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You Don't Win A Pulitzer by Accident

by Susan Markisz

Photojournalism has resurfaced in at the corner of Court Street and University Avenue in Newark, New Jersey.

On 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 Year’s celebration in Times Square, commencing with an “auld lang syne” to the past, and a nod to the paper’s 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 Newhouse’s 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 Year’s 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 department’s rebirth.

Rainey’s work 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 Medical Center.

Published in September of 2000 as a seven-day series, Rainey’s photographs and Robin Fisher’s story “After the Fire,” also nominated for a Pulitzer, ran forty pages, with 115 photographs. Originally Van Hemmen’s 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 wasn’t 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 Hemmen’s 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.”

See the RealVideo Interview with Pim Van Hemmen

Van 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 management’s 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 Willse’s 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 can’t 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. Willse’s 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 department’s inception.

See the Video from the
Pulitzer Announcement

Video by Tony Kurdzuk

RealVideo - 56k
RealVideo - DSL, Cable

Quicktime - DSL, Cable

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 Rainey’s black and white “After the Fire”), all photographers are fully digital, with two Nikon D1’s, 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 team.

“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 can’t 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.”

See the RealVideo interview with Jim Willse or read the text.

Willse came to The Star-Ledger in 1995 from the Daily News, where he was Editor and Publisher until its sale in the early 90’s. As a boy, he was raised on a daily diet of pictures from “New York’s 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 Rainey’s 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 Rainey’s 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 weren’t going to publish for months down the road with a story that hadn’t 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 Rainey’s 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 doesn’t 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 day’s stories are projected in a slide presentation. “The photo desk has a great responsibility here…they can’t just say, ‘we have great art, just trust me’… we’ve 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 didn’t 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 he’s 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.

“Donna’s 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. “Donna’s the best; she always keeps her cool even in the wackiest, most intense situations; she’ll say: ‘It’s OK babe, we’ll 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 isn’t happening, assigning another, minutes later, she’s 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. “I’d 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.”

See the Video of Matt Rainey
on a Shooting Assignment

RealVideo - 56k

Quicktime - DSL, Cable

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 I’m outta here,” he says. “The real picture can appear at any time, and if your guard is down, you’re 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 systems.”

Effecting change and raising social consciousness is an admirable achievement, but for the thoughtful, sensitive Rainey, the emotional investment was huge.

“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.

Jim 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, it’s 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…I 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

Susan 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 addresses:
Matt Rainey, mrainey@starledger.com
Pim Van Hemmen, pvanhemmen@starledger.com
Jim Willse, jwillse@starledger.com

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