The Digital Journalist
This I Believe
December 2006

by Peter Howe

In 1951 Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio series called This I Believe in which Americans both famous and unknown were asked to write down the core principles and beliefs that guided their lives, and then to read them over the air. It was a time of prosperity and fear, and also of extremists who manipulated that fear. While children were being taught how to hide under their desks at school in the event of a nuclear attack, Senator Joseph McCarthy was spreading slanderous accusations in the name of Anti-Communism, most famously, of course, against Murrow himself. The series ran for five years, and 50 years later the conditions seemed right to National Public Radio producer Dan Gediman and host Jay Allison to bring it back to the airwaves. It's not hard to understand why. Our present fears are not of communist hordes overrunning the country aided by evil fifth columnists, but of people of Middle Eastern descent getting on a plane with shampoo bottles. "Better Dead Than Red" was the mantra of the Fifties in the same way that "Those Who Are Not With Us Are Against Us" is today – both products of a perverted form of patriotism that stifles discussion and discourages dissent. For Murrow it was important "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization." In a nation of red and blue states that rings true today.

Allison and Gediman approached the project in the same way that the original producers had, asking for contributions of 500-word essays focused on the personal "I" rather than "We," and concentrating on what the essayist believed rather than didn't believe. The one significant difference was that submissions could be made over the Internet through their Web site Through this medium they received over 13,000 essays, including one from Warren Christopher that arrived just like any other. Another thing they did that the original producers didn't was to get the photographer Nubar Alexanian to shoot portraits of some of the contributors.

If it's hard to write in 500 words or less what you believe, it's even more difficult to photograph the person who did and produce an image that reflects their beliefs. Alexanian took his cue as to how he should photograph them from the subjects themselves. "I approached it from a photographic standpoint in as close a way as they approached their essays, which is to be very, very direct about what they believe." He said his aim was to take their pictures without doing "a visual dance" on their words. The method he chose was equally simple and direct – shoot digitally with available light using a 300mm lens with a stabilizer, no assistants, no hair or makeup, just him and the person he was to photograph. By using this technique he has produced a portfolio of honest and moving portraits that tell you a lot about the subject and little about the photographer.

Although the finished product was to be in black and white he chose to shoot digitally because of the advantages that this would give him in low-light levels. He never used a tripod, and yet could hand-hold speeds as low as 1/20th of a second, as he did in his picture of Gloria Steinem. He shot the photographs in RGB and converted them to black and white, and never even looked at them as color pictures. Because the vast majority of his personal work is in black and white it feels natural for him to see monochromatically, although he does acknowledge that there are some deficiencies in the converted digital files. "If you shoot a portrait of somebody on film and you're wide open on the lens, the background goes soft and moves behind the person, because you're looking at dots instead of pixels. With pixels, even though the f-stop is the same and the distance is the same, the pixels are square, and still sharp, despite being out of focus. It doesn't have the fidelity that a soft film background has, which I miss all the time, but, you know, you've got to get over it."

As may be expected given the nature of the project, there were some wonderful and moving moments during the photography, to the extent that the photographer feels on many occasions he was given the picture rather than taking it. One of the essayists is a woman called Jackie Lantry who adopted a severely abused and difficult child. Alexanian says that, "I was taking her portrait, and for the first time this kid got up on her lap and wanted to be photographed with his mother. For the first time – and I get to witness that." Another incident was with the legendary broadcaster Norman Corwin, who has been called "America's Poet Laureate of the Radio," and who celebrated his 96th birthday this year. Alexanian describes the encounter: "I knew his work, and I had all these ideas. I landed at L.A. airport and called him on my cell but he's not there. So I took a taxi to his apartment and I called again. He answered and said, 'Oh, Alex' (I had never met him, but on the phone he called me Alex) 'I'm so sorry. I fell and injured my hip and I'm bedridden, so we can't do it today.' I said to him, 'Why don't I just come up for a visit?' So I went up and visited him, and he was lying in bed in white sheets and a white tee shirt, and we got into this great conversation. I told him, 'You know, if I put something colorful behind you, I could probably take a picture of you looking like you're working,' and he said, 'You can do that?' I said, 'Yes, I can,' so he said, 'Okay, let's do it.' I started taking lots of pictures, and he said, 'Why so many pictures, Alex?' and I said, 'Well, Mr. Corwin, I know your work really well, and I have all these ideas in my head about how I should photograph you, and I need to shoot through those.' 'You should write about that,' he said, 'but I want you to do it for real,' and he sat up. I said, 'No, no, I'll come back' but he insisted and put on a shirt, although he still had his undershorts on. He sat on the edge of the bed, and when you look at that picture, that's the picture he gave me. I shot three frames and that was it. I thought to myself, 'That has to be it.'"

But possibly the most moving moment for him wasn't while working on the project but afterwards. "After I finished my wife Rebecca asked me if I would do a This I Believe portrait of her. It was so sweet and endearing."

The one luxury that Alexanian didn't have while completing this work was time, partly because of the tight schedule forced upon him by an equally tight NPR budget, and often because his subjects, especially the famous ones, didn't have the time to give him. He says that if this had been his own book, and not part of a collaboration, he would have called it Fifteen Minutes, that frequently being the amount of time he was allowed. However, his minimum time is not measured in minutes but in film – even though he was shooting digitally. He says that he has a three-roll minimum, because people cannot sustain the way they think they should look for the camera for three rolls. He was giving a lecture recently after which a member of the audience came up to him and was talking about the moment that you know you have the picture. He surprised her by saying that he had never experienced that moment, and was constantly leaving a shoot wondering whether he had it, but knowing that he had connected with his subject, which is not only different, but for him more important.

When asked why he thought that this book, which at the time of writing this is at the exalted position of number 503 on the Amazon listing, is important at this moment in our nation's history, he replied, "I think people are tired of the extreme in the country, left and right, and I think This I Believe crosses the line of differences to what's common amongst us. Just because I believe this and you believe that doesn't mean we have to let our differences define us, so it brings us closer together."

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor