressed a button on the transmitter inside and snaked a cable between it and the camera.

"Been suckin' fumes on I-40. Tradin' snapchats with your Mom. Cops talk yet?"

Hoyle snorted, never looking away from his camera's eyepiece. "Not yet. Check out the lady in the housecoat."

G. Lee scanned the crowd and spotted her, a large woman in a faded green housecoat. She was slumped over the roof a police car, her head buried in folded arms, round shoulders hitching as she fought to control her own sobbing. G. Lee zoomed in, locked down his shot and felt nothing at all. It's not that he couldn't empathize, but the callouses on his soul rarely allowed it to happen in real time.

"Think she's the victim's auntie. Cops ain't sayin'. You wanna dog-pile her?"

 "Not especially," G. Lee said. "Let the reporters do it when they get here."

With that, Hoyle and G. Lee fell silent as they recorded shot after shot of bored cops, parked police cars and rubbernecking locals. Soon, other news crews joined them and the kind of idle chatter found in media scrums the world over took place. It was rarely about the tragedy at hand. Rather, they traded war stories about blocked interstates, clueless assignment desks and the unquenchable thirst of the news beast that kept them all employed.

Most of the photogs knew each other well and generally looked out for one another. G. Lee and Hoyle were especially tight. They'd ping-ponged around the region for years, recognizing each others' silhouettes from a distance at house fires, jackknifed semi's, protests and presidential campaign stops. When Hoyle's wife left him, G. Lee listened to him lament the loss, then traded in the favor when it happened to him. It was the closest thing to a friendship either of these electronic loners would lay claim to and they helped each other more than their bosses ever knew.

Which is why it was so hard on G. Lee when what happened to Hoyle happened right in front of him...

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just So I'm Clear...

Sooo, you want me to take my aging news hoopty up some burning mountain pass in smoked-out pitch black conditions? Dodge wombats and flatbeds as I push that junker up hairpin turns while my reporter checks her Instagram standings? Barrel my way past a fleet of parked fire trucks perched on what should be called Suicide Ridge until I find a flat patch of grass to park on? Break out my gear and plant my tripod on some crumbling road shoulder in the name of news? Employ my sniper-like ability to knock off shot after iconic shot of smoke plumes, hot spots and cop cars while my reporter waves her heavily logos microphone at the only person around NOT wearing a firefighter helmet?

Be there ready and rolling to catch any soundbites that may pour forth, fingers hovering over zoom button should any real emotion emerge? Scrounge even more sound from whatever official we can find, then get back in the car and force it up five more miles of dark, twisty switchbacks? Steer that bucket of bolts past Lovers’ Leap and Losers' Landing before settling on a suitable view of the burning orange smear on the cliff-face above us? Unpack lights, camera and action as my reporter steps in front of the camera while mumbling to herself? Crank open the iris and tweak the backlight until my reporter is flanked by distant orange smear and a passing sense of urgency? Hit ‘Record’ and ride audio levels as she stylizes a diatribe that will be used to open and close a report we’re still not done shooting?

Pack up my gear, get back in the car and break out a laptop? Dump my fresh footage into a digital timeline before passing laptop to reporter without knocking over the Big Gulps we’ll have bought an hour earlier? Buckle up and try not to drive off a cliff as I navigate one crazy curve after another back down the mountain? Try not to fall into a trance-like state as the reporter beside me zips back and forth through my footage, the sound-bites stopping and starting like some pre-edit hip-hop? Pull over halfway back and switch seats so that I can finish the edit and upload our piece (hopefully) before we get back to the station? Hunch over a jostling laptop and finger-pad my way through a catacomb of click and drag decisions while my reporter drives us into what I can only pray won’t be a herd of news-crew-hating deer?

Yeah, I can do that...again.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Prattle and Scrum

In his latest musical release, Lenslinger mines the plight of the lonesome data-gatherer against the angry jangle of the American dream. "Pixel Hood" tells the washed up story of a TV stevedore, a limping journeyman whose stilted visuals have left the landscape badly out of focus. Forced to schlep the earth with a broken Sony, the blogger turned troubadour finds damnation, scams and calamity in the guitar-laden gnarl of the photog songbook. But for all the pith and vinegar he pours forth, this only marginally skilled musician struggles with tone throughout what could have otherwise been a minor masterpiece.

The album's opener, 'Over and Under' opens with an angry scat about tangled TV cables, then shifts into what can only be described as 'Screamo-Zydeco' before settling into a whispery chant about fast food wrappers left in the live truck.

By far, the strongest track is 'Trailer Park Fire', a rollicking stomp through a thousand late night news scenes. With potent imagery and a plaintive wail, 'Slinger paints a searing portrait of what losers look like when they look at losers. Too bad he had to drench the whole thing in mid-80's synthesizers.

