Saturday, September 01, 2007

Epics of Deprivation

Here's hoping producer Mario Garcia, photographer Bruce Bernstein and soundman Curt Bernstein soon find their way back to the states. On assignment in Greenland, the NBC crew- along with correspondent Anne Thompson - were already to jet home when an Air Greenland strike rendered them marooned. Thursday night reporter Thompson managed to board a flight home (funny how that works), but her crew's still killing time in Kangerlussuaq - where they're no doubt trying to buy a few vowels. Me, I'd sink my nose in whatever paperback I could find and soak up the network pay. With that in mind, here are eight books I'd insist on re-reading, were I trapped on an ice floe...

Ice Blink It was from Greenland that Sir John Franklin set out in search of the Northwest Passage, launching two state of the art wooden vessels packed with the lastest Nineteenth Century gizmos. When both heavily-laden ships vanished, countless rescue attempts folllowed and more men died for naught. Fourteen years later, searchers found a mountain of discarded supplies and two skeletal corpses, along with other clues so vague and tantalizing, you'll never go near another worn-out Shackleton yarn again.

Selkirk's Island Remember Robinson Crusoe? Neither do I really, but I'm well versed on the real life O.C. (Original Castaway) thanks to Diana Souhami's epic of solitary endurance. Alexander Selkirk signed up with a famous pirate for a life of riches and plunder, but when things went South the addled Captain pulled up to a tiny island in the middle of nowhere and booted his Scotch ass out. Four years followed. Peaks climbed. Horizons stared at. Goats violated. Read it anyway.

Safe Return Doubtful As much as I dig reading about the 1960's space race, I'm equally in awe of another astronaut of his time: the Polar Explorer. Armed with hubris and often little else, many a mustachio'd windbag trekked to subzero spots for Queen, Country and perhaps a beef jerky endorsement or two. Penned by a celebrated maritime historian, this book neatly encapsulates the Age of Exploration and provides context to all that prideful deprivation. You'll never view inceberg mirages and sweat-soaked fur the same way again.

Wreck of the Medusa This French frigate was 40 miles off the coast of Senegal when it slammed into a sandbar. Urged off-board by a panicking Captain, 150 landlubbing souls climbed onto a raft so threadbare it supported some and swallowed others. For twelve days 'the death raft' drifted, time enough for all semblance of sanity to vanish. Mutiny, slaughter, cannibalism - it occured time and time again before French sailors spotted the raft, and brought aboard the fifteen surviving hollow-eyed zombies.

Into the Wild One wonders how the insode of the old school bus will look in the upcoming film version of Jon Krakauer's real-life fable of misguided wanderlust. In the book, privileged kid Chris McCandless burns trhe dollars in his wallet and decamped to the vast woods surrounding Mount McKinley. Four months later, moose hunters found him aboard an old school bus half-buried in a bog, his remains long-dead from apparent starvation. Krakauer launched his career with this materpiece. Here's hoping the film won't muck it all up.

The Custom of the Sea Sunk by what only can be called a 'freak wave', the yacht Mignonette dropped to the bottom in May of 1884. The crew of four cast off in a leaky dinghy, one thousand miles away from the closest shore. Little food and no shelter from the sun wracked their systems and baked their brains. Nineteen days into the ordeal, the Captain decided something had to be done, so he sunk a blade into the cabin boy's jugular and carved up his body to feed the rest. Five days later they were rescued. Oopsie!

The Coldest March Of all the ill-fated polar expeditions, that of Robert Falcon Scott's rings most tragic. Having raced his rival to the South Pole, Scott arrived to discover he'd come in second; the Norweigan Roald Amundsen having already secured his name in the history books. Beleaguered but not broken, Scott and hs men turned around, only to die on the return journey. Vexing and perplexing, the death of this English hero is a textbook example of early 20th Century stiff upper lip.

Big Dead Place One hundred years later, the South Pole is no longer just some fabled spot in the snow. It's a high-tech headquarters for scientific missions, one awash in hopeless bureaucracy and - according to this ice-melting tell-all - rampant debauchery. Written by an antarctic garbageman with a penchant for the unhinged, Big Dead Place shines a dying flashlight on the mirth and madness at McMurdo Station. After reading this book, you'll scratch Antarctica off your must-see list forever. Hey, I hear Greenland's nice...

The Wryest of Lifers

Those seeking fresh perspective on Hurricane Katrina would do well to peruse the views of a Louisiana lenslinger by the name of Turd Polisher. It was two Septembers ago this veteran photog sat down and pounded out an unflinching account of the agony and inaction that then gripped his beloved Gulf Coast. Rick Portier, had found his voice. Since then he’s used that toxic tongue and a lifer’s eye to excoriate the many gas-bags and gang-bangers he puts on the news every night. Sounds familiar, really. At once taken with and tormented by a job that never stops, the Polisher seeks healing by soaking nightly in the written word. The resulting posts seethe with street-cred eloquence that‘s impossible to fake, wether he’s weighing in on the audacity of housecats, or simply riffing on his charismatic kid. Give him a visit and you’ll be glad you did as I am every time I go to his site, which is damn near daily. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just because Portier and I are both southern photog bloggers on the edge, we got a little mutual admiration society goin’ on here. Mayhaps. But if one can’t link to the things he likes, than what’s the use of referring to one’s self in third person anyway. Hmm? Am I right? Hello? Is this thing on?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Fakery That Makes Us

7.1 009Tonight I find myself intrigued by an internal mandate from Britain’s Channel 5 - which seeks to destroy the very cliches traditional TV News is built upon. Good luck with that. It seems those broadcasters across the pond are embroiled in another episode of Deception on the Telly - the details of which, frankly bore me. What I do find interesting though is the resulting hullabaloo, if only because I get to use the word 'hullabaloo'. But I digress; check out three freshly forsaken tenants of electronic newsgathering:


Heh-heh, those crazy Brits. It's like they got a different word for everything in the English language. By 'noddys' though, I believe they mean those vapid 'reporter reaction' shots, in which a glossy correspondent nods understandably at a potted plant, lightstand or photog belt buckle. They're mean to convey interaction between asker and askee, but who's kidding who? They're all about face-time. Down here we don't do 'em too much - though we do sometimes employ two camera set-ups to capture all that hot brow-furrowing action. That usually saves the reporters I know from having to eye-flirt with that comatose goldfish floating in the backdrop. Careful, Chet - they can smell fear...


No more cutaways? What's next? No more editing? Again, I gotta chalk this one up to the language barrier, as over here in The States we think of cutaways as any close-up or otherwise differently framed shot to vary composition and aid in pacing. Watching a documentary on dyslexic circus clowns? That tight shot of Schmucky slathering toothpaste on his eyelids ... Cutaway. No, I suspect my accented colleagues are again referring to awkward shots of tagalong talent preening on-cue forfuture resume fodder. Those are a problem, but ones we probably won't be expelling from the lower 48 anytime soon. Not until we ban those giant cans of hairspray, anyway...


Pee-pull! A little clarification, please! You start bandying about buzzwords like 'contrived' and you may as well close up most domestic broadcast shops! This entire freakin' business is contrived - a malady contracted at the dawn of TV news when only old white guys in horn-rimmed glasses were allowed to intone the day's events. Or the guffawing weatherdork pedaling knock-knock jokes and high-pressure systems? Sure, we've updated our schtick, but lotsa vaudeville still remains on screen. For example, those ghastly sequences of interview subjects walking awkwardly into nowhere? It's like pushing mannequins down a hall.

