The Digital Journalist
A Rant about Professionalism, or Life in the Trenches

by Bill Pierce

Hooray for the amateur; he knows exactly what he wants to photograph. He photographs family, friends, vacations and personal events that are important to him. And he does it all with a small, simple camera that asks only that he push the button.

Pity the poor professional; he just does what he's told: photograph the bake sale, the ball game and the boss -- and use a big, complicated camera to do it.

One way to get pleasure out of a world in which you are told what to do is to play with your big toys. Thanks to digital we have lots of new toys -- digital cameras and computers with new imaging programs. We all enjoy playing with our new toys. If we didnít we'd either be writers or painters. They tell stories, too. But their toys aren't so cool.

And the toys are important. No toys; no pictures.

Better toys; sometimes better pictures. Better auto focus; less embarrassing out-of-focus pictures. Better autoexposure; less embarrassing unacceptable exposures. And at those times when you can just hold down the button and pray when an unexpected but important moment suddenly appears, automation is a godsend.

There is, however, a drawback to "better toys." When the camera makes the decisions, a lot of photographs are less than they should be. Some of the time spent with our new toys should be spent reminding them who is boss.

I am really tired of people pictures with such great depth-of-field that every background tree branch is rendered so sharply that it appears to be growing out of the subject's ear. I am really tired of street shots in which everything is in focus, but all the moving people are blurred. And I am really, really tired of shots of anything against a bright sky that has now been rendered as a silhouette. Oh yes, and I am tired of shots of my dogs in which the tips of their snouts are sharp and their eyes are out of focus. Automatic doesn't always mean correct, and it rarely means creative or interpretive. We really should move the dial off program and learn how those other settings can let us take our pictures.

So, yes, we have to spend more time with our more complicated and versatile equipment than the happy amateur with his "point and push." And while this can be not only a necessary process, but an enjoyable one, it still doesn't make up for the fact that the happy amateur gets to choose what he takes pictures of. To make life worthwhile, we also have to figure out what we like to photograph.

At first this seems simple. I want to photograph all the football games (I get in free.), all the rock concerts and all the young actresses at the local theater. In return I will also photograph the bake sale and the boss. Unfortunately, that really doesn't work over a lifetime.

In a lot of cases, what you like to photograph is not defined by the subject, but by your attitude. I have a friend who likes creating striking images. He will work in light so low that you won't have seen natural light images from that world before. This means a tripod and the ability to convince a lot of people to hold still for a fairly long time. On the other hand, he will light up large areas just so the lighting is dramatic. And god forbid that he takes your portrait. He will have fun. He will position you in some relevant, but dramatic, location. You will end up at the top of a tall tree or looking out of a cage or taking a double portrait with a monkey. Needless to say, he is terrible with spot news, and his publication doesn't assign him any if they can possibly help it.

I have a number of friends who photograph in the theater and film worlds, which they love, and each takes very different pictures. For example, one of them is fascinated by the process and photographs the rehearsals, the crews, the director as much as he photographs the actors and production scenes. Another one, a bit of a star himself, does portraits of the stars. The first photographer works on location in a near documentary manner. The second works in a photo studio in a conceptual way that is representative of the star's public image. Each has found, in the same world, a different way of working that makes each of them happy.

I have been immensely lucky in that I have always had one thing that fascinated me. It seems every decade I was a different kind of photographer for a different boss. But whatever I was doing I got to take pictures of that one thing that fascinated me - people being strange, vulnerable, sometimes foolish and silly and, quite often, very good or very bad - in other words, being human. I never felt uncomfortable taking pictures which showed strange and silly and sometimes very good or very bad because I felt I was photographing all of us.

However, it's the nature of news photography that you often photograph well-known people, identifiable individuals who can't represent all of us, only themselves. In those cases I usually left out the very good or very bad, but tried to include enough of the strange and silly to point out that even the well-known are human.

I think you photograph best what you enjoy. I think that is always evolving and hard to put your finger on. But, at least, you can say, "Am I having fun?"

Actually, it would be better to ask, "Do I feel good?" That way you could also photograph what you hate.

You could start out with war and branch out into poverty, starvation and disease. You could start out with poverty and ignorance and branch out into injustice and genocide. Or, you could just stick with war and include coverage of the wounded, the widowed and the children. No, you are not going to get those assignments from the local paper. You'll probably end up working for an agency or press service. You will be underpaid. Physically and emotionally, the toll will be a little bit higher than doing product shots.

There are some dangers outside of the obvious ones. Unless you watch yourself, you can begin to think that what you spend a great deal of time photographing is normal. When you begin to think human tragedy is the norm, you take cold, indifferent pictures. And, of course, there is the big danger, thinking you are a big deal, prize-winning photographer and the wars are there so you can take your pictures of them. A sure sign of this is when you are trying to impress some chick with your testosterone level and raw battlefield courage and leave out the part of the story where you wet yourself.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer