Friday, June 23, 2006

The Wizard of Snappy Lunch

Pork Chop ProphetCharles Dowell looked up from his grill and acted like he knew me. He doesn’t, really. Sure, I’ve stuck my lens inside Snappy Lunch more than a few times over the years, but to this legendary North Carolinian, I’m just the latest in a l-o-n-g line of curious cameramen to seek his counsel. When I pointed to the newspaper box outside and told him USA Today named his humble restaurant among the ten best places to pull over on a motorcycle, his scraggly eyebrows arched in feigned wonder as he tried to appear impressed for my sake. Since Andy Griffith first mentioned his boyhood haunt on his landmark TV show, journalists, movie stars and housewives have made a pilgrimage to this unassuming corner of Mount Airy, where a wizened Yoda of a fry-cook served up Southern-fried kindness and the very finest in Pork Chop Sandwiches. Another newspaper blurb atop a lifetime of acclaim probably didn’t mean a lot to him but ‘Mr. Charlie’ only smiled graciously as I reached over the counter and attached a wireless microphone to his well-worn apron.

For the next few minutes, I ambled around the country diner with my camera on my shoulder, feeling very much like a bull in a china shop. All the while a steady stream of elderly couples in matching t-shirts filed in, oohing and ahing at the famous faces on the wall as locals hunched over an early lunch and ignored the news-shooter got in everybody’s way. No one likes to be photographed eating, whether its bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon, or an oversized hunk of fried pork slathered in onions, coleslaw and white bread. Still, the early lunch crowd nodded knowingly and chewed with their mouth shut, knowing that the paparazzi was just something you have to deal with when dining at Mayberry’s most famous eatery. Wishing I’d brought my tripod inside, I braced myself in a corner and dodged waitresses as I committed shot after to shot to disc … a young family of mullets drowning their accents in sweet-tea, a group of ladies ogling a dated picture of Dowell and a Incredible Hulk-era Lou Ferigno, a burly farmer chewing furiously as he closed in on one last unobstructed artery…

Pork Chop Sandwiches to beLost in the process of gathering shots, I barely noticed when Mr. Charlie tugged at my shoulder and motioned me to the back of the restaurant. I followed his stooped form through my viewfinder, instinctively rolling on the over-the shoulder point of view. When we rounded a corner, I was surprised to see a gleaming new kitchen and dining area, far shinier than the age-old front room of Snappy Lunch. Dowell beamed at his ancient facility’s shiny new wing, and as I trained my lens on the homegrown fry-cook impresario and began the usual interrogation. ‘No’, he had no idea being mentioned in passing on a black and white sitcom all those many years ago would fill his simple place of business with adoring patrons every time he opened the doors. ‘Yes’, he enjoyed every new customer - even if they did ask him the same old questions over and over and over.

Were it not for my headphones I might not have understood Dowell’s every mumbled syllable, but I nodded on cue and soaked up each word. Though at times he paused mid-sentence, the celebrated short-order chef answered my questions with lucidity and charm, shaking his head slowly at the improbability of his storied life. A few minutes later, with my Mr. Charlie back behind the grill and my won Pork Chop Sandwich in a bag under my arm, a female employee with a blonde bouffant approached.

“Honey, did you get everything you needed?”

I sure did, I said - remarking on what an agreeable old chap she had for a boss.

“Yeah - he’s purty special.” she said as she tried to hide her concern at he elderly employer. “He’s been in poor health lately - getting’ confused and what all - but he seems to be happiest here.”

The Master at WorkI followed her gaze and watched as Mr. Charlie hovered over the grill, spatula in hand and eyes down as he stood watch over the post he’s manned since 1943. No doubt his loved ones see only the frailties of the figure in the corner, but I saw a man of great strength - a diplomat and statesman firmly in charge of his fate, his grill and his legacy.

We should all be so frail.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Of Floaters and Feelings

Sorry to continue with the macabre theme this week, but a comment from my dear friend Carolyn - an ex-reporter who taught me much about street-level newsgathering - revealed how a distant afternoon we've both pretended to forget, still haunts her...
"My worst - and I still hear this scream in my dreams, and Stu, I think you were there - was a case in which a man had drowned, and the cops were dragging the river for the body, and for some ungodly reason had allowed the man's family - his children - right up close to watch. Well, when the rake hit the arm of the guy and pulled it out of the water, his daughter started screaming - as long as I live I will never forget that scream, it went on and on, she collapsed, it was awful. I looked at my photog and he said "Sometimes I hate this job."
I'd been in news only a few weeks; the veteran of a half dozen press conferences, three meetings and little more. But suddenly I found myself at river's edge, sandwiched between two tripod veterans as would-be rescuers dragged the depths of the mighty Tar for a missing fisherman.

