Friday, September 02, 2005

NBC Photog Speaks Out

NBC photojournalist Tony Zambado is receiving praise and derision from industry insiders for his outspoken assessment of the anarchy at the New Orleans convention center:

"There's no support here. There's no foundation. There's no Plan B, Plan A. These people are very desperate. I saw two gentlemen die in front of me because of dehydration. The sanitation was unbelievable. The stench in there, it was unbelievable. Dead people around the walls of the convention center, laying in the middle of the street, in their dying chairs, where they died, right there in their lawn chair.

"They were just covered up. In their wheelchair, covered up. Laying there for dead. Babies, two babies. Dehydrated and died.

I just tell you, I couldn't take it."

Of course journalists aren't supposed to voice opinions - especially those of us with cameras on our shoulders, so its no surprise that Zambado's remarks have sparked a debate at industry watering holes both real and pixelated. A brief sample:

"I don't need someone to tell me how to think or feel in a "news" report. I want the facts. The things he states as facts in the report, such as them not starting riots, no hostility, no plan b or plan a, are just emotional repetition of what he's been told or conjecture. They are things he could not know." - Frank McBride

"I do feel Tony Zambado's first person experience added to the understanding of what was going on during this tragedy. I don't feel "journalism" was compromised because he was no different than any other witness to an event we might interview for a story other than he had video and sound to back up what he was saying." - John "Lensmith" Dumontelle

"Tony Zambado is a hero. His pictures and words conveyed the despairity of the situation at the N.O. convention center. Thanks to him hundreds of lives were saved. If he overstepped his bounds as a journalist... I don't care. He conveyed the gravity of the situation in any way he could. Those people were running out of time. Thanks to his efforts those people finally have food and water today. Thank you Tony." - Fisher

Strong words from those who walk the walk. I myself haven't seen the clip yet (who watches TV anymore?), but I have no real problem with the transcript. As it reads, the piece is what we call a 'Nat Sound Package', an edited collection of soundbites and background noise devoid of narration. These type of reports can be very powerful as undiluted, first-person accounts. Here, Zambado plays the role of interview-ee, he is not the producer of the piece and harbors no responsibility for it's end content. If anyone's journalistic ethics should be called into question, it should be those of Zambado's higher-ups, who sanctioned the airing of an employee's passionate opinion. Personally, I'd like to buy my fellow photog a beer for having the grapes to tell it like it is.

Stroll through a flood shelter full of dying innocents and tell me how YOU feel.

Idol Auditions Cancelled

Due to the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts taking place in the city of Memphis, the producers of American Idol have cancelled the auditions scheduled for there next week. Thus, I WON'T be jumping on an airplane this weekend. Instead, I'll cut the lawn, hang out with the kids, do some reading. I was looking forward to Beale Street and all, but this just ain't the time to make a fuss over ten thousand delusional songbirds. But fear not Idol fans (Bueller...anyone?), producers will soon announce another audition city for the '06 season. Hopefully, I'll get to go, for after this incredibly grim week, prowling another arena floor full of clamoring, off-kilter wannabes doesn't sound so bad.

(Special thanks to esteemed Memphian Scott Hayes for the additional heads-up.)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Misery Through A Tube

A fellow news shooter and old cohort of mine, Mike Durenberger of WNCT-TV, posts a valid question on my favorite message board:

How do we or can we separate ourselves or deal with the depth of emotions brought on by watching our fellow humans reduced to basic, primitive survival behavior. I've been through more than a dozen hurricanes including the aftermath of hurricane Floyd six years ago. That was one thing. What's happening in the Gulf coast region is deeper.

My response:

We don't. We keep our humanity at close range even as we zoom in on the devastated and the downtrodden. Otherwise we're truly the heartless jackals many people already think we are. Sure, we develop thick outer shells, hide our true feelings under a thick layer of cynicism as we make crass jokes with other journeyman shooters and scribes. But the day we don't allow the tragedies we document to shape our soul in some way is the day we become camera-toting robots.

I don't wanna be a robot. Instead I want to pay for my all-access pass to calamity by treating the subjects of my stories with wit and compassion. To do anything less is to betray those we point our cameras at. Am I sometimes a callous bastard? Sure - on the surface. But deep down inside, my heart goes out to each and every victim I witness - whether its through the wide-screen in my den or the tiny black and white screen at the end of that magical tube.

