Editors Note:


EDITOR'S NOTE: Fresh off a three year managerial stint, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger is back on the street and under heavy deadline. As the numbing effects of his self-imposed containment wear off, vexing reflections and pithy epistles are sure to follow...

Friday, December 31, 2004

The Year in Weird

Dash it all! Aught Four is just about gone and I’ve yet to finish my Year in Review…Trouble is, my yearly day planner is bursting at the seams with more absurdities than I could possibly ever truncate into a single list. Sure, I’ve covered dumpster diving, crazed girl scouts and killer trucks - but we’ve yet to even scratch the surface! Blame it on The Job. Twelve months of squinting through a TV news lens easily provides enough episodes of oddity to make even the numbest among us sit up and take note, especially those of us prone to diarrhea of the keyboard.

So with any further adieu, I give you a half dozen more pit-stops in The Year in Weird.

My heart still goes out to the K-9 officer who plowed his squad car into a tree during a February snowstorm. When I rolled up on scene with camera in tow, he looked like he wanted to climb the highest branch to hide from my lens. I did my best to make it brief, knowing the only people in the world more ruthless on their buddies than wise-ass photogs are the guys and gals behind the badge. I don’t even wanna know that officer’s new nickname, or what kind of payback he might have for me the next time I stumble across him at a crime-scene.

I toured the N.C. State A&T farm in March for a series of photo-ops spotlighting alternative farming. Amid the gourmet mushroom enthusiasts and hippie gardeners were a clutch of ball-cap impresarios boasting of a healthier, tastier hog. Being from DownEast, I took their claims with a grain of salt (and a side of hush-puppies). But true to their word, the bacon they served me there outside the pig-sty were indeed the flanks of dreams. The texture and flavor of the specially-harvested meat filled my senses with carnivorous splendor, despite the overwhelming stench of hog droppings that permeated everything around me. Mmmmm - Bacon.

It was towards the end of May that I found myself swarmed by thousands of rabid Fantasia fans, writhing in wild-eyed abandon as their Queen ascended to the throne of American Idol. A life behind the lens has afforded many front-row seats to spectacle and fervor, but little of it compares to the unbridled euphoria present that night at the Greensboro Coliseum. When Ryan Seachest (finally) did say the F-word, the place erupted with the kind of zeal not found in nine out of ten pulpits. All I can say is, thank God she won.

It was emotion of a slightly different kind at the National Academic League national finals in April. While the brainiest of kids from Kernersville Middle School dueled to the death with a school half a nation away via video teleconference, I huddled with the parents in the other room. As they watched their children answer tough questions on the closed-circuit monitor, I filled my viewfinder with priceless close-ups of soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads hanging on their every word. A proud parent myself, I can relate. But the way one Dad’s forehead veins were bulging, well - it’s enough to make a cameraman wish he wasn’t CPR qualified.

A week or two later intrepid reporter Erik L and I trekked southward to the town of Robbins, to take the community’s pulse on their favorite son. With rumors that Kerry would soon pick John Edwards as a running mate reaching a feverish pitch, we were sure it would be a slam-dunk. It wasn’t. Seems the fine folk of Robbins already had their fill of camera-toting interlopers and didn’t care to comment, thank you very much. Despite loitering outside every town landmark with microphones and smiles, we barely scraped up enough responses to fill a sixty second report. Eventually, we ended up at the post office, where we shot Erik’s on-camera segment in front of a sun-bleached photo of Robbin’s most famous defense attorney. Not wanting to be like every other camera crew that used the familiar backdrop, I forgot to white-balance the camera and the footage came out a painful shade of blue. How’s that for innovation?

In June, a mother of a wash-out flooded homes and businesses just outside the Rockingham city of Eden. Residents wrung out ruined possessions and scraped away the ubiquitous post-flood mud as I dragged around a camera and one monster of a head cold. All the hallmarks were there - destroyed homes, missing pets, talkative victims. But with a head full of antihistamines, I mumbled my way through the proceedings with the air of a bored stereo salesman. Funny thing though, despite having slept-walked the particular flood zone, my report that night sizzled with life and loss. Perhaps I HAVE been doing this too long.

But what ELSE would I do? With a limited attention span, sore shoulder muscles and glaring lack of sheepskin, I’ll probably never be a Giant of Industry. No, it’s probably best I keep chasing deadlines. Besides, what other field would offer such an all-access pass to life as we know it? Auto Repair? PFFFFT - I can’t even change the oil in my wife’s car. But I CAN tell you what the meth labs smell like, who gets to wear the fanciest helmet at your average ground-breaking, where not to park at the midnight homicide. It’ll never make me rich. But who needs money when Bigfoot takes a hostage and no one’s allowed past the barricade except me and a few of my lens-swinging buddies?

I’ll tell him you said hello. For now though, Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Reno Epiphany

I was chasing Janet Reno through a school cafeteria when it hit me. Something’s gotta change. It was late 2000 and the outgoing Attorney General was in town hawking some government-sponsored reading program at a rural elementary school. But the reading program wasn’t why three live trucks were parked outside the gymnasium. No, the rest of the media jackals were there for the same reason I was; in hopes Reno would comment on just WHO should be President of the United States.

At the time the nation was engorged over hanging chads, senile voters and screwy network news predictions. In fact the whole world was watching as lawmakers and litigators played rock-scissor-paper to decide who would be the leader of the free world. Of course, we now know George W came out on top but at the time, the future was very much a mystery. As all eyes turned to Florida, the story became harder to advance on a local level.

And then came Reno. When word came down the jittery politico was scheduled to swoop through our region, news managers across the land marshaled their forces, gassed up their live trucks and sent out their probes.

“Ask Reno what she thinks about the election controversy!” came the order, even though everyone involved: the news managers, Reno‘s handlers, even the lunch ladies scooping fuzzy jell-o in the back knew that the soon-to-be Ex-Attorney General wasn’t gonna say diddly-squat about the state of the election. Everyone, that is, except the reporter I was assigned to that day.

New to our station and devoid of all humor, this fireball of a brunette sharpened her claws all the way to the outlying school. It was all I could do to keep her out of attack mode as we squeezed into the undersized tables and chairs for a sizzling roundtable on the fundamentals of reading. When the manly Floridian made her entrance, an entourage of assistants and Secret Service types trailed after her. Rolling tape, all I could think of was Will Ferrell bursting through a wall and twitching about on the dance floor.

But there’d be no disco balls dropping out of the acoustic ceiling today, merely a perfunctory photo op with Reno reading to school kids. After a half-dead rendition of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, the tall lady with the bus window glasses took a few questions from the assembled press.

Despite the best efforts of several heavily-lacquered correspondents, Reno snubbed every election query with the air of a disgruntled school-marm.

“I’m not here to talk to about what’s going on with the vote…”

It was enough for me, but not for my partner. After the press conference dissipated she insisted we camp out by the lunchroom exit and wait for Reno to finish a quick tour of the school grounds. Perhaps my on-air cohort thought the Attorney General might re-think her position after a whirlwind stroll through the very finest in first grade water colors. Whatever she thought, she was just being a hardnosed reporter, a quality I can respect but not always want to be around all day.

You see lately, I’d been having serious thoughts about my career. Burned out on years of repeating myself for deadlines that never changed, I desperately wanted out of the general assignment mix. Far happier working on stories that ended the newscast with humor and grace than the ones that shouted and preened at the top of the show, I was weary from battle and dizzy from a decade of grueling top-story pursuits.

While all this had been simmering in my brain-pan for quite some time, new career plans really crystallized as Janet Reno and her bodyguard dance party burst from the far hallway. Before I knew it, my reporter lurched toward them, spouting questions and waving her microphone like a beacon of truth. Being her cameraman, I fell into chase; for the next two minutes I backpedaled, zoomed and focused as my pit-bull of a partner asked the same damn question a dozen different ways.

We never got the response she’d hoped for, though I did come into contact with the beefy elbows of her security detail. All this seemed to genuinely shock the school principal leading the tour. As Reno finally shook us from her coattails, I pantomimed my apologies to the perturbed administrator:

'Sorry Ma’am, but we’re the media - its what we do.'

These days I do LOTS of feature stories. Butterfly farms, school bus rodeos, Easter egg hunts, the list reads like something out of a Willy Wonka script. I like it that way. My storytelling heroes don’t lead the newscast live from the White House; they craft portraits of America for CBS Sunday Morning and the like. And while I’m not to that level yet, I can put together a sentimental show-ender with the best of them. It beats stalking political zombies with silly questions that have no answers. Most days.

Hurricane Stew (5)

Back in the tumbling surf, the powerful wave was trying to undress me. As the watery avalanche pushed my shirt up the back of my neck, I managed to surface for a second but still couldn’t make any real purchase on the sandy bottom. Spitting out a mouthful of saltwater, I saw a blue and red blur to my right - signs of another camera crew being swept off their feet and sucked into the watery vortex. Thank you God, thank you for not making me the only one to suffer this injustice. He answered by gratitude by pushing my head back underwater, but not before allowing me a glance of a thin slatted beach fence rushing toward me.

‘That’s gonna hurt’, I thought as I tightened my grip on the camera tumbling in the surf. It didn’t. I hardly felt a thing as I crashed through the brittle boards. Mercifully though, the fence’s impact slowed down my momentum and I realized this unwanted underwater ride was about to be over. Sure enough, the rogue wave receded a few yards past the beach fence, unceremoniously depositing me in a swirling tidal pool before quickly retreating to the sea.

‘I’m alive’, I thought as I lay there in two feet of roiling surf. Then I realized I no longer had the camera in my grip and for a moment, I regretted my newfound survivor status. Like a punch-drunk boxer recovering from a skull-rattling knockout, I scrambled to my feet and began fumbling blindly in the knee-high water. Mercifully, my fingers raked across the electronic corpse. Grabbing a hold of the handle, I lifted it out of the water and placed it backwards on my shoulder. As I did, dirty ocean water poured out of the camera’s insides- an unthinkable sight for one so used to cradling the machine with care. It was then the second wave hit me, an avalanche of implications washing through my mind and scattering all other thought. So I did what came natural. I cursed. Long and meaningful profanities poured forth as I noticed for the first time a soaking wet soundman fumbling with his boom microphone right beside me.

As I dropped every blue word the Navy taught me, I glanced upward and realized my misery was being preserved for the ages. For directly above me, from the safety of their top deck perch, the hooded silhouettes of the network crew hunched around their cameras and zoomed in on yours truly. For a split second, I made eye contact with the camera’s lens before turning away in search of higher ground. All around me, electronic journalists reached out to help me, but all I could see was the back of the National Guard truck idling in the distance. As I traipsed out of the surf, my brain clicked through several stages - from initial surprise to sad acceptance to unfathomable embarrassment. Vaguely aware of the other ruined camera crew behind me, I briefly considered leading them back into the crashing surf, drowning our shame in the Atlantic Ocean and giving the snickering camera crew above something to really feast on.

Instead, I pushed on toward the waiting truck, ignoring everyone around me and barely holding on to the electronic doorstop in my hand. Plopping one soggy shoe in front of the other, I slogged up the beach and felt the camera’s steely gaze on my back. Finally, I made it to the truck where none other than Sheriff Poncho waited, smirking as he chewed the stub of a half-smoked cigar.

“Ya’ll boys ‘bout had enough?”, he asked before chuckling at his own cleverness. I wanted to tell him where he could shove his Boss Hogg cigar, but I figured a jail cell would be a lousy place to dry out. Mumbling under my breath, I hoisted my multi-thousand dollar boat anchor up in the covered truck bed and climbed in after it - wet, unhurt but totally humiliated. Behind me, the sound guy in blue did likewise, followed by a red-suited older photog with his own waterlogged betacam. As we all plopped down in agonized defeat, the truck driver fired up the truck’s diesel engine and pulled away from the seaside media circus. The drive took only a few minutes, but as we all sat there in stony silence, it felt like forever.

But it wasn’t. Ten minutes later, I arrived at my trusty news unit, still reeling in disbelief. I placed the sopping wet camera in back, fished a dry smoke from the passenger seat and eyed my bag-phone in the floorboard.

‘How am I ever gonna explain this?’ I asked myself as I lit the cigarette and dug sand out of my ear. Still not knowing, I grabbed the receiver and punched in the ten longest digits of my life. Seconds later, my news director answered the line.

“Yeah, Ron - I don’t know how to tell you this -- “

Next Time: The Conclusion...

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Stupid and The Doomed

While I convalesce from the Mother of all Flu Bugs, please check out one from the vaults: The Stupid and The Doomed, now available in its entirety at The Book of Lenslinger

I'm still sometimes astounded by the behavior of people at crime-scenes. From the inner city ghetto to the upscale gated community, the sudden appearance of emergency vehicles are often cause for instant fellowship, no matter what brought the flashing lights there in the first place. Be it a simple drug bust or a triple homicide - the immediate area comes alive with macabre excitement. A swarm of citizenry gather at the perimeter, as people who might not normally talk to each other trade whispers over sudden trouble. It's simply human nature to stop and gawk. Hell, it's what I do for a living...

Read the rest at The Book of Lenslinger

Monday, December 27, 2004

You Shouldn't Have! Really.

My girls are sweet. Every year, with the help of Mommy, they give me something really special for Christmas. One year it was an early DVD player. Last year it was the Stevie Ray Vaughan box set. This year, however, they really out-did themselves. They gave me...the flu bug.

If anyone needs me, I'll be lying under my bed, trying to pull my eyelids over my face.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Hurricane Stew (4)

Big mistake. Those two words bounced around my skull as I sunk up to my crotch in cold wet sand. Having left the sat truck scrum two blocks back, I was determined to get to the collapsed houses first, before the scene teemed with competing camera crews. But the only way to do that was hoof it on foot behind a row of boarded-up beachfront condos. Trouble was, the beach itself was pretty slim as swollen waves crashed into the bleach-white seawall. Sticking to the boardwalk, I made my way as far as possible before having to abandon it. However, the surface I stepped on was only pea soup thick and I immediately found myself stuck up to my watch-pocket in soggy wet sand dune. As I struggled to keep the camera above the surface, I wrestled my leg out of the sandy quagmire. My mountain boots bulged in wet goopy beach and my thin khakis clung to my leg like cold, gritty Saran Wrap. I didn’t feel much like the mighty Cordan as I peeled myself out of that muck. Still, if I was to make it to the collapsed houses at the far end of the beach, there was no turning back. Slowly I righted myself and began goose-stepping across the unstable surface, as a National Guard army truck rumbled past a block over, back toward the way I came.

After twenty minutes or so of this slow motion tiptoe, I finally spotted the target. Up ahead, a crumpled heap of salt-treated wood, chipped cinderblock and splintered decking lay in the distance, flanked by three other vacation homes apparently untouched by Gordon‘s wrath. For a moment, I felt like some brave explorer, traipsing over virgin territory unseen by other humans. That’s when I spotted the unmarked satellite truck parked under one of the surviving vacation homes. Following the truck’s cable up to the cottage‘s top deck, I watched as three hooded figures leaned on the railing and fiddled with their network camera set-up. As I closed the distance on foot, I could hear their idle chatter. They sounded like old fraternity pals shooting the breeze at a college football game. So much for being a pioneer.

With more than a little sheepishness, I skirted the perimeter of the fallen beach house, hoping to avoid the attention of the cocky network crew perched above me. At least I can pop off a few ground-level shots of the rubble. Small victories, I thought, small victories. But just as I white-balanced my camera and began to roll tape, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a heavy diesel truck approaching in the distance. ‘You gotta be kidding me ‘, I thought as the National Guard troop truck rounded the corner and came to a screeching halt within three yards of my pathetic form. Seconds later, an army of matching rain suits poured out of the back, gingerly handing down their expensive cameras to one another and joking to Sheriff Poncho about the great curb service. Feeling defeated, I slunk away from the growing crowd and down the beach, lest anyone ask why my right pant leg was dripping wet.

Next Time: WIPE OUT!...really!

Saturday, December 25, 2004

A Partner Departs

It was almost two years ago that Erik Liljegren breezed into the newsroom, twelve months removed from a six year stint producing at Fox News Channel. Despite the pedigree, we lensmen were skeptical. He had the hair and the suits, but could this big city scribbler cut it on the mean streets of the Piedmont? Laugh if you want, but the Triad is a hotbed of electronic newsgathering - a smattering of cities and towns where the local news cycle can kick into overdrive with the flip of a single school bus. In the daily hunt, the well-groomed goob riding shotgun in the live truck can make the difference between going hungry or eating the competition’s lunch. Don’t get me wrong - I‘ve worked with some masterful storytellers, but I’ve also carried more prom queens than a dozen parade floats.

Which brings me back to Erik Liljegren. Before we ever learned how to spell his name, this affable and erudite chap from New Jersey proved he didn’t just fall off the hairspray truck. With his poker face, sharp suits and just-the-facts demeanor, Lilly quickly earned a spot as The Photog's Favorite - a hard title to win among the seen-it-all shooters that populate our shop. The reason was simple: Erik didn't sweat. No matter what absurd assignment the desk threw his way, he delivered - often exceeding the most unrealistic of expectations. Aside from his considerable writing skills and on-camera presence, it was Erik's unflappable nature and easy-going eye-roll that endeared him to photogs, producers and viewers alike. If all reporters were this cool under the gun, my blood pressure would be a good deal lower.

Now he's leaving us, taking his polished shtick and sculptured hair back to the Big Apple, where he'll return to his roots at Fox News Channel. This time however, he'll be in front of the camera, a gig he’s had his eye on since the very first day he sauntered into Rupert Murdoch’s kingdom. We here on the local level are thrilled for him, but more than a little bummed at losing such an all-around stand-up guy. Especially me. As the crusty veteran of a thousand news wars who‘s something of a scribbler himself, I’m especially hard on the talking-hair-do set. But I’ve coem to know Erik as a trusted colleague and genuine friend, one with whom I’ve shared many a newsgathering misadventure. From the dicey neighborhoods to the icy overpass to the unlikely path of a speeding truck, this intensely casual young man has proven he has the chops to handle it all.

I’ve seen scores of reporters come and go. This time, it’s personal.

Merry Christmas!


All the best from Viewfinder BLUES...

Wanted to take a break from erecting Barbie Dream Houses to thank all five of you out there who frequent this site, plus a huge THANKS to all the Piedmont bloggers who have been so helpful over the past couple of months. Now, if you'll excuse me I have a tea party to get back to...

Friday, December 24, 2004

Hurricane Stew (3)

Kitty Hawk was dark, shuttered and seemingly empty. Only a passing TV truck gave the drowsy corner stoplight reason to do its job. With my other-guy radar pinging loudly in my head, I pulled in behind the brightly marked sat truck. ‘Virginia‘s News Leader‘ -- the logo boasted. Do it, I thought. It did, down the street and a sharp right into a crowded cul-de-sac, where I gulped at the biggest gathering of TV news vehicles I’d ever seen.

Satellite trucks, microwave vans, news cruisers and unmarked Suburbans sat parked at crazy angles. Beyond the pack of news chariots, a group of local sheriff deputies stood in front of a string of flapping yellow tape. I found a space and got out of the car in time to see a heavy man in a billowing orange poncho lift a bullhorn to his lips.

