Saturday, January 22, 2005

Prison Yard Litmus Test

“Where’s that little News Lady? One does the weather in the mornings?”

I didn’t know what to tell the pot-bellied man standing before me. For all I knew our weather bunny was stashed away in the prop room, gargling dry ice in her cryogenic chamber.

“Oh, she’s back at the lab …watching the Doppler.” I offered. “All they sent was me.”

The man scrunched his eyebrows. For a few awkward seconds he said nothing, his wide tie and beefy forearms radiating blue-collar authority. Finally, he turned on one scuffed heel and shuffled toward the guard shack.

“All right then, come on in the house.”

The Greene Correctional Institution has had many names and many masters. Originally built as a county prison farm, the state of North Carolina took over the modest facility in 1931. Since then, itt's been the reluctant home to tens of thousands of inmates as they worked on road crews, construction projects and the prison farm itself. In the early eighties, the state built a gleaming new facility on that same farmland. Today the concrete fortress of gates and watch towers known as the Eastern Correctional Institution dominates the plot of land, making its country cousin next door look every bit the back-lot for ‘Cool Hand Luke‘. For years, I passed by those lowly barracks and barbwire-on my many jaunts between sleepy Goldsboro and wide-open Greenville. On weekends, I’d let off the gas a little and rubberneck at the throngs of family members and jump-suited inmates gathered on the ancient picnic tables out front. I never planned to visit it myself - but on that chilly March morning in 1993, I walked through the depression-era structure with camera and tripod in tow.

“This here’s minimum-facility, but we got a number of violent offenders servin’ the last of their sentences…”

I nodded and followed the man. As he trudged into the bunkhouse, the inmates stepped aside and eyeballed me and my TV camera. I looked back with sour indifference. I’d not been to a prison before, but the smell of sweat and mothballs reminded me of my time at sea. As for my guide, he never acknowledged the prisoners swarming around us. Not until an older inmate stopped spreading dirty mop-water on a floor long enough to address my guide by his official title did I realize he was indeed the high Warden of this penal outpost. The tie and forearms should have tipped me off.

“We provide labor for the state and county - DOT, janitorial, construction,” the Warden said, looking over his shoulder and giving me a good ole boy wink. “We like a busy inmate.”

I believed him, even though dozens of men in loose fitting jumpsuits shuffled around us, each one tracking the path of the warden and the cameraman. Along the way, some gave shout-outs to my station while others slunk past with their heads down. One tall Latino guy stopped long enough to flip me off -  about the same reaction you‘d get from trolling a TV camera through a crowded Friday night food court. But these idlers were a bit more brutish than the average mall rat. As a result, I kept my wise-assery to myself. Following the warden through the gauntlet of steel bunk beds and shitty looks, I could feel the eyeballs upon me. I relaxed a little when the warden led me through a door and...

Into The Yard. A dirt lot with a dozen picnic tables, the tall chain link fence that enclosed it’s southern edge ran alongside one of the lonelier stretches of highway 903. It was the same yard I had driven by hundreds of times, zipping past this miserable spot at sixty plus. Now I was sludging through the yard with Boss Hogg and a gang of increasingly brazen Guests of the State.  Not what I envisioned when I first wormed my way into a TV station.

But I didn’t come to sightsee. The sooner I could get bag my shots, the sooner I could shake the imprisoned dust off my heels and make a beeline for an air-conditioned edit bay.. Raising my tripod, I plopped the Panasonic on the tripod plate. As I did the inmates dispersed, some scrambling for cover, others sashaying away while fondling their crotch.. The Warden barely noticed but I smiled inside as I brandished my weapon. With forced casualness, the throng of inmates paced and glowered as my battered lens swept their ranks. I squinted into the eyepiece, rolled the focal tube under my fingers until the image sharpened to a razor’s hone. Panning the crowd, I left one hardened face and landed on another. Some glared back, others went about their lack of business. A gust of wind kicked up and swept a hazy brown curtain of dirt between the convicts and my lens. BINGO, I thought.

After a few more shots, I mic’ed up the Warden and asked him a few questions about a new study on prison overcrowding. He answered in an authoritative drawl, bringing to mind an old car salesman I once knew. After a few more questions, I wrapped the interview with an offhand request.

“Hey, think I can talk to any of the inmates on camera?”

“You bet, “the Warden said, handing my lapel microphone back to me. “Let me get some release forms.”

Wrestling my camera off the finicky tripod, I twisted a knob and pulled the it back and up, freeing the aging betacam from the stuck plate lock. When it released I looked up only to notice I was standing by myself. A dozen yards away I spotted the Warden waddling into a guard shack. Looking back, I saw the smirks and heard low laughter as the flock of felons closed in. I could feel my pulse in my temples, but I just stood there, camera hung low and heavy. The inmates stopped at arms’ reach and I squared my shoulders, my heartbeat visible through my station fleece. Curses and cut-downs rang out as I tightened my grip on my twenty-five pound boat anchor of a camera. Glancing from one mean mug to another, I wondered how many I could take out by swinging the camera, and how soon I would soil myself in the process. I looked over my shoulder, but saw no signs of the Warden.. In front of me, the group flashed gold teeth and gang signs as my sphincter twisted into the shape of a seahorse. That’s when a weirdly familiar twang rang out.


I turned toward the voice and saw a squirrelly little inmate staring back at me. Then it hit me - Durwood! Looking closer, I recognized the younger brother of a fellow I had, ahem, once associated with. Even back then, I thought he had the makings of a thug. As I took in the neck tattoo that haxd yet to be completed, I could see that he was well on his way.

“Dur, what are you here for?”

He ran his fingers through his greasy bangs and looked away. “Aw man - you know just some DUI’s and stuff. How you been dude? I saw you on the TeeVee!”

“Well, you know - I’m doing okay, the station‘s letting me do it full-time now….” From there the conversation devolved into the kind of aimless chatter you hear at the deli counter. Seems Durwood had bad news about his brother. And as he unspooled the sordid tale , the swarthy clutch of convicts hung on every word like the ladies on Oprah. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the Warden in the door of the guard shack. I couldn't see his face, but I have to believe he was enjoying himself.


“And then he WALKED OFF!”

My buddies convulsed in laughter around the bar. I laughed along with them, until a reporter buddy piped up .

“ He did the same thing to me last month!”

With that, the rate of consumption heightened and I spent the evening retelling the account of my prison yard showdown. Of course as the bar tab increased, I worked in new details of a staggering knife fight and daring escape,, but what would you expect from a young cameraman on Dollar Import night, anyway?

Snowgasm Denied

I was all set to man the early morning icy overpass LIVE! until Mother Nature called it off. Instead I scrambled for the hinterlands in a live truck, part of a multi-prong mad dash for snow footage of any kind. I ended up in Glencoe, a lovely little community that's damn dark at five in the morning. Still, the thin white glaze that covered the Alamance County town was enough for me, even if grass blades were sticking up out of it. I pulled over into a used car lot and grabbed my sticks and lens.

White frosting on a Subaru’s windshield, ivory grain sparkling in the glimmer of headlights, a wide shot of trucks plowing through the drizzly muck - all in thirty seconds of news footage. Triggering the RECORD button only after lining up each fifteen second shot, I quickly assembled a rough vignette of sequenced snow footage. Knowing the video would help soften the blow of our four hour tap-dance, I smiled to myself in the dim blue glow of the viewfinder. Four minutes after touchdown, I was back in the saddle, blowing out of town in a roar of strained-out engine whine and eighties-era Metallica.

Hey, an aging lenslinger has to stay awake somehow, right?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Curse of the Electronic Interloper

As TV news photojournalists, we are the weary foot soldiers of the local newsgathering force. The glitzy anchors get all the attention, but without the lenslingers, the nightly news would be little more than cross talk and hand puppets. Credit that to the power of the moving image, as flickering images hold sway over our collective consciousness like no other medium. That includes such pedestrian footage as the evening news. Be it a hostage in the barrio or a parade of circus midgets, the indelible images that pour out of that box in the corner of your living room started as a glimmer in the photog‘s eye.

Of course, much of what passes for news is pre-packaged tragedy, salacious recordings of the offended and vanquished. It’s that way for a number of reasons, mainly because the slow-moving gravy train of human suffering is so easy to catch. Hell, it stops at every station. Scanners burble and pagers chirp, signaling the media pack that its feeding time again. Soon we’re congregating at the corner of Crack Pipe and Drive-by, shuffling our feet as authorities drink coffee out of paper cups and second-guess the dead. Is it any wonder the extras in these passion plays don’t always want our prying glass to chronicle their role? Would you?

So its no surprise that anyone who brandishes an unconcealed camera long enough will encounter a stranger who wishes them great harm. Locked in the moments of their very worst day, they lash out at our lenses with unanchored rancor. I might too, if I lost a loved one. But feeling compassion for the person in the tiny viewfinder doesn’t stop me from doing my job. It cannot. Quite simply, it is my job and nature to document what I see before me. Though I use sophisticated tools to place myself on the edge of drama, I rarely want to be there. So I use distance and judgement to bag my quarry, knowing that, while it’s an unpleasant enough episode for me, the person on the other end of the focal tube is watching their whole world fall apart.