Ambiguities aside, I applaud the intentions of Channel 5 - even if it does smack of deck chairson the Titanic. Nod-shots, cutaways, awkward walks; they're all stylistic issues intrinsic to the idea of reporter as 'celebrated narrator'. Until we in TV news drop the model we've so perfected, our product will never fully evolve - no matter how many bad camera-moves you blacklist. I'm reminded of the many newspaper staffers forging ther own brand of visual storytelling. They're smart to eschew the many silly things we do in the name of news and if so many of them weren't such total assholes, I'd tell 'em. Instead, let us remember that solo newsgatherers like myself have been using this approach for years, when we weren't feathering backlight on high priced hair-do's, that is.

When I work alone, I never find myself wishing someone had come along to hold the viewers' hands. I'd much rather spend my lens on the folks whose story I'm trying to tell. It is a more satisfying approach, but it's just one of many we serial news shooters must keep in our arsenal. You want cinema-verite? Grab an intern and we'll get as loopy as the law allows. Going for that glossy Dateline sitdown look? Fetch my light-kit and find some ferns. Or perhaps it's the Blair Witch Project you seek to employ. My sticks are in the shop and Starbucks is right up the corner. Just don't ask me to shoot a bathroom cruising re-enactment. I got some standards.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Midnight Histrionics

I was lying in state when the cell phone rang. My better half however, was awake, downstairs and feeding the cat. In fact she was mid-kibble when a lilting Caribbean tune wafted out of the study and caused my wife of seventeen years to stop, cock her head and look up at the Grandfather clock. ‘1:00 AM , who’s calling him at 1:00 AM?’, Shelly thought as she glanced out the window and saw Unit 4 parked in the darkened driveway. That’s when it hit her. ‘Unit Four!’ Dropping the bag of cat food, she hustled upstairs toward the noise while the world’s most spoiled feline moved in on the unexpected buffet.

At first, I believed her to be a dream. There she was, standing over me and speaking in strange pops and clicks while I tried desperately to blink it all away. Finally, I focused on that haunting item in her left hand - my work phone, it’s blue and red lights casting weird shadows on the surface of my mind’s eye. That could only mean one thing and though it felt like fighting quicksand, I struggled to emerge from my sleep-induced coma. “ShoobudaWHU?” I yelped, rising out of bed like some deranged zombie. With the precision of a prizefighter, Shelly back-pedaled - all too versed in the moonlit ritual that was about to follow. See, I’m as deep a sleeper as she is light and since the dawn of the 90’s she’s had to wrestle me out of the hereafter.

“Your phone rang. I couldn’t get to it in time.” she spoke slowly in crisp syllables, very much like the seasoned Emergency Room nurse she is. Not that I was listening. I was too busy spinning in circles, a furry, whirling dervish of boxers and bedhead. Seems someone had poured Maple Syrup over my eyes and brain in the hour since I fell asleep. Finding my glasses helped my vision, but my thoughts or lack thereof, were still covered in sticky, sleepy goop. “Your phone!” Shelly half-shouted, thrusting the vile invention in my palm. I looked down as my fingers automatically drummed a tattoo over the glowing buttons. My wife, meanwhile worked to extricate me from a knot of bedcovers while I scrunched my brow at the disembodied voice...

“Stew- sorry to call, we got a bad apartment fire up on North Church Street.”

The words ‘apartment fire’ ripped any vestige of rest from my overtaxed brain and I dropped the cell phone on the bed beside me. I also dropped a few choice pejoratives, a familiar late night litany that only caused my wife to further roll her eyes. As she did, I stepped squarely into a pillow on the floor and nearly lost my balance. Instead I pivoted and caught myself before lunging into our walk-in closet, muttering Martian curses all the way. A pair of shorts, a t-shirt and an El Ocho ballcap later, I emerged, fumbling for car keys, camera and flip-flops as I raged at the unforgivable insipidity of it all. Stumbling toward the staircase, I nearly took out the cat as the damn thing slunk upstairs on a swollen belly. Moments later, I was out the door and squealing tires down the driveway, never once having uttered a totally coherent sentence.

In the darkness, Shelly curled up with a rather gassy cat and, for not the first time in a long successful marriage, wondered what in the world those people at the station must think of her husband.

