The Digital Journalist
From The Mouths Of The Masters, A Deeper Truth

by Donald Winslow

Photojournalism is alive and well, and often it's found hanging out with a few of its far-flung friends at the digital water cooler, which is now otherwise known as The Digital Journalist, Dot Org even.

There's only so much one can learn about photojournalism today in four-year degree programs in college classrooms, at professional seminars, through on-the-job training at small daily newspapers, by reading industry-related magazines and going to weekend workshops, or one-week summer camps in the high plains or on the snowcapped mountains of the Front Range -- for those with really deep wallets and an affinity for zebra-striped Land Rovers with sun roofs and roll bars, human luggage bearers, and chilled champagne served at sunset, photographing Dorcas gazelles and Springboks bounding across the Kalahari.

For the rest of us back here in the dirty real world, the finesse and the seasoning that build upon the core fundamentals needed to become a complete photojournalist, a visual communicator with a little depth and a broad perspective, come mostly from learning at the feet of the elder princes and princesses of our craft, our mentors, our photographic heroes, our role models - folks usually good, sometimes bad (they're examples too, just examples of what not to do) - and from studying their success and analyzing the occasional failure. After all that, after the college paper chase and the internship chase and the first job chase, one discovers that the key to true photojournalistic enlightenment is in learning the great lessons from the old photojournalism masters first-person, in conversations laced with vivid details, in hearing their stories told with great enthusiasm, stories that have built-in opportunities to vicariously slip into the tale and to be there alongside the teller, camera to camera, shoulder to shoulder. It's the exposure to the oral tradition of it all that takes a photojournalist up to the next level.

For a visual occupation, photojournalism has certainly depended on its oral history to survive, on having it passed along from generation to generation, because only a handful of the old masters took the time to write down the truth about photojournalism and get it published in books that might survive time, as did John G. Morris and Howard Chapnick.

Still, as good as their books are, reading isn't enough. No, just as the Zen and Sufi masters have always known, the key to learning the deeper truth is in hearing it from the horse's mouth, from the old masters in person. In private audience and critique, or when they're holding court on the sweeping front porch of the Grand Hotel Oloffson over afternoon cocktails while small-arms fire echoes faintly off in the distance as another dictator hits the road. Or in the hours upon hours, and days upon days, spent in the humid, smelly, newspaper darkroom while making contest photo prints all night for a week or two each spring, as the sleep-deprived and ego-infested group haggle over a hapless peer's edit, or a crop, or a dodge or burn. The bull sessions are where the lessons are learned, friendships forged, and knowledge passed along to the next wave. This has always been the great "pay it forward" tradition of photojournalism: the old guard doing their duty, albeit sometimes begrudgingly, occasionally drunkenly, to insure that the young up-and-coming pups know the real history of photojournalism, that they fully appreciate the dear price paid by their forefathers through sweat and toil and a pound of flesh on oh-so-many campaign buses and sports road trips to frozen playoff games, just to certify that the craft is still alive and well today.

Even if there are a few dents in it, and fewer publications actually publish real documentary photojournalism, and one can barely make a decent living at it in the States anymore, and a bag of new digital cameras today costs six times more than Joseph Costa's first sedan. Regardless. It lives! Despite the current chilly climate of newspaper layoffs and corporate buyouts and shrinking news holes and increased newsprint and printing costs and flat, or declining, advertising sales and decreased revenues, the good news today is still this: It lives!

What does it all mean, one might ask, these 100 issues of The Digital Journalist published on the Internet since October 1997? It means photojournalism's oral history is also still alive and well, archived and available to the world of students and professionals and those who are just morbidly interested -- even if the conversation has moved off the Oloffson's porch and onto the Web, even if the campaign bus is still up on blocks for four more years, even if the old darkroom has been torn down and replaced by a stress-reduction center and Pilates room for the night-shift copy desk, even if half the photo staff gave up red meat and nightly booze and switched from hanging out at the watering hole until closing to hanging out at Starbucks with an iPod and a laptop. Regardless. The oral history of photojournalism lives on, slightly pixilated - but still first-person - here in The Digital Journalist. Theoretically, thanks to server back-ups and archives, now it can even outlive the teller of the tales. And that's a feature, some say.

