Thursday, November 27, 2008

Scenes from a Turkey Shoot

By now, even the Vegan at your table has watched the Sarah Palin turkey video. You know – where the MILF that might have been King yammers into a lens while some leering farmhand lops the head off the family bird. Yeah, that one. For a week it’s flickered across the internets, convincing some the Alaskan Governor is evil incarnate while proving to others she’s got just the kind of pioneering student we’ll need in D.C. come 2012. But the clip in question hasn’t just riled up the partisan clowns; it’s made the week uneasy for the photog who shot it.

And what a photog! Scott Jensen is the National Press Photographer’s Association’s Photojournalist of the Year, a title even detractors of the polarizing NPPA cannot easily dismiss. He’s been lauded by industry press, turns powerful stories in major shops and enjoys legendary status among those who keep up with such things. But now a silly photo-op with the nation’s hottest hockey mom has thrust Jensen into a brighter spotlight. Among the chattering classes, he’s being both praised and villified for what he did - and - didn’t do. At, colleagues and strangers are debating the case with fundamental fervor, while over at Wonkette, they’re proclaiming him 'An American Hero'. That’s awfully strong mojo for what should have been a pretty forgettable gig.

So what do I think? I’m glad you didn’t ask. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, let’s review the facts:

By his own admission, Jensen horned in on another crew’s interview set-up and persuaded all involved to adjust the shot. That’s not the least bit odd; it’s a crowded field and I’ve sidled up to many a lenser from ‘across the street’ (though I usually settle for whatever background this lack of tactic affords me). Jensen then framed his shot just as it appears, even warning the Governor of the ensuing slaughter so clearly visible behind her. “That's fine,” Palin reportedly replied, “Let the people see where their food comes from." Did they! No sooner did the tape rolled than Alaska’s most ill-timed farmhand strolls into the shot and stares at the camera crew as if it’s an alien spaceship,all while wrestling plump, feathery fowl into the ole head remover. Alaska’s leader rambles on, the Grim Reaper of Turkeys earns his pay and yet another Alaskan bird meets its maker. Through it all, Jensen rides his wide shot. It makes for compelling television – but for all the wrong reasons. To his credit, the award-winning photog has not hidden from the onslaught of criticism. On’s raucous message board, he’s vigorously defended his actions, or lack thereof:
'I'm a photojournalist. It is my goal to convey every scene I shoot as close to reality as possible. I want truthfulness over tastefulness - every time. From my perspective the background dominated the scene. It wasn't way off in the distance. It was like ten feet away! Guess what?! It really was distracting! Askanyone who was paying attention. The video I made portrayed the scene exactly. I believe that is what we are supposed to do.'
Mayhaps. But a bedrock principle of television interviewing is the avoidance of distracting backgrounds. Some bug-eyed goon beheading livestock easily qualifies as such. Alerting Palin to the carnage absolves one of responsibility, I guess – but it’s just bad tee-vee to let ancillary action dominate a talking head shot. NOT zooming in opens you up to a world of criticism; even if you wish the Governor’s already tarnished reputation no harm, it’s hard to explain why you didn’t follow every cameraman’s instinct and clean up the frame. That said, it’s difficult not to let walking cartoons prove themselves worthy of all that two dimensional scorn. Protecting her image (and future) is the duty of her staff, not some TV news photog, no matter how highly a decorated one. Me – I would have zoomed in, not so much to hide the turkeycide, but to rob the looky-loo of his unscheduled stare-down. While no real fan of Palin, I would have filed her further embarrasment under shit I don’t need. Scott Jensen’s deservedly sterling reputation will survive this flap, but I can’t help but wonder if he wishes he’d tightened up. Perhaps he’ll log in and tell us.

Now do you see why I avoid covering politics?


Duff said...

I had been wondering the same thing. A fine analysis, glad to see you did your homework (so I didn't have to)

turdpolisher said...

Gotta agree with you slinger.

The shot felt wide for me from the start, but I like 'em tight. As for Scott. He's a great guy and one hell of a photog. A little turkey blood ain't gonna sully his rep.

Senator's Forum said...

Slinger, covering politics isn't bad when you have good stuff to work with, did you know?

Adam Butler said...

I reckon next time I'm in a locker room after a football game I'll leave it wide and pretend I don't see wangs in my shot.

Anonymous said...

An interesting point from Mr. Butler.

I had no idea Jensen was the photographer. I've met and spoke with the man several times. I also attended an NPPA airborne seminar, a few years back, where he showed his photog of the year reel. (This was the first time he won the award, not the most recent time.) Anyway...the dude is a class act, and knows his stuff. And I can't recall a single person I've spoken with who is more passionate about news photography than he.

As far as I'm concerned, the decision to have turkey's seen being slaughtered in the background was Ms. Palin's...not Jensen's. He gave her fair warning.

Steve said...

I see your point; but, t'was funny in a Daily Show-esque way. Of course the cameraman could have zoomed in (or could he have changed focal-length for that horror movie effect?) but he chose not to. Despite his protests, I am sure he got exactly the shot he wanted... you can't control the backdrop but you can control the camera's view of it, so I call "intentional." But, since I can't stand Mrs. Palin's rambling, grammar-mangling, nonsense that never seems to stop, I found the distraction of the ole Skeeter killin' da birds in the background an odd relief. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad he shot it the way he did. I'm also glad it wasn't me. You hit it-- when the clownish turkey-killing character kept staring at the camera, I'd a-zoomed past him. He was a dumb distraction.

Then, when he pulls the bird from the turkey-killin-machine, he becomes an internet sensation. By then, he was a part of the mise-en-scene way too long.