As I brought the small dinghy into focus, I pressed the 'RECORD' button and grew entranced. The man in the boat was down on his knees, pulling aboard a metal chain hand over hand. When it kept coming up empty, he'd motion the boat pilot to rev the motor and move a few more feet downstream.

This went on for quite some time and I stayed glued to the viewfinder, rolling tape and grinding my teeth. On either side of me, the other TV news photogs rolled their eyes at the new guy. I barely noticed them, as all my attention was drawn to tiny black and white screen at the end of the eyepiece. As heart beat increased with every pull of the dead man's chain, my two more experienced colleagues talked shop, traded police scanner frequencies and cracked on each other's Mom.

Not me. I followed the boat in my viewfinder as it moved slowly down it's invisible string. It was almost halfway to the nearest bend when family members started to arrive. At first there were only, but before long five large farm women paced up and down the dock beside us, wrininging their hands and muttering prayers. My two future buddies quieted down a bit, but still exchanged bored glances.

Feeling newly uneasy myself I leaned into the camera and zoomed all the way in. Backlit now by the setting sun, the silhouette of the men leaning low out of the boat was dowright iconic. I didn't know what that word meant back then, but I did realize I was documenting things I had never seen with the naked eye.

Panning slowly to keep up with the boat, I almost missed it, but out of the lower edge of the screen, the slumped head and shoulders of a very large man bobbed to the surface. The men onboard almost went into the drink as they pulled the body toward the boat. My eye buried to the eyepiece, I heard two cohorts lunging for their own lens.

That's when the screaming started.

Three or four voices. of varying pitch but related timber, howling ill-formed syllables of unmistakable pain. Forgetting my shot, I jerked my neck to the left and saw them. As if recieving electrical shock, the women convulsed and dances on the small pier, in much the same way you might if you saw you loved one at the end of a hook.

The next sounds, heavy metal clicks in close succesion, woke me from my stupor. My two competitors tore their cameras from their tripod heads and quickly shouldered them. As they began to advance on the wailing women with their looming lenses, I found myself torn between duty and decency.

I did NOT want to point my camera at those poor women, but I immediately understood I had to. As a small part of me wretched in disgust. I unlocked my tripod head and picked up the camera, realizing this was just the kind of drama I'd been seeking. Who knew it would feel so lousy?

Fourteen years later, I still attend the occasional drowning, and I've put more sad people on television than I care to count. It's my job. But I've never forgotten that day,when I had to get my hands dirty in the name of news. These days I employ more distance and tact in the pursuit of truth - knowing you can document the truth without getting in the way.

Most of the time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Postcards from the Edge

The Washington Post is issuing digital cameras to their reporters, and it’s causing a stink on both sides of the lens. While some herald the move as the very future of the Fourth Estate, others see it as a desperate act of a dying industry. Now, I’m no lofty columnist or new-age citizen media expert - I’m not even a print guy, for Gutenburg’s sake! What I am however, is someone who has spent the better part of the past sixteen years practicing street level broadcast journalism, all by my lonesome whenever possible. I do so more out of contempt for the on-air reporter model than any urge to break new ground, mind you - but exposure is exposure. Along with my fierce dedication to solo-newsgathering, I’ve fostered a blog habit in recent years that has added a small digital camera to my arsenal. As a result, I know a thing or three about juggling cameras, notepads and agendas. It may be the future of the business all right, but I’m here to tell ya, it ain’t easy. Rare is the news scene I walk away from with incredible video, dazzling snapshots, imperative sound-bites and all the facts. Usually I manage to bag three out of four, with the digital still shots suffering the most. That’s okay by me, as the snapshots are really a blog-hobby kind of thing - whereas my moving pictures are tied directly to my weekly stipend. But this post isn’t about me - it’s about the compression of skills, the lowering of standards and the over-sold advent of multimedia journalism.

