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:

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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

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