Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Flirtin' with Irma

If you've ever balanced your microwave oven off one shoulder while stumbling through a two-day car wash, then you know a little of what it feels like to televise a tropical storm. Did I mention the microwave can't get wet? It's a small detail, but one you'll come to dwell on when you're forced to cover a national story with a soaking wet Etch-A-Sketch.

Don't get me wrong. My thirty six hours of discomfort don't even register on the same scale as those truly suffering the cruelties of Hurricane Irma. Whole livelihoods were swept away in South Florida, a region my wife's family calls home. But the suits sent me to Charleston, where what was left of an unfathomable maelstrom took a great big runny dump on The Holy City.

Ace reporter Mark Boyle and I pulled into town 24 hours before Irma did. The hotel was on the waterfront, teeming with fleeing Floridians, but otherwise fine. We laid low, looked at our phones and wrapped my camera in several layers of customized rain covers and uncustomized trash bags. Several bungee cords and half a roll of duct tape later, we were ready for the Great Suckening to come. 

Boy, did it. Monday morning brought with it forty mile an hour winds and the kind of rain they wrote about in The Old Testament. Sure, forty mile an hour winds is but a breeze compared to the Category 5 storm that turned parts of the Caribbean into splinters, but when you're slopping through waist deep water while God sprays a garden hose up your nose, rote comparisons lose their luster.

So too does news-gathering. There's a lingering moment in the car after you've found some high piece of ground to park on and before you dare to open the door. You sit there dreading what's to come, knowing that before you can even get around back to pop the tailgate, every fiber of your being will be soaking wet, your camera lens will fog over and an insidious chafing will threaten to push all thoughts of journalism to the periphery.

But then water bullets pepper your flesh, the wind pins your ears back and the reporter beside you  starts gesturing with his microphone. You can't hear him, but you shoulder your rig anyway, fight your way past all that plastic and sink into the eyepiece. There you find the tiny screen playing back some close-up of a shower door, then you realize your lens is so fogged up you may as well turn the viewfinder off for the duration of your stay.

Not that it matters much. Composition and clarity takes a hit when stop signs threaten to take flight, Sequencing and flair fall by the wayside when utility pole transformers explode overhead. Even focus can falter when that flash flood you're wading through begins to lap at your loins. Me, I go into survival mode, hunching low in the deluge and cursing myself for not paying more attention to all those teachers who told me I could do so much better if only I tried.

But even that fades away as my fingers pucker and my soul threatens to do the same. But who am I kidding? Had you told the eleven year me all the things I would one day do in the name of news, I would have coughed up my favorite Ray Bradbury paperback to go ahead and get started. Now, looking back at age 50, I wonder for not the first time what all those head-long rushes into dirty weather will ever add up to...

I'm guessing trench foot and, quite possibly, a hernia.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Optical Prime

Long before the Apple iLid brought "cornea-cam" to the masses, journalism entities forced underlings to trundle cumbersome equipment from scene to scene. Known for their penchant for pockets and devotion to focus, these "photogs", as they were known, moved surprisingly fast for the 'gear' they carried with them. Comically concerned with such antiquated concepts as color temperature and composition, these rough and tumble types employed a sequential style of editing that today's eye-dart harvesters would find quite confining. What's more, these unsung brutes of the 'evening news' roamed their respective regions in automobiles slathered in slogans so often cited as the broken promises of the pre-Trump Free Information Epoch. 

Though little of their footage survived the Great American Media Purge of 2020, dramatizations of these plugged-in ruffians' plights are suddenly back in vogue. On what's left of Broadway, a new hologram is opening based on these turn of the century journey-persons. Leathery and profane with a freakish reach, these oddballs were said to embody the best and worse of the now forbidden "Fourth Estate". The main character is a particularly pathetic sort who went by that quaintest of nicknames: "Lenslinger".  