While most shooters I know (stills and video) are consummate journalists, most reporter types want nothing to do with the dirty end of the lens. Who can blame them? Image gathering is a strenuous business - one involving sore muscles, lousy weather and little glory. I’d pace around the perimeter with nothing more than a notepad too, if I could get away with it. Tragically (for my back, anyway) I’ve always brought a camera or two to go along with my press-pass, but it hasn’t stopped me from noticing how different scribes and lensers act in the wild. Whereas photographers lunge head first into the action, reporters tend to lurk on the edges. That’s where the long-view is I’m guessing, the place to see the story that’s unfolding as more than a series of close-ups and segues. Not withstanding the occasional uppity grump like me, this collaborative partnership between photog and reporter works quite well. With each partner free to pursue his part of the quest, the results can be visually stimulating and lyrically provocative, with a few actual facts thrown in for good measure. But what happens when the gifted scribbler is handed a lens and ordered to bring back viable images as well as vetted perspective?

I’m not quite sure, though I suspect some ugly pictures are in the offing. While that truly offends a student of image as myself, I’m guessing a generation of youtubers won’t really care - especially when they’re watching the resulting footage or stills on a screen the size of a postage stamp. What they will hopefully care about is accuracy, if not nuance - something that’s even harder to capture when you’re trying to decide what to do next, interview the witness or bag the wide-shot. As those whose assignments rarely take them away from the internet cafĂ© like to tell us - taking pictures isn’t brain surgery. After all, what schlub couldn’t use today’s user-friendly cameras to click a few pix while still managing to gather their thoughts? Maybe they have a point, but it’s gonna take a new breed of print reporter - one not afraid to get in the way to get the shot - before anything close to revolution is captured on-screen. Until then, I’d look for lots of fuzzy photos to pop up on newspaper websites, accompanied by glowing text touting the dawning of a new, convergent age of media. Perhaps, but I’m guessing the smattering of amateurish images will be just that - postcards from the edge. So if you’re a print reporter soon to be saddled with an unwanted lens, stop by the scrum and say hi. I’ll be down there with the TV guys and gals - trading lies with my camera-wielding co-horts while we all silently plot to eat your lunch.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Leaving the Bereaved

I’ve said it before, a camera on your shoulder can get you into anywhere - it’s the getting out that can be tricky. Evidence of such permeates the discussion over at, where Australian photog-blogger Widescreen asks, 'How do you say sorry?'
"Today I shot an interview with a family where the mother was murdered 2 days ago. When I arrived and was greeted by the family, I said as I shook their hands, "Sorry for your loss..."
I feel ya, Widescreen. Tastefully wrapping up a teary interview with a freshly shell-shocked survivor can be delicate at best. There’s no pat answer I can give you, no adage or catch-phrase that will heal the wounds of a sleepless widow - or even make you feel better about setting up all those lights in her living room. Still, there is a right way and wrong way to conduct this visit and it has to do with just how you’re perceived by the newly bereaved. I’d like to say we all have the grace not to trample on the stricken, but the press in question regularly falls short of this particular glory. To be fair, it is the electronic interloper’s toughest gig: quizzing victims in the throes of torment without venturing into exploitation. I personally have witnessed the cathartic release of a deftly-executed, mournful chat. I’ve also seen photogs upset whole coffee tables in their lunge toward the zoom button, all because a red-faced woman dabbed her eyes for the first time all morning.

If that sounds crass, it is - but a refined sense of decorum is a luxury item not every news-gatherer thinks to pack - when we know we’re making the trip at all. Ask Cameragod:
"What’s worse is when you don’t get a heads up. I got told to meet the reporter at an address. Walked in to find a guy in bed dieing surrounded by his grieving family. They later sent a letter thanking us for a sympathetic and respectful story but commenting how funny my face was when I first arrived as I realized what was going on. They wanted us there to tell their story but if anyone had bothered to warn me I wouldn’t have bounced into the room saying “Hi how’s it going?"
OOF. That one hurts. Hopefully, I’ll be spared this particular scenario, as I feel like I’ve checked off most every other item on the Victim Interview checklist, some with pride, others with repugnance. I’ve swarmed wailing farm wives as they thrashed on the banks of a river that swallowed their loved one. I watched time stand still as a slain deputy’s teenage son stared holes through the family’s mobile home dust motes in debilitating disbelief. I chatted quietly with a lovely woman in her yard as she clutched her dead son’s high school graduation portrait, her fingertips a dark purple as they dug into the wooden frame. I’ve buried my eyes in my viewfinder to hide tears as a young wife’s voice breaks when describing her husband, who’d been struck down on the interstate hours before. None of them I’d count as my favorite moments behind the lens, and I’m sure I’ve got a few more in store if I continue to drive around town in a marked news car. I’ll try and keep my humanity stashed in my run-bag, nested in between the spare batteries and back-up microphones. As for interview-ending axioms, I’ll stick with winging it, knowing that, as one young poster points out, zoom lenses and good intentions are rarely enough:
"I feel kinda shi-tay being so fake, but walk in walk out of peoples lives so often ... I guess its part of the job.”
I guess...