I’ve never thought to ask...

First Responders' Curse

Not as PlannedThere's a thoroughly macabre thread unfurling at, the on-line watering hole of the photog nation. In it, news shooters from around the nation are sharing the kinds of stories we usually bandy about only in the presence of billowing crime tape. It's grisly stuff, but what do you expect when a bunch of first-responder journalists are asked if they've ever witnessed a fatality? I have, but I've always refrained from putting most of them to paper. Oh, it's potent fodder for a struggling scribe like myself, but there are still some moments even I don't wanna relive. Maybe it's because my brother's a paramedic and my respect for what he does at emergency scenes renders my own tales of bystander-woe inadequate. Perhaps it's due to my distaste for gore as entertainment (Sorry, Stephen King!). Most likely though, it's because I know I can't honestly write about something without figuring out how it makes me feel. And sometimes that jumble of old emotions is best left tangled by the roadside. That said, I invite you to scroll through the responses if you're in the mood to cruise the dark side -- if for no other reason - to read Lensmith's account of rolling up on a bad accident long, long ago...
A garbage truck with those long forks in front to hoist the dumpster up and over into the back. This day, those forks were skewering a sedan, like a hot dog on a fork. I'm walking up doing what I can to make sure I've got sound and white balance when I hear that sucking sound. You know... the one where a lung has been punctured and air is being brought into the body by an additional, unplanned orifice. I look up to see an elderly lady in the driver seat. Her head is thrown back and she's actually looking at me right in the eye, but upside down. That sound. Over and over. Weaker and weaker. Then her eyes glaze over... and the sound stops.
Think TV news shooters don't ponder on what passes through their lens? Think we show you all our pictures on the evening news? Think the worst of those images don't replay on darkened bedroom walls and otherwise bright psyches? Think again...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

To Heal a Cop

It's always awkward when people cry on camera - even to indentured cynics like me. Normally I get through it by feathering the zoom button just so; done right it makes for a nice slow push that really captures the light of any falling tears. Sound cold? It ain't. More often than not I'm biting my lip as well, lest any ocular droppage give me away. Such was the case the other day when, only minutes after meeting Sean Gladieux (for what turned out to be the second time), the big beefy traffic cop broke down. For once I didn't feel like a heel while zooming in, for this strong silent type had a message he wanted heard, and if he got choked up delivering it - well, who could blame him? Dude loves his wife. Turns out she's a cop too, a 14 year veteran who happens to outrank him. When doctors told her she had breast cancer earlier this year, Sergeant Jill Gladieux took on the diagnosis as just another case she had to crack.

Sean, meanwhile, felt powerless to help. With a hard-charging wife facing the ravages of chemotherapy, the young husband and father searched for a way to heal his soulmate. That, he could not do. So instead he did something inherently cop-like. He designed a badge of honor, a 'coin of courage' that could be used to raise money for early detection. After partnering with a local foundation to have the pink and white disc manufactured, he went looking for a little publicity. That's how Julie Luck and I ended up at Police Headquarters late last week, bearing silent witness as a man wearing a bullet proof vest left himself utterly exposed. The news story resulting from that encounter airs tonight, and I really hope it helps kickstart Sean Gladieux's most heartfelt campaign. If you're one to help in such endeavors, this is the place to start. Otherwise, rest easy in the knowledge that your friendly neighborhood lenslinger has a brand new bestest cop buddy...

...Even after I got home and realized the beefy hero I'd just help canonize was the very same traffic cop who handed me a big fat speeding ticket the month before. I knew he looked familiar!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ten Years Hence

Ten Years HenceMy return to news, a decade ago this week, was less than spectacular. Arriving at my new station the very same day as a much ballyhooed reporter, most people thought I was his driver as we glad-handed our way around the newsroom. That was fine by me, as I was seeking refuge, not renown. See, the preceding couple of years had been the toughest of my far from illustrious career. Whatever capital and confidence I’d acquired on the mean streets of Eastern Carolina’s news beat, I’d frittered away in an aborted attempt as Promotions Director for a cesspool of a station. ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ I told myself, but I knew I was damaged goods. Two years away from the electronic grind had left me soft and weak; I was much more accustomed to placating junior executives than humping gear up some tragedy’s shore. No, the new shooter that entered El Ocho that day was rusty and untrusting but more than happy to hide in the shadow of the dude with the poofy hair - even if I did, do and still consider him a blowhard of biblical proportions.

