Don't Win A Pulitzer by Accident
by Susan Markisz
has resurfaced in at the corner of Court Street and University Avenue
in Newark, New Jersey.
the eve of the Millennium, the fledgling photo department of The Star-Ledger
found itself in the middle of a renaissance. Fifteen minutes into the
new year, on January 1, 2000 photographer Matt Rainey began digitally
transmitting his photos of the New Years celebration in Times
Square, commencing with an auld lang syne to the past, and
a nod to the papers emergence as a major player in news gathering
and image making in the 21st Century.
Despite the gloomy forecast about the demise of photojournalism, The
Star-Ledger has ignored the rumor mill and instead, has concentrated
on reinventing its photo department.
In the waning hours of 1999, Rainey had been employed, not as a staff
photographer of The Star-Ledger, but as an employee of the independent
New Jersey Newsphotos, where he had worked for five years. The sub-contractor
had provided coverage for the 406,000 daily circulation paper (605,000
Sunday) for forty years. That relationship was destined for change in
October 1999, when James P. Willse, editor in chief of the Star-Ledger
and Pim Van Hemmen, Director of Photography, decided to create an in-house
photo department that would become operational as the ball dropped in
Times Square on January 1, 2000.
According to Van Hemmen, who was named Assistant Managing Editor for
Photography last year, photography was not a high priority under the
old arrangement. Historically, the Star-Ledger did not have a
photo department. It was a necessary evil, he said, referring
to the second rate nature of the relationship of photos to the newspaper.
Photo requests were electronically transmitted to New Jersey Newsphotos.
Once photographers had completed their assignments, film was processed
and technicians at New Jersey Newsphotos, located several miles away,
transmitted photographs over a T1 line to the paper. There was never
any dialogue between photographers and editors. In fact, said Van Hemmen,
picture editors and photographers were discouraged from talking
to one another, which was an impediment to doing business. I---and others---felt
that we needed more interaction among photographers, reporters, and
photo editors, for the paper to get top quality photography.
Quality photography is exactly what they got, with an immediate return
on publisher Donald Newhouses investment in the new photo department,
and his now in-house staff of 30 photographers. Nineteen days into the
new year, photographer Matt Rainey, who had symbolically brought The
Star-Ledger into the new millennium with his New Years Eve front
page picture, embarked on an eight month photographic project, resulting
in the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, only a year after
the photo departments rebirth.
produced a compelling black and white documentary photo essay of the
aftermath of the Seton Hall University dormitory fire, which claimed
three students lives and injured more than sixty others, some
critically. The 34 year old photographer spent eight months with critically
injured students Alvaro Llanos, Jr. and Shawn Simons, documenting their
painful rehabilitation and recovery in the burn unit of St. Barnabas
in September of 2000 as a seven-day series, Raineys photographs
and Robin Fishers story After
the Fire, also nominated for a Pulitzer, ran forty pages,
with 115 photographs. Originally Van Hemmens idea to do the story,
he had spent time at the burn unit fifteen years earlier working on
a similar story on his own time, but the work was never published. When
the fire happened, he said, I knew we would get the cooperation
of the burn unit and I knew Matt would be a great person to do the story.
The resources that the department devoted to the project went beyond
the scope of what Van Hemmen initially thought would be necessary. I
figured maybe he [Rainey] would spend one or two days a week on it,
but after working every day for a month, I realized he was going to
have to work on it pretty much full time till we published it,
said Van Hemmen. With Rainey pulled off daily assignments, working virtually
full time on documentation of Llanos and Simons recovery,
publication did not happen until eight months later.
Eight months was a pretty bold commitment considering we had just
started the department, but I wasnt concerned about it,
adds Van Hemmen. In order to get great photographs, you have to
give people the time to do the job, to maximize the time they have in
the field. Van Hemmens philosophy is to produce the
best pictures possible on a given day. But he also feels that
the paper should be producing larger scale projects as well, with
greater scope and depth that give the reader a sense of what life is
like for others.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the average person is visually
oriented, emphasizes Van Hemmen, referring to the World Wide Web, MTV
and television. He nevertheless is surprised by the fact that there
are fewer photographs in newspapers these days and insists that 21st
Century visual journalism is what people are interested in.