Still, the kind of turbulent situations we photogs (and reporters) thrust ourselves into rarely have a clearly marked escape route. Cursed by passing motorists and spat at by handcuffed bikers, I know a thing or two about not feeling welcome. Every photog does - including my fellow camera-scribe Chris Weaver, who tells his own tale of victims, verve and venom in the aptly-titled ‘Bad Day to be a Photojournalist’.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Idolatry Americus

First of all, a disclaimer: I’m NO FAN of American Idol. When it first hit the scene I was among the many to warn of the coming Apocalypse. Enraged, I took to my mailing list and issued a blistering screed entitled American Idol: The New Taliban. Dig it:
Can someone PLEASE explain the attraction? Is it the ever-dwindling posse of Dionne Warwick wannabes warbling forgotten show-tunes? Is it the fey hard-ass in the muscle shirt dispensing his own brand of glitzy frontier justice? Is it the jacked-up host shilling cola between inane backstage yammering? Don't even tell me it's Paula Abdul! For cryin‘ out loud, the woman put Arsenio Hall in her music video! This qualifies her to judge talent? What's next? Kid Rock judging some glam-metal karaoke contest? AUURRGGH!!!!!!!!
Okay - so I was a little worked up, but a stiff regiment of Delta Blues and Nautical history got me through that difficult time. Soon I was getting through each and every day without thinking of American Idol at all, despite seeing junior sales executives do back-flips down the hall over the numbers the show was bringing in every day. No, I was doing just fine, until the driveway phone call that fateful morning…
“Stew - we're gonna need to send you to Raleigh ASAP. But you need to come here and pick up Cindy. Clay Aiken is visiting with the Governor."

"Who the hell's Clay Aiken?"

"CLAY AIKEN! American Idol! He's one of three contestants left on the show! He's from Raleigh and we just found out he's visiting the Governor at ten!"

What followed was a heated road race to Capitol City, where I first came face to face with the loopy juggernaut that is Idolatry Americus . When we entered the rotunda, a camera crush that would flatter The Pope swirled around the scrawny songbird and beaming Governor. I weaseled my way upfront, and joined the wall of lenses clamoring for close-ups. That’s when the songbird opened his throat and belted out a rendition of ‘On the Wings of Love’ that would send Jeffrey Osbourne into jagged sobs. Aiken’s powerhouse pipes filled every crevice of the historical structure that day. Even the ivory busts of lawmakers past sighed blissfully at the warm melody. It didn’t exactly make me a fan of the show, but I came way with an appreciation for the electronic audacity of it all. Eventually I penned an account of the whole sordid sojourn in the lengthy diatribe, Operation: Idol. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

After that, I thought I was through with the show. But the everyone around me started using the F-Word around me, and they weren’t talking about the trippy Mickey Mouse Acid flick. Before I knew it a strutting home girl from High Pockets flew to Hollywood, impressing all with her voice and verve. An unlikely ascent followed and I helped hype every inch of it. It’s what I do. I remember interviewing her brother, her teachers, and one especially slow newsday, her mailman. Of course the whole thing culminated with her coronation as the American Idol champ. I witnessed that too, from the swaying mosh-pits at the Greensboro Coliseum. All around me eight thousand deluded maniacs convulsed and jerked with full-on Fantasia Fever. Which puts the photog in a perilous spot. One has not fully experienced life until he has held a coliseum full of people hostage with a live TV camera. Just make sure you don’t spark a riot. I almost did, but survived the night with only mild ear hemorrhage. Find out why in the seething epistle Fear and Loathing in Fantasia-Land.

Then came August of 2004. Four five days I prowled the floor of the Washington D.C. Convention Center, dragging my camera and tripod through a sea of badly-warbling backup singers. Twenty thousand strong at the outset, the teeming masses of drama queens would be reduced to a couple dozen before the workweek was done.
"I AM the next American Idol!" each one boasted to my lens.
Sure you are, I’d think, pointing the camera their way. Nine times out of ten, the sound of two feral cats making love in a tin-foil sack would immediately fill the Convention Center, setting off a chain-reaction of half-flat trills and badly-dented Doo-Wap. My lovely reporter and I endured it all, searching out Piedmont residents among the camped-out crooners and watching them slowly dismissed one by one. All except one. Greg Sanders of Pittsboro made it ALL THE WAY to Hollywood - past production assistants, executive producers and finally the judges themselves, Paula, Randy, Simon and, inexplicably, Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray. Visually, Sanders is an unlikely candidate for the Star Machine, but Clay Aiken proved it can be done. Greg Sanders DOES have a powerhouse voice to rival Aikens, loads of charisma and none of the uptight Church lady vibe that the Clayster so exudes in person. Did I mention he also yodels?

On Tuesday January 18th American Idol will kick off its new season with the Washington D.C. audition show. If crazed wannabes and the highest level of manufactured hype are your cup of tea, give it a swirl. I’ll be in front of my set, watching assorted warblers go down in flames and rooting for my buddy Greg Sanders to slay all the pretty people in his path. What could be more American than that?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Moon Rock Madness (4 of 4)

“WE got a wood chipper out back!”

The seven words ricocheted off the brown-wood paneling of the small home, rendering adult life forms motionless and spraying implications everywhere. Only the kid seemed unaffected. He darted underneath the kitchen table and ditched Frack’s rambling science lesson for an impromptu field trip. Frick followed and before I knew it, my easy little feature was running out the door.

I followed, but none too gracefully. Dropping the cell phone, I dashed across the room and ripped open the screen door. Upon exit, the top of my camera’s light post caught the top of the doorframe, jerking me backwards as I slid on my ass down the porch steps. Frick and the boy barely gave my awkward ejection a second glance though as they rounded the corner out of sight. I fell in behind them, switching filters, guessing light temperatures and flipping camera presets all the way. Behind me, I could hear Sideshow Bob join in the chase. If a jogger had passed by and seen the frizzy haired stranger chasing the cameraman chasing the old coot chasing the boy…well, I’m curious how‘d he interpret the scenario. Chances are it wouldn’t be astronomy.

Behind the back yard, a dense line of trees towered over the swing sets and doghouses. With the last of the daylight evaporating into shadows, I could barely make out the hole in the underbrush the boy disappeared through but ole Frick followed with ease so I did likewise. As I entered the forest at full speed, my camera shouldered and rolling I blinked in a vain attempt to squeeze more light of the air. It was hard to see where I was stepping, especially with a one-inch screen bobbing one inch in front of my right eye. That’s when I heard the boy’s voice call from up ahead.

“Careful - they’re used to be some holes back here”

‘USED to be?’ I thought as I planted another foot on the forest floor and sunk to my shin. With my foot suddenly tangled in a crevice of underground tree roots, the rest of me kept moving forward until I smacked into the ground with a painful thud. Before I could absorb the hit, the weight of the camera met with the side of my head, leaving a bright red spot on my dirt-smeared forehead. Behind me, Sideshow Bob approached meekly.

“Are you okay?’ he asked - his first and last words of the evening.

“Son of a --”, I never finished the thought; instead I yanked my foot out of the hole and took the young newspaperman’s hand. I didn’t say much as he helped me up - I was too busy checking my camera and picking up my cool points. I had to leave a few on the ground when I herd rustling up ahead.

“Over here!” the boy’s voice echoed.

Sideshow jogged behind me as I half-limped, half-trotted toward the voice. In the dying light, I saw the boy and Frick peering through a tall chain-link fence, their silhouettes backlit over the fence’s gridiron. The sight reminded of my camera and I squared up the shot, leaning on a tree to compensate for my heavy breathing. After a few seconds, I moved up to the fence itself and zoomed all the way in. Through the blue haze of the viewfinder, I filled the screen with the industrial size wood-chipper that dominated the middle of the city-owned compost yard.

“There’s your space ship,” Frick said, with more than a little disappointment in his voice.

A half hour later I crawled in my news unit, cranked up the engine and checked the dashboard clock. 8:04 -- two hours until the Ten o Clock news music filled living rooms around the Piedmont. After our woodsy excursion, I came back to the house and interviewed the moon rock family one last time. The parents seemed confused as ever; only the boy seemed to appreciate the irony of the metal blob’s apparent earthbound origin. Even Frick admitted on camera, that the formerly mysterious object was most likely indeed a broken tooth from the massive wood-chipper out back, even noting how the trajectory of the grinder’s chute lined up with the hole in the house‘s roof. After Frack put the metal mass underneath a powerful telescope and found little tiny flecks of grass and wood chips, the luster had officially worn off my magical little moon rock.

But not for the viewing public, apparently. The phones back at the newsroom were still ringing off the hook with assorted theories, suggestions and overall hysteria. So much so that the Ten o Clock producer had promoted the moon rock follow-up to his lead. I was picking dried up dirt flakes off my forehead when he called to tell me the news.

“The lead? It’s a freakin’ tooth from a wood chipper!” I yelled into the cell phone.

“Maybe so,” the voice said, but for the next two hours, its a moon rock, and we’re milkin’ this baby! Get back here!”

I did as told. The next city officials examined their giant wood chipper, found a broken metal tooth stub and reluctantly agreed to look into the matter further. Two days later, I was sitting at my desk and struggling with a script when the shapely night-side reporter hung up her phone.

“Check it out” she said to the passing assistant news director. “The city’s gonna pay for the Moon Rock family’s roof! We’re doing a follow-up!”

“What did I tell you?” the well-tailored manager said, “We’re making a real difference in people’s lives out there...”

Yeah, I thought, but we‘re peddling our share of hype too. I then returned to my computer and hashed out a script about a dog in a funny hat. I love local TV news.