Photojournalism Column 
Beat Them At Their Own Game
by Peter Howe
I've been a frequent flyer for over 30 years, with a couple of years off for good behavior. After all that time it still mystifies me why it is that the human brain is unable to match up a clearly marked seat with a clearly marked ticket stub. I was recently sitting on a plane at Heathrow musing such thoughts in my smug 100k way. Why, for instance did United Airlines choose a designer to reconfigure their 767s who has clearly never been on a transatlantic flight, or hates those that have? That's the only explanation I could come up with as to why he or she eliminated the under-seat stoRage area, and included the completely superfluous reading lamp that bobs over your shoulder like a drunken giraffe, illuminating everything except the page that you're reading.

The other thought that occurred to me during what is now called the boarding process, was: "What the hell did photojournalists do before the days of jet travel? How did they get to those far flung stories?" After all, there was some remarkably fine work produced during the propeller driven years, when air travel was slow, tedious and expensive (as opposed to today when it's quick, tedious and expensive.) But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, the slow part I mean.

One of the thought processes that I try and discourage in young photographers is the idea that the further you travel from home the better your pictures will be. Just because a story happens in New Delhi doesn't necessarily make it more important than one that occurs in New Jersey. I recently bought a Winston Link calendar for 1999. I can't remember the last time I bought a calendar. It's something that photo editors never have to do, but Link's images are so powerful and compelling that I just had to have them. The pictures were taken in Virginia by a photographer based in New York, and stand as a record of an era that will have value for decades to come. Travel time was probably eight hours in a car.

At one point in my career I was as guilty as anyone of the "just passing through" school of journalism. In the early eighties one of my closest friends was a Newsweek photographer who started his day listening to the BBC World Service to see where he should go next. He was as close a friend as anyone could be who, in 1980, spent a total of 23 days in his Manhattan apartment. This was the same year that I recorded 165 flights. I think that I saw more of him at the Republican convention than in the town we both called home.

The problem with these kind of schedules is that when you arrive, you've no idea where you are. You photograph a story without context and consequence. Invariably you have only the sketchiest idea of the cultural and sociological background of the place where you're working. You decide who the good guys are, who the bad, shoot your stuff and you're out of there, on to the next one where you repeat the process again. I know that if I look at my work honestly I produced many more valuable images with the Salvation Army in South London than with the FMLN army in Morazan province in El Salvador.  I knew the "Sally Annes", knew the streets where they worked and the issues that they faced.  I grew up there. Their issues were mine. One of my favorite young photographers is Lauren Greenfield. She's been my favorite young photographer for so long now that she may have moved into another age group, although I don't think so. She gave us a gem of a book in "Fast Forward" which documents the strange process of growing up in Los Angeles. The photography that it contains is perceptive, moving, and profound. The reason? She grew up there. Their issues were hers.

Does this mean that I'm against the coverage of foreign events by American photographers? Absolutely not. Thank God for Chris Morris, Maggie Steber, Jim Nachtwey, Susan Meiselas and the Turnleys. They have broadened our view of the world and given us an understanding of peoples and cultures that would have slipped from our radar screens faster than a cruise missile aimed at Baghdad. But the one thing they have in common is that they all stayed with the story for a very long time. Maggie probably knows Port au Prince as well as Austin, Texas. Chris has lived the agony of Serbo-Croatia longer than most of us would consider prudent. David Turnley practically became a South African citizen.

Much of what is discussed in the Digital Journalist is concerned with speed. This technology has the potential to allow us to deliver to the viewer the fastest, latest images from the Four Corners of the world. We suddenly have the ability to reclaim the relevance that television took from us. We can beat them at their own game. We can get a digital image up on the Internet before the networks have edited the tape, never mind found a slot for it. Speed is good. It keeps us up to date on the latest information. We can experience a story as it develops, and as importantly stay one step ahead of the censors. But speed at the cost of understanding is a spoiled commodity. Speed without compassion is a travesty of journalism. Speed should always be a means and never an end.

So these were some of the thoughts flitting through my head while seated in my Connoisseur class seat. What we're supposed to be connoisseurs of I have no idea. Certainly not comfort. But as someone recently pointed out to me, the line at the airport is better than the one at the employment office. I also know that the only way to beat the airlines is to stay home, which I intend to do for the rest of the year. I hope that as many of you as possible will be able to join me, at your homes, not mine you understand. While you're there, why not photograph it? You never know, there might be a story.

Happy Holidays.

Peter Howe
Vice President
Photography and Creative Services
Corbis -

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