Thursday, June 04, 2020
"We could probably get two packages out of THAT.”
Whatever my assignment editor was trying to milk for two stories in one day was lost on me. Sunk low behind the wheel of my news unit, I shifted in the seat and squinted at my phone, which currently showed a quad-box of bored coworkers. Through the windshield, I could see the big bristling TV station none of us were allowed to enter anymore. Back on the phone’s grimy screen, I caught my own reflection in one of those Brady Brunch boxes. Instinctively, I reached up to scratch my face, then pulled my hand back when I remembered I shouldn’t be touching my face.
Welcome to News: Pandemic Edition
A couple of months ago, I would have told you I’d shot it ALL. Hurricanes, homicides, forest fires, floods, riots, pomp and squalor. Like most folk who read this magazine, I’ve been blessed with the kind of access to intrigue that would have boggled the mind of my seven year old self. I have floated through a sea of dead cattle, backpedaled in front of guilty Senators and sullied the edges of more homicides than I can recall. But I have never covered anything like the Coronavirus.
At the local level, we’ve adjusted to the unique demands of a global pandemic in ways that were nothing short of unthinkable just a dozen weeks ago or so. Reporters cobbling together material without ever leaving their apartments. Directors punching shows from the comfort of their couches. Anchors hosting whole newscasts from their backyard. Gotta say, I’ve been white-balancing since the first Bush Administration and I didn’t see ANY of this coming. (Had I, I’d have invested in Zoom!) Now that it’s here, though, what’s left for the photog nation to do but adapt and survive?
Never before have local television photojournalists been so challenged to remain relevant. With social distancing comes the understandable acceptance of app-derived interviews. Couple that loss of camera-play with the proliferation of easily accessed file video and you have a combination of factors that could further take the ‘crew’ out of ‘news crew’. Don’t get me wrong: TV News will get rid of photogs only when you pry the fancycam from my leathery, middle-aged grip. But with MultiMedia-Journalists doing phenomenal work and ad revenue taking a biblical hit, now is not the time for the cranky photog to stage a hunger strike. You want to be a part of this splintering business? Get versatile.
At least that’s the view from where I sit, which lately is the driver’s seat of a Ford Explorer that’s packed to the gills with lights, scrims and all manners of hurricane gear that won’t help me in the least to cover a pandemic. Far more useful is my trusty laptop, a prehistoric model that until recently didn’t see much service. These days, it’s my only portal to a wider audience. But as much as I may have mastered my tools as of late, how exactly I was going to get my storytelling jollies in a sterile environment such as this? How was I going to get past the social distancing and surgical masks to make any memorable television?
The answer didn’t come for another week. A local food bank had organized a give-away and the faces in the morning Zoom meeting wanted me to turn it into television. Grateful not to be assigned another health director’s press conference, I shot my phone a thumbs-up and dropped the transmission into Drive. Minutes later, I arrived on scene. It was just a random vacant lot and even though the cases of fresh fruit and canned goods wouldn’t be handed out for another twenty minutes, cars were already rolling in. A few drivers saw me and my oversized camera and scrunched down behind their steering wheels. I let them be and went to find a food bank official to interview.
An hour later, I leaned against my tripod and watched the line of cars snake through the line, before passing right behind me on the way out of the no longer vacant lot. Occasionally, a driver waved as they drove by, but most averted my camera’s gaze. Reluctantly, I let them pass. As depressed as most of the drivers seemed, it had been a fruitful shoot. After interviewing one of the organizers, I put away my homemade boom pole and pretended to be invisible. The visuals poured forth: a low slung wide shot of tires crunching gravel, a tight frame of bananas before their pulled out of view, a silhouette of a driver’s profile as he patiently waited. Yes, I had everything I needed for my ninety second report.
Everything, except a soundbite from a non-official.
Maybe all the social distancing was getting to me. Whatever it was, I just didn’t have the heart to harass any of the folks as they popped their trunks for a few free groceries. ‘Maybe I can wrap my pictures around that one organizer’s interview, I mean, she WAS pretty good.’ Deep within my frontal lobe, I did the storytelling math and came up with an equation that convinced me I could turn my camera off NOW and still have enough for a pretty tight package.
That’s when I saw her. An elderly woman behind the wheel of a slow rolling sedan. A paper mask covered her mouth, but I could tell by her eyes that she was smiling. I moved in, camera rolling. In a sing-song voice, she gladly told me all about getting an e-mail about the food drive. Then she graced me with the kind of soundbite that told me I was done shooting for the day.
“God has helped me today.”
‘You and me both, lady’, I thought as I lowered the camera.
You and me both.
Sunday, May 31, 2020
If you’ve ever cradled your TV camera and stared at the red light as people ran past you like Godzilla was chasing them, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever tasted tear gas in the back of your throat and instantly flashed back to the last time you tasted that shit, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever been pulled backwards by the belt loop through an angry crowd as you squinted into a jostling tube, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever stopped to marvel at what kind of irresponsible person would bring a child to a city-wide protest, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever ignored seven people screaming at you at once while a loud BEEP in your earpiece told you that the card in your camera was almost full, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever seen protestors shatter plate glass windows, hurl chunks of concrete at cops and through car windows, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever tried with your eyes to tell your reporter that his live shot is about to be interrupted by a guy lighting fireworks behind him, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever squinted into your viewfinder and tried to bring into focus the face of a man who had just fallen thirty feet through a grate in the sidewalk, you may have had a night like mine.
If you’ve ever suffered through an evening of danger and discomfort in the belief that Democracy does indeed die in darkness, only to have some schmuck on Facebook tell you you’re an enemy of the American people, you may have had a night like mine.