“If all ya’ll people will wait about thirty minutes, we’ll get ya down there! Them houses ain’t goin’ nowhere! We’ll take ya, but the road’s washed out and ya cain’t go by ya-self. We got some big army trucks on the way so just sit tight!”

A rumble of indignation traveled through the crowd. Grizzled truck techs cursed under the breath and a square-jawed reporter tried to negotiate a better deal from the man in the poncho. It was no use. Mr. Poncho - whom I later learned to be the County Sheriff, would not budge, no matter what the stranger with the pretty teeth said. After a few minutes, the pack of media jackals thinned, as individual crews retreated to the drier confines of their spacious sat trucks. I had no such luxury though , and as I leaned on the hood of my faded white Taurus Wagon, I realized I had to something if I was gonna keep up with these high-tech Newsonauts. Watching the crashing surf beyond the row of beachfront homes, I thought about my heroes.

‘What would Andy do?’ I thought. Andy Cordan, a brash reporter-photographer who had recently left my station was the ballsiest news-hunter I knew - a sawed-off tree trunk of a man who approached newsgathering like a SWAT team cop on truck stop speed. He’d been the top story every night I could remember, repelling down walls with firemen buddies, goading handcuffed strangers into on-camera confessions or ad-libbing a high speed chase while riding shotgun with cops who wouldn‘t even return my calls. Andy would never let something as flimsy as yellow crime-scene tape and a distorted bullhorn keep him from a story. Puffed up with young newsman bravado, I opened the hatchback and streamlined my gear. Closing the lid as quietly as possible, I held my camera down low and slowly faded into the background.

Next Time: WIPE OUT!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

We Cook, You Decide


DSCF0085
Originally uploaded by Lenslinger.
Not every day is filled with drive-bys, bus wrecks and house fires. This morning I rose early to share some holiday recipes (LIVE!) with the Greater Piedmont Triad Googaplex, proving you CAN shoot a cooking segment while sleeping on your feet.

Oh yes - the shrimp and grits were exquisite.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Of Floaters and Feelings

A fellow photog talks of trauma and television, bringing to mind MY very first time...

I remember a boating accident from 1990. I'd been in news only a few weeks; the veteran of a half dozen press conferences, three meetings and little more. But suddenly I found myself at river's edge, sandwiched between two tripod veterans as would-be rescuers dragged the depths of the mighty Tar for a missing fisherman.

As I brought the small dinghy into focus, I pressed the 'RECORD' button and grew entranced. The man in the boat was down on his knees, pulling aboard a metal chain hand over hand. When it kept coming up empty, he'd motion the boat pilot to rev the motor and move a few more feet downstream.

This went on for quite some time and I stayed glued to the viewfinder, rolling tape and grinding my teeth. On either side of me, the other TV news photogs rolled their eyes at the new guy. I barely noticed them, as all my attention was drawn to tiny black and white screen at the end of the eyepiece. As heart beat increased with every pull of the dead man's chain, my two more experienced colleagues talked shop, traded police scanner frequencies and cracked on each other's Mom.

Not me. I followed the boat in my viewfinder as it moved slowly down it's invisible string. It was almost halfway to the nearest bend when family members started to arrive. At first there were only, but before long five large farm women paced up and down the dock beside us, wrininging their hands and muttering prayers. My two future buddies quieted down a bit, but still exchanged bored glances.

Feeling newly uneasy myself I leaned into the camera and zoomed all the way in. Backlit now by the setting sun, the silhouette of the men leaning low out of the boat was dowright iconic. I didn't know what that word meant back then, but I did realize I was documenting things I had never seen with the naked eye.

Panning slowly to keep up with the boat, I almost missed it, but out of the lower edge of the screen, the slumped head and shoulders of a very large man bobbed to the surface. The men onboard almost went into the drink as they pulled the body toward the boat. My eye buried to the eyepiece, I heard two cohorts lunging for their own lens.

That's when the screaming started.

Three or four voices. of varying pitch but related timber, howling ill-formed syllables of unmistakable pain. Forgetting my shot, I jerked my neck to the left and saw them. As if recieving electrical shock, the women convulsed and dances on the small pier, in much the same way you might if you saw you loved one at the end of a hook.

The next sounds, heavy metal clicks in close succesion, woke me from my stupor. My two competitors tore their cameras from their tripod heads and quickly shouldered them. As they began to advance on the wailing women with their looming lenses, I found myself torn between duty and decency.

I did NOT want to point my camera at those poor women, but I immediately understood I had to. As a small part of me wretched in disgust. I unlocked my tripod head and picked up the camera, realizing this was just the kind of drama I'd been seeking. Who knew it would feel so lousy?

Fourteen years later, I still attend the occasional drowning, and I've put more sad people on television than I care to count. It's my job. But I've never forgotten that day,when I had to get my hands dirty in the name of news. These days I employ more distance and tact in the pursuit of truth - knowing you can document the truth without getting in the way.

Most of the time.

Hurricane Stew (2)

“No sweat - drive up early in the morning, shoot a couple hours worth and boogie back for the early shows.”

I nodded in agreement, as my bureau mate packed up his briefcase. We had just finished a conference call with the news director, who wanted one of us to head to the Outer Banks in the morning to cover Hurricane Gordon. My colleague had a few years on me and seemed more than a little eager to pawn off the long workday on yours truly. I didn’t really mind, though. This televised storm tracking was a blast! Recently, I’d chased a few spats of bad weather up the Carolina shore, including the weird trifecta of systems later immortalized in ‘The Perfect Storm’. I had even covered some hurricane aftermath, but never the powerful storms themselves. That evening I left the office and went straight home, eager to prepare for the next day’s adventure. Little did I know just how much adventure I‘d get.

The next morning I rose early, kissed my sleeping wife and climbed into my mobile office - a thoroughly dogged-out Ford Taurus wagon with bright peacock logos and a fading white paint job. They called it Unit 11, and as I pulled out of my neighborhood, I hoped it would get me to my destination. It did. Three hours, two Mountain Dews and half a pack of Marlboros later, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and crossed over the Albermarle Sound. Entering Nag’s Head, I lingered long enough do a live report, thanks to the station’s latest addition to my newsgathering arsenal. In fact, I couldn’t stop fiddling with the shoebox-sized ‘bag phone’ sitting in the floorboard the whole trip.

Yes, I was living on the technological edge as I idled in a convenience store parking lot and repeated what I had just heard on the radio into the phone’s receiver. Back at the station, the director punched up a frozen picture of me from the previous day’s story and daydreamed while I yammered on about sea swells and wind gusts. After some phony cross talk with the morning anchors, I signed off, dropped the news wagon into drive and pulled onto the deserted street. Enough talk - time to back up my words with pictures.

Trouble was, there wasn’t a lot to shoot. Since it sprang to life in the western Caribbean several days earlier, Hurricane Gordon had veered drunkenly all over the Atlantic - killing more than a thousand people in Haiti before ending eight more lives in Florida. But by the time it swerved onto the Outer Banks that morning, Gordon has lost most of his lethal punch. The most damage the highly erratic storm could muster was the toppling of five dilapidated beach houses; abandoned cottages condemned a year earlier after Hurricane Emily’s visit. At the end of a drunken spree of violence and death, the intoxicated weather system took a few last swipes before stumbling back out to sea.

Next Time: The Big Boys...

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Chill of the Hunt

As much as anything else, Television News Photography is about driving. Lots of driving. From the screaming interstate to the silence of the back road, I log many a highway mile in the name of news.

Take today for instance. I walked into a morning meeting to learn everyone gathered around the conference table thought it was a good idea if I were to immediately race to the town of Advance. Seems high winds had knocked out power overnight, hundreds of people were shivering without heat on the coldest morning of the year, and they wanted me to ‘put some eyes on it’.

Great.

Minutes later I pulled out of the parking lot and steered my frigid Ford Explorer onto the bypass ramp - cranking up the heat and trying like hell to remember where Advance was.

Out along the highway, amid the revved out engines and mad lane changes, I settled into the familiar confines of my mobile office. Holding the wheel steady with one knee, I worked the station’s ancient cell phone, gathering data as I hurtled toward Davie County.

The sheriff department dispatcher had no exact addresses, but plenty of rumors about outages near the Davie/Davidson County line. I dialed a number the station gave me and spoke with a lovely grandmother in the Fork township who’s lights had just flipped back on. She sounded ecstatic, but I was bummed. With Duke Power working furiously, they’d have every Christmas tree in the region lit up before I ever pulled in town.

So I leaned into the steering wheel and pushed the news unit a few miles faster. Not too many, mind you. I learned long ago that the flashy logos on the outside didn’t make my news unit invisible to radar. I merely stayed in the front of the law-abiding pack, as a dozen lead-foots drafted in behind me.

Just before ten o clock I exited the highway system and began plying the back roads of the area surrounding Mocksville. I’d consulted maps, called the authorities and fended off my own rabid producers. It was now time to act on instinct, intrinsic real-world knowledge honed from fifteen years of chasing scanner static and making improbable deadlines.

When a fire station appeared through the windshield, I swooped into the parking lot and pulled along side a beefy fireman thawing out a frozen-stiff mop head with a bucket of dirty water.

‘Ya got any ball caps?” came the familiar refrain. Sadly, I didn’t. All I had were questions - questions he heard before.

“Yeah, they’s all out a power down People’s Church Road. Duke Power’s down there now tryin’ to throw the switch.”

Before the firefighter could finish his sentence, I was down the road, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel and hoping the power guys would drag their feet. Five minutes later, I turned onto People’s Church Road. It was a narrow winding country pass and I slowed to just under the speed limit, turned down the radio and cranked up my newsman’s radar.

All looked normal along People’s Church Road, the modest homes that flanked each side of the road showed no outward signs of distress. But as I cruised by the one story ranch numbers, I noticed several garage doors halfway open, a closer look revealed tell tale orange drop cords running haphazardly across shrubs and driveways. Slowing down, I noticed the feint sparkle of tinsel on a decidedly unlit Christmas trees.

