View From the
City Desk

by Roger Richards

The Platypus is making many people nervous.

Ever since this concept of a hybrid journalist was envisioned by Dirck Halstead a couple of years ago, there have been a lot of people accusing him of heresy, of helping to destroy photojournalism. While I sympathize with their view, it is clear that they do not get what this is all about. The naysayers think that being a Platypus means that the foundation is being laid for a future in which a photojournalist will become a robot, a mindless operator sent into the field with a camera to capture masses of raw footage from which high resolution frame grabs will be taken for publication. That is what I was accused of myself, by some of my own colleagues no less, when I chose to add a digital video camera to my storytelling arsenal. They, too, did not get it, and it became my responsibility to let them know what this Platypus business is all about. Not to try and convert anybody, but to let them begin to think about the issues that we have all been battling in order to keep photojournalism alive. But before I talk about that, let me give some background.

A little over two years ago I was in a box. In 18 1/2 years as a photojournalist I had done much but found myself suffering from a lack of creative inspiration. So I decided to make a documentary film. For someone who had no formal training in photography, much less filmmaking, this was a challenge. I had something to say. I just needed to learn how to express it.

The next step was to follow my own personal rules about learning.
1. Find people who know what you wish to learn and attach yourself to them like a parasite.
2. Shut up and listen very closely to everything they say and make lots of notes.
3. Read everything you can put your hands on about the subject of your endeavor.
4. NEVER doubt your ability; just be prepared to work very, very hard.
5. When you think you have learned something, go back and do it again. Time often lets you know that you did not learn as much as you thought.
6. Be humble. Nobody likes to help a know-it-all, particularly a know-nothing-know-it-all.

To make a long story short, I had the good fortune of attending the first Platypus Workshop in Oklahoma, courtesy of TIME magazine and Dirck Halstead. After two weeks of very long hours and total immersion in absorbing the basics of this new storytelling skill, I went back to my job as a staff photojournalist at the Washington Times in DC.

The changes in my way of shooting became evident very quickly. I now think about the storytelling process more carefully. Videographers and filmmakers have to capture sequences in order to tell a story. Each sequence requires shots of different angles and focal lengths. Throw in the disciplines of capturing good audio and keeping the shot long and steady and you have a process that requires more than an instinctive reaction for 'the decisive moment', which is what still photographers wait for. Like photographers, the work of the best filmmakers and videographers is often distinguished by a sense for beautiful compositions within the frame. The difference is that their subjects move.

The excitement of discovering something new, like when I was starting out as a photographer, is empowering. I find that this energy infects all that I do, including my still photography. It renewed my love for the still image, while at the same time I discovered that shooting digital video captured my imagination. The possibilities for telling stories in a different way opened up a new dimension.

I found that most of my colleagues at the Times were both intrigued and dismissive about my new skills. Their idea of the Platypus was someone who is a threat to the way we have traditionally worked. Some of them even thought I was in training to become a TV shooter. I assured them that nothing was further from the truth, that I have no such ambitions. Over time, as they saw what I was doing and as my documentary film progressed, there are now five other members of the staff who have actively expressed interest in learning how to be a Platypus. One has actually bought a DV camcorder and is learning how to use it.

For my part, my storytelling repertoire has expanded considerably. I am now able to shoot still photos with text by a reporter; stills with my writing; combine video with stills; or shoot a video story by itself. Now when I evaluate a project, I can decide how I want to communicate it.

The future is coming and the demand for the multiskilled storyteller will be great. Becoming a Platypus is about empowerment and liberation. It is something to take a serious look at.

Roger Richards is a staff photojournalist at the Washington Times in Washington, D.C. He is the former Associated Press photo bureau chief in Bogota, Colombia, and a member of the Gamma Liaison photo agency for twelve years. His photographs and articles have been published in TIME, Newsweek, US News and World Report, Paris Match, Stern, the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, London Sunday Times and the International Herald Tribune. He is the editor and publisher of the multimedia website Digitalfilmmaker.Net, which is at

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