We've never heard of him either, but the whole thing is already trending on liver-vision, so good luck avoiding it...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Story of Us

Insider. Outsider. Gate-Crasher. Ghost. The television news photographer is all of these things - often within the course of a single shift. Nature dictates that we don't fit in.  So we lurk around the edges, training our spotlights on the triumphant and befuddled while we think, mostly, about lunch. I suppose it's always been that way. Shortly after the founding fathers fashioned the first TV test pattern out of a stolen Indian blanket, it occurred to someone in a suit that a new breed was needed. Up from the dust, the first photog rose. No one bothered to learn his name, but all understood that this restless, jaded beast would come in damn handy. So the suits sent this new creature to the edge of happenstance, armed with heavy glass and the odd notion that he'd be welcome anywhere. It shouldn't have worked. But as their lack of luck would have it, vagabonds, stragglers and the criminally insouciant took a liking to the lens. Soon, a craft of sorts was forged - one that required patience, a steady hand and, tragically, cargo shorts.
I should know, for I count myself among their diminishing number. We all have different origin stories. Some are failed athletes, relegated to the sidelines of life. Others are film school nerds who lacked tuition or A/V geeks with more free time than friends. Me - I blame Steve Bottoms.  It was that smug bastard who showed up to my house one late 80's day with a newfangled camcorder under his arm. Dude let me look through it and I was hooked. Something about the viewfinder's soothing blue shine drew me in and I've been loitering in its dying light ever since. Years later, I'd barge into my first TV station, blustering my way into a minimum wage position I was in no way qualified for. Looking back, I should have aimed higher than the six o clock news. But when you're 22 and high on other people's lives, that bolder on your shoulder can feel like a pair of wings.  Since that fated day, I've driven all kinds of cars slathered in peacocks, eyeballs and foxes. I've floated over school buses, flattered world leaders, flown in everything from balloons to bombers and dropped in on more sudden deaths than I can possibly recall.   

But a strange thing happened on the path to backache. The business changed - or to be more precise - never stopped changing. Cameras shrank, as did budgets. Edit bays turned into laptops and lumbering live trucks became magic backpacks. But nothing transformed more than the women and men behind those unblinking lenses. News crews of two shed a full sized human. Folks who once refused to pick up anything heavier than a microphone grew Sonys of their own. Kids mastered the art of editing on their parent's iMacs and the rise of Youtube made it okay for video to look like shit. These days, your average camera scrum features more polished presenters than true blue news shooters. But don't get me wrong. Some of these youngsters - with their plastic cameras and winning grins are fiercely talented. Most, however, are not and while this bothers me more than it does you, it seems to upset viewers not one whit.Which leads me to this existential question...

Serge Brockman Reporting
"Stay Classy, Greenville!"
If a tree falls in the forest and the news crew that comes to cover it consists of a bored nihilist with a camera the size of a baked potato, does anyone (besides a few funky photogs) care? Most probably not and those that do can trace their ancestry directly to those gasbags who lamented the loss of the buggy whip industry circa 1908. That ain't me. Hell, some of my best friends are Multi-Media Journalists! That's what we call One Man Bands these days. And while that old term is probably considered impolitic these days, I utter it with reverence. For way back in the butt-crack of 1990, I considered myself just that and I got the goofy pictures to prove it. So don't take my diatribe as (just) the ramblings of a soon to be artifact. I got much love for anyone who wants to point a lens at something unplanned. It's a weird way to want to spend your day, but I can tell you from experience that if you stick with it, you're sure to become the most interesting person at the party ... wearing cargo shorts.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Pride and Petulance

As a longstanding member of the broadcast media, I’ve been heckled, threatened, shoved and spat at by people who didn’t like the coverage I was providing.  I’ve always tried to chuckle and dodge, knowing that undue animosity was the price I paid for thrusting my lens this way and that.

Once, the elderly matriarch of a trailer park crack-house crew hocked a loogie my way that - I swear to you - flew in slow-motion. It hung there in the air, roiling with venom and denture juice as I leaned back all Matrix-like to avoid it. It was a memoir-worthy moment; one I’ve come to treasure long after her spittle dried in the dirt. I just wish I could still bend like that.

