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.