I had arrived.

Soon I was out of my news cruiser, knocking on doors and blowing warm air into my hands as I hopped from frigid foot to frigid foot. I must have looked pretty silly, because the first few houses produced no occupants, even though I could clearly hear them rustling around inside.

The third door I knocked on opened almost immediately, a frail looking woman in a nightgown and overcoat meeting my gaze.

“Yes Ma’am - I’m from Channel X, looking for people who still don’t have power...”

“Oh no, I have power” she said, her crystallized breath blowing through the screen door. “All fine here!”

Something in the woman’s wide eyed expression made me question her facilities, but I thanked her and promptly exited her porch. Seems she was all stocked up on crazy and didn’t need none of my voodoo, thank you very much.

For the next twenty minutes I played meter reader, stopping at every house whose doorbell light was dim. Three teenagers answered one door, stoked at the chance of being on Tee-Vee. I hated to disappoint them but there parents weren’t home and I didn’t feel like dealing with three wisecracking adolescents, having been an intolerable pioneer in the wise-ass arts at their age.

Three more times I found a suitable no-power victim, but no matter how many times I dropped the call letters and lay on the ‘Aw Shucks’ routine, they wouldn’t consent to an on-camera visit. Geez...all I wanted to do was come in their home, run my lens through their discomfort and squalor and document it for all their neighbors to see. It’s not like I’m selling Amway or something.

After a few more turn-downs, I was growing frustrated. Worse yet, every third house I passed now had porch lights blazing, taunting my newsgathering attempts with their newly-returned power source. As I took the curves of the country road at a mile or two under reckless, my cell phone rang for the third time in twenty minutes. It was the station, wanting to know if they could send a late-arriving reporter my way, to assist me on the scintillating expose I was working on.

Tightening my grip on the cell phone but holding the steering wheel loose, I tried to explain to my bosses how back-up was the last thing I needed.

“Right now there’s no reason to sen him. I’ve been up and down this road and can’t find anyone who wants to play ball. Now I’m seein’ porch lights pop on.”

As always, the suits were unhappy to hear reality wasn’t conforming to their wishes. In the background I could hear them discuss bringing me back to the station and having me start over on something new. The kiss of death at 11:30 in the news morning. Straining to hear their chatter, I kept driving but stopped paying too much attention to the road.

“Yeah, Stew, why don’t ya head back here and pick up Hunter? You guys could do something on the City Council...”

Alarms and sirens were going off in my head and all the air sucked from my lungs as I gripped the wheel. In no small part did I want to enter the fray of in-town politics, for more reasons than I can list here. I even considered feigning stomach pains, but my work ethic prevented me. All I could do was try not to whine to my superiors as they set my news-day back to zero.

That’s when I saw him, a lone figure bundled up and waiting for the world’s scrawniest dog to baptize a patch of frozen dirt. Behind him, the door to a double wide trailer swung open, revealing only the flicker of candle light from within. When he saw my flashy news wagon, the bundled figure waved heartily and broke into a dented tobacco-stained grin.

Bingo.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Anarchy at Center Court

With less than a week until Christmas and four more days of work left, I’m sure to get it: The much-maligned Holiday Shopping Story. It’s an assignment most TV News folk dread - the ones of us who leave the studio, anyway.

It’s not that it’s difficult, mind you. Spend an hour or so on-scene and you’ll fill your viewfinder with more Christmas consumer images than you can record. Still, the lens-toting loner has good reason to gripe as he schleps gear through the sliding double doors.

For starters, it’s almost impossible to fly under the radar. As a pretty low key guy, I love nothing more than hiding behind the lens. I’m quite adept at being the nameless face behind the flashy station logo. But that sort of invisibility is impossible on the selling floor...especially this time of year.

You try blending into a sea of hopped-up holiday shoppers with a Channel X news camera on your shoulder. It can’t be done. For every sensible citizen that averts your gaze and keeps on walking, a dozen loitering yahoos strut and preen for your attention. Pop on your light and you'LL turn the Food Court into a mosh pit. It’s enough to make a WEARY photog run for the live truck.

Ah, the live truck: another curse of continuous holiday coverage. Producers love to park reporters at the mall to intro their piece, but that twenty seconds of television can break your back and your pride. Why? Try dragging five hundred feet of dirty camera cable into a herd of frazzled consumers and setting up a live remote in their midst. There’s not enough duct tape in the world to make that a good idea.

But we do it, year after year and I don’t expect it to change this joyous season. The only upside is all the shopping I do between wide shots and soundbites. One year I completed my entire list with the heavy strap of my camera digging into my shoulder. ‘Make a hole - the cameraman wants to buy a Lean Mean Grillin’ Machine for his in-laws.’

Yes, the holiday shopping live shot is here to stay, despite its utter lack of news value. I‘ve yet to hear of even one Billy Joe Six-pack bolting up from his La-Z-Boy and bellowing to his bride in the kitchen.

“Myrna - come quick! The Tee-Vee sez there’s people swarmin’ the shopping mall in time fer Christmas! Quick! Git in the storm cellar!”

Who knows though? Maybe that has happened. How would I know, anyway? I’m stuck here in line waiting for Santa and dodging rent-a-cops. The whole world could explode and I’d barely hear a rumble beneath the sappy Muzak. Hmm...maybe it’s not so bad.

Just do me favor, would ya? If you pass a TV news crew camped out in the middle of a packed shopping mall these days, be nice. They’re having as much as fun as the schlub collecting trays in the Food Court.

No, the only worse gig this time of year is the snowy overpass, after a few paltry flakes have sent news managers AND the public into a bread buying, car wrecking, TV watching tizzy.

On second thought, forget I even mentioned that.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hurricane Stew (1)

Don’t turn your back on an angry ocean. It is one of the many lessons I took away from my 1994 encounter at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Hurricane Gordon had just blown through and I was one of many surly journalists milling about the beach amid the wreckage of a collapsed vacation cottage. Actually, I was a 27-year-old news punk running around in a station windbreaker and feeling quite outgunned. All around me, three-person network crews in matching rain slickers roved about with their pistol-grip betacams and looming microphone poles. I however was a one-man-band, on the coastal edge of my rural TV news market and more than a little unprepared. It wasn’t my first time chasing storms, but it WAS my first time at a network-level Hurricane Circus. Maybe that’s why I stuck to the edge of the pack, ignoring the crashing surf behind me as I watched the big boys strut their stuff. In my stupor, I made myself an easy target. Why else would Mother Nature kick me in the ass?

A sharp yell kicked off the waylay. I don’t remember the exact words, but the tone of the distant voice snapped me out of my trance and I looked up over my shoulder. In an instant, I understood why strangers were shouting at me. An avalanche of whitewater quickly filled my view. As it did, I couldn’t fathom was how the Atlantic Ocean had raced up the beach so fast. But in the nanosecond I took the waist-high wall of tumbling seawater to reach me, I realized I was about to get my bell rung. I just didn’t know how long it would echo.

I tried to move. I twisted around to block the camera from the wave’s impact and wondered just how wet I was about to become. That’s when everything around me turned to foam and the rogue wave picked me up off my feet. Holding the camera in a death grip, I struggled to gain control, as the wall of water tossed me around like just another twig it intended to snap. Sand and saltwater filled my nasal passages as I cart wheeled in the Atlantic’s frenzied spin-cycle. I tried desperately to come up for air but the pounding surf planted my face into the sandy bottom and tried to rip the dying camera from my grip. My Nantucket Sleigh Ride had begun.

I’d like to say I tapped my inner Aqua-Man and rode that battered Panasonic into shore like an electronic boogie-board. But what I really did was suck seawater as the forces of nature gave me the Mother of all sand-wedgies. All I could do was hold on to the camera, determined not to lose what was most certainly a mortally wounded piece of recording equipment. But I wasn’t alone in the ocean’s crush. All those broken boards, metal shards and bricks I had been standing by were now part of that rushing river of sea foam. For a second I broke the surface and got a quick, scary look at the jagged lumber swirling around me. A piling the size of a telephone pole bobbed past and I prayed I wouldn‘t come to rest with a stick through my gut. Then the wave pushed me downward and I was break dancing underwater once again.

In times of great peril, time has a funny way of skipping a beat, slowing down to make seconds feel like several lifetimes. Thus, I had lots of time to contemplate my fate as I slow motion tumbled through the barreling surf. I wondered how I would explain this to my bosses, my wife, and my buddies. Mostly though, I thought about how I came to be swimming alongside an expensive TV camera in the first place.

Next Time: Road Trip...

Friday, December 17, 2004

Crash Test Dummies


Those who remember my mad dash from a speeding truck last month will be surprised to hear I revisited the Great Barrier 1 Net Test. Mike Lamore and his buddies assured us we wouldn't have to run for our lives this time, so reporter Erik Liljegren and I returned to the Randolph County holler these homespun engineers call home.

The mission was the same: Ram a full size moving truck into a giant kevlar net. Last time the assembled gearheads tried to drive the truck via a remote control. Aside from a total lack of steering control, it worked just fine. Wisely, Lamore hired a stunt driver this time - a lackadaisal young hipster who looked like he should be scooping yogurt off campus somewhere instead of strapping on a crash helmet and crawling into the truck's modified cockpit.

Still, the young man earned his coin, driving the familair truck (now sporting a giant Barrier 1 website address) into the net at 52 miles per hour. A loud pop rang out when the truck smashed into the net, followed by a few muttered curses from its designers. It snapped, wrapping it's heavy corded braids around the crumpled grill and quickly flattening tires. With the dust still settling, a herd of lenses pounded down the dirt road toward the smoldering wreck, the stunt driver stumbling out of the cab with only a slightly spacier look on his face than before.