Like you Mike, I've covered countless storms. The one that left the deepest scars on my pockmarked psyche was without a doubt Hurricane Floyd. I will never forget standing amid the flood victims at the Tarboro High School gymnasium. Whole families hovering on government-issue cots, an old man brushing his teeth with a filthy rag, a little girl playing with an amputated Barbie doll...

Those scenes will follow me to the grave, which is how it should be. I use them to help me gain perspective when I find myself bitching about work, speeding past a panhandler or explaining life's many mysteries to my girls. I don't know what well of experience your average accountant draws from in times like these, but I know what the readers of this message board do. It's part of what makes me proud to be photog - and it's what makes me proud of you, too.

More responses to Mike's question can be found here. Read them, as they prove we're not the thoughtless leeches so often portrayed in movies. Most of the time, anyway...

Covering Katrina

As anyone who's been near a TV set in the past forty-eight hours can tell you, the images coming out of the Gulf Coast region are nearing the unfathomable. While the human suffering of the refugees deserves all the attention, I tend to see things through the filter of an overworked viewfinder. Thus, a quick glance at the unprecedented challenges facing many media crews covering the Katrina's aftermath (with a grateful nod to Lost Remote).

During the storm, Weather Channel stud Jim Cantore and crew found themselves scrambling for higher ground as floodwaters poured into a Gulfport retirement home:

"We're not even shooting [video] anymore. We're basically in self-preservation [mode] right now. We're helping people put up boards and sandbags to keep the water from coming in. We've become part of the crew."

A Washington Post article describes how state-of-the-art gear and top-shelf talent aren't always enough when traversing such a hostile landscape:

'NBC anchor Brian Williams got his satellite truck trapped in downtown flooding, a tire and the gas tank damaged. His team stayed as the water rose, reporting from the area and waiting for someone to come pull the truck out. John Roberts, the CBS News White House correspondent, spent Tuesday on an overpass over Interstate 10. He had to cut off the satellite feed between transmissions to save gas. Staffers for several networks are sleeping in trucks. Some NBC crew members have started suffering from digestive ailments.'

Of course, some broadcasters don't have to leave their workplace to experience Katrina's wrath. In Biloxi, WLOX continues operations, despite a damaged building and a fallen tower:

'While the station sustained heavy damage during the storm, they continued to broadcast and are continuing to broadcast at this time. They are also simulcasting through several radio stations in the market. Many WLOX employees have lost homes or their homes have suffered heavy damage.'

But what haunts me most is the following passage from a WWLTV blog, that describes a scene straight out of a Stephen King novel:

'Talked to Donny (news photographer Donny Pearce of WVUE) today for a while, he's in Shreveport with his folks, sounds very shaken up, had a horrifying escape from the city apparently, people hanging on his truck begging for help/food/money....'

I'm not asking you to feel sorry for the Fourth Estate. Save that (and your donations) for the downtrodden and the devastated. Just know that the reporters, photojournalists, sat truck operaters and field producers aren't just phoning it in. They're on the ground and in the water, filing heartbreaking reports that will hopefully galvanize a nation into action. Sure, when the flooding subsides they'll go home, but not without a few scars etched into their psyche. Trust me.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Internet Killed the TV Star

Via the increasingly vital Lost Remote, Cory Bergman provides some very good reasons why The Web is the Medium of Choice for Big National Stories. For starters...

The sheer amount of information is not the best fit for television. TV is a linear medium. Bits of information are delivered in real time, one after another, and then they disappear. There's a finite amount of coverage that can be delivered. Unless, of course, you want to watch TV all day and night.

But the internet can display a wide variety of information and make it available on demand. It's more tactile, more useful than television. Over the past few days of watching TV and browsing the internet, I discovered the most immediate and comprehensive information online. And I invested far less time in getting up to date.

I couldn't agree more. Why watch a news organization's coverage when you can peruse those journalists' source material, not to mention a global collection of pictures, analysis and contact information. From the comfort of your favorite bean-bag chair, you can research a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, flip through hundreds of images and clips and donate to your responding relief effort before that stodgy anchorman ever stops clearing his throat.

For now, TV is still the one medium that bests conveys raw emotion. Through sight, sound and editing, television can pack a visceral punch not found in the pages of a magazine or in the clicks on a website. But with on-demand web video racing to perfection, its only a matter of time before that box in the corner of your living room becomes something of a relic. I'm not suggesting that TV's are on the way out, but I guarantee you my grandkids will someday look at a current-day set and ask where the keyboard is.

