Saturday, March 05, 2005

Lure of the Lumbering Cyclops

You know, there's nothing like a fresh disaster scene to remind you how random fate can be. Hurricanes are one of the weirder examples of this force of nature and few have more access to them than the local TV lenser. After all, we are the often the first to feel the winds pick up - and we're damn sure always the loudest about it. But then, would hurricanes even crash our coast if they weren't assured their very own mini-series? Think about it...

These twisting storms are media sensations before they even get out of their warm Caribbean waterbeds. When we see them coming from half a world away, we crank up the local Fear-Plex and send our most heavily-logo'd members scurrying to the shore. A signal is established and we slap a thousand brand names over the vortex, using our super trooper Doppler to document every nth-degree of weather degradation. Soon the swirling maelstrom is a featured player in the nightly TV news line-up...

"Death and Destruction closing in on the East Coast, but first - is your dog psychic? We'll tell ya after the break..."

Depending on the impending Cyclops’s lumbering speed, this protracted teledrama can lurch along for hours on end, until rain-hooded reporters are interviewing stoned surfers and worst of all, other rain-hooded reporters. As the wind increases and it's starts to rain upside down, a nation of viewers is held captive on their couches by the dumb, the brave and the pretty. Who will be the first to lash themselves to phone poles and try to act casual THIS time?

Finally the storm hits, either near the cameras or far away but it doesn't matter...we rush to the nearest visible scars and blast the airwaves with handheld images of sad clichés: a broken trailer, a crumpled mansion, a toppled SUV - all videotaped proof of Mother Nature's strength once you really piss her off. As traumatized homeowners shuffle through scattered possessions, we pull cable close and set up camp.

Back at the shop, the weather experts go back to sleep and the guys in the art department re-dress the storm graphics. No more swirling palm tree at the edge of the screen, the lives taken by the storm demand a subtler hue, a heavier drop-shadow and more somber music. The Fables of the Reconstruction have begun.

How long this part of the saga lasts depends on the proximity of the storm's footprint. If all were lucky the surly journalist could soon be home, but it's not unheard of to suck sat truck engine fumes for weeks at a time, testing your limits with poor diet, multiple packages and extensive sleep deprivation. But of course, it's nothing compared to the plight of those you track. Just look around...

I remember bitching about day three of cold burgers while standing outside a high school gymnasium full of homeless flood victims - only to be rendered speechless by the sight of a mother changing her baby's diaper in the middle of the rainy field. I turned to look away and watched an old man sit behind the wheel of an rotting sedan as he brushed his teeth with a filthy handkerchief. It was enough to make even me a windbag like me shut up for once.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

In the Groove

Finding your groove, getting in the zone, achieving a shooter's high - whatever they call it, those who squint through a lens for a living all acknowledge its existence. Though frightfully hard to explain, I feel compelled to try. It's that...magical spell you fall under when everything you point the camera at falls into place. Images self-compose, nat sound breaks out left and right and happy accidents abound.

I remember an early morning in Kinston, N.C., standing on the edge of a convenience store parking bathed in warm sunrise light. In my viewfinder broken glass and a covered body filled the screen, pudgy detectives in short sleeves and shoulder holsters chewing tobacco over a busted cash register took up the frame. Sunk deep in my eyepiece, I whipped from one scene to the next, bagging one defining shot after another, building an in-camera vignette that would tell the story better than any reporter track. As I lined up one perfect shot after another, I remember thinking 'this is the most beautiful crime scene I've ever seen...'

A strange to think certainly, but looking back - I realize I was merely 'in the zone', laser focused on the one inch screen before me, half-listening to some off screen voice as it tells me where to next aim my lens. Soon instinct follows reason and experience fills in the next blank as I follow my mind's eye from one steady sequence to the next. Before long all peripheral vision melts away and I become one with the camera, deep under the influence of a most delicious case of tunnel vision...

Man, if I could bottle that feeling, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you. I'd be churning out my magical elixir, making TV news better for all mankind. While I was at it, I'd whip up an antidote for that other cameraman malady - Shooter's Funk.

You know, that maddening malaise felt when you roll up on a breaking news scene with everything you need but your magic photo-mojo. Even if every piece of your gear is working fine and the action is happening on cue, you can't line up a satisfying shot to save the worn Leatherman on your hip. If you're not careful, the funk can set in so deep, you can't even shoot a decent courthouse gang-bang interview. As your performance falters, your confidence plummets - and then ALL IS LOST. Soon you're falling victim to brackish light and bad white-balances, tripping over one rookie mistake after another until you slither back to the Live Truck in a fallen photog walk of shame, knowing that somewhere, someone who doesn’t even know how to pull the trigger will critique your on-screen mistakes with savage abandon.

I hate when that happens...

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Rendered to Cinders

Regular travelers along Highway 158 in Forsyth County know Loui’s Restaurant as a great place to eat, but when I pulled up to its gravel parking lot this morning, it was just the latest gutted structure in a l-o-n-g line of overnight fires. Nothing more, nothing less. With a precision honed over fifteen years of peering through the ashes, I grabbed my cameras and got to work. A biting wind took my breath away as I prowled the lot and collected shots. Nearby a tired looking man in turn-out gear sought refuge behind the warmth of his pickup’s steering wheel. He was kind enough to roll the window down for the pesky cameraman but neglected to go before the lens. Seems in his haste to leave the house, he forgot his teeth and didn’t want to be televised sans dentures. Do you blame him?

