LIFE HAPPENS, ALERT THE MEDIA

“So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon.”

Our friends Marvi Lacar and Ben Lowy came for dinner last night, with surprising and lovely news that Marvi is pregnant. Naturally the subject came up of how to be a photojournalist and be a good parent. Ben was leaving for Afghanistan in the morning and then possibly returning to Iraq. The discussion was not just about the risks we take to cover the story but being away for extended periods, the endless miles apart from family. When my son was born 21 years ago I was way less mature or prepared to deal with the responsibility then Marvi and Ben. Aside from their incandescent talent and amazing work, they are both incredibly smart and thoughtful people. They will now go through the balancing act a new baby requires. I’ve been writing and talking recently about finding a balance in our work between art and commerce, but this is much deeper and more complicated. Can you have a family and be a dedicated photojournalist?

Sometime in the early 1990′s I was invited to be on the panel of the Flying Short Course. I was the token magazine photojournalist before an audience of mostly young newspaper photographers, many of whom aspired to the perceived glamor and freedom of freelance magazine work. Someday they hoped to be covering wars, celebrities, campaigns, etc., and  expected me to extoll the virtues of my life. True, I was living my dream but was also starting to make the painful decisions that were bringing me to the end-point of that phase in my career. My mindset was very, very different than what my audience was expecting. My son had begun saying inconvenient things like, “Daddy, don’t go,” each time I headed out the door to another far-off assignment. It broke my heart of course. And at that point in my life, not much could get through my field-deadened emotions. And that meant I could no longer ignore the needs of my family for my career. That’s when I started looking for a way to put myself at risk less often, do commercial work or anything that helped me be home more, and deal with the reality I had created. But it is much easier to worry instead about the fierce demands required to not only get across the world but to then get the picture. Much, much easier.

Here’s the first picture I showed in my presentation:

cpw_32

My wife Tereza is holding our two-year old son Paolo in 1989. I had arrived the night before after 8 weeks in China and was leaving at that moment back to China via Hamburg to shoot “A Day in The Life of China,” with 100 of the world’s top photojournalists and then on to another assignment for another month after that. I was able to fit a visit home in San Francisco and had grabbed clean clothes and a meal. As I leaned to kiss my wife goodbye she burst into tears. My son looked at her and also began to cry. My reaction? I snatched the Polaroid off the dresser and shot this image. It was pure training; a moment was happening right in front of me and I reacted as if I was covering a story, instantly. Heartless? Sure, but in retrospect it was probably the only way I could have suppressed the very real pain of leaving my family. I was steeling my mind for more weeks on the road. Super glamorous.

Since then I”ve shown this picture in my talks and workshops because it was such a searing pivotal moment for me in my evolution as a photographer and a person and often relevant to younger shooters contemplating their futures. My heroes in photojournalism, most of the legends, had pretty much abandoned their families to survive as best they could while away on shoots. All my mentors were divorced and married to the camera and job. The attitude I learned with was that to be any good, you had to be willing to die for the picture. It was the work, the work, the work. Everything else came second, if at all.

The life I led then was similar to so many magazine news photographers. You kept a bag packed at all times. You had your eye on the news all the time looking for stories. You would either get a call to cover something or you’d pitch a story. If there was a big story and you could get to it first or second you’d just go knowing your agent would secure the “guarantees” for a number of days plus space. You could never say no to an editor or ever, ever fuck up. At a conference in the 80′s I once heard a young photogapher ask Roxanne Edwards at Business Week what would happen if, you know, somehow the film just did not turn out? Response: “Then you would never work for us again.” Sharp, honest, true answer. But seriously, doh! The other editors on the panel from Time, Newsweek, US News all shook their heads solemnly in agreement. The pressure to get world-class images on deadline against tremendous competition was unrelenting, yet it was also what fueled us. I was on the road so much that at one point I had to write notes to myself before I passed out in my hotel with the name of the city I was in, so when I woke up I’d know where the hell I was. Berlin. Bangkok. Khartoum. Paris. One trip had me shooting in 17 countries in 17 days. 

And I do believe there is a natural tendency when you photograph the misery in the world– people dying or starving– to shut down our emotions, not that differently from an EMT at an accident scene. You must function as a professional. The by-product is that we become damaged goods; emotionally stunted, untreated PTS victims. This is just another layer on top of what the loneliness of the road does to you. I’d say some of us probably become borderline sociapaths. But hey, I’m probably just confusing some photojournalists with hard core paparazzi. Kidding! Or maybe not…

So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, friends or significant others, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon. One slightly older guy approached me later with tears in his eyes and said he was struggling with just this issue. But the reaction from the crowd that day, and later from my my peers was pretty negative. None of my friends––who were also my competition––had kids and most were not yet married. From there I chose my own path and moved into a kind of wilderness of isolation from my colleagues and clients in photojournalism. A new life began.

This photograph of my wife and son is always a good reminder to me of the goals I set to try to be a better parent. My son is now a talented musician finishing college so for that I’m grateful. Obviously my career could not have happened without the support of my wife who became my partner in the business and primary caregiver. For her, the decision was easier because she was told she’d never have children. Our son was a miracle kid and she wanted to be part of his every minute. And this issue is obviously more complicated for women in general. It used to be that most women became picture editors; now there are many more women in the field shooting– not enough, but still way more.

Of course smart people will find ways to balance the competing needs of work and family, that’s not new. The issue is about what it takes to do what Ben does in Afghanistan. Can you be at that level, all in, and still create a balance? It can be done I think, but it is not easy and only with careful planning. And with so many more people starting families while working in photojournalism I’m interested to learn some of the creative solutions out there.

The truth that I’ve learned to live with and embrace is this: how my son turns out is way more important than any picture I produce. His impact on his world, the world he grows into, his friends or future family, is my only real legacy. And I’m so, so fine with that.

Thursday
16
April 2009
This entry was posted in Blur: A Memoir and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to LIFE HAPPENS, ALERT THE MEDIA

  1. Pingback: LIFE HAPPENS, ALERT THE MEDIA « doug menuez 2.0: go fast, don’t crash | The Click

  2. Pete says:

    So true – good point, well made. It think that this is the wisdom of age or parenthood or something, which is why to most of your audience it was not understood. I can remember feeling “yeah, yeah, whatever, life’s to short to worry” – you feel invincible because in truth very few people truly depend on you – not so when you have kids. I’m not a pro-photog but can relate entirely – I think balance is the key as you say. Being away too much is the obvious one, but being professionally unfulfilled is also a problem as it can cause resentment. Wow, if you solve it let me know!

    • menuez says:

      Ouch. You know you can never get that time with your wife and kids or family back, or anything for that matter. I’d like to say I have no regrets but I have tons. Deep regret. You try to learn and grow from the mistakes. I’m still making them unfortunately. One time I was trying to have this “regret” conversation with my son about 3 years ago. I started to apologize for all my work travels and he cut me off. “Dad I wouldn’t have it any other way, ” he said. He let me off the hook, but I could see in his eyes that it cost him to say that. Yet he understood the struggle to balance it all and he was generous. Love that kid.

  3. Ken Driese says:

    Great post, Doug. As a 50 year old with a young daughter making an attempt to freelance, I’ve grappled with this in a less dramatic way than you describe as a full-time global correspondent. I think your observations are universal–they don’t JUST apply to photojournalism but to the huge imbalance that many have in their family vs. work lives. Our society rewards obsession with work at the expense of other things that are more important.

  4. Eric Gitonga says:

    Reading this reminds me of Rick Sammon’s guest post at Photoshop Insider which touched on a similar theme. Very good food for thought. Thanks for this.

    • menuez says:

      Daniel, Yeah, it’s hard and getting harder. Something does have to give in the end, we can’t do all that we want in life and there are sacrifices to be made. Which makes it all the more imperative in my view to figure out how to truly live in the moment, enjoying what we get. I’m still working on that…

  5. Beautiful… thank you. I never heard you use the word “regret’… I am wondering about that.

  6. Pingback: A Photo Editor - Why Would You Quit Working With A Freelancer

  7. kate chase says:

    “So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our families, friends or significant others, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience?”

    Thank you for a well timed sentiment on the value of family. Kate

    • Wow. That was powerful. I’m at a point in my life where I am trying to decide which direction to go. Part of me wants LIFE to tell me where to go, and another wants ME to tell life where to go. One will win, and I may actually not have a whole lot of power over it… but those are the very thoughts of which I struggle. Thank you for sharing, Doug.

    • Scott Lewis says:

      Looks like you did alright w/ that kid.

  8. What a great topic. When I was a young editorial photographer my primary constant struggle was trying to find ways to harmonize my personal photography with my editorial assignment photography. Now with a wife and 2 daughters I find that the greatest struggle is between continuing to balance those issues without sacrificing my family. They all bring me joy but it is harder to see the family being left behind. Most often I admit, my personal work suffers the most in the struggle to support the family in harsh economic climate of making a living as an editorial photographer. What got me into photography in the first place was the joy and wonder of looking at the world with new eyes.
    Finding a balance between the 3 worlds without compromise is the ever more elusive goal.
    Daniel Sheehan

  9. Scott Lewis says:

    Amen brother!

    What struck me in what you’ve said here, which we’ve discussed much over the past couple years, is the idea that a career/passion/vocation/avocation has phases. What we once dreamed of doing may not in fact be what we end up doing, life is like that I guess. Or if it is it may turn out that we don’t like the reality of what we once dreamed. The dreams of the past may not align with the reality of the present. I think the best thing we can do for ourselves is own up to the choices and commitments we’ve made and do the best we can to stay fulfilled both personally and professionally. As I look over the past couple years of my life/career I don’t regret not going in the expected path cause I wouldn’t have what I have today, it’s never perfect but it is about balance and compromise. Well, if we wanna be healthy in some reasonable manner not giving up the stuff that makes us tick.

    The changes we make today don’t mean that we’ll never achieve the dreams of of the past, they’re just delayed or detoured a bit. And what photojournalist doesn’t appreciate a good detour every now and then.

