The Digital Journalist
One Really Great Idea and One Really Stupid Idea

by James Colburn

July 2006

You often hear about interesting ideas and projects in the world of photography. Some make you say, "Excellent!" out loud and some make you mutter obscenities to yourself for fear of frightening the children.

This month's really great idea is the brainchild of photo assignment editor Dave Ellis and photographer Rebecca Sell of the Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star. This paper has always interested me just because for many years I've wanted to hear someone from that paper say, "I'm a staff photographer from The Free Lance"… Doesn't happen. Anyway…

The great idea is Operation Photo Rescue ( and it's both simple and profound.

When people are faced with a natural disaster and an evacuation they grab the kids, the dog, some clothes and little else before they bundle everything into the car or truck and hit the road. When they return to the scene of their damaged or destroyed house they soon realize that just about everything inside that has been ruined is replaceable. Everything except the family photos.

How many times have you seen someone being interviewed say that all of their irreplaceable memories have been destroyed? What's gone are those pictures of the parents, the grandparents, the birthday parties, the weddings and all of those moments that live on in memory but are easier to talk about when you can point to a shot of Uncle Bob at the picnic and say, "Wasn't that the ugliest jacket and tie you've ever seen in your life?" before collapsing into a laughing ball of mush.

So Rebecca and David's virtual organization gets a number of things done. They get photographers to make digital copies of disaster victims' water-soaked photographs. They get other photographers, editors and photo professionals to rebuild and reconstruct the images and make replacement prints. Then they give the prints back to the people that want them. It's all volunteer work, with files being zapped around the world for people to work on and it's wonderful. They've gotten a lot of support from their newspaper, a commitment from West Coast Imaging to do 1,000 prints for free and 35Gb of free server space from Photoshelter.

Check out their site. Make a donation. Think about volunteering some of your down time. You'll finally be able to honestly say to your spouse, "I'm not playing Tetris, I'm doing a good deed!" when he or she complains about the time you spent at the home office computer.

If only all photographers were as noble as those two.

Then there are the "@#$%&" moments. While listening to the BBC World Service I heard a story about what could be the dumbest ideas in "photography" since Polaroid's 35mm Instant Slide Film. It seems that a "photographic artist" from Brighton, England, named Becca—just Becca—has come up with something to do on July 17, or rather nothing to do on July 17.

Taking some sort of misguided Zen concept waaaay too far, she's proposed a Non-Photography Day ( during which people would leave their cameras at home and just look at stuff.

Not a bad idea you say? How about her idea for the Non-Photography Police on Non-Photography Day? An e-mail sent to the site's contact address elicited, in part, this reply, "…the 17th of July is a day that must remain undocumented." MUST REMAIN UNDOCUMENTED? Says who?

If, by chance, one of these little fascists tries to stop me, or even tries to talk me out of taking one of what could be many pictures that I intend to take on July 17, they'd better be prepared for what the English refer to as "a clout 'round the ear" and a whole boatload of verbal abuse.

Let me further suggest making July 17 "Shoot Your Photographic Ass Off" Day. Go out and about, take lots of pictures, enjoy the day. Document it. Revel in your creativity. Annoy the "Non-Photography Police." Annoy "Becca."

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer