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Respect don't live here anymore
I'm an avid participant on the NPPA listserv. And something caught my attention a few weeks ago. A photographer asked: "How do you educate?" He went on to say he felt "limited" because the publisher, managing editor and copy editors don't understand photography and photojournalism.
The post started the wheels spinning in my mind. I came to realize that what the photographer was saying was he didn't feel respected. After a few days, I posted a few suggestions on attaining and maintaining respect of the word people in the newsroom.
Photographers have long commented that the word people don't respect photographers or the work they do. Such comments are nothing new. I've engaged in those discussions many times. But I have an interesting viewpoint on the subject.
You see, I sit about 30 feet from the photo desk. I'm a copy editor at The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La. I was a photographer for 13 years but switched to the copy desk 6 years ago. Now I get to watch as the photographers come and go, tone pictures, deal with the photo editors and post their favorite shots to their slide shows. I'm envious.
I also get to listen as the photographers complain about how their pictures didn't get used correctly, how they wish there was room for larger pictures (we regularly use pictures 5 columns wide) and how they wish they were taken seriously more often.
Make no mistake: Respect is not easily achieved. And it can be lost in a heartbeat. Photographers deserve it and don't get it very often.
Thankfully, I'm not the only one who believes such. Tim Mueller, photo editor at The Advocate, offers: "(Respect) is not earned by waiting and whining for assignments to get better. … It is earned with a contagious passion for telling stories with pictures. And if someone disagrees, don't condemn, but patiently continue to make damn good pictures."
What I've come to realize, from across the room (and not talking specifically about my newspaper) is that photographers sometimes do things to subvert the respect they so hope for. So here are a few suggestions on building and maintaining respect:
You are being judged. I'm sorry to say, but everyone is being judged - maybe "evaluated" is a better word - whether your newspaper has a formal evaluation procedure or not. And, well, to word people, words matter.
Anything you write counts. Cutlines, memos, letters, budget requests, purchase orders - they all count. If you misspell words, use poor grammar, don't double-check your work, people notice. Word people sometimes generalize "Photographers aren't serious journalists because they can't spell."
Isn't it time we prove them wrong?
Thankfully, technology comes to our rescue. We do most of our work on computer these days, so find the spell checker on your computer. Keep a dictionary and stylebook handy. If you really want to get sophisticated, get the stylebook and dictionary for your computer.
Seshu Badrinath of Tiffinbox.org believes writing skills are essential PHOTOjournalist skills. Writing on his blog, Badrinath says, "While you will continue to be judged by your peers for the way you see and capture moments, you can be sure that your progress and level of respectability in the newsroom will increase ten-fold should you have the ability or the interest to write well. The ability to write well will also hold you in good stead if you can put on paper first your rationale for why a particular image needs to be used in the manner you see fit."
Respect goes both ways. We want respect, but we also need to give respect where it's due.
"We as photographers need to respect the written word," said Doral Chenoweth III, a photographer at The Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. "Respect the writing and the craft of writing."
Chenoweth, who now works on the picture desk, said he once saw a photo editor tear a reporter's hard copy to shreds - literally, the photo editor ripped it up in front of the reporter. "That destroys credibility," Chenoweth said.
If you have the time - and luxury - I would recommend you take this a step further. Learn to write well. Learning to write requires practice, just like learning photography required practice.
And isn't quality the ultimate determiner?
Badrinath writes, "Delivering consistently high quality work, be it a photograph, an extended caption or a memo is paramount (for your future). Shirking from that duty is nothing more than an innate and unforgivable sign of laziness."
Wear the uniform
For years, my dad couldn't understand why I always wore hiking boots. He kept suggesting that I buy nicer shoes. Later, when I switched to an office job, he would present me with ads for hiking boots. He believed in dressing appropriately, but never quite caught on that I was dressing for the job that I had. Photographers have outdoor jobs, and hiking boots are appropriate.
But when you cross the line into the office and are dealing more with office matters - news meetings, weekly meetings and such - it's appropriate to change into the uniform of that environment. Wearing the right clothes is a way of showing respect for the people you are dealing with. Even if they don't yet give you the respect you deserve, always extend the respect you wish you had.
What I'm suggesting is simple: Keep some pressed clothes on hand for when it is appropriate. Have a day of meetings? Wear office clothes. Expect to be out shooting, but have to meet with the publisher later in the day? Bring extra clothes. Keep a sport coat in your car for times when you need it.
Modulate your voice
Photographers love to bitch. Photographers sometimes raise their voices. But there comes a point when your voice carries. When you need to gripe, go into the equipment room. (Conference rooms don't afford much privacy.) When you need to get your point across to a reporter or editor, collect your thoughts and deliver a quiet, well-reasoned argument.
Take an editor to lunch
Editors, like photographers, are people. Treat the editors as people and let them see you as a person. Go to lunch. Or go for a drink, if that's the local custom. Talk about anything - just not photography. Talk about your kids, about the kitchen you're remodeling, about your car troubles.
Eventually, you'll be able to slip in a few words about the job, but don't rush it. Teaching by trust and example are better than being preachy.
Retired Ohio State University Professor Tom Hubbard suggests something just as simple. "Photographers would get more respect if they were not in another room somewhere. … Photojournalists should move to the newsroom. Editors and photographers would socialize in the newsroom, as editors and reporters do. It's the informal, casual times where mutual respect grows."
To boil this down: Build relationships with the editors and reporters.
"The idea is not trying to divide people, but to bring them together," said Bill Haber, the Associated Press photographer in New Orleans. "Photographers have to be diplomatic in trying to get what they want. Confrontational doesn't work. Being able to get along with people is part of the job."
Stay ahead of the game, and be involved.
When shooting pictures, understanding the event and anticipating the action will lead to the best photos. Understanding the event and anticipating the action are also valuable skills inside the office.
"Respect is something you earn everyday. Respect is a reflection of how you treat, understand and work with your co-workers. Respect is reading the newspaper every day and understanding the issues of your community and making pictures that reflect those issues," Mueller said.
Chenoweth gets more specific: "Be aware of the news; be aware of the stories (of the day). Ask questions of the reporters, and be involved in the interview."
But photographers know that some reporters don't like it when photographers speak up during the interview. So I asked Chenoweth to explain.
"We make eye contact with people, and that helps keep subjects going while the reporter has his head down writing," Chenoweth said.
Participation need not be limited to just assignment tasks. There is plenty of room for photographers to be involved, Hubbard said. "Editors like staffers who contribute initiative, help compose the daily report. Reporters do that. Most photojournalists don't. Who can respect a group that waits for instructions and then complains about those instructions?"
Participation in shaping the news report is key to earning respect, said Mark Henderson, news editor at The News-Star in Monroe, La. Attend the planning meetings and have your picture ideas ready, he suggests. Propose stories.
Sometimes respect comes from speaking up, Henderson said. If an assignment is crap (he used a stronger word), be honest about it; but be ready to find something better. Similarly, "Plan work ahead, but be ready to pull the plug if it's not ready," he said.
Offer alternatives at all stages of the process. Henderson says he welcomes layout suggestions from photographers and photo editors. But he says he doesn't appreciate photographers looking over his shoulder. The lesson here is simple: Do your job and let other people do theirs. There comes a point when you have to hand over your pictures to other people and trust that they will do the job well.
Understanding other people's struggles might help. One sports editor, for instance, said he wants more than one picture.
But that's not the end of the process, Chenoweth says. "Read the paper, and read the story once it comes out. Have follow-through," he reminds us. "Talk to the reporter - you might find some second-day story" out of your conversations about the topic, Chenoweth said.
Editors often complain that the pictures don't match the story. We all know the best picture usually doesn't match the lede. A little conversation might fix that.
Henderson says the process works best if the page design, photos and graphics are "front loaded." That is, if we ask - before the story is done - "How are we logically going to present this?" He suggests pairing a reporter and photographer to work together and to avoid "disconnects."
Of course, that would assume that the photo editor and section editor are already working together. That's not always the case. If you can't go with the reporter, at least have a conversation with him. Feel out his vision of the story, but do your own reporting. If you find a different story than the reporter, then talk to the reporter (and, if necessary, to his editor). They may not listen today, but as you build your relationship, hopefully reporters and editors will see you as a partner in the process.
It doesn't happen overnight. "We continually work with people to point out what makes good photographs and what makes good assignments," Chenoweth said. "It's a never-ending process."
And, of course, all respect for you goes out the window if you don't make deadline.
Apologize when you're wrong.
Don't try to explain bad decisions. Just say, "I'm sorry, I screwed up," and leave it at that. To do otherwise will come off as offering excuses. Don't go there. When things go wrong, you may have to write a "How did this happen?" memo. Be honest, but don't point fingers. You gain more points by accepting responsibility than by sharing it.
© Paul Guillory
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