Many Halloweens ago, I rode shotgun with a cocky young deputy who loved the way my camera looked at him. Late in the evening, we pulled up to the scene of a reported stabbing. Before I could unbuckle my seatbelt, Officer Starstruck jumped out, drew his weapon and ran around the corner of an apartment building. I was in my 20’s, so of course I followed him, only to quickly learn I wasn’t invited to the drunken rugby player kegger knife fight. My cop buddy intervened before I got too bounced around, but not before my eyeglasses got shoved down my shirt. Those frames never did fit right after that.

And then there was last summer, in which I spent a fun filled week walking backwards in front of an angry mob. The city of Charlotte damn near came undone over the shooting of Keith Scott and the memories of that meltdown won’t go quietly either. There are places in the city I still cannot go without triggering instant recall of broken glass, tortured shrieks, revving engines, barking bullhorns, angry rain, torn shoulders and the sickly sweet stench of tear gas in the air. What I witnessed that week is something I never want to see again. But I wasn’t there by choice. I was there by vocation: a lowly ignoble craft that’s increasingly regarded as … fake.   

Now, I awake one splendid Sunday morning to find the elected leader of the free world striking out against my broadcasting brethren with, of all things, a doctored wrestling video. It’s the kind of scenario that young dude who dodged the Granny spit simply never would have believed. And it’s enough to make this career cameraman worry about what’s to come…

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Specter's Regret

I was weaving through traffic in a midday haze when the sound of a ringing phone broke my stupor. ‘There goes lunch’ I thought as the station’s call letters appeared on my iPhone.

“Unit Eleven…”

“Hey - I need you to go to 650 Swindell Drive… Sounds like a body found.”

I grunted, tossed the phone in the passenger seat and pulled my third u-turn of the day.

Twelve minutes later, I raised the tailgate of Unit 11 and fished out my lens and sticks. Two police cruisers blocked Swindell Drive. I sauntered past the cop cars, my tripod on one shoulder and the camera strap digging into the other. Up ahead, police officers gathered on the porch of a clapboard house. A young woman in a pink robe sat at the bottom of the steps, her shoulders hitching as she told a detective what she’d seen.

“And I said ‘Daddy, come home NOW! Keesha won’t move!’

Her voice broke and she buried her head in hands. When she did, I twisted the barrel of my lens ever so slightly, sharpening the edges of the woman’s pain. Cold blooded? Perhaps, but I didn’t haul ass to the hood to pass out Popsicles. I came to shine a light on the unadorned truth - and maybe fill ninety seconds of newscast in the process. So there I stood, a street corner specter, saying nothing but seeing all.  I was almost out of shots when the yelling began.

I swung my lens toward the sound and focused on it source. A round man in workers’ overalls, lumbering under heavy breath and wearing an expression I’d seen before.

“Dee! Dee! What happened to Keesha, Dee?”

Leaping to her feet, the woman in the pink robe ran toward her father, causing the officers on the porch to stop talking smack long enough to crane their necks and fondle the butt of their service pistols.

When Dee reached her Daddy, they crumpled into each others arms. As they sunk to the ground, their voices rose, fell and melded until only the guttural sound of grief remained. On the porch, the cops went back to their gossip, leaving the sad passion play to finish out its tragic act.

That’s when I realized I wasn’t rolling anymore.


Keesha was fifteen years old when she died that day. I know nothing else about her, other than what the one cop told me as he gathered up crime tape.

“Sister found her in the kitchen. Looks to be self-inflicted. Coroner’s on the way.”

I nodded, walked away and called the station.

“Slow your roll. Suicide. I got video just in case.”

Walking back to my news unit, my thoughts tuned to lunch. At one point, I had to stop to let the coroner’s van pass. I knew then that the footage I’d just shot would never be reach a TV screen and in a couple of days, most of the details would fade away. It would be like I was never even there. Chances are Dee and her Daddy never even noticed the cameraman quietly framing their pain that day.


But he remembers them. And twelve years later, he doesn’t need to play back any video clip to hear their hearts break all over again. He’ll take that sound to his grave -- along with a twinge of guilt for having even been there to hear it.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Brothers in Scrum

"G. Lee, you on scene yet?"

"Negative. Interstate's at a standstill."