We have to be careful about how much newsprint we consume,
adds Van Hemmen, that is a reality, but it just means we have
to pick our opportunities more carefully.
the RealVideo Interview with Pim Van Hemmen
Hemmen is forward-thinking about other opportunities. I want to
make sure that we are on the cutting edge using both still and video
on the World Wide Web and we should look for more ways to find markets
for still photography. Some of it will depend on technology and bandwidth,
he adds. Van Hemmen is also looking into other more traditional outlets
like art exhibits, books, and art shows. A first ever calendar will
be for sale in the near future.
Maximizing the allocation of resources is a challenge in any business
but with diminishing advertising revenues and the cost of newsprint,
editorial space is at a premium now more than ever, if one believes
what is being said in photo departments throughout the country. Even
before managers started complaining about ad revenues, environmental
portraits and the celebrity portrait du jour had become
the default picture worth a thousand words in many publications. Few
photographers can argue with the veracity of at least some of managements
claims. But with a shrinking news hole, staff reductions and photographic
coverage reduced to an after the fact consideration, morale
among photojournalists who care about the future of their craft, has
been low for years. At a time when photo coverage has been truncated
at many papers, Star-Ledger Editor Jim Willses vision and commitment
to build a new photo department, has raised the bar for photography,
and is welcome news to those who have predicted the demise of photojournalism.
I got to the paper six years ago, and found the eccentricity that
the paper did not have its own photographers, recalls Willse.
I cant think of another big paper that essentially outsourced
its photography. With the photo staff physically in another
building and spiritually somewhere else, the arrangement with
the subcontractor was not conducive to producing great work. Willses
plan envisioned producing exceptional work by the photo department,
and both he and Van Hemmen were determined to bring in a Pulitzer Prize
within three years of the new photography departments inception.
Although it took another four years before Willse and Van Hemmen had
a redesigned space to house a new department, once they were able to
implement their blueprint for an in-house photo staff, their commitment
to serious photojournalism became paramount to the growth of the paper.
And they beat their own projection for a Pulitzer by two years.
More importantly, perhaps, for the future, they have created and nurtured
a team of dynamic photojournalists. Although some projects are still
shot on film (like Raineys black and white After the Fire),
all photographers are fully digital, with two Nikon D1s, lenses
and lighting kits, and laptops. The enthusiasm that permeates the newsroom
seems to come from the feeling of being an equal part of the news gathering
It is our philosophy that we are trying to become a complete publication
where the words and the pictures, from the outset, from the start of
an idea to the time of publication, are a synchronous whole, Willse
says. Photographers are journalists; a paper cant just give
lip service to photography; you have to give them the resources, spend
money, send them places where they can get good pictures. You have to
do it like you mean it.
the RealVideo interview with Jim Willse or read
came to The Star-Ledger in 1995 from the Daily News, where he was Editor
and Publisher until its sale in the early 90s. As a boy, he was
raised on a daily diet of pictures from New Yorks Picture
Newspaper, and recalls vividly the mini photo essay that was once,
but no longer is, a staple in the Daily News centerfold every day. So
when I got to a place where I could actually influence what a publication
could do with photography, he said, that was what was rooted
in my head.
Making good on his promise, Willse wholeheartedly supported Fisher and
Raineys full-time commitment to the project. Both writer and photographer
gave up weekends and evenings with their own families to spend time
at the St. Barnabas burn unit as the boys underwent painful skin grafts
for their injuries. Initially, the boys were in a coma and were unable
to give consent to the project, but the families decided to allow the
story to go forward with the condition that if the boys objected, nothing
would be published. Once Llanos and Simons emerged from their comas,
they were onboard, due in no small part to Raineys deep commitment
to their story.
The process of integration of text and photographs proved to be a complex
issue for the paper from the perspective of a timeline. A very
interesting dynamic took place about the relationship of the words and
the pictures, said Willse. We found ourselves having intensely
great images with no place to go because we werent going to publish
for months down the road with a story that hadnt been written
yet. We had to find a way that there was not a dislocation between the
immediacy of the pictures and the subsequent writing of the story.
