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...

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Bones of Calamity

Deskbound Producers Hurling Me Into The Void...

If one wants to romanticize it, the role of TV news photog can be considered fraught with peril. After all, we race to the edge of tragedy at every chance - brandishing betacams and bellicosity. We prod the vanquished with provocative questions, swarm handcuffed strangers like hungry jackals, and rip apart the still-warm bones of calamity.

Once we've secured out electronic bounty, we hold up inside our great lumbering beasts, raise their awkward masts and pray they don't bristle with electricity. If we survive, we find the highest perch, hoist our mic flags and shout at the tops of our lungs, a braying screech filled with hype, laced with pablum and peppered with natural sound.

The bravest amongst us pull off these daring feats in hostile territory - documenting the unfolding history of the world for cash and bragging rights. You'll know them by their swagger, and all the free drinks they enjoy.

Trouble is - I'm not much of a romantic. Instead, I 'm a grizzled realist - one who used to knock down old ladies to be the first on scene, but now travels at a more leisurely pace. The older I get the safer I feel. What scares me most are desk-bound producer-types who think nothing of hurling me into the void.

Provide the improbable enough times, and they'll begin to expect broadcast miracles on a daily basis. The haste to satiate their E.N.G. hunger is a dangerous force, and one that can end your pulse in the most unglamorous of locales.

Frankly, I worry more about being t-boned by a semi, than about being fried on the insides by bolts from above, or felled by a conical projectile. When I worry at all.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Backstage Pass

News Photography Is A Backstage Pass To Life...

The camera on my shoulder act as a passport to every side of life imaginable, from the triple homicide deep in the hood to the posh enclaves of the super rich. Only fifteen years in and I've witnessed, recorded and broadcast more tragedy and triumph than most people experience in a lifetime.

True, you'll make more money selling shoes, or cars, or insurance but those pasty schlubs don't hold a candle to my breed at cocktail parties. After all, we know what a meth lab smells like, what a hurricane feels like, and how to act when the President blows through town. I know what it's like inside the referee's locker room at the coliseum, at the homeless shelter on Thanksgiving morning, and at the scene of the plane crash.

These experiences don't exactly line my pockets with silver, but they've already enriched me with a real-world education available nowhere else. Along the way I've hoisted a mug with many a fellow camera pirate, chain-smoked over the crime-tape with burly vice cops, and willingly hob-knobbed with martini-swilling celebrities.

Is every day a mind-bending exercise in insider shenanigans? Hell No. Some days suck profusely. But I'll take my chances out in the field, where I can jump in my news car and get up close and personal to whatever obsession is currently ruling the airwaves.

You might find more rewarding work elsewhere, but it's not for me. You can have your endless cubicle farms, where everyone's idea of adventure is raiding the snack machine every morning, where self-expression is confined to what Dilbert cartoons you attach to your computer, where the height of rebellion is wearing a golf shirt on Fridays instead of the normal tie.

I'll be down at the courthouse, the airport, the convention center, the drive-by, the clubhouse, the ghetto, the beauty contest, the hostage stand-off, deciding what little of it you'll experience on tonight's evening newscast.

And oh yeah, if a flying saucer lands on town square and three-headed aliens pour out, if Bigfoot himself stumbles out of the woods and demands an interview, if Osama Bin Laden pops out of a spider hole at the local Kwickie Mart, I'm assured a front-row seat. Try getting past the barricade with YOUR company's I.D. badge.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Market Madness

C-List Celebs Turn Out To Glad-hand The Furnituratti...

Fifty weeks a year, my adopted hometown of High Point, N.C. is pretty quiet. An unremarkable community of 90 thousand, High Point is wedged in between Greensboro and Winston-Salem. It's known as the Furniture Capitol of the World and with 125 furniture plants and more than 60 retail outlets, it's easy to understand why. But drive through this sleepy hamlet's business district and it feels like a ghost town. Shuttered store fronts stare back in silence, their plush showrooms empty, their ornate neon logos forever dimmed. It's enough to make one think of backlot movie sets and weird tales of post-apocalyptic empty cities.

