Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Awkward Waltz

Walkdown Stew 2Ever frog-march a grieving family to their car? I have - and on occasion, felt bad about it. The latest case occurred on Friday, when some (super) friends of mine at the Hall of Justice needed help covering the door. For two weeks live trucks of every stripe squatted on the lawn of that Winston-Salem structure as a high profile murder trial roiled inside. It's a sad circus I avoided joining, until a late Thursday verdict set the stage for some end of the week sentencing. Our crack bureau crew was all over it, but between manning the pool camera and making dubs, they were a little short in the door department. Thus I was summoned to The Dash to practice a not so sacred act of lenslinging. See, if you wear a camera on your shoulder you gotta be prepared to point it at anything. That includes schisms, collisions and its staggering parade of victims. I don't enjoy running people down, I'd rather lift them up. But if the light was right, I'd browbeat a mime troupe 'til I captured a reaction. But Friday's assignment demanded no such TMZ; it simply required balance, situational awareness and comfortable shoes. It could be called 'afflicting the stricken'. I like to think of it as The Courthouse Swarm.

Walkdown Stew 3When the family stepped off the ground floor elevator, I was plastered to the glass outside. Unsure as to just who might emerge, I scanned the crowded lobby for familiar forms, openly profiling faces for signs of distress. One look at the clutch of loved ones shuffling toward the door told me these were indeed persons of interest. Perhaps it was their body language. They were, after all, holding each other up. No doubt they were the defendant's kin; cousins and such of a young man just given 16-21 years in a case that left a local policeman dead. Now they were headed my way and the very sight made my trigger thumb itch. As they pushed on the door, I raised my glass and felt the presence of other cameras around me. From there, time slowed and I struggled to fit them all in my tiny TV screen. At first they didn't say a word, choosing instead to stare right through the pack of jackals backpedaling before them. I too was silent, closing in all quiet-like for a tight-shot before scampering ahead of them for a complimentary wide. All around me, other lenses did likewise, until passers-by paused to see who the cameramen were chasing. I would have stopped to tell them, but I didn't know where to start.

Walkdown Stew 1So I stayed in close pursuit, until the man in brown started to talk. To be fair, he was speaking to my competitor, but I didn't let the lack of invite stop me from sticking my lens into the chit-chat. Hey, all's fair in love and on the courthouse steps. While we stood there, other cameras caught up, until the man who called himself the family's Bishop had a small congregation. 'God ALWAYS has a plan' I can still hear him say, but the real muscle memory is saved for one of the lady's at the center of the pack. Bent at the waist and short of voice, the defendant's grandmother answered the reporters' queries with a throat ravaged from regret. 'The truth will come out!" she said with a tone that made me think she believed it. When asked about the slain cop's family, the old woman blanched the way my own Grandmother would. "We've said from the beginning how sorrowful we was!" When a reporter threw another question her way, she threw her hands up and declared she 'was through'. With that, her family dragged her toward a waiting car and as I watched her through my viewfinder, my own heart ached for the old woman's loss...

It would have hurt a lot worse had I missed the shot.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fear and Bromance at the ACC

As a heterosexual Southern male, I should be glued to a sports channel right now. But at the risk of getting my regional man-card revoked, I gotta tell ya: basketball bores me. It shouldn't. I've huddled with the son of the man who invented the game, scrunched under the bucket as airborne athletes tried to decapitate me and my camera, even chased Michael Jordan himself through a few celebrity golf tournaments. Still, my eyes glaze over like a spent junkie whenever I wander on the court. All of which made me the perfect person to drag reporter Shelby Baker through her very first ACC Fan Fest. That's what they're calling the area outside the Greensboro Coliseum this week. Beer vendors, rock climbing walls, soul food tents and enough Budweiser Girls to start a hundred bar-fights proved a suitable distraction for the masses as they filed inside for four days of the best basketball Tobacco Road has to offer. Shelby and I entered the coliseum complex before the first game even started. It quickly proved a target-rich environment.