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I'd Like to Meet his Tailor...

Petty News Around My Face...
Seems I made the front page of my local newspaper's Sunday edition ... and not in the tri-state crime-spree kind of way, either. Instead, I'm featured as part of the ancillary clamor surrounding aging superhero Nido Qubein. Fresh from wowing bored students with his trademark motivation speech, the High Point University president ("Nee-do" to his peeps) was regaling me and my lens with bite-sized bons mots for the evening broadcast when News & Record's H. Scott Hoffman moved in for the kill. I'll get him - and his little dog, too! How dare he photograph me when I'm so clearly thinking about lunch? As for all those TV shooters who'd like to know where my tripod is, fear not - my shot was held steady by the dulcet tones and white-hot life-force that radiates from this unorthodox success magnet. Thanks, J.R....

The Adventures of Camera-Dad

It’s happened. After years of heavy exposure to the vagaries of the chase, a virulent strain of the Photogiphus bacteria has infected my every chromosome. How do I know? Everywhere I go, I exhibit the symptoms of an ‘imagist’. Take yesterday for example:

Parent TrapJust outside the Girl Scout camp, the growing throng of parents chatted and cackled. For four days, the Moms and Dads had relaxed and worried as their daughters learned the fine art of bracelet-making and bug-killing. Now, just minutes from their offspring’s victorious march into camp, the crowd simmered with anticipation and regret. Not me, though. Bad as I missed my kids, I was too busy reading the room to get all misty-eyed. Drifting through the crowd like a seasoned pickpocket, I palmed my snapshot-camera and scanned the edges of the crowd. Thousands of hours spent documenting assemblies has taught me a thing or three about group-movement and I can’t help but employ my camera-sniper skills at every congregation. Finding a suitable perch by the front gate, I glanced around at the suburban faces and sized up my competitors’ lenses. Imagine how proud my girls must be when they march into camp singing, only to find their grizzled father body-checking a Grandmother to steady up his shot.

Feet CamI guess they’re used to it. The day my oldest was born, I spent the early morning hours riding along with under-cover deputies as they yanked sleepy crack-dealers out of housing project bedrooms. As far as she and her sister know, my job is normal - but what can you expect from kids who grew up with flashy news-units in their drive-way? Dignity? Not when their goofy Dad tends to wander aimlessly in Home Improvement Stores, lost in admiration at how the sunlight filters in through the garden section’s windows. Not when they’re late for piano lessons because their male chauffer fell in behind a screaming fire truck and followed it fifteen miles out into the county. Not when their old man turns even the quickest hike through the woods into yet another fuzzy photo excursion, jostling passing cyclists, just to get one more obscure shot Mom’s never gonna have developed. No, the best my girls can hope for is that Dad will stay on the beat, otherwise will have to satisfy his cinematic jones as only a hobbyist - and nobody wants Daddy videotaping the Prom someday.

Deer DuoNot that I have to be in public to befuddle my kids. You should see the expression on their faces when they see me at home, eyes pressed against the window in an hours-old crouch and muttering imaginary coordinates into the TV’s remote control. You see, a menagerie of wildlife meanders past our backyard creek. With a visit or two to the seed store, I’ve manage to persuade many of them to strike pose in exchange for a morning buffet. Sure, the kids dig it - but for some reason they’re not quite as into it as I. Whereas they favor more energetic pursuits, I’m happy as a lark to camp out at the glass for hours, with nothing more than a lens and beverage. That kind of thing’s normal enough I suppose, but I wonder if pipe-fixers think about proper microphone placement when they go bird-watching? Probably not, but I bet their kids are equally embarrassed by all that plumber’s crack. Anyway, I gotta get back to the view, I’m expecting some blue-jays around lunch and I don’t want to miss a chance to catch ‘em out of focus.

How else do I convince the wife I need a better camera?