But even given all that, is The Digital Journalist somehow special? I'd have to answer, "Yes." And here's why: the first time I read anything in The Digital Journalist was in the very first issue, October 1997, in the "War Stories And Legends" category where the choices were "The White House Death March"; "The Saga Of John Everingham"; "The Legend Of Grantville Withers"; "A Dinner Conversation With Two Pros" (I was somewhat disappointed to find out they meant two professional photojournalists); and "Musings From The Campaign Trail," Parts One and Two. Having just moved to the West Coast after working for Reuters in Washington and New York, and having had the "pleasure" of working in the White House press corps a few times, obviously I had to start with "The White House Death March." I was not disappointed. Dirck Halstead had me laughing and in tears by the end of the second paragraph. I was thanking God for never having to do that kind of presidential assignment again, while simultaneously being grateful for the blessing of having had to do White House coverage at least once in my life and surviving it to move on to a life where no one will ever again make me spend a Sunday afternoon locked in an airless, military gray minivan parked hidden in the bushes with the motorcade while the president of the United States does something fun, out of our sight, which we're not allowed to watch, and no one will ever see, and hardly anyone - ourselves included - gives a rat's posterior about.

If every photojournalism student could read this, just once, I thought, they'd never again dream of the "glory" of covering the White House. This saga, the forced death march of the White House press corps down a rocky mountain trail in extreme heat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming - all because "the Clintons want to go for a hike" -- that's the kind of legend that previously could only be heard late at night in a bar, or in the back of an airplane on a six-day, three-continent jaunt, or while killing time waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for the president to arrive who, it seems, was always "running a bit late" (he couldn't stop talking to people, and he still can't).

In other words, you only got to hear these tales if you were ALREADY in the inner circle, if you were already a victim of the established machine, if you had already suffered the slings and arrows and lived to tell others about it. The Digital Journalist changed that, putting its readers within that inner circle. Now I could sit in California and read about it safe in my home, and I was better for it, and photojournalism students would be better for it, and the history and saga of our craft would be better for it. And this was just the first issue. I thought to myself then, and still believe to this day, that if half the people who want to be photojournalists really knew what it was like to be a photojournalist, the truth about photojournalism, well at least half of them would have serious second thoughts about devoting a lifetime to it. And that's not bad news, that's good news. Because the flip side is that if people really understand what they're getting into and still choose to pursue it, still embrace it wholeheartedly, still decide to throw into it everything they've got to give -- intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, romantically, everything -- then imagine for a moment what kind of profession photojournalism can be.

But this is just one of the reasons The Digital Journalist is important. It also represents in the very best way the best of our craft; it honors our mentors; it recognizes the exceptional work that's been missed by the limelight; it calls out good editors for their years of service that often go unnoticed, because the work of a good editor is nearly invisible to everyone but the photographer. It brings us in touch with folks who write columns like Bill Pierce, who's put a camera to his face for Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, all over the world, on all kinds of stories, and has the heart and soul to tell us about what it was like to be a magazine photographer, in stories that are cornerstones for photojournalism's history in this era. And it brings us in contact with legends like Horst Faas, a man who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for photography and also the Robert Capa Award, who covered every Olympic Game since 1970, who's a gifted writer (co-editor and author of Requiem: By The Photographers Who Died In Vietnam And Indochina), who retired from The Associated Press only to have a debilitating blood clot in his spine leave him paralyzed from the chest down the very week that he was back in Hanoi for an anniversary of the war's ending, but who continues to write and organize photographic exhibits and author books because his spirit, unlike his body, is unhindered.

