The Digital Journalist
This Strange Craft
January 2005

by Peter Howe

Twenty-four years ago last November David Burnett and I were working alongside each other in Washington, photographing Jimmy Carter as he made the concession speech that marked the end of his flawed presidency. His solid good intentions had just been defeated by the "Aw, shucks" charisma of Ronald Reagan. The picture possibilities weren't great, but for David and me they marked the end of the story. We had both been covering the campaign, he for Time magazine, and I for the London Observer. As we waited for the event to start we discussed to which country we would emigrate to wait out the Reagan years, a conversation that I repeated nearly a quarter of a century later after George W. Bush won his second term in a similar manner. The choices narrowed down to Australia or Italy -- countries that we both loved, but not enough to actually leave the United States. Burnett tried to look on the bright side, "Well, at least it will mean work for photojournalists. There'll be rioting in the streets, demonstrations, all sorts of civil unrest to photograph."

Sadly for our generation, which had cut its teeth photographically during the days of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock and the excesses of the hippies, David's prophecy of mayhem was not to be. The students of the '80s seemed mostly preoccupied with ensuring that in the age of trickle-down economics they were going to be the ones that did the trickling. However, the decade turned out to be busy anyway with one story following closely on the heels of another -- AIDS, homelessness, crack cocaine, famines, and the U.S. invasion of several small countries, to name but a few. For the concerned photographer the question wasn't what to photograph but who would buy it.

If 2004 proved anything it was the old French proverb about the more things changing the more they stay the same. The power of still images to communicate across borders and language barriers was reaffirmed time and again, whether they came from Fallujah, or Darfur, the presidential elections in Afghanistan, the Ukraine, and the dis-United States, or the slightly less corrupted competition of the Olympic games. No description in words captured and conveyed the destructive power of train bombers in Madrid, hurricanes in the Caribbean and the horrific tragedy of the tsunami in Asia the way that photographs did. But if the power of the message stayed the same, so too did the financial prospects of the messengers, which if anything have declined in the last quarter century. Mortgage lenders still embrace photojournalists with the same enthusiasm that they show to one-legged circus performers, or the purveyors of sunscreen products in Donegal.

But if there is one thing that has changed it is the willingness of photographers to take greater control of their lives and careers. In the late '70s it was still possible to wait for magazines to call you with an assignment. In times of quiet desperation you might venture the occasional story idea or two, but rarely would you consider doing one on your own dollar. Caught between the death throes of the traditional markets and the birth pangs of the new, photographers have been forced to produce forums to share information and evolve strategy, such as EP (Editorial Photographers), and to look to alternative ways of funding the stories whose chances of publication were in inverse proportion to their importance. The Digital Journalist has brought several of these projects to its pages in 2004 -- Chris Rainier's work on tattooing, Lynn Butler's photographs of endangered landscapes and Ed Kashi's work on the aging being just a few of them. Another came my way recently in the form of an Avon Walk for Breast Cancer Calendar, featuring the photography of EP veteran Paula Lerner.

The reason that Paula got involved in EP from the beginning, and was its first vice president, is that she is an activist by nature, and this was what drew her initially to document the crusade against breast cancer when approached by a book packager, Lionheart Books, with the idea. She also had personal reasons for wanting to get involved -- both her mother and stepmother are breast cancer survivors. To get the project off the ground Paula invited Deb Murphy of Lionheart to Boston, and in May of 2004 they shot the Avon walk there. The photographer was moved by the courage, dedication and determination of the survivors on the walk, and said to herself, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Well it seems that God's grace is a tricky commodity; in July she had a suspicious result from a mammogram, and one week after she photographed her second walk she was diagnosed with the very same disease that they seek to eradicate. She went on to photograph two more events in August, and one in October, shortly before she underwent seven hours of surgery. Fortunately, she had caught the tumor in its early stages, and the doctors were able to remove all the cancer. She didn't even need chemotherapy.

Needless to say, under such circumstances journalistic impartiality didn't feature much in her work on the subject, which went from being a story to a source of support after the diagnosis. Her heightened involvement was both a plus and a minus in the shooting. Although it drew her in intensely, it also made the work very hard. One advantage, however, was that it eradicated the lag time that so often occurs between meeting your subject and communicating with them. As Paula puts it, "We were in the same foxhole."

The book will now be published in October under the title "Why We Walk." Paula does very little magazine work nowadays, because she refuses to sign contracts that demand too many rights, and is "tired of funding Time Warner." But she found the book an immensely satisfying project, and will continue the work through lectures and presentations, especially to poor minority communities where the awareness of the disease is less, and the resources to fight it fewer.

In the calendar, which is a spin-off from the book, there is a quotation for every month, but the one for May resonated with me. It is from the poet and author Diane Ackerman, and she is quoted as saying, "I don't want to come to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well." One of the great benefits of being a photojournalist is that you not only get to live a broad life yourself, but you're given the opportunity to widen the lives of those who see your work as well. In Paula's case her work on this pernicious disease may not only broaden the lives of those who see it, but may lengthen them as well.

In a year of photographer obituaries following one after another there is yet one more to add, a man that many of you probably don't know. His name was Craig Aurness, and he was someone of whom I was immensely fond. A former National Geographic photographer, he started a stock agency in 1980 called Westlight. He was one of the most generous men I have ever met -- generous in the important things like time, ideas, sympathy, support, and was a true friend of photography and especially photographers. But the thing that I'm going to miss more than anything else are his e-mails. He was intensely curious and spent many hours on the Internet to find things that interested him, and, he assumed, interested those on his e-mail list as well. I learned more arcane and curious facts on a variety of esoteric subjects from Craig than from any other source. If there's one thing that hasn't changed in the last quarter of a century with the practitioners of this strange craft of photojournalism it is the restless curiosity that motivates them. I don't know if it killed the cat, and as a dog lover I don't much care. I'm more with the venerable Dr. Johnson when he said, "Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last."

May I wish you a happy, healthy, and, dare I say it, prosperous 2005, and may your minds be great and generous.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor