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.