  10. This is a really inspiring post that I take to heart, as my career just begins and hopefully a family too soon. I have shared it with my wife as well. Since journalism school I have not been very keen on the grind of being a hard core photojournalist (I’ve never had to write myself a note about where I am when I wake up! That’s amazing!!) – I didn’t even try to apply to any newspapers but instead my dream job fell into my lap – I had a desk job doing multimedia production but got to shoot a few assignments a week. Now as I return from a year volunteering in South Africa, I head back with the idea to create multiple streams of income – blogging, weddings, flash work, 3D Panos, etc. Perhaps if I can keep the hourly rate high on all of those items then I can carve out time for family and those personal assignments that mean a lot to me. I don’t care much about being rich in the wallet but prefer to be rich in life. I want to spend as much time with my kids as possible. I feel like this will be hard, but in the word’s of Bruce Cockburn, “Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. You’ve got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.”

    Posts like this one are the reason I have featured Menuez 2.0 one of my sites: Photojournalists Who Blog.

    • menuez says:

      Nathan, this is such a smart plan you have, I hope others read this and see the very enterprising way you are structuring your career and life. What’s nice about it is he variety of things which can lead to other interesting opportunities later. Keep fighting and you will be fine…d

  11. Kurt Sowers says:

    Excellent! Thank you for sharing your story.

  12. Pingback: Emotional Shutdown « light goes on

  13. Bonnie Berry says:

    As a portrait photographer I do not face these exact challenges per se, but this piece was so moving to me. I document so much of my young boys’ lives and sometimes when they fall or cry I shoot first, help later. And I wonder who this cold person is behind the camera, the one who cares more about capturing the moment than living in it. Thanks so much for this beautiful piece.

  14. Glenn says:

    Great post Doug , I’m grappling with the same subject , when I go away it really adds up to a third to half of the year away and the situation with my wife and kids is similar so I found the post really insightful and thought provoking if you’re looking for answers about this sort of thing.
    I’m the sole breadwinner for a family of 4 ,and I support that family by going places,taking pictures and sending them back to people ,to me it’s that simple so we have worked out that when I’m home ,I’m 100 percent home. even so my wife gets to the point after a little while when she’s asking me “dude don’t you have somewhere to go?”
    Perhaps there needs to be a sub course for all those aspiring PJ’s ” How not to take your partner for granted 101″ or ” strategies to make your children not forget who you are”? or my favourite ” how to get a morgatge with 500 bucks in the bank, maxed out credit cards ,but hey I’ve got $30 grands worth of outstanding invoices”
    Stay Human , Glenn

  15. Cat says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this post – I don’t have my career to the point that it places high demand on my relationships right now – but I’ve been thinking a lot about what is most important to me in life – relationship, career, something else? So far I’m leaning toward relationship…

    My grandma just recently was hospitalized with two brain aneurysms and I was desperate to reach her on the phone before surgery, because I had to tell her that I loved her. It was the most important thing I could say and I couldn’t hardly say it past the tears.

    I’ve been wondering since then – why was it so important that I tell her that. Surely she already knew? What comfort would that be in death? Why was it so important to me that she hear that?

    I haven’t figured it all out yet – but I think relationships trump career…

  16. Chris Keels says:

    I remember this image and story from your class and it had a deep effect on me. As a husband & father the tension of work and family are ever present
    and for me it has come down to recognizing where the real life is. Work at their expense seldom brings life and the flip side is the blessing of being a working photographer providing for them as well as my soul is an exchange I never dreamed I could have. It’s all in the balance, isn’t it.
    thanks Doug for sharing this

  17. menuez says:

    Pete,
    I think that’s right, the impatience and invincibility of youth is a big part of this. As for being professionally unfulfilled– that’s the biggest problem I see in people’s working lives in any profession. I address this in regard to photogs here: http://menuez.wordpress.com/on-chaos-fear-survival-luck/

  18. menuez says:

    Nothing with a young daughter is “less dramatic” in my observation :)

  19. menuez says:

    Very well put Scott; you always give such great perspective to the issues. I love the Japanese concept of “kaizen” — incremental change. Step by step to perfection. Will we get everything the way we want? Nah, but make the best of it….d

  20. menuez says:

    art is savage love…d

  21. menuez says:

    Thanks again Chris, it is about balance. On the other hand I realize we screw up our kids no matter how much we try not to, seems to be nature’s way of keeping therapists employed :)

  22. menuez says:

    Basically for me it comes down to this moment, that’s all you get. And when you think like that the relationships you have become much more meaningful in every way

  23. menuez says:

    reading your post reminds me just how much easier a 9-5 gig would be, but then i’d have to start shooting heroin to cope with the stress of no stress. i think we do all thrive on chaos to some extent but the issues around family are quite serious. i do hope I’m right in that spending time with family makes our work more meaninful, better

  24. Chris Keels says:

    -laughing- yes probably so.
    wish I could make your talk on the 23rd.
    any thought to sharing new photo work on the blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>