Friday, October 03, 2008


Leaning Tower of Stew A job like mine requires a thirst for adventure, an endless zeal for life on the periphery. Why just yesterday, I had to climb a ladder. Okay I didn't have to, but as a card carrying photojournalist I'm compelled from within to get high. Let me rephrase that: As a gatherer of electronic vistas, I'm aesthetically obligated to take any position available to Get. The. Shot. If that sounds obsessive, you've obviously never sat in an edit bay wishing you'd rolled just a little bit longer. If you had, you'd know there's never a good reason to pass by a step-ladder - especially when God just leaves them lying around like that. Thus, when I spotted a series of rungs standing by that giant prawn hole, I ascended them, knowing the view from above would well be worth any chance I might come crashing down. Cavalier? Perhaps. More than a little dorky? Sure - but it's all part a da job. Besides, heights makes my head all tingly. Some people hang out on street corners to score that sensation.

Falling PrawnAnyhoo, enough about me. Let's talk prawn. You know... PRAWN: big-ass freshwater shrimp, the kind featured on fancy menus the world over. Farmers nearer the Coast have been raising these succulent crustaceans for eons, but here in the Piedmont a life-sized prawn operation is unique enough to make the evening broadcast. Hmm? No, smarty-pants, it's not that slow a news day. I'm sure while I loomed over the aquaculture, there were all sorts of bloodshed and subterfuge erupting in the naked city. But if you've read this blog long enough you know I'm no scanner hound. Rather, I'm a purveyor of fluff, A fan of repetitive action, a lover of natural sound. Friday's story had all that, not to mention a compelling backstory of a sweet people making the most of the old family farm. You can't get that by the yellow crime tape, and even if you could, they wouldn't feed you this good. I only wish my producers had given me more air-time to unspool my oversized shellfish drama. After all, I risked my life for this drivel...

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Letters, We Get Letters...

Thunk MonkeyOkay, so it wasn't a letter, but a high school student with an interest in the business did message me with a not so rhetorical question:

“What are the 3 most important skills you use on a daily basis?”

Time Management

I don’t care how good you are, if you get lost in the process, distracted by the details or overly enamored with one aspect of the job, you’re gonna miss slot - which is tee-veese for ‘Turn in your logowear” So watch the clock. Learn how long it takes you to accomplish individual tasks and shave off seconds whenever you find yourself growing comfortable. If a deskbound expert tells you it only takes an hour to drive to Bleeding Gums Junction, don’t believe it until you’ve made the journey yourself. Also, it does no good to shoot tons of footage of Osama’s library card if you leave yourself no time to travel, feed, log, edit or write the report your promotions folks are already misconstruing down the hall. Yes, proper clock administration will save your bacon every time. Take me for example: I'm a decent shooter, competent editor and serviceable writer, but nine times out of ten I get the more visual assignment because the suits know I'll low-crawl through a cesspool if that's what it takes to slay my deadline. That ain't genius; it's simple logistics.

People Skills

I'm a lousy typist. They'll never write textbooks deciphering my lighting style. I used to have a raging wide-angle lens addiction. But I can swoop into a room with a half a TV station on my back and still put eight out of ten people at ease. How? By never taking myself too seriously. Too many times I witness colleagues and competitors shoot their stories in the foot by overexplaining what button they're about to press, by acting as if their upcoming lunchbreak trumps whatever the interview subject might have to say, by worrying more about impressing the bigwig in the crosshairs than whether he's even in focus. It's a simple lesson in social graces they obviously don't teach in J-School: Be Nice. So if you're berating some secretary because she insist you sign in, if you're arguing with a brain surgeon because he doesn't agree with the magazine article you memorized on the way to his office, if you're upbraiding the donut lady because she blocked your shot at the polling place, remember, you're not being clever; you're being a dick. And everyone - from the zoot-suited CEO to that guy with the phlegm on his shirt will trash you when you leave.