Bovine Castaways

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 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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The 40 Year Old Rookie

Even the most casual of my half-dozen readers will tell you: I'm often at odds with my job. It's not that I don't enjoy my chosen craft, but the pressure and pace of daily TV news will wear on even the dullest of souls. Don't get me wrong, it's been a blast and then some, but lately, I've grown convinced it's a ludicrous way for a grown man to make a living. That's why Everett Aldridge's recent e-mail was so refreshing.

In it, the Arkansas man weaves a tale of wishful redemption, of staring into space and finding an answer - or maybe just another set of problems. In a clear and world-weary voice, Everett tells of how a dead-end kitchen job forced him to reconsider his current career path:

"As I made my way through the parking lot, the smell of beef juice and mixed veggies followed me. Reaching my car I realised my shoes had been wet since 11:30 am. My feet were tired and I could feel the slime of the day oozing through my wrinkled toes. It was just like any other day the long hours and smell of banquet food made me queezy as I sat at the stop light. I Wondered to myself how long could I do this job before I snapped."

The disillusion tailed him through crosstown traffic...

"As I drove down the same boring old street it seemed nothing had changed, it was the same as every other day, except that tonight, a white NAV( news assault vehicle) had just passed me, flying low with flashers blinking and puffs of smoke rolling from the drivers window. As it changed lanes and moved through traffic disappearing around a corner. That has to be a fun job I thought. Going places you have never been, meeting people with interesting stories..."

Inspired by this stoplight epiphany, Everett answered an ad at a local TV affiliate. Filling out an application, he dropped it off with the station receptionist and returned to his banquet hell. He'd all but forgotten about the interlude until a harried manager called him in for an interview...

"After a short dizzying tour we sat back down in his tiny office, he looked at me, a tired painful look on his face, then glanced at the stack of applications sighed abit and looked back at me and said, "you know , I really don't want to have to go thru this whole stack and you seem like you have a brain, so if you can start tomarrow then the job is yours. Be here at 9 am we can get your paper work started." My heart almost jumped out of my chest, I had done it, tomorrow I will be in Television!!!!!!"

I scored my first job the very same way - from an understaffed production manager teetering on desperation (Thanks, Lori!). But I was a twenty three year old punk at the time; my biggest responsibilty was keeping the girlfriend happy as I fought off sobriety at every turn. Everett's a 40 year old man, with all the baggage that come with it. I commend him for running mid-field into a young man's game and hope it brings him the satisfaction he craves, If nothing else, his story and burgeoning blog have made me rethink my own bitterness of late. Why, its almost enough to convice me I'm right where I ought to be in life.


Monday, August 29, 2005

Top Ten Ways to Improve Hurricane Remotes

Amid my own ancillary newsgathering, I watched as much Katrina coverage as I could stand. As usual, my colleagues didn’t disappoint, forging new ground in televised stupidity as they perfected the art of the human windsock. I should know; twelve years ago I was the poster boy for questionable storm-tracking tactics. I’ve covered many a hurricane since then and would probably be manning a French Quarters balcony this time given the chance. Instead, I’m digging deep in my salt-encrusted camera cases for the following pointers. I give you...

Lenslinger’s Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Hurricane Remotes.

1. Stop Acting Surprised
If you’re standing in the middle of a hurricane with a wireless microphone in your hand, chances are you clawed three co-worker’s eyes out for the assignment, drove hundreds of miles and put a great deal of thought into your matching rain gear. So for the love of my remote control, stop pretending your shocked that the weather is suddenly shitty.

2. Lose the Wind Speed Thingie
Look I know it seemed like a good idea back at the sporting goods store, but those infernal contraptions are notoriously unreliable. I once had one that worked fine until it got wet. Do us all a favor next time and leave it in the prickliest, right beside the giant thermometer you used last month in that hot car story. You know the one.

3. Introduce Me to Your Friends
Hey, you’re pretty and all strapped to the pole like that, but we all know you’re not out there alone. Put that wireless microphone to use and interview the crew. Quiz the photog about sleep deprivation, ask the grumpy dude in the truck how many granola bars and cigarettes he‘s consumed in the past hour, quiz the field producer on her college days. Anything’s better than hearing you recite the obvious while dodging coconuts.