With a need to be inside the imagery of the story, Fisher
set up shop in what was essentially a broom closet, where Raineys
workprints were papered in chronological order on the walls. When
it came time to edit the pictures for publication, said Willse,
the closeness of the words and pictures was that much greater
than you would expect if there was that intermission between the moment
of the picture and the writing.
Willse is bullish on photography and writing as teamwork. Picking up
a folder with a list of upcoming projects, Willse notes: Each
one says Author and Photographer. It doesnt
just say Author. At the daily 3:30 editorial staff
meeting when the front-page stories and pictures are chosen, a screen
emerges, the room goes dark, and images for the days stories are
projected in a slide presentation. The photo desk has a great
they cant just say, we have great
art, just trust me
weve got to see it, he emphasizes.
We try to build a day around seeing the pictures, and making sure
before we leave that room, that we have made some decision about how
to use them.
It is not the olfactory
sensation of darkroom chemistry that gets the blood circulating at The
Star-Ledger. Instead, it is a palpable sense of energy, camaraderie
and teamwork that permeates the photo department. Matt Rainey rushes
into the photographers Great Room, a spacious and well appointed
room with light tables, caption machines and scanners, located just
outside the conference room. The Great Room, also known as Studio
54, so nicknamed in a contest held among Van Hemmen and his photo
staff, houses 15 workstations, with two designated photographers per
station. I had pitched the nickname Heaven,
says Rainey, laughing, but it didnt stick.
Although some of the daily assignment photographs are transmitted by
photographers on the road, The Great Room serves as a place where photographers
not only work, but they also hang around and talk shop, trading stories
about their assignments. Egos are checked at the door.
On his way into the office for his shift, Rainey has encountered an
overturned truck on the Garden State Parkway, which has closed the road
for hours. He has managed to get photos of the accident and begins to
download his photos onto his laptop. Editor Donna Wallace walks in and
asks what hes got.
Rainey and Wallace go over his pictures; Wallace makes some notes and
she moves on to chat with photographer Julie Pena who is at her first
job out of college.
great! says Rainey of their photo assignment editor, who had worked
at New Jersey Newsphotos as head technician before trying out for the
position at the Ledger. Donnas the best; she always keeps
her cool even in the wackiest, most intense situations; shell
say: Its OK babe, well work it out. She understands
that different photographers have different strengths and will try to
accommodate you when she can.
Donna Wallace is everywhere. Back at her desk in the newsroom, she is
on the phone, pulling one photographer off of a story that isnt
happening, assigning another, minutes later, shes back in the
Great Room giving photographers feedback as they edit their pictures.
Beautiful photograph, she says. OK, maybe you could
have come in a little tighter on that other shot, maybe you could have
used another lens, but this shot is nice, very nice.
Photographers are hungry for someone like Donna to be in their corner.
Donna is the glue that holds the department together.
Rainey, meanwhile, has finished editing his spot news photos and is
off on an assignment to photograph pediatrics patients working on murals
on ceiling tiles and canvases at Hackensack Medical Center.
Although en route to a feature assignment, Rainey is loaded for bear.
With a D-1 camera and an 80-200 lens cradled in his lap, he is not taking
any chances. He tells the story of a woman a few years back, who had
been driving by Newark Airport along the NJ Turnpike at 2:30 in the
morning. She had gotten a picture of the ball of flame, as a FedEx plane
flipped over a couple of times right in front of her, with her point
and shoot camera. Id hate to be driving up the road, see
something like that happen and have the cameras in the trunk,
he said. I think I would kill myself if a plane crashed right
in front of me and I missed it.
Rainey is serious about his picture taking, but he is also, not without
a sense of humor. Man, I wake up every single day and thank God
I am where I am, he said. But I told Pim [Van Hemmen] a
couple of months ago if you ever hear me complain, punch me in the face
because I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Rainey credits
his wife Bernadette and the photo staff at the paper for their support,
which enabled him to devote 100% of his efforts to telling the story
of Llanos and Simons. He describes his fellow staff photographers and
photo editors as a great group of storytellers, all with a vested interest
in visual communication.