Looking Ahead

Hey, nobody's asking you to foretell the future, but if you can't read social cues, recognize dog and pony show patterns or learn from the last dozen assignments you stumbled through, you're not going to last very long as pursuer of news. It's an old rule of photography: be there when it happens. That means guessing which route the Governor will use to leave the room, synchronizing your pace with the mailman you're profiling, even attempting to mind-meld with the diddling Dentist who's trying to lose you in that courthouse corridor. But looking ahead goes well beyond simple camera management. Knowing the kind of questions your boss would ask the defrocked sheriff comes in handy when you got the fallen lawman in your sights - not after. Hazarding a guess as to how long those cyclists you're chasing will ride before taking a break saves alot more than shoe-leather. Realizing that three PM city council meeting can lead the five o clock news only if you get some sound before the gavel drops will make you a hero in the eyes of those who stack the shows. Maybe they'll tear themselves away from the Facebook accounts long enough to sing your praises...

And, oh yeah - always make sure the camera is in the back of the car. You don’t want to roll up to an out of town warehouse fire only to realize your rig is back at the station. Trust me.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Dry Erase Dramedy 1As the unofficial bloviater of the Photog Nation, I'm always looking for a narrative to spare. Luckily, I keep in close contact with a troupe of news shooters who supply me constant fodder. Sure, they may portray themselves as hardened road-weary souls, but they're actually sensitive artist-types, if artists are allowed to tape police scanner codes to the insides of their windshields. You may not think you can tool around town in a logo-slathered SUV and still have an increased aesthetic, but I'm here to tell you, you can. Just ask my buddy T-Bone over there, the lumberjack looking fellow wrapping magenta colored gels around his lights. That man could field strip an aging VCR deck while driving a Jeep Wrangler down a badly-rutted pig path and still get excited about the way the sun filters through the rising dust-cloud behind him. Is it any wonder we're all so conflicted?

Dry Erase Dramedy 2 No, it isn't. But you don't have to ride shotgun with any of us to understand our collective angst. All you have to do is visit our workspaces. For some stations, that means a photog's lounge, some generously donated hovel where the shooters cool their heels between assignments. There you'll find all manners of detritus: soda cans, old tapes, the occasional voodoo doll...Whatever you run across back there, know they are glimpses into the photog soul; talismans from the brink, if you will. (except for that old Cheezy Poofs bag; that's just trash). Anyway, I'd be glad to lead you on a guided tour of my particular shooter's parlor, if not for one detail: We ain't got one.

Dry Erase Dramedy 3Instead, we have a hallway, a shallow corridor flanking our edit bays where grown men gather to play grab-ass. It's one distinguishing feature: a dry-erase board which acts as a portal to the photog psyche. It ain't pretty. Take the recent parable that's formed on its grimy surface. It's either a cautionary tale on the dangers of getting too close to the action, or someone's trying to explain last night's episode of CSI:Miami. Either way, I'm keeping a closer eye on my colleagues this week and silently scanning photog knuckles for tell-tale dry-erase ink. Just don't think we're a callous bunch, 'cause we're far more feeling than our overstuffed utility vests might lesad you to believe. Yes, if there's anything to be gleaned from these latest hieroglyphics, it is this: Life is messy; stay behind the tape. That, or watch what you eat when you're enroute to a drive-by. Either way, I'm dusting the dry-erase board for any latent fingerprints...

Okay, cue Roger Daltrey.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Rushing Uphill

I was a block from the station when my phone rang.

Grandfather Mountain 3.5
"Can you be at Grandfather Mountain in two hours?"

"Sure," I said, "when's the chopper leave?"

Actually, I mumbled something feeble like 'I'll try,' before dropping the phone in my lap and taking a hard right into El OCho's parking lot. Sixty seconds later I pulled right back out, this time behind the wheel of trusty Unit Four. Merging onto the interstate, I leaned back into the cockpit and did the math: High Point to Linville ... 120 miles or so, most of them increasingly uphill. Under two hours to do it and just enough gas in the tank to get there. Short of a rift in the time-space continuum, there was no way I was going to make it to Grandfather by the time the Governor took the stage. With a heavy sigh, I looked around the car's interior and realized A.) I was hungry and B.) I no longer smoke cigarettes. Bummed out by both notions, I settled into the ass-groove that is my working life and contemplated the nature of the human soul. Actually, I mostly listened to Two Guys Named Chris, until static overtook their guffaws and I was forced to ride in silence. One thing I didn't do is call the desk and give 'em grief for the late launch. I wanted to, but photogs who whine about being sent to features late find themselves standing outside Dollar Stores asking grumpy customers what they think about our nation's financial collapse. Mama Slinger didn't raise no fool...

Besides, Grandfather Mountain is a magnificent place. Once the property of the late, great Hugh Morton, this 5,964 foot high peak is Holy Ground to those of us who proudly call North Carolina home. Hugh Morton made it that way. A pioneering conservationalist, master promoter and one hell of a nature photographer, he enriched my native state in ways too numerous to list. I had the good fortune to meet him once and I rate the encounter right up there with the time I 'loaned' a cigarette to Howard Morris, the difficult genius who played Ernest T. Bass on the Andy Griffith Show. If you think I'm kidding, I'm not. Though I was born (by happenstance) in Nebraska, I'm quite proud to be a North Carolinian - mainly because this place rocks. From the broken ships still shifting in the sands off Diamond Shoals to the birds of prey circling over the Blue Ridge Parkway, my state can beat your state with half a metroplex tied behind its back. But I digress...

I'd like to tell what time it was when I arrived on scene, but I can't. See, the last few minutes of the trip were spent preparing for battle: shoving Double AA batteries in my pocket, switching my cell phone to vibrate, scouring the floorboard for that one last Tic-Tac. How else am I supposed to hit the ground running, camera in one hand and tripod in the other as I bound across the valley that lies in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain itself. A dozen or so cameras were already in place when I joined the semicircular scrum; the Governor had yet to take the podium but I could tell by the first speaker's tone and tempo, he was about to be introduced. By the time Governor Easley dug his index cards out of his breast pocket, I was firmly ensconsed stage-left - a little out of breath from inhaling a Tic-Tac on the run over, but ensconsed nonetheless. The rest is a blur. All I can tell you is that when Easley reached for his magic Governor pens, I was right in front of him, fancycam at the ready, optical disc engaged. But I wasn't alone. To my left, Richard Adkins squatted over his upturned eyepiece. To my right, a towering photog looked down at me and mouthed 'I read your blog.' Thanks fella, if I didn't properly appreciate your remark on site, it was only because the Governor was talking and I had a month old breath mint lodged in my esophagus.

And here you thought I had a point to my story...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rain on the Dobro

BluegrassersI like bluegrass music ... for about an hour. After that my eyelids start to turn inside out until I can ingest at least Part 1 of A Love Supreme. Luckily, I never have to spend all that long at any one assignment, especially when I roll up on scene so late in the first place. Yes, it was w-a-y past lunch by the time I blew into Denton city limits Friday - only to realize the fabled Farmpark was on the far side of that bustling Davidson County metroplex. Okay, so it was only a few more miles of rainy farmland, but when your story's due to air in five hours and you've yet to even attach a battery, you get a little heavy footed. Besides, who knew a Ford Freestyle could hydroplane like that?

Anyway, by the time I spun to a stop I was staring at the front gate of the Denton Farmpark. A faint echo of that high lonesome sound was the only evidence I wasn't about to get sucked into the belly of a spaceship, for at the time I saw no one. There - up on that hill, that glimmer of light coming from that cluster of campers. Is that the Gorton's Fisherman? Naaaah, it's just some fiddle-picker in heavy rain gear. I'd complain about the weather myself, but the downpour is the only thing separating this bluegrass festival from, say - the last one I covered. So without so much as a glance upward, I parked up near the bandstand, dragged my fancycam out of the back and wandered right up on stage. Tell me - what other job allows you to barge in on the unsuspecting and worm your way to the front? I'm sure there is one, but right now I can't think of one. All I do know is a brisk fifty minutes after I arrived, I left. The resulting report won't make anyone take up the banjo, but it sure beat the high gas price epic the suits wanted me to turn...

Now, where's my Coltrane?