That is, until the two very unusual weeks in April and October Officially known as 'The International Home Furnishings Market', we locals call it simply 'Market', and we usually do so through gritted teeth. You would too, if 70 thousand furniture industry sleazeballs invaded YOUR town. Buyers, sellers, manufacturers, exhibitors, and assorted hangers-on. For two weeks a year they all pour into High Point's downtown to wheel, deal and get their schmooze on. As a result, the sleepy streets of my little working-class 'burg transform overnight into a scene straight out of Midtown Manhattan. Sidewalks and avenues that usually bask in quiet sunshine fill up with enough cheesy sales-types, registered hotties and European weirdos to make a passing truckload of Klan members rip out their transmission trying to stop and be offended. Not that that's a bad thing.

As one who's forced to navigate this madness at street level, I have a love-hate relationship with 'Market'. Like any good photog, I like to people-watch and with an army of thin-socked retail weasels marching up and down every square inch, it doesn't take long to fill up your tape with big-city hustle and bustle. But therein lies the rub. With all the odd out-of-towners making the local police force nervous, your average news crew is quickly forgotten. Parking spaces evaporate, vital corridors shut down and the local authorities forget our call letters.

In short, it's a logistical nightmare, a fact instantly grasped by every shooter that's waded into the fray, but utterly unfathomable to the deskies who dispatch us to every dog and pony show featuring a C-list celebrity hawking a new line of ottomans. Kathy Ireland, Serena Williams, Jack Palance, even Uber-Bitch Martha Stewart comes to High Pockets to glad-hand the furnitur-atti. And like Pavlov's dog, our news managers jump at every press release touting the latest has-been with a furniture line.

So, why am I telling you all this? I dunno, beats paying a therapist to listen to my tripe.

Fluff Man Confesseth

...If It Didn't Involve Handcuffs, It Wasn't A News Story...

Life as a TV news photographer is wearing thin. The average day on an average story with an average reporter leaves me feeling, well...average. Sure, there are small victories: lighting, nat sound, tight editing, but truthfully, it's not enough to keep me from daydreaming about a writing career.

Like alot of young male news-shooting rookies, I used to live and die by spot news. Luckily for me, I made my bones in a market that chased every car wreck, woods fire and domestic stabbing that came over the scanner. Not knowing any better, I thought if it didn't involve handcuffs or flashing lights, it wasn't a news story.

But it was the days of 'COPS', and the relationship between media and police was alot murkier than it seems to be now. Maybe it was just the good ole boy small market I toiled in, but I got in so tight with a few sheriff departments, I started to freak out my stoner buddies. I didn't care though - I was under the influence of E.N.G., and suffering from testosterone poisoning to boot.

Early morning drug round-ups, moonshine still raids, redneck hostage stand-offs, I couldn't get enough of it. One southern-fried Sheriff took a special liking to me, probably because I didn't have the good sense to see he was playin' me for positive press. He and his hillbilly henchmen would call me whenever something was about to go down (which was often) and I'd invariably be rolling tape before the competition ever rolled up.

One time, they even invited me to sit in on an autopsy, but I declined. Later, they insisted on showing me footage they shot themselves of the procedure. I lasted about thirty seconds before calling a halt to the post-mortem critique. They may have the law on their side, but some of those cats with badges are sick pukes indeed. But I digress (what'd you expect?)

These days I don't do a lot of cop-shop. My current market doesn't really work that way and that's fine with me. No, you'll find me down at the school bus rodeo, the butterfly ranch, the Hispanic Jazz camp. Other shooters in my life take great pleasure in disparaging my fluff news tendencies, but usually they do so by cell-phone. From a live truck. At the Courthouse. With the jackass reporter nobody likes. I sometimes think about them later in the day, when I'm watching the sun set over my favorite bike trail. Mostly not, though.