4. Stop Yelling!
I know, I know - it’s rained sideways up your ear canal for the better part of the morning, but my bear in mind, that heavily-logo’d microphone you’re eating is a highly sensitive directional instrument quite capable of recording your mastery of the obvious at most any decibel. If nothing else, do it for the sound guy back at the studio, who’s no doubt ripping his headphones off and spilling coffee as you screech about how your handheld wind thingie has stopped working.

5. Work on the Wardrobe
I’m guessing the promotions department made you wear that aqua green rain slicker with the oversized logos, but I gotta tell ya, it just ain’t working’. How about an outfit that better represents the average tourist - say a pair of Birkenstocks, bright orange Speedo’s and a too-tight Nascar t-shirt. For the ladies, maybe a confederate flag bikini and cigarette holder? I saw a pregnant lady wearing thisvery outfit at a water park recently and it was most entertaining. Until her boyfriend noticed me, that is.

6. Lose the Cliché’s
I know its tough to come up with original patter when your dodging trash can lids, but using the terms ’steady clip’, ’not fit for man nor beast’ or any catchy spin-off of the storm’s name (Katrina and the Waves, anyone?) won’t win you any friends with the better-versed viewers out there. After all, you don’t want to SOUND foolish while lashing yourself to a chain-link fence and urging others to evacuate, do you? Wait, don’t answer that.

7. Try not to Look TOO Smug
Hey, I realize you want to be there, but Sally Joe Housecoat thinks your risking your life for her! So wipe that silly grin off your face, spit out a few facts and at least pretend your up to your knees in toxic waste for the betterment of your viewers, and not just so you can have something flashy for the opening montage on your next escape tape. We know better though, don’t we?

8. Compare and Contrast.
Unless you’re REALLY charming, countless live shots of you leaning into the wind quickly grow monotonous. Why not fight your way across the courtyard and into the hotel lobby, have a few buddies pry open the door and show us how safety is just a slow-motion steps away. If the power’s off, use your cameraman’s top-light top make wacky hand shadows on the badly-ravaged Continental Breakfast Bar. Just don’t disturb any card games. Those Weather Channel people get real pissy when you interrupt their gambling - especially that Cantore dude.

9. Get an Act
Much of what’s wrong with the modern day hurricane live shot isn’t in the inherent danger in the location but in the lethal addition of hackneyed and banal banter. Instead of repeating fragmented weather terms in a breathless yelp, try something different: a little soft-shoe perhaps, or a long pointless story from your youth, maybe a show-tune or two…Anything that will separate you from the pack. Personally, I always begin my sound checks with a heartfelt recitation of ’Texas Radio and the Big Beat’, but that’s just me.

10. Look Out!
You there - with the microphone and false sense of entitlement: you’re not immortal, ya know. Those flying shards of razor sharp sheet-metal could easily cleave you and you designer rain-slicker in half, POW! - right between the logos! So do us all a favor and keep you eyes open for incoming projectiles. If you’re truly destined to be the first hurricane reporter to buy the farm on camera, at least you’ll have time to say something pithy before your unwise demise is burned into a nation’s collective consciousness. Won’t your J-School Professor be proud?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Katrina Takes the Stage

For once I'm glad NOT to be on hurricane watch. That's saying alot. I'm one of those camera-packing nimrods who loves nothing more than rushing to the coast as a tempest with a title sends everyone else scurrying inland. What a kick! But Katrina has all the markings of 'The Big One' - a swirling monster that could turn the Big Easy into a wreckage-choked cess pool. As always, the media isn't letting the doomsday scenarios stop them from setting up sat truck outposts along the shore, all the better to frame up frothy waves and battered sea-oats behind rain-slickered correspondents.

In a way, I don't blame them. After all, a Category Five storm slamming into a historic, low-lying city will no doubt offer the opportunity for some truly spectacular footage. But at what price?

So far the media has been damn lucky. Despite all the seaside histrionics, no crews have ever been serfiously hurt while covering a hurricane (as far as I know). To date, the biggest victim has been the dignity of all those over-emoting reporters who cling to light poles while surfers and looky-loos loiter in the background. Hopefully, thazt less than lethal trend will continue. The very strength of Katrina should preclude some coverage. After all, transmitter dishes cannot withstand 170 mile per hours winds and sat trucks don't float. But knowing the renegade nature of your average highly-competitive news crew, I'm more than a little worried. Please everyone, stay safe. No shot is worth going home in a box.