Friday, August 14, 2009

CJR Q&A with Damon Winter of the NY Times

I've had some rough days back at work after a vacation before, but nothing like what Damon Winter went through Tuesday. His first assignment back from vacation was a town hall meeting with Sen. Arlen Specter. The photo that led the Times' A section Wednesday morning was a photo of a very angry Craig Miller confronting the senator on the meeting's format. (To respect the Times' copyright, I won't repost it here.)

In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review's Alexandra Fenwick, Winter, who won the Pulitzer Prize this year in Feature Photography for his work covering President Obama's campaign, talks about the event and his approach to shooting it. What struck me was the level to which he prepared himself for what was probably going to happen, going so far as to watch video of prior town hall meetings with the senator. He was also prepared for how the crowd had been taking over events like these and intentionally getting into the photographers' lenses to get their point across, not to mention the less-than-warm welcome he and another Times photographer received.

I've often talked about preparedness with other photographers, but usually only in a sports environment. So many things are out of a photographer's control, especially at a sporting event, that advance preparation is crucial. Is the team's offense primarily a passing or running offense? Who are the major players? Do they do trick plays? How about the pitcher? What are his stats this year? Does he lead the league in strikeouts? Give up a lot of home runs? Does he have a good pickoff move? All of these questions can be answered long in advance, and give me a hint as to what might be a key photograph.

Being prepared can make all the difference when the storytelling moment happens, whether at a football game or a town hall meeting.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The games we play

Bernard Berrian hauls in a catch during practice.

I don't know if you've heard yet, but there's a professional football team in town.

I know, I know. It's hard to believe. Here? Now? Yes.

The annual football circus has rolled into town, and even though Brett Favre isn't with them, Vikings Training Camp is still a circus. For the record, I'm glad Favre didn't show up (the circus would've needed two big tops, one for the players, one for all the media), but I'm also a little disappointed (things would've been more interesting and unique with him here). It's still busy at MSU. More media than past years. Tons of fans filling the stands to watch players stretch.
Media shooting the first day of practice.

The good part about the busy is it brings friends and colleagues from the Twin Cities media outlets to town. It ends up being a great chance to catch up, commiserate, share a meal and some stories together, and try to lift each other's spirits and creative juices, since it seems I only see them when the Vikes come to town.

Besides the game being played on the field, there are a myriad of other games being played off the field during training camp. Media outlets trying to out-blanket-coverage everyone else. Photographers struggling to make an interesting photo of a 350-pound lineman who isn't doing anything but standing there in a half hour or less (more on that later). Reporters mobbing today's player du jour hoping he'll say something interesting.

The problem isn't necessarily in how you play the game, it's in the game itself. Rules and restrictions set forth by the team make uniqueness nearly impossible. Photographers are limited to shooting individual drills only (usually the first half hour of the two-hour practice) and are asked to stop shooting once anything interesting starts to happen or if a player is injured(even though I saw 3 fans in the stands today with the exact same equipment I use shooting 11-on-11 drills). Reporters have limited access to limited players. Coaches say few details about what's happening on or off the field.

Great evening light, and Vikings lineman Anthony Herrera.
So the rules are stacked against us, yet we play the game, especially as photographers. We struggle against security folks saying you can't kneel as we scramble in the limited time available to make interesting pictures for those who follow the Vikings religiously (and for those who are simply curious). I think in some strange way I like the restrictions. It forces me to either find a new recipe for chicken salad or come back with a boring photo of Heath Farwell just standing there sweating. It makes me work harder to make the most of those few good moments: a quick contact drill, great evening light, a laugh between a coach and a player.