Rambling On
March 2003

by Steven Trent Smith

Whenever somebody asks me what I do for a living I tell them, “I walk backward.” Without fail this brings a perplexed look to their face. “Come again?” And I repeat, “I’m a freelance news cameraman, and I earn my livelihood by walking backward.” At this point they either think I’m completely loony and deftly slip away, or they're so hooked they can't wait to hear the rest of the story.

Few people realize how important a skill walking backward is for a television cameraman. It’s his stock-in-trade. Anybody can shoot, frame, focus, get a picture onto videotape. But the backward part separates the men from the boys. You won't cut it at the network level unless you are a pro at marching rearward.

Think about it the next time you watch a television news broadcast. Make careful note of the frequency with which the editors use shots of some VIP or convicted criminal walking along, facing a crowd of cameras. Then consider that to make that shot the poor cameraman has to walk along too, facing the VIP, i.e., walking backward. Some subjects walk at a fast clip. So too must the cameraman.

Try it sometime. Put a twenty-pound camera on your right shoulder. Close your left eye (so you can see through the viewfinder with your right). Then practice walking forward along a sidewalk until it feels natural. Then change directions and head backward. Walk this way to a corner, and go around the bend without breaking stride. And be sure to keep the image of your subject centered in your viewfinder at all times. If you master the art, you too could become a television news cameraman.

Of course, walking backward has its risks. Perambulating in the rain, snow or, worst of all, sleet, may make a collision with the ground inevitable. Climbing steps backward, most common at the capitol building in Washington, has obvious risks. But descending those same steps increases the danger by an exponentially. Having other TV crews treading beside you adds a whole new dimension of peril. You have to hope that all the other guys are as good at walking backward as you are, or else one misstep and down go you all.

Let me diverge for a moment. Television news is not called “pack journalism” without good reason. On big stories it is not uncommon to have a dozen or more camera crews converge on some poor soul. Most camera crews consist of two people– the cameraman and the sound recordist. Throw in all the correspondents and producers, plus a few still photographers, radio and newspaper reporters, and pretty soon you've got a massive, moving mess of humanity. This is what the British politely call a “scrum,” a rugby term used when a bunch of guys from opposing teams huddle up around a ball and kick the daylights out of it and, often, one another. In the States, such mass attacks on newsworthy persons are known, indelicately, as “gang bangs.” It’s the backward gang bang that poses the biggest threat to life and limb.

I well remember one notable moving circus, in Wilmington, Delaware. A priest had been arrested for allegedly robbing banks, and for some reason it was a story of national interest. All the networks had crews there, along with cameramen from affiliate stations in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Salisbury, Maryland.

When the priest walked out of the courthouse we surrounded him. Reporters shouted questions. Sound folks thrust their mikes through the crowd to record the father’s responses. And we moved rather briskly down a slight hill toward a church where the priest was to lunch. About midway along one of the local cameramen tripped on a stray microphone cable, lost his footing and fell backwards, his camera still on his shoulder. As he went down, others began to follow. Within the blink of an eye half the gang was laying on the sidewalk, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of video equipment spread around the concrete pavement like toys.

I had been on the fringe of the pack, and escaped the collapse. But my correspondent was not so lucky, and it was my fault. Because I was stuck on the outside, I had to perform a “Hail Mary” to cover the priest’s promenade. A Hail Mary is a shot requiring the shooter to hold his camera above his head, with both hands, and shoot blindly down into the moving crowd. The backward Hail Mary is the most difficult of all shots to make. As the gang bang exploded a falling cameraman shoved me off balance. I lost control of the heavy video camera, which slid down behind my head and cracked the skull of my correspondent, who was standing behind me taking notes. I spun around in time to watch her black out and fall helplessly to the ground. I set down the camera and tried to revive her. After a few anxious moments she came to, her eyes fluttering dizzily, her mouth pouring out a torrent of profanity toward the person or persons who had knocked her unconscious. In a fit of stupidity I admitted I was the culprit. It took a week for the lump to disappear from her head, and two years before she forgave me.

The accident brought the entire proceeding to a screeching halt. The priest stood there watching the mess in awe. The poor chap who started the chain reaction had a nasty gash on his forehead, and had to be evacuated by an ambulance. It was a nightmare. But, being hardened journalists, we hooked ourselves up again, reformed the gang, and proceeded onto the church, albeit slowly and cautiously.

A couple of years later it was my turn to go down in the middle of a gang bang. We were covering then-Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, who was in Scranton visiting the families of hostages held at the US Embassy in Tehran. We were in a narrow corridor, walking backward, of course. The shoot was going well when all of a sudden I felt my legs collapse beneath me. The next thing I knew I was staring at the ceiling through the viewfinder of my camera. Instead of landing on the floor, I had backed into a padded, flat bench in the hallway. Secretary Muskie was standing in front of me, perfectly framed, asking if he could be of some assistance. He reached out and pulled me to my feet. Having determined the camera and I were okay, we rolled tape once more. The Secretary continued where he had left off, and our gang continued on down the corridor.

Walking backward is risky enough. But when someone deliberately steers cameramen into obstructions, that raises hackles. While we were tearing down our equipment after an interview with the former mayor of a big eastern city, his ex-honor regaled our reporter with tales of his run-ins with the local press. His favorite sport, it turned out, was to walk through the corridors of city hall, preceded by the usual backward gang bang of cameramen, maneuvering in such way that the crews would collide into columns, walls, chairs, and anything else that stood in the way of the juggernaut. After the “accident” the mayor would rush over to help the cameraman to his feet, apologizing profusely. He said this with a sort of demonical smile that I found unsettling.

But one of the most fascinating experiences in thirty years of news photography was watching a scrum in London, without having to be part of it. We had been staking out an OPEC meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel for several days. It was one scrum after another. Our replacement crew had just arrived one evening when an oil minister appeared for a surprise announcement. I was about fifty feet from the attack. Dozens of journalists jumped into action, surrounding the poor fellow in a matter of seconds. He began to move, and the scrum moved with him. I realized that this was the first time in my career that I had witnessed a gang bang from the outside. I watched transfixed. What a truly amazing and bizarre sight; something akin to a feeding frenzy. What must the public think when they see such a thing? But this scrum was not on my shift. I was through walking backward for the day. I faced forward and walked away from the scene, quite like a normal person.

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.


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