But it's not just the better working conditions I'm after. I honestly enjoy telling the little stories, the ones involving regular folk doing regular things - though hopefully in a highly visual manner involving lots of natural sound and well-lit repetitive action. Is that too much to ask?

Bovine Castaways

A Dozen More Carcasses Floated In The Toxic Sludge...

I gripped my camera and leaned into the wind as the bass-boat plowed through the murky water. Beside me a stoic wildlife officer in designer rain gear stared ahead and gripped the wheel, piloting the skiff through a gauntlet of half-submerged telephone poles. The craft cut a deliberate path through the muddy water, and as we plowed forward, I realized we were traveling a route usually reserved for cross-state truckers. The bow of the small boat slapped the filthy water without mercy, and I tried to fall in synch with its rhythm. I pulled the rain-cover tight around my station’s camera, and squinted at the horizon. In every direction ugly brown water swirled and fermented, courtesy of one bastard of a rainmaker we called Hurricane Floyd.

Cradling my camera in my lap, I recorded a few low angles as we skimmed along, before pointing the lens at the craft’s third passenger, a stooped little man in ball cap and soaked overalls. He didn’t return my camera’s gaze; instead he stared into the distance and continued the silence he’d embraced since we left dry land thirty minutes earlier. Bracing myself on the pitching deck, I peered through the blue haze of my viewfinder. I zoomed in on the old man’s weathered face, the shiny water strobing behind him. His eyes were dry, but they conveyed a quiet sadness I’d see a lot of over the coming days. He pulled a tattered rag from a pocket and dabbed his face, perhaps trying to wipe away the vision of the unnatural lake that eclipsed everything around us. The image in the viewfinder muttered something, but the roar of the boat’s engine drowned out the old farmer’s words.

After what seemed like forever of straight trajectory, our square-jawed captain made a sharp starboard turn, and we rounded a stand of battered pine trees. As he eased up on the throttle, the high pitch of the outboard engine subsided to a low throaty rumble. I took the opportunity to dab water drops off my lens as the old man across from me uttered his first words of the trip.

“’Bout a half mile more, just past ’em trees,” he twanged matter-of-factly. “There’s a hun-erd head if there’s a one of ‘em”

I thought about what he said as the Wildlife Officer goosed the accelerator and the small boat chortled forward. Up ahead, a box-like structure stood guard in the middle of the watery expanse. As we got closer, I saw it was a single-wide trailer, the water-line just below its curtain-less windows. Large, indistinctive shapes bobbed all around the pathetic building. I shouldered my beta cam and pushed in with my lens to get a better look, but the pitching deck offered little purchase. Instead, I followed a glint of sunlight as it danced along the metal edges of a nearby road sign - the marker barely poking above the roiling water.

‘River Road’ it proclaimed. Without a thought I steadied up and rolled tape. I was still congratulating myself on bagging my first important image of the day when I heard the old man’s voice break…

“Sweet Jesus…”

The smell hit me before my eyes landed on the target. Just a few feet off the starboard bow, the bloated carcass of a full-grown steer stared back at us. The pungent odor of the rotting beast raced through my sinuses and I hid my face behind the viewfinder. Through it, I watched a delirious green fly pull a piece of flesh from the waterlogged animal’s swollen tongue. I looked away quickly, only to catch sight of another bovine corpse bobbing alongside, followed by another, and another. The Wildlife Officer pulled a state-issued bandana over his emotionless face and piloted the craft through the swirling brown sea of long-dead cattle.

“Never had a chance”, the old farmer said. The worn creases around his eyes squeezed even tighter and he stared off into oblivion, addressing no one in particular. He seemed unaffected by the stench, his weather-beaten nostrils long since given up on unpleasant odors.

“People’s got boats, a damn head a cattle ain’t got a chance in hell --”. AT that, the old man’s voice cracked and he turned even further away, taking in his loss and nursing his pride. I watched the short speech through the artificial blue haze of my viewfinder, punctuated by the steady red glow of the ‘RECORD’ light.