Moving closer to the building to escape the bracing wind, I got a better look at the restaurant’s interior. A thick paste of ash, firewater and mud covered the floor, turning everything into an ashy, abstract landscape. Less than eight hours earlier, it had been a thriving country diner, a welcome oasis between Stokesdale and Walkertown. Now it was a soggy, smelly mess. After bagging a few close-ups I moved around the parking lot, gathering the obligatory wide angles and compression shots. When my ingrained photog instincts told me I had enough images in the can, I leaned on my tripod and thought about sound. No news story is complete without it and I knew that if I couldn’t find any, two dozen nifty angles of a burned out building didn’t mean diddly. Through my viewfinder, I zoomed in on the firefighter nestled in the cab of his pickup. From the way his head had rolled to one side, I knew he was either asleep or dead. Not wanting any more story than I already had, I assumed he was sleeping.

That’s when I met Louie. The small gentlemen with the Greek accent sat behind the wheel of a nearby car and surveyed the broken building that bore his name. At first he didn’t want to talk on camera, but after a little coaxing, he voluntarily stepped in front of the glass. Through halting English and a no small amount of pride, the kindly immigrant told me how he’d spent the last twenty five years turning this roadside diner into a daily destination for hungry locals. For a quarter of a century he fed his family by feeding the legion of farmers, firefighters and factory workers that frequented his establishment. Business had been good in recent years, so much so that Loui sank sixty thousand dollars into renovations, money he now wish he’d spent on a decent fire insurance policy.

As the implications of this last detail sunk home, I pulled away from my viewfinder to catch sight of a lone tear rolling down the man’s leathery face. Suddenly I felt guilty for my earlier annoyance at the lack of talkative bystanders. While I was pouting over the dearth of preferred storytelling components , this grizzled businessman was staring at the charred remains of a lifetime of labor, wondering how his piece of the American Dream has been so suddenly rendered to cinders. I had no answers for Loui, just words of gratitude and a promise to share his plight with a million or so viewers. What good that may do remains unseen, but I for one am hoping his lifetime of good karma and daily specials will now pay off in spades. And just maybe, someone who can help Loui get back on his feet will do so because they saw it on the news. I've been doing this long enough to know my limited role won't mean alot in the long hard reconstruction, but how else is a TV news photog supposed to sleep at night?

Monday, February 28, 2005

Born to Bloviate

Let’s be honest. Some days there’s just nothing to write about. But since this is a blog, I can’t let that stop me. Others don’t. In fact, I’m amazed at how my blogging cohorts fill dispatch after dispatch with stream of consciousness fare that strangely enough fits their frame of reference. I envy their spontaneity. It’s not that I suffer over every word, but keeping this site focused on The Perils of Electronic News Gathering sometimes limits the...blogabilities.

Now, I’m not complaining. Nor am I planning to change Viewfinder BLUES into a vehicle for political screeds, consumer rants and pet photos. There’s plenty of THAT already available in the blogosphere. No, I’ll continue to pour forth on life behind the television news camera, for that’s what I know best. But once in awhile, the well runs a little dry, so forgive me if not every posting is a polished essay on the trials and triumphs of my chosen trade. Sometimes, all I got are nuggets. For example...

I hate Mondays, especially when it snows on the outskirts of my immediate viewing area. That always sends show producers into a tizzy and before I can finish my morning coffee, I’m hurled once again into the slush. Today I could almost SEE through my windshield as I made my way up Highway 29, a troublesome corridor in any conditions, let alone the sideways sleet and rain that thwarted my wiper’s finest efforts this morning. Low visibility aside, I ended up in Eden, where three inches of sloppy wet snow proved to be just the kind of footage my producers were jonesing for. Did I mention I hate Mondays?

Another thing I detest intently is the wrongful use of perfectly good TV equipment, which in my not so humble opinion, is just what ‘Good Day Live’ is. For the past few years, network bigwigs have foisted this bastion of insipidness on a nation of afternoon viewers. Featherweight and celebrity-obsessed, this L.A.-based broadcast blurred the lines between newscasting and unmitigated show business crap. Well, good news! “Good Day Live’ is ‘Good Day Dead’! No longer will I walk into the feed room at work only to catch a few minutes of some C-List bimbo grilling J-Lo’s stylist on what kind of hair mousse she prefers in the limo. Good Day Riddance!

On to less frivolous matters. How about school violence? As a taxpayer and a parent, I‘m against it - though as a working journalist I’m rather adept at keeping my opinions to my self. But today, at a press conference announcing a troubled high school’s fifth new principal in four years, I had to fight to keep down my Chick fil A. Why the indigestion? Just the new administrator’s claim that the school in question is no more violent than any other school, but rather the victim of bad media hype. Excuse me? We newsies may be shrill harbingers of this particular school’s prolonged downfall, but we’re NOT the ones throwin’ gang signs in the hallway, pedaling drugs in the classrooms, or launching haymakers in the cafeteria. I wanted badly to share my thoughts with the new principal, but I knew better. Maybe I’ll tell her replacement. We should be meeting THAT unlucky educator in about a month or two.

Well, there you have it - a few unrelated items from my pea-sized brain. Check back in tomorrow when I’ll try to conjure up something a bit more...linear. Until then, I’d better get some rest. You never know when a sleet storm may envelop the periphery of my homeland, and I’ll once again be back in the saddle, hunting accumulation and cursing my wipers. I could just replace the damn things, but then what would I blog about?