But as stoked as I was to have escaped the Madman of Chocowinity, I was leery of what I’d come to think of as ‘lenslinging’. Twenty four months of middle management misery had not rendered me amnesic after all. I still remembered well the rigors of a hefting glass, how success at TV photojournalism is measured in back light and sound pops, because security, riches and respect were steeply out of reach. No, I had zero illusions about shooting news. It could be tough, uncomfortable, even numbing. Worse yet, the job was impossible to shake if stuck with too long. But no longer enamored with appearing on-camera and stir-crazy from two of in-studio stir, I turned to the one newsgathering gig I knew I could do. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit wincing a time or ten when I geared up under yet another new logo, for I knew was awaiting me: Structure fires, Incumbent liars, funeral pyres. God, how I'd missed it.

That of course was ten years ago. In that time, I've streamlined my skillset, tricked-out my rig and pulled a million u-turns in the name of news. It's not all been pretty, but more times than not I go home happy, knowing I left every bit of my ability on the screen. I no longer watch TV news at home, I don't chase show-biz trophies and I couldn't give two shits whose Double Doppler makes the earthworms glow. I only want to tell small stories - all by lonesome if that's okay. Strap soem other shooter to the speeding squad car, I'll be in the daisy patch with my wide-angle, or in today's case, profiling a retiree as he raged against those who littered his lawn. Those stories will never lead the A-block, but they'll be the only thing you remember about the newscast a week down the road. If that makes me the Rodeo Clown of local news, Yippie-Kiya, Mutha ----

On second thought, let's keep this clean. It's a celebration after all, for without the last ten years of shoving life through a tube and the psychosis it induces, I might never have been moved to finally start writing. Sure, I could have penned epistles on marketing and such, but how would that have compared to tales of unplanned calamity, storebought rapture and panting cadaver dogs. I know good fodder when I sees it and I seize it everyday. Why else would I keep at a job better suited for true A/V geeks, not some poser like myself who'd rather write a thousand words on the magic of shadows than rig up a single key-light. Do I want to be chasing groundbreakings, high-speed chases and slow food festivals at age 50? A thousand times no. But until I find a way to make a living off my tiniest of readerships , I'll still be shouldering-up and rolling twice every fortnight...

All you gotta do is suffer countless thwarted attempts of my autobiography. Sorry 'bout that.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Life Without You

God knows I love the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan. So does any reporter who's ever ridden with me, for I go nowhere without a first-aid kit stuffed full of his electric blues. Why exactly I need it so I can't rightly say. But neither could the man they called 'Guitar Hurricane' fully explain how he made his battered Stratocaster bellow, plead and strut. He just did it, seemingly with ease. Wrapping leathery fingertips across heavy strings tuned way down low, his broke-down Fender spoke in tongues he didn't have to understand. That and his love for the masters led to a brief but brilliant career, one that survived the ravages of rockstar bombast only to end seventeen years ago today on an Alpine, Wisconsin hillside. With him went a lot of great music the world would never hear, for Stevie Ray Vaughan fell to Earth at the height of his power, newly lucid and preaching redemption. He's ridden shotgun with me ever since, his thunderous licks and rich finesse providing a soundtrack perfect for speeding down life's highways. You may jam to Mott the Hoople in your newscar and that's cool by me. But rest assured that's not how I rock it in Unit Four, where a scrawny cat outta Austin lays waste to my every daydream with a blistering tone that both hurts and heals. Now you know.