As the twin-engine pushed the boat forward, the age-old mobile home came into sharper focus. As we closed in on the only man-made structure in sight, the number of dead cattle increased. In a desperate lunge for higher ground, the panicking herd had apparently converged on this abandoned trailer, as the passing hurricane had dumped more water on this old pasture than man, or cow, could have imagined. Many of the doomed beasts choked on their own tongues as dirty water filled their lungs. Others had been gored and stomped in the closing minutes of the frantic stampede, their rubbery entrails now exposed to the midday sun. A dozen more carcasses floated in the toxic sludge surrounding the trailer, their lifeless forms rubbing against the metal walls and making a scrubbing, haunting sound.

Our stoic boat pilot pushed in within feet of the mobile home and turned to circle it. At the far end of the front side, the trailer’s thin walls lay splayed open, itself a victim of the storm and ensuing onslaught of frightened cattle. One cow in particular, seemed to have perished during the fight to get inside, his whole left flank ripped open by the sharpened tin. Holding my breath, I rolled tape and tried to picture what it must have been like during those last few horrible moments. The great lumbering beasts thrashing and kicking at each other, fighting to the death in a frenzy of adrenaline and instinct, as the emotionless water rose, and rose, and rose.

“Well, I’ll be damned…” The farmer’s voice snapped me back to reality as the boat rounded the far side of the trailer and we came face to face with the lone survivor of the watery death march. Solid brown with a mask of white on his muzzle, the cow snorted with fear and excitement as he stuck his head out of a shattered window frame.

The look in his dark eyes was wild and knowing, totally unlike the look of bored vacancy usually found in the breed. As our boat made a slow arc around him, he stepped in accordance - tracking our every move. Around him, two more swollen carcasses bumped against his hind legs. Taking us in, the animal roared lowly, seeming to plead for help. I pulled out to a wide shot and wondered if this simple beast understood his perilous state. He had, after all, watched his companions died a horrible death al around him. Bracing myself against the low bulkhead, I zoomed in on his dilated pupils, catching for a second the real (or imagined) guttural pleading within.

On board, the old farmer took off his dirty ball cap and ran his leathery fingers through a shock of white hair. “Been livin’ on this land for more than seventy years, never would ‘a believed it. The good Lord may know what’s best, but I’ll be damned if I can figger it out.”

With that, the man seemed satisfied with the visit and he asked the silent Wildlife Officer to take him back to the command center. As we made our way back through the maze of drowned cattle, the old farmer slumped in a corner of the craft and pulled a plug of tobacco from a pouch hidden in his drenched overalls. No one spoke a word the whole way back, and as the motor droned on behind me, I realized I had a new answer the next time someone asked me what was the weirdest thing I ever saw with a camera on my shoulder.

A Day in the Strife

THERE ARE DAYS I LOVE MY JOB...

Last Friday wasn’t one of them. Nothing earth shattering happened, just a prolonged series of predictable events that the average photog might call typical. Thing is, I ain’t average - or typical. I work hard to produce solid packages WITHOUT a reporter, and as a result, I enjoy a bit more autonomy than most shooters. However, two days ago forces outside my control conspired to screw me and at times, I took it like a rookie. Along the way, there were moments of great déjà vu - certain episodes and aspects of the daily chase that strike me as almost universal. I may be wrong, but perhaps this has happened to you…

FIRST MAN DOWN

I knew I was screwed the moment I entered the newsroom. As usual, I’m the first photog in. Say what you will, it is a long-held habit that pays great dividends in story selection. Today however, I would not get to cherry-pick my gig. I’d barely made it to my desk when a burly assignment editor scurried up, shuffling papers and radiating panic. Seems a shooter called in sick and since we were down he needed me to ’load up and hit the road’ with the tall well-dressed fellow standing behind him. I recognized the tall guy as our most recently hired reporter, and as the assignment editor babbled on, I realized resistance was futile. Minutes later, my partner-for-the-day and pulled out of the station parking lot, passing several arriving photogs along the way. Knowing I’d taken a bullet for at least ONE of them, I grinned and flipped-off them ALL.