While a single picture is important in photojournalism, he regards single
pictures more like the wire way of telling stories. It
is incredibly important to be able to visually weave a blanket, to tell
a story in many different pictures, he says, and the staff of
photo editors is very supportive, with ideas continually bouncing
back and forth at the paper.
At the medical center, kids are painting on large canvases on the floor.
Rainey is confronted with dozens of colorful photo opportunities. Although
events like this can sometimes be static, he says, you just go
with it, things begin to gel
and there are great little moments.
Although Rainey shot After the Fire with a Nikon on color
negative film, most of his daily assignments are made with the D1. The
impact [of digital] is the immediacy of the news cycle, which shortens
and becomes news of the minute, says Rainey. For photographers
it becomes a much smarter way of working. He feels that photographers
will ultimately be able to digitally make the kind of pictures they
used to make on film, with more improvements in digital technology.
The danger is that a digital camera can make a lazy photographer out
of someone too dependent on the LCD screen. Well, I know I have
the picture, so I can get a couple more shots and then Im outta
here, he says. The real picture can appear at any time,
and if your guard is down, youre going to miss it.
While getting captions for his assignment, Rainey spends some time speaking
to the father of one of the girls he has photographed, who asks him
about his Pulitzer. Rainey tells him: Some of the Pulitzer prize
winning pictures from Vietnam changed the way people thought about the
war. When we came out with the fire story, all the Home Depots and Walmarts
in New Jersey sold out of all the fire safety apparatus during the week
of the project. And New Jersey changed their fire safety laws, requiring
structures that had been grandfathered in since 1956, to have sprinkler
Effecting change and raising social consciousness is an admirable achievement,
but for the thoughtful, sensitive Rainey, the emotional investment was
The most significant thing that happened to me during the shooting
of After the Fire was the emotional impact. I spent my trips
home from St. Barnabas the first eight weeks in tears and we became
heavily invested in the boys, as they did for us, he says. Although
he feels that photographers must remain pure in their storytelling,
he rejects the taboo of intimacy in journalism. Building relationships
through a journalistic endeavor is an ok thing to do. The most intimate
pictures can come from intimate relationships, which can help the body
of work, he insists.
Of the Pulitzer, Rainey says: Doing what you love is why you do
it; then to have this happen, it validates everything.
Readers initial reaction to the story, perhaps not surprisingly,
was mostly negative. Responses (in phone calls to the paper) at first
ranged from feelings that the paper was being intrusive, to imagery that
was too strong. From the third day to the fifth day of coverage, there
was an eerie silence with no reaction from readers, according
to Willse. When the paper skipped a day before the final installment,
they began to receive calls asking when the next part of the story would
run. When the final installment ran, along with an editorial acknowledging
readers reactions, the paper received over 1,000 phone calls, all
supportive, indicating that they felt the pictures were strong but necessary
for the integrity of the story.
Willse credits publisher Don Newhouse for laying the foundation for
a first rate photo department, which produced great photojournalism
by the entire staff, in its first year of operation. I think the
whole paper felt buoyed long before the Pulitzer, says Willse.
We loved winning the Pulitzer
we want to do it again, its
really a lot of fun
it gives you a great reason to go out and drink
beer, and we would have been very disappointed if we had not won. But
even if we had not won, the feeling that we could do a project like
that put the bar higher, and we will do it again.
Willse is sanguine about the future of photojournalism.
In a time-starved society, when newspapers are wringing their
hands trying to find ways to shorten stories, the readers said [about
After the Fire]: I changed my life to make time for
that story. I got up early, I took it to work, I read it at lunch
called my sister, I gave it to my kids. They were changing their
lives because the story had grabbed them, and the lesson for us, and
any other newspaper that will hear it is, by all means, do everything
to be streamlined and efficient, but remember: a good story is still
a good story, and people will find some way to connect with it.
Susan B. Markisz
September 1, 2001
Markisz is a New York based freelance photographer, and is
a 2000 graduate of the Platypus Workshop.
If you would like
to send email to the Star-Ledger staff, they can be reached at the following
Matt Rainey, email@example.com
Pim Van Hemmen, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Willse, email@example.com
the Star-Ledger Photo Gallery