And, of course, there's Dirck Halstead himself, editor and publisher of The Digital Journalist, known to his friends as "The Platypus," who contracted a terminal case of photojournalism while still in high school and at the tender age of 17 became Life's youngest combat photographer (by not letting the magazine know he was still a minor), covering a civil war in Guatemala. To read a column or a story by Dirck is to be on the receiving end of information that's been processed by a mind that's well-prepared because it spent 15 years covering every conceivable kind of story around the world for UPI and three decades covering the White House for Time. It's the insight of a thinking man who was one of the first to call for breaking down the wall between still photography and video photography, thereby creating journalists who can do both, plus write, edit, collect and produce audio, becoming the photojournalists of the future.

Over the course of 100 issues, readers have been treated to "Dispatches" written by smart and insightful folks like Marianne Fulton, Chris Hondros, Eric Gay, Chris Usher, Michael Ainsworth, Jim Gehrz, David Burnett, David Hume Kennerly, PF Bentley, and Darrell Barton. To scroll through the archive of full-length feature stories, some that have slide shows and galleries online, is to be truly impressed: David Brauchli's "Kosovo Diary;" Diana Walker's "Access To The Presidency"; David Hume Kennerly's "John Glenn And The Right Stuff"; Martin Lueders's "Hope And Horror In Sierra Leone"; David Turnley in Albania and brother Peter Turnley in Macedonia, together producing "Fields Of Sorrow"; "The Nixon Years" by Fred Maroon; "Cuban Soul" by David Alan Harvey; "The Survivor: Kim Phuc And Nick Ut" by Faas teaming with Fulton; Eli Reed's "Living In The Now"; "Battlefields" by Christopher Morris; "RFK Funeral Train" by Paul Fusco; "Fifty Years In Pictures" by Harry Benson; "The Photographic Life" by Sam Abell; and "David Douglas Duncan" by David Friend along with Bobbi Baker Burrows.

You get the idea. This is the good stuff, solid gold. These photographers and writers and editors are the keepers of our flame, and their stories are the meaningful history of photojournalism in our time. Instead of drifting off into the ether uncaptured, these sagas that may not have been books, that may not have been magazine stories, that may not have seen the press of ink anywhere, are here, accessible to all, given freely and "paying forward." And as photojournalism becomes more diverse, and less monochromatic and more multimedia, published less often in print and more often in a digital world, an irony is that a venue called The Digital Journalist actually archives work that has been the very, very best of what's been, until recently, an analog world.

And as that world becomes more digital and less traditional, The Digital Journalist really begins to fulfill a mission that it foreshadowed in 1997, some 100 issues ago, when the Platypus Workshops began predicting that a day may soon come when photojournalists would be asked to do more than shoot still pictures; they'd also have to shoot video, gather audio, edit and produce their own work, and be able to self-publish to the Web or some other digital form of new media. Look around you, it's happening right now. Folks like Travis Fox of - a Missouri School of Journalism graduate who's an award-winning photographer and producer, White House News Photographers Association Editor of the Year in 2003 (for the second straight year), Camera Person of the Year, covering the war in Iraq, shooting stories in Afghanistan, Israel, and the Balkans - are the photojournalists of the future. They are the ones who will be able to tell their stories with excellence in any format, in any medium, to any audience. Like David Leeson, who came up through the wet-print darkrooms of traditional newspaper photo departments in New Orleans and Abilene before joining The Dallas Morning News, winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography along the way with Cheryl Diaz Meyer for coverage of Iraq, and being a Pulitzer finalist in 1985 for his coverage of apartheid in South Africa. In the meantime he started shooting video on assignments too, making him one of the first newspaper staff photographers in the States to shoot video for a newspaper full-time, winning an Edward R. Murrow Award and a regional Emmy for a couple of the 70 short features he shot for the paper.

As the voices of Eddie Adams, Howard Chapnick, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and their generations fade slowly away from us, the new voices we now hear, the likes of Fox and Leeson and others, will be here on The Digital Journalist. And that's why it's important, and this is really what it all means: We're set to come into photojournalism's new future and add a new layer of the history of our craft atop the foundation that Halstead and all the others have labored to build. Collectively, we're grateful.

© Donald Winslow
Editor, News Photographer magazine

Donald R. Winslow is Editor of The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)'s News Photographer magazine.