THE NEW GUY

He seemed nice enough, and was awful cheery -but as I merged on the interstate, I could barely bring myself to look over at my reporter. When I did, a well- groomed twenty-five year old grinned back innocently. He’d only been with us for a week or two and the constantly grinning chap was bubbling with wholesome enthusiasm. His hair cut-close, his dark slacks pressed, and his tie a sensible one - the guy looked like he should be selling bibles somewhere in the Midwest. I know reporters come in all flavors, and I ‘m pretty sure I’ve tried them all. But at the moment, I was more in the mood for some bitter, disillusioned hack than the starry-eyed choirboy seated to my right. As we sped down I-85, I chewed a toothpick and fought the urge to throw his bright Tupperware lunch out the window.

SUDDENLY LATE

It was then my colleague unfurled our itinerary. Our mission was to package the latest chapter in a controversial school re-districting plan. A press conference was scheduled for eleven o clock and according to the desk, sparks were certain to fly. Not a great story, but okay. I was soothing my veteran feathers with thoughts of one-stop-shopping when The New Guy ruffled them all over again. “Oh yeah, before that we gotta swing by and pick up a vosot. We need to hurry though, it started an hour ago and is probably almost over” Biting my toothpick in half, I spat out the remains and stood on the gas. Racing the clock for forty seconds of forgettable television is something I’ve spent way too much of my life doing, and all familiarity breeds contempt. As I once again made that mad dash, I drove imaginary spikes though assignment-editor voodoo dolls in my head. The fact that I knew we’d make it in time (as we always do) made doing so all the more unpleasant.

LATE MORNING COLLAPSE

The finger sandwiches told me all I needed to know. As my tall colleague and I sauntered in early to the Department of Education boardroom, I couldn’t stop staring at the decorative lunch items on the corner table. They don’t serve happy food like that at heated confrontations, that is mere workshop fare. I didn’t know all the details of the debate at hand, but I did know my bosses back at the station were desperate for a decent lead story. The ongoing school board saga had provided fodder for weeks, and the suits back at the shop smelled blood. I however, smelled pimento cheese and it told me there would be no controversy here. Pulling my reporter close, I told him of my fears. This ain’t what we thought it was, we’re gonna end up shooting enough for a lame-ass package and they ain’t gonna want it…” I handed him the cell phone and told him to call the bosses, hoping against hope I was wrong. As it turned out, I wasn’t.

MIDDAY RESHUFFLE

“What else ya got for us?” I could hear the head-deskie’s voice coming out the cell phone receiver. My partner, still cheery but growing confused, stammered an answer. I sat behind the wheel and stared at the school board building parking lot through the windshield. ‘What ya got for us? How ‘bout an empty stomach and a bad attitude?’ I chewed over other replies as Too Tall nodded and repeated okay’s into the phone. He hung up and looked over at me. His grin was still there, but it was growing a little vacant. “They want us to go to the strip. The Women’s ACC Tournament’s in town and….”

“They want us to talk to local businesses about the economic impact”, I answered. “I did that same weak piece last year”. Dropping the gearshift into drive, I pulled away and grimaced. If they want me to repeat myself, FINE, but sweeps ended two days ago, it’s now Friday afternoon and I already got thirty minutes of tape in the can. It’s a hell of a time to ask for one of Stew’s Greatest Hits.

SIZZLE AND SALIVATE

Fifteen minutes later, I was loitering in the kitchen of a Sports Bar Steak House. After a few too many in-camera questions for the restaurant manager, I shouldered my camera and began collecting b-roll. Busy cooks squeezed past me and passing waiters did double takes at the floating betacam in the prep area. I stared though my viewfinder and bent over the grill, bringing the image of a thick sizzling burger into focus. A plump cook leaned in and made matters infinitely worse by adding bacon. The glorious smell of the savory bacon burger washed over me and I nearly grew feint with imaginary hunger pains. Swallowing my drool, I tried to act casual as I worked the lens into submission. After a few more minutes of deprived taste-bud delirium, I stumbled out of the kitchen and made eye contact with the grinning tall man. “We got enough - get me to a drive-thru, quick!”