Pointing my camera this way and that, I captured twenty second segments of the crash's aftermath as Lamore and company did their best to put a spin on the net's performance.

"It stopped the truck. If this was a bomb, he's not going anywhere now," he said as blue antifreeze poured from the truck's busted radiator.

I squinted through the viewfinder and wondered how much the dirt embankment just behind the net had to do with the truck's sudden halt. Hmmmm.

Snapped net or not, Mike Lamore and his screwdriver buddies are onto something. I have no doubt they'll eventually sell their Barrier 1 system to the military, once they get all the kinks ironed out. Until then, you can find them huddled at their Randolph County outpost, perfecting their 'Dukes of Hazzard' approach to Homeland Security - and making for some pretty good photo ops in the process.

What could be more American than that?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Perils of E.N.G.

Earlier this year, two television news photographers died in the line of duty. At the time I attempted an on-line eulogy of sorts, but came away with a plea to my brothers and sisters behind the lens.
Setting up a live shot in haste, darting across traffic for another tape - we’ve probably all done it more than we care to admit. But this week those thoughtless actions took two colleagues from us, one an eager rookie, the other a trusted veteran. I knew neither, but after hearing of their tragic plights, I’ve come to think of them as fallen comrades.

Maybe that’s because they were brothers-in-arms, the kind of guys I might strike up a conversation with by the roped-off crime scene. We behind the TV news lens are a loose-knit lot, as a breed we are not ‘joiners’ but individualists who enjoy being insiders and embrace our unique perspectives . But pluck two shooters from either coast and they’ll quickly find something to talk about. Despite whatever size market or region we practice our peculiar craft in, we share a common language built around our most uncommon points of view.

Which is why it’s so easy to identify with the latest two victims of the news-gathering war, for they are versions of every one of us. I look at Matt Moore’s picture online , and remember the unbridled enthusiasm of my own early days behind the lens. I read about the award-winning work and winning nature of Jeff Frolio, and I think about the kind of photog I want to grow into. That neither of these two men will get to complete their own journey fills me with regret and trepidation; for succumbing to their same fate is all too easy to imagine.

Some cynics have cited Jeff and Matt’s apparent lack of judgment - an easy thing to do from the safety of a cushy cubicle. They’re free to say what they will, even when it goes so far to insult the freshly dead. But until all those critics have walked a mile in a photog‘s shoes, their blustery words mean damn little. Ironically, the most savage attacks have come from those too used to getting their news handed to them on a silver platter. It’s different when you’re in the field. I’m not defending the disastrous actions of young Mr. Moore and not so young Mr. Frolio, but I can certainly understand what led them to the brink.

Too often we photogs adapt a soldier’s mentality, hunkering down under the weight of our gear and slogging through day after day of battle. Unseen generals page us hourly, issuing forth battle plans at a feverish pitch. Strategies vary, but all involve using every bit of our blood and sweat and sometimes even our tears. But we barely break stride, for the grueling pace and the outrageous demands are all a part of the conflict at hand. It should surprise no one that occasionally we foot-soldiers end up jumping on a few grenades. After all, life on the front-lines comes with a few scars.

But unlike real soldiers, those of us who peer through viewfinders for a living often suffer delusions of immortality. Perhaps it’s because we see the best and worst of mankind in tiny black and white. So accustomed to perching on the edge of tragedy, we squint through our eyepiece and compartmentalize our feelings, instead focusing on our own special blend of guerilla storytelling. Fancying ourselves as post-modern action figures, we wrench the most from our various gadgets in a daily footrace to pull off the improbable, to make slot at any cost.

This week, however, the price was the very lives of two beloved photojournalists, a terrible fine that no manager, station or network truly wishes to pay. Everyone involved in the dissemination of information will agree - there is no story, no intrigue, no drama of the day is worth the life of it’s messenger. For those in the newsroom, it’s little more than benign policy - for those of us in the field, it should be a daily mantra.

Simply put, Matt Moore and Jeff Frolio didn’t have to die. But they got caught up in the thrill of the hunt and before they knew it, they went from predator to prey. It would be criminal for those of us still in the pack not to learn something from their fatal mistakes. Remember their names and why you know them. Let their deaths be a grim reminder that the Job has inherent perils, and twenty years under your belt doesn’t make you immune to its many risks. It’s an unavoidable truth we all need to think about the next time we hurl ourselves into the void. Jeff and Matt didn’t plan to end their lives that day, and we should all learn from the awful finality of their momentary missteps. To do anything less is to dishonor their memory.

Look Up, Slow Down, and Go Home at the end of the day. Your loved ones deserve it, and so do you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Diagnosis: Blogger

I'm sick, I tell you - feverish with thought, pregnant with prose and increasingly addicted to blogging. How this came to be is still a mystery, but I can no longer deny it. Consider the signs:

Today at a stoplight I came up with a great blog-topic. I was three paragraphs into the mental screed when a trucker behind me blasted his horn, snapping me out of my crossroad torpor. Seems he didn't care what epistle might be brewing under my lid; he only wanted to offer me the finest in one-fingered driving instructions. Who says chivalry is dead?

Later I was scribbling in a pocket notebook with a cell phone jammed in my ear. Not an unusual thing for a married man, until I caught myself adding html code to the wife’s grocery list. Anybody know where I can two bags of, lemme see... {li}{a ref ='cat food'}{/a} ? Harris Teeter doesn’t seem to stock it.

Worst of all, I can’t seem to keep my new disease to myself. Today at a lengthy Governor’s press conference, instead of daydreaming into my lens, I scribbled my blog address on three business cards and shoved them into the palms of one Jerry Bledsoe, Senator Kay Hagan and eventually, Governor Easley himself.

No wonder the bodyguards were looking at me funny.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Scenes From A Day Planner

As a struggling memoirist, I do ALOT of looking backwards. Which is why you'll find me hunched over my battered Day Planner this time of year, trying to assign nuance and meaning to twelve months of dashboard chicken scratch. Some of the terse entries ('Fatal House Fire','Danville Primaries','New Wal-Mart) tell the whole tale, but others ('MoonRock Madness', 'Robotic Prostate','Toxic Ditch') beg to be explained. So grab your own calendar and join me, as I flip a few coffee-stained pages and trounce back through a pretty average 2004,"The Year in E.N.G."

A perfectly good news story fell from the sky in early March, and for a few days the local telescope mafia did nothing but hyperventilate about it. In between hits off their collective inhalers, they pronounced the mysterious mass of metal that pierced the roof a north High Point home to be Not Of This World - a meteor maybe, a piece of space junk, the cam-shaft to a late model UFO. Imagine their reaction when the Amazing Space Rock turned out to be a broken cog from a nearby industrial wood chipper. I don't have to imagine it - I was there, and since then the truly weird tale of 'MoonRock Madness' had richocheted inside my skull. But more on that one later.

Days after that astro-debacle I plummeted back to Earth and witnessed animal cruelty of the lowest order. Hours after animal rights activists rescued a dozen diseased and neglected horses from a Randolph County farm, I met the group in Dobson and surveyed the status of the starving herd. You didn't have to be a horse-person to spot the abuse: jutting ribcages, malformed hooves, grossly-dialated pupils, all signs of unfathomable neglect. The flannel-clad rescuers shook with anger as they told my camera how God had a special place for those who torture animals. I hope they're right. It's been said that horse-people prefer the company of their beloved steeds over that of humans. Now I know why.

Weeks later, another kind of animal dictated my day. A doe, a deer, a female deer upset quite a few Subway patrons when it burst through the glass of the restaurant's front door, obviously hungry, confused and dying to meet Jared. Twenty seconds after it crashed the party, the punch-drunk doe left through the gaping hole it came in through, causing the young counter help to speak in tongues. I knwo this because I watched the in-store surveillance camera footage until my eyes bled tartar sauce. After some judicous editing and an interview with the friendly store manager, I had what turned out to be one of the easiest, most inconsequential and frequently asked-about news story of the year. Who needs in-depth coverage of weighty topic when you have cute and fuzzy animals in dire peril?

In May, a foul hot wind blew in and sparked the first in a series of inner-city police stand-offs. These midday gatherings are a hallmark of local summer news coverage - as predictable as house fires after a sudden cold snap. I arrived a little late, and after doing power hits off my news unit's air conditioning vent, I slunk into the humid lunchtime air, taking my place amid the other cameras, drunks and looky-loo's. Police cars and SWAT team members shimmered in the distant heat waves and I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at. Spotting a hunched over woman in an orange housecoat, I made a polite inquiry of the gathering citizenry.

"'Scuse me Ma'am - what's going on?"

"Some fool beat his girlfriend", the woman said, leaning in close and bathing me in cheap liquor and cigarettes, "Now he's holdin' off the PO-lice."

Straining to make sense of the flashing blue lights through my viewfinder, I pulled back from the eyepiece and tried to get my bearings.

"You mean that blue house down there", I asked my new boozy friend, " the one kinda blocked by that old barn?"

At that, the woman jerked her gaze in my direction and with bloodshot eyes delivered what might very well be the line of the year...

"That ain't no BARN, Cracka - that's MY HOUSE!"

Flush with ignorance and shame, I stifled a laugh and never felt whiter. Later, back at the station, I shared the exchange with several co-workers. I probably should have kept it to myself, as a few of them have called me nothing but 'Cracka' ever since.

Who can blame them?

Next time on The Year in E.N.G. -- June and Beyond!

Confessions of a Video Vulture

I'm lucky. I truly enjoy my work. For the past fifteen years, I've witnessed more froth and wonder than many do in a lifetime, thanks to the ever-present camera on my shoulder. But the job isn't without it's dark side...

...Like having to approach the families of murder victims in hopes of an interview. It's the least favorite part of my job, but sadly, it's something I've become quite adept at. My method is simple, park my rolling billboard as far away from the family's house as possible and walk up the driveway WITHOUT the camera. I'm usually met outside by a teary-eyed relative, wanting to know what the hell I'm doing on their property.

I apologize for intruding at such an insensitive time and explain the reasons for my visit. I offer condolences on my station's behalf and ask if there's anything they'd like to say to our viewers. Sometimes I'm asked to leave immediately, and I do, but more often than not the person will talk. It's not fair, they say, Johnny was so young, he was never given a chance, who could do such a thing? I stare at my feet as they wipe away their tears. Many times I'm on the verge of choking up too, but I forge ahead, asking if they would consent to an on-camera interview.

Surprisingly, many agree. Soon, I have the camera trained on them as they reluctantly answer my questions. I use to marvel at the number of people who will go on-camera and talk about their slain relatives before they are even buried, but not anymore. Enough years behind the lens has rendered me quite immune to surprise of any kind, and in a way that helps me get through such unsavory assignments.

But just WHY these victims of tragedy talk to a stranger with a camera still eludes me. Some understand that news of their loved one's demise will air anyway, and seek to straighten out the rumours and innuendo that swirl around such cases. Others are merely fullfilling their newly appointed roles as reluctant spokespersons in our media-soaked culture. But most of those who do talk, do so as if they have no choice, wrongly assuming the electronic media represents some kind of authority figure.
It's that belief that disturbs me most.

Their pained expressions stick with me. I'll never forget the large black man who sat on the porch of his public housing unit, swatting away flies as he told me about his ten year old daughter, who had been found beaten to death the day before. Or the frail young woman who balanced her baby on her hip, telling me that her younger brother's mile-long rap sheet was no reason for him to be gunned down in cold blood. Or the old couple who clutched the framed picture of their grand-daughter, and asked my camera why anyone would want to kill their baby.

I have no answers for these people, only questions. And sometimes, when the interview is over, the strangest thing happens. They'll thank me for being sensitive to their grief, for understanding their emotional state. I've held hands with some family members, shared hugs, even closed my eyes as they launched into prayer. And while the reason for my presence isn't entirely pure, my empathy is heartfelt. I've even kept in touch with a few, checking in on them when I'm in their neighborhood. It doesn't help their pain, but maybe it helps my guilt for intruding in their lives during such a horrific time.

Later, when I'm in my news car and heading back to the station, I turn the radio off and drive in silence. Despite how much tact I may have employed, I usually feel like a heel for succeeding in my hated task. I know my producers will be estatic over my bounty. They'll view my footage of crying relatives, family portraits and crime scene tape as just more fodder for their latest lead story. An editor will extract the most emotional moments and condense it to a tidy minute-fifteen report, ending with a slow-motion zoom of the deceased's once smiling, living face. Carefully groomed anchors will put on their most somber faces, and relate the facts of the latest homicide in the inner city. Ninety seconds later they'll move on to the next story, the tragedy immediately forgotten. But I don't forget, even though I sometimes try.

I used to be proud of being callous, wearing my hard candy shell like a newsman's badge of honor. Then I had kids. Children of your own have a funny way of re-examining your life. As a result, I'm a bit more feeling than I used to be. Recently when I was out of state on assignment, an elementary student got run over and killed by his own school bus. Thank GOD I wasn't around to respond to THAT story. Having children that same age, I doubt seriously I could have handled such a tragic scene. Call me a wimp if you want to - but far more important people call me 'Daddy', and I owe it to them not to be a totally heartless bastard.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Footage Shouldn't Fizz

A colleague from Australia tells the story of how a single ant brought his newsgathering day to an unceremonious finish. I can relate. Though never been infested with ants I pulled the equivalent a long time ago in a news bureau far, far away...

It was back in my one-man band days when I toiled as a reporter-cameraman-roadie. Lodged away in my seedy little office, I hacked away at an ancient typewriter, trying to bring a little wisdom to the rash of break ins I was covering that day. As usual my desk was a mess: shoot tape, Chinese take out plate, soda, car keys, pager, camera batteries, all the weaponry of a modern day news warrior. Hey, who has time for desktop feng shui when you're committing television in the first degree, anyway?

No, office ergonomics were the farthest thing from my mind as I stared at the corkboard and mumbled aloud like broadcast writers have done for decades. Not happy with the cliché on my tongue I turned my trusty thesaurus for another one. That's when my elbow collided with can, toppling the freshly opened Dr. Pepper onto my freshly ejected shoot tape.

Before I even noticed an arcing carbonated plume instantly soaked my news gathering efforts, leaving my bright yellow beta tape a sticky, syrupy mess.

After a few moments of staring in disbelief, I made a very unpleasant phone call to my News Director. There wasn't much I could do: it was ninety minutes to Showtime and my important news footage was covered in frothy cool refreshment. Lacking the acumen to repair the tape, I meekly offered to do a live shot from the bureau and act out the rash of break-ins using shadow puppets.

My bosses were not amused.

Since that day I've cleaned up my desk and adopted the wise practice of using tape boxes, something I should have figured out on Day One. Now that I'm recording straight to disc, I'm equally paranoid - not wanting to pioneer news ways to corrupt Sony's much-heralded format. Though I'm scatterbrained by nature, I always know where my media is, as without it - I'm just a bystander in logowear.

And though the skill has always escaped ME, I've witnessed incredible tape-endectomies over the years. In the edit bay, the engineer shop, the live truck, I know photogs who can perform emergency surgery with nothing more than a Leatherman and a looming deadline, Long after I would have given the patient up for dead, they've rescued sound and images from that Great Tape Pile in the Sky. I've always considered that ability to be a hallmark of a True Photog - not some lens-pretending, squinty scribbler like myself.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Dumpster Diving at the DMV

On a bone-cold February morning I took part in what’s long been a newsgathering tradition: dumpster diving. This time it was behind the DMV, where a year earlier my reporter for the day uncovered a soggy cache of decidedly un-shredded expired drivers licenses. Having milked that stash for a whole series of special reports, we were back for more, dressed like ninjas and poking our lens through a few more stout vessels of refuse. As I pierced the darkness with my camera’s top-light, a young lady who once sat in some lofty hall of Journalism and fantasized about a glamorous job in TV News squeezed herself through the smelly opening of a rusty dumpster. So much for dreams.

Before long we hit pay dirt: more intact licenses, sliced a little and nicked on the corners, but still clear bearers of easily-exploitable data. ‘Witness, the spoils of Garbalogy!’ I thought as I twisted the focal ring until the image was razor-sharp. People go to school for this? My partner sure did and she squealed with delight at her next discovery: processed speeding tickets, stacked and intact - chock full of easily viewable personal information. The reporter suppressed a chuckle as she fanned the familiar pink ticket slips in front of my lens and narrated her find. I squinted through the viewfinder and thought about breakfast. A few phone calls to this new list of lead-foots and we’d surely uncork someone to point a camera at. The rest would write itself. I love the smell of sweeps promos in the morning.

We could have stopped there, and probably should have. But as the pitch black of night melted into morning light we put off the breakfast bar for an impromptu strike on a certain cross-town waste container. Like junkies on the prowl, we soon loitered at the edges of a different DMV’s back parking lot, shifting from foot to foot and jonesing for another hit.

Trouble was dawn had turned to daylight and all elements of subterfuge were lost. Tough break, that. You try sifting through a DMV dumpster with a flashy TV camera while a dozen state troopers pass by on their way to morning muster. More than one of the high-and-tight haircut set crept by painfully slow in their unmarked Crown Vics, no doubt committing my face, logo and license plate to memory for future possible harassment. I’m still waiting to be pulled over for 36 in a 35 and immediately strip searched for having sunflower seeds in my ashtray and a half-opened RC Cola in the back.

I hate when that happens.

Spotlight: Kevin Sites

Here at Viewfinder BLUES, I humbly offer a portal to my world, a chance to ride shotgun as I skewer the mighty and trip on the downtrodden - all while juggling an expensive TV news camera. These dispatches may be the literary equivalent of toenail clippings, but its what comes out of my head late at night. I'm just tickled silly someone might actually be reading this, and would like to take this opportunity to thank the seven of you who've stopped by so far. Come back often, as I have alot to share over the coming year.

But I'd be remiss in launching this endeavour without acknowledging someone I've never met but unknowingly emulated. His name is Kevin Sites and he's a freelance solo journalist currently on assignment for NBC in Iraq. His blog is The Real Deal, with postings that are electric, funny and harrowing. I urge you to visit, for in my not so humble opinion, it's the very best of what a broadcaster's blog can be.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Making the MarVan

I haven't ALWAYS been a news man. At one point I joined the Dark Side. That's right...Station Promotions. For a couple of painful years I served as Chief Harbinger of In-House Tripe for a station ninety minutes East of Raleigh.

I answered straight to the GM, a man of towering smarm who's immense unlikability was matched only by his unbridled ambition . Evil as he was, the man was an idea machine, constantly spewing out elaborate promo campaigns and looking to me to bring them to the screen. I usually managed to do so, despite working with the very latest in twenty-five year old technology.

One day the unlikable hack walked in spewing hype and promises about the 'Pinpoint Weather System'...a series of weather data stations spread throughout our market sending back real time temperatures and conditions with 'pinpoint accuracy'.

To sex it all up, the plan called for one mobile weather station, a tricked out Ford Aerostar with our weatherman's picture plastered on the side and a high-dollar wind sock blowing in the breeze. We'd traverse our hyphenated market in this rolling billboard spewing forth weather data and soaking up the love from viewers dazzled by our high-tech brilliance.