"Well, once you're there, throw up a picture. We're taking you at the top of the six."

G. Lee dropped the cell phone in his lap and stared through the windshield. A sea of brake lights stared back. He glanced at the dashboard clock. 5:40. Twenty minutes to get to what was sounding like the city's seventh homicide in as many weeks. In his lap, the cell phone began to vibrate again. Looking down, he saw it was The Desk again. 'Jesus', he muttered, before noticing the helicopter circling in the distance. G. Lee grabbed the steering wheel, yanked it to the right and stood on the gas pedal. Trapped commuters looked up from their own cellphones and watched the SUV with the oversized 7 on the door race by them in the breakdown lane. G. Lee didn't return their angry looks. He didn't have time.

Eight minutes later, he pulled into the housing development as his GPS chirped in her sunny, female voice.

"You've arrived at your destination."

Overhead, the Channel 3 chopper hovered, as if parked on a cloud. G. Lee didn't give it much thought, but he knew it was why his bosses were blowing up his phone. Up ahead, swirling blue lights bounced off the crumbling brick walls of the housing unit and washed over the curious faces of the crowd  assembling on the sidewalks. Only a few of the faces turned to watch as the news unit park behind a police cruiser. Even fewer kept watching as a shaggy-haired man in his mid-forties climbed out and walked around to the back of the SUV.

G. Lee raised the hatchback lid and without even looking, grabbed his gear. TV camera, industrial-sized tripod, bulging fanny-pack and what looked like an astronaut's lunchbox. He clicked the fanny-pack around his waist, hung the camera by its strap over his right shoulder, hoisted the tripod onto his left shoulder, grabbed the case with his one free hand and trudged up toward the clot of police cars.

At the edge of the yellow crime tape, a tall black man with a salt and pepper beard stood intertwined with his own tripod, his face buried in the blue glow of the Channel 4 camera's viewfinder. Several yards away, uniformed cops made small talk as detectives in rumpled dress clothes loitered on the porch of one of  the housing units. Hoyle Laxton twisted the barrel of his lens ever so slightly, bringing the detectives into sharp focus. He kept his eye glued to the viewfinder as G. Lee joined him at the crime tape.

"Where you been, G? Thought the coroner was gonna beat you here."         

G. Lee planted his tripod on the ground beside Hoyle's, lifted his camera atop of it and framed up a wide shot. As the camera rolled, he popped open the astronauts lunchbox, pressed a button on the transmitter inside and snaked a cable between it and the camera.

"Been suckin' fumes on I-40. Tradin' snapchats with your Mom. Cops talk yet?"

Hoyle snorted, never looking away from his camera's eyepiece. "Not yet. Check out the lady in the housecoat."

G. Lee scanned the crowd and spotted her, a large woman in a faded green housecoat. She was slumped over the roof a police car, her head buried in folded arms, round shoulders hitching as she fought to control her own sobbing. G. Lee zoomed in, locked down his shot and felt nothing at all. It's not that he couldn't empathize, but the callouses on his soul rarely allowed it to happen in real time.

"Think she's the victim's auntie. Cops ain't sayin'. You wanna dog-pile her?"

 "Not especially," G. Lee said. "Let the reporters do it when they get here."

With that, Hoyle and G. Lee fell silent as they recorded shot after shot of bored cops, parked police cars and rubbernecking locals. Soon, other news crews joined them and the kind of idle chatter found in media scrums the world over took place. It was rarely about the tragedy at hand. Rather, they traded war stories about blocked interstates, clueless assignment desks and the unquenchable thirst of the news beast that kept them all employed.

Most of the photogs knew each other well and generally looked out for one another. G. Lee and Hoyle were especially tight. They'd ping-ponged around the region for years, recognizing each others' silhouettes from a distance at house fires, jackknifed semi's, protests and presidential campaign stops. When Hoyle's wife left him, G. Lee listened to him lament the loss, then traded in the favor when it happened to him. It was the closest thing to a friendship either of these electronic loners would lay claim to and they helped each other more than their bosses ever knew.

Which is why it was so hard on G. Lee when what happened to Hoyle happened right in front of him...