The Platypus Takes Texas
(and New Orleans)
March 2008

by Dirck Halstead

While Hillary and Obama were fighting it out for the crucial Texas vote, The Platypus Workshops charged across The Lone Star state and into Louisiana in February, as it conducted back-to-back workshops teaching video to photojournalists who came from as far away as New Zealand.

These represent the 25th and 26th workshops we have conducted since the program began in 1999.

Today the course teaches in High Definition video. Canon provided their new HV20 camcorders to the Houston Chronicle, which had also purchased a dozen brand new MacBook Pros with Final Cut Pro and new video tripods for their staff.

Chronicle Editor Jeff Cohen explains the paper's commitment to video: "Looking at the raw numbers, it was clear that visitors to appreciate video. Our mandate to Platypus was to work with our still photographers, improve the quantity and quality of multimedia work on our site. The results were immediate with better storytelling, improved technical shooting and an infusion of enthusiasm in the department for shooting video."

© David Lyman
Simon Baker won two awards at the New Orleans Platypus Workshop. The first for his film "Jimmy Foster - Guitar Man", and for coming the longest distance for the workshop, all the way from Christ Church, New Zealand. He got a Think Tank bag, presented by PF Bentley and Dirck Halstead.
This marked the first time that The Platypus Workshop has taught a full-on nine-day course for a major daily newspaper. We have been conducting two-day short courses for newspapers around the country since early last year.

Somehow, the Chronicle managed to take a dozen of their staff photographers off the street for the full nine days so they could take the course. They filled in with freelancers and even editors to cover the daily assignments for the print edition.

Veteran Chronicle photographer Steve Campbell sighed in relief after the workshop, "Now maybe I will make it to retirement."

Forty-eight hours after leaving Houston, the Platypus was welcoming a new batch of photojournalists to the Crescent City. Among the photographers who had traveled to New Orleans were prize-winning photographer Thomas Franklin from the Bergen (N.J.) Record, who took the iconic photograph of the American flag being raised over the ruins of the World Trade Center. From Paris, renowned Sipa photojournalist Thomas Haley, the author of "The Wall." From Toronto, Globe and Mail photographers John Lehman, Pete Power and Gale Browning. And after flying a straight 24 hours from his native Christ Church, New Zealand, Simon Baker joined the group of 12 photographers and eight producer-participants.

Tom Burton, photo editor of the Orlando Sentinel, who originally came up with the Platypus name for the workshop, and Kelly Jordan, video producer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, volunteered to serve as teaching assistants, helping the students through the complexities of Final Cut Pro.

For this workshop, the first of five we will be conducting in the United States in 2008, Canon provided their top-of-the line XHA-1 HD cameras; Sennheiser provided shotgun and wireless mics; Libec provided professional video tripods, BeachTek supplied adapters, and Apple provided a dozen MacBook Pros.

New Orleans provided rich fodder for the Platypus projects. As course manager Scott Shaw remarked, "If you can't find stories here, you shouldn't be in the business!"

Some of the Platypai chose the still devastated Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish for their final projects.

© Dirck Halstead
Thomas E. Franklin shoots a New Orleans official condemning a house in the middle-class district of New Orleans. Franklin shot the iconic photograph of firemen raising the American flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11th attack.
Chicago-based photographer Denise Keim spent time with the Reverend Jack O. Battiste, who is rebuilding his New Testament Baptist Church, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

For Keim, the workshop had arrived just in time. "I was considering going to nursing school because my photography career had stalled. Now, for the first time I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Thomas Haley, the veteran Sipa photographer from France, commented:

"Who says you can't teach old dogs new tricks? PF Bentley and Dirck Halstead have proven the contrary. It wasn't too long ago that moving from film to digital photography seemed liked Mission:Impossible for this "old dog." Now, after a week of the Platypus Workshop in New Orleans, they've got me shooting video, editing with Final Cut Pro, and a newfound enthusiasm for my profession as a storyteller. And no drugs involved!! Many thanks to two great photographers for sharing their knowledge, experience, and passion."

Pete Power, a staff photographer for the Toronto Globe and Mail, did one of the most beautiful stories that the faculty has ever seen come out of a workshop, with a nuanced portrait of shrimp fishermen, whose business has been basically wiped out by the effects of Katrina.

"Platypus 26 in New Orleans has been as intense a learning experience as I have ever had. An opportunity to receive such a vast amount of information and insight, like this course offers, rarely presents itself," Power said. "Just when you think you have a handle on what your industry can throw at you, a Platypus comes up and bites you in the ass. It has been a challenge I won't soon forget!"

Photojournalist Simon Baker, who wound up winning the top award for Best Edited piece (and a Think Tank Photo bag), said, "I traveled from New Zealand for this course not only because there are no courses of this type and caliber in Australasia but also based on the reputation of the tutors, Dirck Halstead and PF Bentley. It has proven to be one of the most enlightening times of my career. Video is part of the future for newspaper photographers and to learn from two men who have been there and done that extremely well has been a privilege, and fun!"

Platypus Lead Instructor PF Bentley summed up his 26th workshop: "It's always great for me to witness the evolution of attendees from still photographers to videojournalists during the workshop. By the last day, most brains are fried (including mine) but everyone is eager to expand their vision and expand their income opportunities after they leave."



© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from