We didn't go inside, mind you. No, to enter the coliseum itself required patience and credentials I didn't have. Those weighted lanyards no doubt hung around the collective neck of our crackerjack sports teams. As they used them to score free M&M's and life giving wi-fi deep inside the complex's bowels, Shelby and I skirted the edges of the pavilion and parking lot. There we found the props and characters needed to file a report on the manufactured bedlam surrounding this point of pilgrimage. Beer swilling He-Men, coupled buddies, whole families clad in horrid hues and one dude with his beard painted blue. Happily each fanatic submitted to an interview, telling us how far they'd traveled, where work thought they really were and why the opposing team's head coach was a noted sociopath and possible pedophile. Why, it was enough crazy talk to make this cameraman keep both eyes open. At one point, I broke away from Shelby and manned the ramp leading to the coliseum. A steady stream of sycophants filed past, pointing to the logos on their chests and nodding knowingly to my up and running lens. You there - in the day-glo seat suit and disco wig - just because I got a big TV camera on my shoulder doesn't mean we're pals. Back off!

Soon enough, Shelby and I had all the clamor we could distillate and we fled the grounds without so much as a longing look at the sleek black buses spewing future millionaires and their current coterie of hangers-on. I suppose we could have climbed the fence and bum-rushed the players for some fresh sound, but I wouldn't have know what to ask them - let alone what cliches to use. Besides, my reporter and I had achieved our objective and were due back in the newsroom to log, write and edit. In fact, we would have been through with the venue altogether had we not had to return for the invariable live shot. When we returned a few minutes before showtime we brought a secret weapon: Weaver. With little assistance from yours truly, the Mighty Weave erected our wireless hop, enabling Mrs. Baker and I the ability to wander the parking lot LIVE(!) and unencumbered by pesky drunk-tripping cables. Not only that, he watched by back as I one-eyed it across the lot, holding his crackberry up high and recording my thinning hair from every unflattering angle. It's a bit painful for me to watch but it does showcase how utterly mundane live television can be.

Thanks for the help, pal. Next time can you photo-shop in a few more follicles before sharing it with the world? I'll gladly throw in a few forged press-passes and some old soul-food bones to make it worth your while...

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

I Was a Teenage Werewolf...

Actually, I was a 20 something TV geek with a mullet the size of a satellite dish. What can I tell ya? It was the dawn of the 90's and I'd yet to receive the memo that hair-metal was dead. How was I supposed to know I should dress in flannel and stare at my shoes? If I remember correctly, those shoes were a pair of glistening white Nike high-tops, which begs the question: Did no one tell me I looked like a tool? Well, perhaps some did, but I wouldn't have listened anyway. I was having too much fun. And while my boss was probably wondering what happened to that clean cut car salesman she hired, I felt I was onto something - if not ON something... Clearly, I was under the influence ... the influence of television. When this video still was captured, I was pretty new to the biz, giddy over the gear and more than happy to shoot another used car lot spot. The last thing I wanted to be was one of those overly earnest news dorks down the hall.

Eventually I altered that view, but it took a bartender with a gun to convince me it was time to point my lens at something serious. In that process a haircut ensued and I join you today a father of two with thinning hair and a dwindling string of Polaroids depicting my once proud Kentucky Waterfall. Too bad youthful exuberance is no excuse for lookin' like a putz...So why do I post these photos? Is it to send to my site meter spinning? To give my coworkers something to chortle over? To drive my own poor kids deep into therapy? Naah, I do it for YOU, young news shooter. Yeah you - the guy with the knit skull cap and sequined peacock t-shirt. You may feel like the very essence of hip now (you probably are), but we're here to tell you: that look won't last. Before you know it, you'll be flipping through old snapshots and wondering what the fudge you were thinking when you shaved your sideburns into lightning bolts. I just hope when that time comes, you'll have the grapes to share your shame.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a pile of old wrestler pants I need to burn...