But none of this could happen until I built a dozen or so thirty second spots from scratch, using nothing much more than cheesy in-house graphics and our goofy weather guy to hype the imminent arrival of 'Pinpoint Weather'. So I slogged ahead, chain-smoking over my Macintosh and conjuring up cliches until I had enough scripts for the new "PinPoint Mobile Weather Van".

Soon a non-descript stripped-down Ford Aerostar arrived at the station. Once the local stock car racing detailers completed their work, it sported flashy logos and an oversized picture of our chief meterologist's silly mug. It only took the 'Pinpoint' guys a few hours to install the funky weather antenna, after which I took our newly pimped-out ride to a curvy road for a series of beauty shots. With an assistant driving my pick-up, I sat in the bed with a betacam as we made endless loops around the damn thing. It was the middle of summer and I picked bugs out of my teeth for days afterward.

WIth scripts voiced, footage shot and graphics cut, I sequestered myself in an old match-frame edit suite for the better part of a week. When I emerged I had a series of flashy vignettes breathlessly extolling the virtues of our new 'Pinpoint' weather technology. With each spot, I showed a little more of The Van, the last of them featuring every trick shot of the cursed boxy vehicle I could come up with, most of which are still imprinted on my frontal lobe.

When the campaign hit the airwaves, it was deemed a big success, and I received much praise from the man I was quickly becoming convinced was the Spawn of Satan. Beelzebub even hired some flunky to drive the van around the region, making sure he theatrically polished it's fender at every stop. For quite some the van, its windsock and driver consumed my every waking moment. What fun!

Still, the 'Pinpoint Mobile Weather Van' didn't really register with our viewers until an anchor happened to rename it. One night she threw to Chief Meteorologist Marvin Daugherty with a poke at the new station vehicle that bore his likeliness.

"Hey, I saw you earlier in the Mar-Van!"

The words had no more left her lips when my GM seized on the marketing possibilities. Soon I was back at my Mac, cranking out cheesy new scripts that yucked it up about the "Mar-Van". We ran the new spots into the ground until the buzz took hold. Soon 'The Mar-Van' entered the local lexicon and we hoked it up for far more than it was ever worth.

Eventually I escaped the forces of Promo Darkness and landed in a newsroom hours away. But back home the Mar-Van still cruises the coastal plains and stops at every wombat festival along the way. I know this, because I see it in my dreams.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Into the Wild

I used to work alot of A.M. shifts, running camera and live truck for our four hour mega-morning never ending newscast. An admited coffee hound to begin with, I came to rely on the early morning bean for that much needed energy jolt.

On many a pre-dawn raid I packed a thermos the size of a warhead on board whatever TV live truck I happened to be flying. It was a must. Early morning live shots can be grueling -' rushing from one location to another, raising the mast, tuning in, pulling cable, setting up, lighting, and whatever else it takes to spice up the marathon of live remotes.

For me that spice was caffeinated java. I took on slow gallons of the store-bought bean, all while dragging cameras and cables around every riot, rodeo and Red Cross in our fair parcel.

Trouble was, all that coffee had ill effects on the body photog. It's not that it made me jittery - no matter how jacked to the gills I may have been, I put my live camera work up against anyone's - super-jacked-to-the-max or straight-up decaf. The camera comes first.

No, my jag with the juice was of a more...diarrhetic variety. A time or two, that ole quivery feeling in the back of the knees hit me while I was trying to hold a camera steady on a reporter, potted plant or both. Couple the gastro-gurgle with biting cold weather and you have the recipe for high-anxiety. OOF! I'll spare you the details, but let's just say it's not easy to do the one-eyed camera backpedal when you got a LAUNCH COMMIT! in the nether-regions. Know what I mean, Vern?

I could usually take care of business like a gentlemen, but overnite shootings and icy bypasses don't have porta-potties, ya know. You try to uphold your Mother's standards when you're stuck in the rural highlands with 800 CC's of high-dollar Starbucks onboard. Only twice have I had to set down the camera quickly and make an impromptu mad-dash for the treeline, venturing off on a lone walk with nature, a bivouac best left undocumented.

There was that one time, after spending hours alone in a live truck parked on the icy interstate. I was already dancing foot-to-foot when the last remote ended. As I scrambled to break down the truck the urge to go almost overwhelmed me. But all around, morning traffic zoomed past - making any clandestine bladder relief impossible.

All I could do was gather up my cables as fast as possible, and plot my desecration of the nearest gas station restroom I could find. Imagine my alarm when the live truck wouldn't drop. Having towered over my frosty perch all morning, the damn thing was encased in a thick layer of ice - the telescopic sections frozen in their fully-extended position.

"Yeah, no problem", said the engineer over my cell phone as I pressed my knees inward in a desperate attempt to hold back the impending gush, "see if you can get some hot water to pour over the mast. That should crack the ice and you'll be on your way."

Knowing the only warm liquid available was the eight gallons roiling in my mid-section, I fought the urge to climb the truck and let 'er rip. Instead I hopped lock-kneed circles around the truck, imagining the pile-up I'd cause if I did baptise the live truck in such an unceremonious fashion.

After much gnashing of the teeth I locked up my frozen vessel and hobbled toward the forest, like some staion-logo wearing Sasquatch scampering over the ice floe. Seconds after disappearing into the thicket several square feet of icy expanse were feverishly melted. Ahhh...sweet relief!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Crimes of the Camcorder

Attending a child's school play can be hard on the photojournalist. Take tonite for instance. While at my daughter's latest acting venture, I literally had to sit on my hands while a sea of Soccer Moms and Nascar Dads mistreated an awful lot of consumer camera equipment. I only hunkered down in my folding chair though, flashing the random thumbs-up to my second grader and suppressing the urge to stand up and scream...

"You there, Ma'am - with the flip out screen and itchy zoom finger! Are you trying to give your whole family epilepsy? Get closer, widen out that shot and stop all the zooming and panning or I swear I'll break both your thumbs!"

"And you sir! That's a tripod, not a coat rack! Stick your camera on it and use your glass! You'll be way ahead of the rest of these clowns! Otherwise little Johnny's gonna burst into tears when he finds out he's one of fifteen blurry specks on your tape! He'll never go to college, move into the basement and mooch off you forever - all because you didn't use the very tools you spent his college money on!"

"Now listen up Grandma! Your batteries aren't dead and your camera's not broken. Listen to me very carefully 'cause I ain't gonna say this twice... YOU GOT THE LENS CAP ON! That little black circle covering up the shiny round thing! It's attached by string for a reason...so it can dangle! LET IT DANGLE! So help me I'll come over there and get us all arrested if you don't remove the bloody lens cap!

AAAUUUURRRGHHH!"

Ahem. With my lovely bride sitting beside me and digging her fingernails into my wrist, I knew better than to unleash my inner Speilberg. No, I just sat there - grinning like a buffoon at my beautiful daughter, chewing the inside of my cheek and wondering what tax accountants daydream about at times like these.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Danger Will Robinson!

Is that a TV camera or the robot from 'Lost In Space'? Decide for yourself, by visiting Tim Rutherford's on-line shrine to a place most TV stations have done away with these days, the Photog's Lounge.

Tell him Lenslinger sent ya!

The Year in E.N.G.

The camera on my shoulder takes me to the most unexpected places. It’s one the few reasons I still pick up the damn thing. But its always been that way back here, behind the big TV lens. This job won't fill your pockets with silver, but it will render you rich in unique life experiences (try sticking those in the ATM!). It’s a fact I’m faced with this time of year, when I flip through my day planner to decipher 52 weeks of quickly-jotted news notes. Join me, won’t you - as I hit the highs and lows of what so far, has been a pretty typical twelve months behind the lens. I give you 2004 - The Year In E.N.G. (that’s Electronic News Gathering, ya chuckleheads).

JANUARY

I kicked off the year in high style, huddling with the transients at the local shelter, collecting shots and coercing soundbites from a line of diners for a report on North Carolina’s homeless population. As always, my lens and demeanor was met with glee and rancor - depending on the blood alcohol level of the chow-line crowd. But I come in peace, realizing there is no ONE way to ending up in the homeless shelter. A thousand bad decisions and plain dumb luck can get you there. I learned that the first time an old acquaintance called my name from a top cot. Since then, I don't pass judgments; on my deadline I ain't got the time. As matter of personal policy my dealings with the downtrodden is polite, professional and perfunctory.
“Hi, Channel X - wanna talk on camera? No Sir, I don't have a cigarette, just the opportunity to have your opinion heard - What's that? No Sir, you don't HAVE to be on television. Okay Sir, put the fork DOWN...Medic!"
Days later I found myself trailing a 12 year old girl scout cookie selling champ as she prowled the selling floors of Greensboro’s much ballyhooed ‘Motor Mile’. With order form and green sash in tow the young lady moved from sales associate to parts manager to the F& I Guy, all with me shadowing her every move. We must have looked pretty silly. Still, the sales weasels we encountered seemed prepared; they coughed up an order or four with a barely a shuck and a grin. I’d have felt better about the whole enterprise had it not been for the dour look on the child’s face and the hovering Stage Mother just out of frame. Of course I couldn’t escape their clutches without puttin’ in for four boxes of Thin Mints. Mmm, Thin Mints.

The latter part of the month found me in Burlington, where I ran around a ‘walking tour’ of a Cold War era missile factory. Now shuttered and chained, the sprawling facility once cranked out miles of missiles and scores of warheads for Uncle Sam. That day a man with the company trying to sell the rundown plant led a roving clutch of journalist, unnamed suits and retirees up and down the factory floor. It was a time capsule of a tour. From the faded shag carpeting in the executive offices to the burnt orange linoleum in the employees lounge, the place screamed Mid Seventies Missile Factory - just don't ask about that weird glow coming from that back hallway.