From there, 'Slinger careens from one genre to the next, often abandoning a particular style, form or even instrument before the song in question is halfway through. While the source material is strong, his insistence on open-mouthed throat drumming distracts wears thin. Were it not for the versatility and verve of his backing band - a ragtag group of news shooters turned musicians known as 'The Hurricane Head-Nods' - their leader may have mangled the muse in the process.

The album ends with it's title track, 'Pixel Hood', an ambitious if unwise epic dirge about a delusional news shooter bent on revenge and too many Red Bulls. Before the nine minute song crescendos with enough rock-star bombast and rearview mirror moves to make Corey Feldman slink away in shame, it touches on such important topics as hunger, injustice and why Spandex is no longer an acceptable fashion choice for middle-aged men. 

The whole thing's pretty much an ear-bleed, but compared to his debut CD, the pretentious, protracted and universally panned double live album "Wretch-A-Sketch", anything is an improvement. (Two Stars)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Framing Chaos

As grown men go, I'm just not that brave. My brother Richard, a retired firefighter, is. He's the guy you want by your side in times of danger. I'm the guy that can get you through that first round of Jeopardy.

But place a TV camera on my shoulder and my very DNA changes. It isn't courage that consumes me when I'm within the lens. It's curiosity. There's no valor involved behind that glass. It's a quest for access. I've no flair for daring in any other situation. But a face full of viewfinder is a suitable mask for a guy like me. I can don that disguise and weigh into any fray as if I'm a treasured guest. It's the fortitude born of a million deadlines met, an aberrant behavior caused more by boredom with the norm than any notion of nobility. Don't get me wrong: I could never be one of those far-flung war correspondents. But when shit goes sideways in my little 'burg, you can better believe I want to be there, if for no other reason than to see it for myself. Those of us with tripods in our trunks steer into the weird with only one agenda: get a better shot than the other guy or girl...

It's been a solid week since the city of Charlotte damn near came undone. It began when local cops shot and killed a black man, Keith Scott. As accusations of institutional racism and police overreach swirled around the Queen City, a couple dozen protestors grew into hundreds of unhinged citizens. Roving bands of demonstrators flooded uptown and disorder ruled the day. It went well on into the night and I was there with a TV camera in tow. Seven days later, I'm still unpacking impressions and trying to figure out how to write about it. The best I can do for now are these scattered thoughts:
Think what you will of the protestors, but don't lump them all into one category. Like the media itself, they cannot be categorized into any one genus or phylum. In my time among them, I witnessed everything from rancor to grace, apoplexy to aplomb. While many were intent on anarchy, others pleaded for peace and understanding. Some wanted the eyes of the world to see what was happening. Others wanted to wipe the streets with this Caucasian cameraman. In one night alone, I was threatened, blamed, pushed, high-fived and even hugged by demonstrators of every denomination.
Despite the incident that led to the unrest, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department showed unbridled restraint in the face of chaos. Suited up in riot gear, they formed a line and stood silently as protestors screamed in their faces, challenging their convictions, character and courage. Sure, they threw tear gas and flash bangs when they felt overwhelmed, but had they used their batons rather than their shields, this city that I've come to know and love would likely have burned. Ask yourself: Could I have kept my cool while a mob of angry faces screamed 'murderer', 'bigot' and 'demon' at me?
Tear gas is no trifle. When police began lobbing canisters last Wednesday night, I was too close for any hope of comfort. Fueled by adrenaline and competition with the other news crews, I stayed put for far too long and sucked a couple lungs full of the noxious fumes. I coughed for a half an hour, my eyes welled up with acrid tears and I wore a large snot-stain on my shirt for the rest of the evening. At one point, I hunkered down with my camera at my feet and wretched. A man who looked to be homeless appeared out of the mist and poured some of his bottled water on my face. Then he vanished into the crowd.
Somewhere amid the threats, tear gas and fatigue, I found myself re-examining my career path. Less than two months ago, I held the title of manager and as such, spent all of my time inside, far from the vagaries of the chase. 'Was I not better off playing the part of house cat?', I wondered as I zigzagged through a throng of SWAT cops and demonstrators. Was I not safer navigating the shoals of office politics, rather than dodging wide-eyed marauders and burning trash cans? Would I not have been wiser to stick with managing millennials instead of this thankless life of sweat and peril?
'Naaah', I thought, wiping my eyes with my shirt collar. I'm safer out here than holing up inside any newsroom.
After all, I'm just not that brave.
(The viewpoints and opinions posted here do not reflect those of my employer. They are my thoughts alone.)