Monday, March 08, 2010

Hale to Pay

Whatever you do, don't turn your head... he's watching us. Who? Him! Dude with the toothpick; the one who looks like he's ready to rip somebody's lips off. I don't trust him. He seems kinda ... foreign. On second thought, I DO know him: He's Keith Hale, El Ocho's Chief Photojournalist and one of my many bosses. Thirteen years ago this British ex-pat took a downtrodden photog out for cobbler. We talked about storytelling and when dessert was done I felt a wee bit better about a possible return to the world of news. A few weeks later, I arrived home one night to find my wife all excited about a message on the machine. She hit PLAY and an strangely familiar voice filled the kitchen. It was an English accent (by way of Florida) and it said my tape was 'frightfully good'. The rest I don't remember. All I knew was Crocodile Dundee was throwin' me a bone. The very next day, I resigned my hated Promotions gig and a news shooter was reborn. Since then, the man some call 'Hale-Bop' has done me a string of solids: teaching me how to make a soft-box sing, why logo-wear is for losers, and how to properly say the word "right" (ROIGHT!) While I don't want to use my blog to grovel, I did want to give big ups to the man who helped me rediscover my special purpose...

On second thought, hold my camera. I'm gonna go rip his lips off...

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Forced Perspective

Outside Civil Rights MuseumI was gonna unload... drop a pile of bile so vile even innocent pedestrians would smell the funk I'd fallen into. How else was I to explain my absence from this space other than to detail the vagaries of the chase? See, carrying a camera around everywhere I go has left me draggin' glass. Maybe it's the dirty weather, the dying gear or all the chicanery I framed of late. Whatever it is, the rub of a hundred thousand newscasts has left me feeling raw. It's a fact: exposure to so many transmissions can dull the senses, until you find yourself stumbling from palace to massacre with the same pained expression. No, it's not backaches or bunions or even (drive-thru) botulism that takes so many shooters down. It's Burn-Out: that hollow feeling you get after shoving too much mayhem and minutia through a tube. Most days I can shake off the sensation by working harder than I have to, but lately I've been forced to play with others and their inattention to detail has left me teetering between apathy and apoplexy.

Don't get me wrong. It's my nature to grapple with existentialistic angst one moment and search for a camera battery I hid from myself the next. But lately the usual sturm und drang has left me more frenzied than fatigued and it's quite possible I 'showed my ass' at work a time or two last week. By around Wednesday I was reminding those who hadn't even asked how I've carried enough debutantes across the finish line to qualify as a parade float, how I'd keelhaul the next cur that called in sick, how a man of my vintage simply had no time for amateur hour... After some time my colleagues tired of rolling their eyes and slunk off accordingly, warning all along the way that the wordiest of camera nerds was on a real bender. By Hump-day's dusk, I'd fallen silent, suffering a kind of dashboard despondency as I steered my mobile newsroom straight into the malaise. When it came time to pound my frustrations into a post, I found I couldn't do it, so I stewed in my juices until I was about ready to boil. And when I did, I was more than happy to get it all over ya...

Out with Ollie 2Then, I went for a walk; several of them actually, in the company of my kids and canine. It was there - in my suddenly sun-baked neighborhood - that I realized I'd been whining on the inside. As frightfully insipid as some shifts feel, what I do for a living still beats a grown-up job. I still love it in theory but sometimes the real-world execution feels like an unfinished sentence in which I go from a news-man possessed to a half-dead zombie... At 23 I was conning my way into cop-shops, trading gossip and station paperweights for a shotgun seat on the very next ride-along. At 43, I sink in my seat at the first sound of scanner crackle. How I came to be that way is a story I'm still working on, but I'm not too far gone to admit that all the histrionics I can muster are nothing more than the blather of a badly aging hunter-gatherer. I'm not the first photog to curse the universe over dung-heaps in the distance, nor am I the last. But I join you tonight confident in the knowledge that the journey is still very much worth it - as long as you're careful where you step.

The dog taught me that.