But my silly trip through the next Austin Powers movie set was a savored stroll through the good ole days for the gentleman at the back of the pack. A trio of Grandfathers clad in ballcaps and Members Only jackets hobbled along slowly, mouthing words to another I could not hear. As soon as I had them in my sights, I grew entranced. My quick sprint through yesterday’s Industrial machine turned into their forced march through history. It explains why they all got misty at the faded letter board behind the lunch counter, I watched it all through the cross hairs and got a little misty too, But my tears could have been from that weird pool of chemicals seeping down that back hallway. Just a guess.
Next time on The Year In E.N.G...what else? February!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Shallow Water in the Camera Pool



Camera Pool: When physical space or strict guidelines permit only ONE camera at a news story, forcing the rest of the media pack to make copies and gripe about it.

I've been in ALOT of pool camera situations - from V.I.P. funerals to high-profile court cases to presidential visits. It's always a headache, no matter what position you play. But when you're the one peering through the viewfinder, it's time to get it right.

I'd barely been shooting six months when I covered a local child molestation trial that was attracting national attention. After shooting walk-downs and throwing frisbees in the parking lot for a couple of days, it was my turn to man the pool cam.

Fraught with boredom, I spent much of my morning behind the court camera daydreaming, not really aware a room full of crusty news veterans two doors down were critiquing my work as I shot it. When I finally did duck my head in the crowded press room during the lunch break, a table full of journeymen photogs and reporters looked up from the field record-decks and gave me a collection of long sour looks.

"Dude, use your glass", said a portly shooter with a bad ponytail. "You can't just park it and nod off. Give us some cutaways."

Feeling like a complete rookie, I slunk back to my camera position for the rest of the lunchbreak and re-evaluated my latest career choice. I had just about decided to pursue professional bowling when I noticed the defendant scanning a newspaper someone had left on a bench. As she picked it up I quietly pointed the camera toward her and rolled tape.

The defendant, a female employee of a child care center caught in a firestorm of accusations, was facing charges following the sex-abuse conviction of her boss. His particular fate had consumed the media and when a jury found him guilty of multiple charges of child molestation, the headlines screamed the news.

Including the newspaper the female defendant was now leafing through. When she stopped to read the front page, the top of the sheet folded over into view, as if heavy from the bold face screaming details of the newly convicted child molester. Her forehead wrinkled with concern that she might soon join her boss in ther big house, and as she chewed on her lip nervously, I slowly zoomed in.

Suddenly camera flashes popped all around me as the still photogs got in on the act. The female defendant looked up and gave all us media jackals a glaring sneer for the ages. In the distance, a muffled whooping sound rang out from the pressroom.

It was only a fleeting moment but the shot of the defendant sneering at the camera graced the front of the state paper that day. We TV types preferred the footage of her grimacing at the headline, and it soon became an over-the-shoulder graphic for at least two stations' continuing team smotherage.

Of course my stock shot upward in the pressroom that afternoon and I learned a thing or two about staying focused when the Big Show's in town. In the years since, I've endured a myriad of other pool-cam histrionics, but I'm always hesitant to give some rookie grief for not meeting my lofty cinematic standards.

Unless they're a tool about it. Then I'm relentless.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Kickin' it Old School



I love shots from the early days of TV News. The vintage technology, the unbridled hubris, the fact that everyone's dressed like the villians from 'The Matrix'. It's far cry from today, when many of the shooters look like a Hoobastank roadie on a three day bender.
Check out Big 13 for Mike Clark's most impressive look at the formulative years of Florida powerhouse affiliate, WTVT. Even if you don't know a film-chain from a vectorscope, you'll dig this trippy visit to a TV station from another time.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Art of the Grab

I grimaced at the live truck masts. Through the windshield I saw them poking up above the houses , two thin metal poles wrapped in heavy cable and topped with transmitter dishes. Great. I’d hoped the Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking would be an intimate affair, but those leaning poles in the distance told me I was heading into a multiple morning show live shot circus. Did I mention I was running late?

Not only that, my trusty news unit was currently sucking fumes, threatening to strand me in this out-of-the-way, rundown neighborhood. Parking by a row of porta-potties, I killed the engine and put the matter of buried gas needles out of my mind. A fairly good feature story was happening down the street and if I didn’t hurry I was going to miss it. Grabbing my camera and sticks, I double-timed it down the pavement, extending the tripod’s battered legs as I loped awkwardly down the road.

I jogged past my competitors’ live trucks, following their cable through a thicket of contractors, volunteers and the professionally curious. At the center of the ball cap-wearing pack, a swarthy construction foreman stood in the center of cement pad and drawled into a bullhorn.

“Ah wanna thank ya’ll for comin’ out t’day…”

Skirting the inner edges of the assembled tool smiths. I held my camera high and let the station logo help part the crowd. When I found a suitable spot near a stack of lumber, I planted my tripod and framed up a shot of the foreman. As the ‘Record’ light shone in my viewfinder, I scanned the crowd for the faces I needed.

To my left a fellow photog from the local NBC shop returned my gaze, rolling his eyes at the speaker’s cornpone delivery. Beyond him I could see the CBS shooter staring into his own lens. Sweeping the crowd, I locked eyes with a pretty blonde woman I vaguely recognized. When she noticed my temporary stare, she broke into a perfect grin and waved a press release in my direction, ‘PR flak’, I thought as I looked around slowly, searching stranger’s faces for my primary target.

Ten people down, I spotted her. A plump black woman in an ill-fitting work-shirt, she clasped her hands under her chin and chewed her bottom lip, trying to contain her smile. I had no idea what the woman who’s home was being rebuilt today looked like, but judging from the quivering joy radiating from this careworn looking woman, I’d found my quarry. Reaching over and panning the camera her way, I leaned into the eyepiece and punched in. Through the blue haze of the viewfinder, I rode the focus until the woman’s face appeared on the one inch screen. As the swarthy foreman credited a higher power for the crowd’s generosity, the woman mouthed ‘Amen’. ‘Amen’, I agreed as I made note of the camera’s time code so I could quickly access the shot that would be used to tease her story later, ‘Amen, indeed’.

But there was no time to pause. I still needed many, many other shots to make up the story I’d been assigned to tell. Back at the station, my producer was banking on yet another feel-good piece from me to round out his five o clock show. Actually he was probably watching a Blind Date marathon on the small cable set that sat on his desk, but he’d pitch a first class fit if I came back with anything less than the ninety-second masterpiece he envisioned. Besides, he’s already ordered an over the shoulder graphic from the Art Department down the hall. I was still shooting establishing shots, but the subject matter was already being shaped into commodity back at the ranch.

Which is why I leapt into action the moment the foreman wrapped up his speech by declaring the building blitz underway. As plumbers, carpenters and electricians grabbed their tools, I shouldered mine and waded into the Carhartt-wearing crowd. For the next half-hour I shot furiously, operating on a kind of auto-pilot honed over years of crafting reality into buck-thirty time capsules. Though I’d not taken part in the previous week’s coverage of the suspicious fire that destroyed the newly-constructed Habitat home, this was not my FIRST building blitz. Hammers, saws and pre-fab walls, they’re all hallmarks of your garden variety construction piece. I trudged forward and collected the iconic shots one-by-one, using the early morning sun to my advantage and thinking how I’d weave all the natural sound I was capturing around whatever script I came up with for the anchors to read.

But I wasn’t the only digital interloper on the scene. With the other two TV photogs tethered to their live trucks by the long stretch of cable, it was relatively easy to stay out of their way. A pesky newspaper photographer was another story. The tall lensman from the local daily seemed to be attached to my side, more the product of sound picture judgment than any desire to emulate me. Still, as I squatted by a corner of the cement pad, waiting for the men in flannel to raise the first skeletal wall, he loitered as well, no doubt waiting for the same silhouette shot I was hoping for. When the men raised the wall, their backlit forms punched nicely against the Carolina Blue sky. As I rolled on the action, I could hear the still photog’s shutter clicking rapid-fire. From the number of shots he was firing, I guess he thought this might be ‘The Shot’ - the one frame culled from dozens of others that would appear on my morning paper tomorrow. I still got a kick whenever I unroll the local rag to see the still-life version of a shot I’d broadcast a day before.

After bagging the obligatory close-ups, the much-needed medium frames, and the all important wide-shots, I went hunting for my thankful new homeowner, I found her by the table of Krispy Kremes, handing out donuts and thanking every worker who‘d stop to listen. With a practiced casualness, I introduced myself and attached a wireless microphone to her dingy lapel. Soon I had my camera trained on the woman named Lillian, a soft-spoken sort who only sounded sure of herself when quoting scripture - which she did a lot. Of course I might do the same if an army of strangers was working furiously to build ME a new home by Christmas. As she answered my last question with another bit of biblical wisdom, the PR flak materialized over my shoulder and urged me to interview her boss on camera. I obliged, firing off several questions, even though I didn’t plan on using but a few seconds of the well-meaning but dry-as-toast bureaucrat.

After the interviews I delved back into the scrum of good ole boys as they pounded, cut and wrenched Miss Lillian’s new home into existence. The images came easy, and after documenting a few too many hammers and drills in action, I focused on the lined faces of the volunteer workers. Funky close-ups of tools at work were great but nothing told a story like a few sincere expressions. It’s the same rule of thumb that forces the news photog to look away from the house fire and back at the stunned spectators taking it all in.

For a few more minutes I wandered around, dragging my tripod from vantage point to vantage point, changing up my shots while making small talk with the smiley reporter chick from across the street. When she and her shooter walked away to shoot a stand-up, I looked around for something else to record. It was then I got ‘The Feeling’ - that unmistakable voice inside the veteran photog’s head that tells him he’s got ‘enough’. Based more on instinct than anything scientific, it’s a sensation I’ve learned not to ignore. Grabbing my sticks, I turned away from the construction fracas and trudged back toward my news unit, wondering where in the heck the nearest gas station might be.

It’s a living.