PAGES FROM BEYOND

The burger I soon devoured was a pale imitation of the one I’d caught on tape. Still, I sat in my mobile office and polished off the McSomething as my reporter exited his fourth hotel in ten minutes. Opening the door to my idling news unit, he hopped in and slammed the door. “Guy said business sucked! Then he went corporate on me.” I chewed my straw and watched passing traffic. I was about to lay out my umpteenth smartass assertion of the desk’s incompetence when the cell phone rang. There wasn’t just one idiot on the line, a half dozen voices called out, sounding as if they were at the bottom of some metallic hole. Speakerphone, the communication choice of the think-tank set. “ Guys, head over to the Mall - It’s been sold - We’re sending you a truck!” The straw dropped from my lips as I processed what I was hearing. When the voices fell silent, I knew they were waiting for a reply. ‘Eff the Mall!’ I wanted to yell. ‘The next time you wanna play jack-around-the-new-guy, LEAVE ME THE HELL OUT OF IT!” Instead, I looked over at my no-longer grinning partner. “Tell whoever’s bringing the truck to meet us on the JCPenney’s side.”

SWAPPING GEAR

At its best, a truck swap can be a moment of reprieve from battle, like the scenes in the Highlander where the far-flung immortals rendezvous briefly at some unlikely spot. It can be a chance to vent, bum a battery or cigarette. Unless of course, the person pulling up in the rolling billboard is LESS than a buddy, a friend or a pal. Then the transaction takes on the air of a tense prisoner swap at some hostile border checkpoint. As you switch gear from the news vehicle to the larger live truck, you try to maintain eye contact with the driver, and wonder if he’s there to aid and assist or merely gather Intel for the goons back at the shop. For better or worse, my would-be rescuer seemed anxious to unload the live truck and be on his way. He did just that, and I found myself hoping I had what I needed as he pulled away in my beloved Ford Explorer - no doubt planning to race it’s engine and pilfer it’s contents.

THE LONGEST WAIT

What with having to interview uneasy Mall officials, shoot exteriors, process our four stories and cut countless teases, my tall partner and I had our hands full. As curious shoppers rubbernecked their way past our live truck, we juggled the phones, tapes and papers required for your average live shot. And average it was. With a view of the Mall, nearby Convention Center and interstate exchange, there was plenty to look at it and nothing to see. Once the stories were cut, I set up the camera, raised the mast and tuned in the shot. After feeding the tape back to the station and talking trash with the head edit chick, I settled in the back seat of the truck and started the long wait. The generator engine rumbled and the air reeked of exhaust fumes. Up front, my favorite Tall Guy was applying make-up and cheerfully mumbling the lines he would soon deliver live on camera. Amid all this technology and preparation, I sat frozen in the back - my eyes glazing over like some spaced-out junkie. Forty minutes to Showtime, then another fifty-five minutes before our hit at six. As the generator rumbled its long pathetic song, God pressed the pause button and went out for a sandwich.

MOPPING UP

By the time we made it back to the station, my reporter was no longer grinning. He’d been used and abused by the desk this day, and he was smart enough to know it would happen again. Still, he took the punches and rebuffs well, never losing focus and cursing far less than I. This makes Him the winner and I told him such before dropping him off at the station. Looking down at the gas gauge, I saw that I was well under half a tank. Knowing a half-empty tank would lead to terse voice mails from the chief, I steered the live van back out on the street. The gas station was a block away, and besides after this quick errand my day would truly be done. That was when my pager began vibrating and as I struggled in the darkness to decipher the feint letters I already knew what it probably said. “Don’t forget your ten o clock re-cuts” Once again, I was right when I didn’t want to be.