Contributing to the Conversation
About 90% of the time assignment work for newspapers tends to be pretty cut and dry. Show up at this location and at this time. Make some portraits or document the life of John or Jane Doe. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. Get in. Get out.
But sometimes the photo editor is looking for something more.
Something with a slant or an angle, perhaps, or something surreal, or they want Diane Arbus like freakiness. Sometimes editors just send you the article, which is their way of saying, you’re a big boy and I’m busy so you figure it out. And some times the photo editor has no idea and they direct you to the writer who also turns out to have no idea. Every once in awhile, however, along comes an assignment where you have complete freedom to shoot it as you choose. These are the moments that we as photographers live for.
A few weeks ago Becky Lebowitz, photo editor at The New York Times, called me to cover a high school football practice in Dover, New Hampshire. It sounded pretty cut and dry. Football practice starts at 3pm. They know you are coming. But it also looked like it had the potential to be one of occasional opportunities where I could shoot it freely, so I was excited. Finally a fun assignment!
I showed up, walked down to the practice field and the welcoming party was there waiting for me like a door slamming in my face. You see the story was about a controversy. A local school board member had proposed banning football at Dover High School on the grounds that the sport is no longer safe. The week before there were local tv news outfits camped out in the parking lot. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh referred to the school board member as “pantywaists who want to try to take the risk out of everything in life.” The football coaches and the players felt like they were thrown in to a spotlight, that they didn’t want to be in and they were not too happy about it. Obviously, they weren’t too happy about my being there either.
As practice went on I started to chat more to the coaches. One coach had me labeled from the beginning. He facetiously asked me if I wanted to interview a Romney supporter. This is the state of “live free or die” and I was working for that bastion of the liberal press, The New York Times. I politely explained to the coach that I’m a freelance photographer and I’m not the reporter covering the story. At that point he relaxed and explained his version of the story. The whole story has been blown out of proportion, because the school board member was this liberal type who just wanted to attract attention to himself. It was in essence about him.
Dover had a game the next day so the practice was light, helmets only and limited contact. I moved around all over the place, got behind the lineman and did all this all without getting trampled in the process. I shot freely and had a blast.
The next day I met Dr. Paul Butler, a retired physician and the controversial school board member, to take his portrait. While walking around his home and going from location to location looking for ideal settings for the portrait, we chatted. He’s a tall man with the build of a tight end: broad shoulders and long arms. He didn’t look like a “pantywaist”. He played football in college and is a Patriots fan, so he didn’t hate the sport. He also struck me as earnest, humble and a bit embarrassed by all the attention he had received.
I asked him how he had been treated since the story broke and he said that he hadn’t had any problems in town. He had received a few hate filled emails, but he also got some very thoughtful emails from people who are genuinely concerned about the safety of football. One person wrote him and accused him of being a homosexual. Butler thought that it was funny. He referred to himself as one of these cheap old Yankee republicans. “They can call me many things, including a homosexual, but when they called me a liberal, that hurts.”
At that moment, the assignment had transformed itself in to one of those priceless moments, where I got to walk away with some valuable insight on the human condition. The coaches had misjudged Dr. Butler and they had misjudged me. In essence, they shot the messenger, not once, but twice. It’s all too common to judge the motivations of others without having all the information. It’s human nature and we do it all the time.
As photojournalists, our job is to provide visual information. We can only hope that our work speaks for itself and helps provide a starting point for a more reasonable conversation and a healthy dialogue. And if we’re really lucky, every once in awhile we can walk away having learned something as well.