Saturday, February 17, 2007

Planetary Mal

Don't let the calm demeanor fool you, this guy's an Operator. Seen here in rare repose, Australian Mal James is strangely at home in sandier climes. Cairo, Baghdad, the Gaza Strip - wherever his lethal lenslinging is needed. That's the life of this international cameraman of mystery - a dude who dodges RPG's the way I dodge late-day live shots. Sniper fire aside, Mal still seems to dig his gig though. Something about the visceral thrill of 'acquiring under fire', I believe. But the bloodshed that floods through Mal's lens can't help but stain his psyche at times. He takes no joy in the tragedies he records, not the images etched onto his soul or the saturated echos that make the evening news. No Mal remains a pro. He was seen least leaving a Hostile Environment Training course for frontiers unknown. I can easily imagine him blending in with the folks, laying low and brooding on the future. Why, were it not for his insatiable writing itch, we might lose track of this one altogether... Now classify this document!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Do Not Pass Go

I’d hoped to bring you a photo from my Thursday morning excursion, but when the heavy metal gate clanged shut behind me, my snapshot camera lay sleeping in the car. Damn. Jeff and I had already driven ninety minutes, schlepped armfuls of gear across a long gravel parking lot and made small talk with the large woman stuffed in the guard shack. Even then I knew I’d forgotten something, but until the turtle-necked figure led us down that tunnel of barbed-wire, I didn’t know what. Only when the rolling chain-link slammed home behind me did I remember my battered digital back in Unit 4. ’Too late now’, I thought as thick necks swiveled in our direction. Three steps later we were made, with every convict in the yard eyeballin’ the news crew.

I been to prison before. Never to stay, mind you - but the camera on my shoulder has landed me behind bars a time or two. Jeff however, had never been to the Big House. Now that he’d dragged me along on his inaugural visit, I was determined to make him squirm. I even thought about half-tripping him from behind as we squeezed past a long line of half-glaring, fully curious inmates. I didn’t, of course. I like Jeff. Plus, he was holding my best light-stand. No way I was gonna send that scattering across the cold hard concrete. Not with a couple a hundred incarcerated felons clockin' my every move. Apparently it was laundry day, as everyone of the jump-suited fellas clutched white sheets and a rough regulation-gray blanket. An empty smile on my face, I looked from face to face and tried out various nods. Some nodded back. Some didn't. But everyone watched.

Were it not for its 900 full-time residents milling about the place, the medium-security prison might look like a school. But there were no finger-paintings hanging in the low brick building’s windows and junior highs don’t drape their sidewalks in concertina wire. That’s why I kept my own weapon powered-down and slung low. Later, I’d record as many exterior shots as possible: silhouetted barb-wire, prison shoes scuffing concrete, fish-eyed vistas of penned-up men. First, though we had to get our interviews. And that’s why we made our way towards K-Block - the Sex Offenders Unit. When Mr. Turtleneck waved his ID, the door opened and we all stepped through. At first I couldn’t see in the dim light, but before my eyes could adjust, the smell of man-sweat and moth balls triggered a few boot camp flashbacks. That all faded away though, as I blinked away the sun's rays to see twenty or so Guests of the State glowering back.

Hoo Boy...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Polygraphing Chad

Coworker Polygraph
Please give it up for my co-worker Chad Arndt, who sacrificed his time and perhaps his dignity late yesterday - all in the name of news. The late show producer even maintained his composure - despite pinchy fingertip sensors, silly questions and profuse giggling from the cheap seats. He must have realized he was upholding a long TV tradition: Warm Prop Assistance. Yes, over the years I've subjected friends and colleagues to all manners of on-camera torture, mostly so whatever cheesy franchise piece I was working on wouldn't have gaping black holes in it. Come to think of it, Chad got off pretty easy. Back during the re-enactment craze of the early 90's, I remember rolling a certain tape editor off the hood of a parked police car over and over again until I got the back-light just right. Makes passing a fake lie detector test seem pretty cushy...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Meet the Valentines

Ed and ShirleyWith February Sweeps keeping my fellow photogs busy, I've been working with a lot of reporters lately. That's cool, but like The Big Ragoo, I got a 'Lone Wolf' jacket too and there's nothing I love more than wearing it out sans companion. Such was the case today. Ed and Shirley here didn't seem to mind the lack of famous face at the door. Instead they welcomed my scruffy mug into their home and didn't even wince when I began rearranging their furniture. Ninety minutes later, I gathered up my toys and wished them adieu, knowing I had gold onboard my XDCam. Back at the shop, their story wrote itself as I hunkered low in my cubicle and tried to ignore the inherent clamor of a late-day newsroom. Soon after I took shelter in a darkened edit bay, slicing my timeline and chewing my lip. When I emerged, reconstitued electrons hurtled to the server, a buck twenty of of throwaway television that ranks somewhere between masterpiece and meatball surgery. I then hit the road without watching it air, knowing that whether my finished piece was stellar or suckworthy, I'd done it My Way. Beats babysitting hair-do's at the edge of crisis any day...

Monday, February 12, 2007

Deception at 11

Further proof that that a career in electronic newsgathering ain't what it used to be: After firing most of its newsroom staff, a California TV station is asking local citizens to provide fodder for their nightly broadcasts. That's right, KFTY-TV, a miniscule Clear Channel outlet fighting for market share in highly competitive San Francisco, has shit-canned their in-house pros in hopes Sally Joe Housecoat will do the job (for free?). Good luck with that. Hey, I'm all for citizen journalism. Some might even say I'm guilty of it myself. And it's certainly true that much of what passes for nightly news content is stagnant, broken and increasingly irrelevant. But to turn seasoned professionals out on the street so they can exploit cheap technology and eager amateurs is nothing short of pure gimmickry - even if they do lay a new-age name on it (Local Content Harvesting, of course).

Now, before you phone-cam enthusiasts label me an old-media dinosaur, hear me out...I sincerely believe that citizen-driven visuals and common-man commentary have a place in 21st Century news. The advent of household lenses, laptop editing and YouTube ubiquity makes personal journalism a foregone conclusion. And that's a good thing! For far too long, we pros have had all the toys to ourselves. Decades of this broadcast monopoly has resulted in a newscast paradigm that is increasingly dumbed-down, dull and derivitave. Need proof? The next time your'e state-hopping, switch on the hotel TV to the local news. It all looks the same. Rampant consulting has beaten every vestige of regionalism out of local newscasts, leaving the entire form a mere shell of its former self - no matter how they might dress it up with plasma flatties, toothy news-bunnies and superdy-duper Doppler.

In short, we are long overdue for a shake-up. But does the Fourth Estate deserve to be turned into a graffiti-strewn public park? God, I hope not. I'd much rather see my medium of choice receive its much-needed injection in sensible doses. Tricked-out one man bands, now known as VJ's, can complement the output of two-person crews - not replace them. Citizen vignettes can infuse the glossiest of over-produced newscasts with badly-needed organic content. Internet outlets can put a station's quality product in front of eyeballs too damn hip to tune it at 5, 6 or 11. Bring. It. On. But to think an undersized station can compete with whatever they can glean from an mostly unpaid populace is giving the possibilities of all this new wondrous gadgetry incredibly short shrift. In short, beware the gladhanding GM of a tiny affiliate, folks. That's something a maniacal puke in Chocowinity taught me a l-o-n-g time ago.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Your Father's News Crew?

By now, you know I'm a sucker for dated newsgatherer photos. I love the strangely futuristic but hopelessly antique cameras, the frozen publicity grins on display and the overall hubris of the early practitioners of live, local television. In the above shot though - it's the threads. I mean, look at these cats! They're dressed like they're about to attend a friend's funeral or go sell insurance, not cover the news. I'd hazard a guess they got gussied up for the photo-op, but I've persued too many old station tribute pages to be quite so naive. Of course these days your average photog ain't quite so sartorially upscale. Take a look at my contemporaries and you'll likely ask when the camping trip starts, how soon Phish takes the stage or what kind of food will be served at the luau. That's a good thing, I think. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some action-slacks to press. What IS the correct iron-setting for blended polyester, anyway?

Awaiting The Police

Okay, so I haven’t so much as thought about The Grammys since they awarded my beloved Jethro Tull a trophy for best Heavy Metal recording in 1988. WTF? But 19 years later, I’m considerably stoked about this impending and mostly irrelevant glam-fest. Why? The Police, of course. Tonight they reunite for what will most likely be tomorrow’s most-watched YouTube clip. I for one can’t wait. But lest you think me a bandwagon fan to this unlikely reunion, allow me to elaborate: I came of age in the 80’s - a decade known for the birth of MTV, incredibly big hair, and mostly forgettable music. On that, I cannot disagree. But wedged in between the Thompson Twins, Ratts and Bananaramas of my youth were some downright viable musical combos. Near the very top of that slim pantheon were The Police.

In the early 80’s, there was much to dig about what Andy Summers, Stewart Copeland and that other dude released on the world. The reggae influence, the clever lyrics and of course Sting’s strangely lilting voice. Sure, some might dismiss their music and the whole New Wave movement as watered down Punk Rock - but not the spiky-haired hoodlum-wannabes I ran with. Hey, I can still wrap my noodle around all that fabricated anarchy, but sonically, I always thought the songs unleashed by The Sex Pistols and their ilk, how do you say...SUCKED. I suppose that was by design. Whatever. All I know is nothing made me feel like I was on the edge of a brave new world back in 1983 more than the hypnotic melodies and staccato rhythms of 'Outlandos d'Amour', 'Zenyatta Mondatta' and yes - even 'Synchronicity'.

Granted, much of it was due to the packaging. Not only did Sting and the fellas sound like no one else, but they had modern clothes, icy attitudes and really, really cool hair. For a young punk-ass yearning to be anything but just another Wayne County redneck, it was intoxicating stuff. I’d like to think, however, my appreciation ran deeper than that of my female classmates. In a photo that for the life of me I cannot find on the internet, the peroxide blonde trio are seen standing in an elevator. Andy and Stewart are wearing their requisite blank stares, but Sting - the dude who named himself after a verb - is seen reading a book. A Book! I remember staring at that photo in the back row of some classroom and thinking it was just about the coolest damn thing I had ever seen. Perhaps it had something to do with the copy of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ I had stuffed in my book bag at the time. You know, the one I’m still pretending to comprehend.

So yes, I will be among the millions of the mid-80’s teenagers glued to their Hi-Def sets tonight. Architects of one’s adolescent soundtrack don’t reunite every day and I don’t plan to miss a single frame. Here’s hoping I just don’t mortify my 12 year old too much in the process. She’s never seen me actually wear those bright red parachute pants hanging in the back of the closet, ya know...