Long ago, someone on an NPPA tape said the TV news photographer was ’part plumber, part poet'. Try as I might, I can’t come up with a better description, for in the course of a single day, that person behind the big lens must be equal parts Magellan, MacGyver, and Mozart. From racing to an impossibly remote location to field-stripping a defective shoot tape to feathering just enough backlight on a reporter’s live shot, the photog must do it ALL. It can be a thankless job, but the lenslingers I know aren’t in it for the glory (and God knows it certainly ain’t the money). No, they put up with the grueling pace and the rotten conditions because the idea of riding a desk or assembling widgets for a daily wage robs them of their very will to live. It does me.
Sure, the public is far more impressed with the over-groomed reporter, but very often the real storyteller is that guy or gal squinting through the viewfinder. Strike up a conversation and you’ll most likely meet someone with a encyclopedic knowledge of the region, from the most exclusive enclaves to the seediest street corners to where to find that perfect shot of the local skyline. Prod a little deeper and you’ll find someone with a real affection for the area and its people, even if he does use obscure crime scenes as everyday landmarks. Just be careful with the questions, for the image of the crusty photog is no myth. Ride along with enough cops, witness enough ribbon-cuttings, and you’ll develop a thick shell too. It can come in quite handy when waiting on the body bags. Or the Governor. Especially the Governor.
I count myself fortunate to have met plenty of TV news photogs, though I know far more by face than by name. That’s just how it is on the street, where the rules of engagement demand a certain amount of interaction with the enemy. Countless are the times I’ve exchanged silent nods with logo’d strangers while loitering on the edge of some midnight tragedy. Be they unknown foes or familiar allies, the vision of another news warrior emerging from the mist is almost always a welcome sight. If for no other reason, such an encounter affords a little conversation, a chance to talk shop while babysitting the crime tape. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even met before, for we all share a common language based on the most uncommon of perspectives, that of a career outsider with an eternal insiders pass.
Surely we’re not alone in our unspoken fraternity. Stereo salesmen and the like probably share a similar bond with their cross-town colleagues. But retail weasels don’t run into each other at plane crashes, they don’t yawn and stretch while the sirens blare, they don’t crack macabre jokes while motorists slow down to rubberneck. Even if they did, it’s hard to believe their stories are as darkly entertaining as what you might hear in the average camera scrum. It's one of the many reasons I'm proud to be a photog, and why I'd much rather break bread and share spirits with a pack of weary camera-rats than a busload of smarmy correspondents.