Truth and Integrity – Is Seeing Believing?

It was a sad day when I read about award winning photographer Souvid Datta infringing on another photographer’s work by using elements of their photographs and claiming that the photos were his. In the age of “fake news” Datta erodes the integrity of the profession of photojournalism and the reputation of dedicated photojournalists who risk their lives taking photographs that create awareness of the travesties in the world.

I was further bothered by Datta’s explanation in an interview he did for Time magazine. Using his lack of knowledge because of his youth and inexperience is no excuse for his actions. There are too many articles online about ethics and copyright to excuse his ignorance, especially for someone who admittedly learned Photoshop techniques on You Tube.

While I’m glad that he eventually told the truth, there’s nothing commendable about doing so after getting caught in a lie. There is no turning back of the clock or enough apologies that will undo the damage this has done to the profession of photojournalism.

It is easy to manipulate images and seeing is believing is no longer true.Arthur County, Nebraska In an age where many if not most images have been greatly altered or composited, we’ve become somewhat jaded by a real image that is straight out of the camera. Manipulation has become the norm but it should never be accepted in journalism.

I’m not a photojournalist and have on occasion altered my images, but I’m most proud of the images that I shot that have not been manipulated.

Marathon swimming, East River, New York City

Nowadays, folks who look at the images contained in this blog will assume that they are composites – but they’re not. It took a lot of skill to produce them along with a bit of luck.

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The Value of Photography

The who’s who of photography gathered last night, at Carnegie Hall to honor the “masters” of their trade at the Lucie Awards. The Lucies are like the Oscars of the “photographic industry”.

2013 Lucie Awards, Carnegie Hall ©Thomas Kelly
2013 Lucie Awards, Carnegie Hall
©Thomas Kelly

I had been asked to step in to present the “2013 Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year Award”. on behalf of the ASMP when Executive Director, Gene Mopsik and President, Ed McDonald couldn’t attend.

I don’t usually get nervous about things like this, but I was last night. As I stood in the wings with photographer John H. White, who was waiting to go on stage to accept his Lucie, for Achievement in Photojournalism, I was mesmerized as I watched John.  He seemed to glow and I felt his grace, his humility and his gratitude.  It was a moment in my life that will stay with me forever.  It was calming. I watched and listened to his acceptance speech on the monitor backstage, and I was deeply touched.  So was the audience, as evidenced in their standing ovation.

John H. White is not a “rock star” type of photographer.  His images don’t “shock and awe”, not in the way a war photographer’s images do. John’s photographs capture the subtle moments of the human experience.  His legacy of images show us life as it really is.

This past spring, after 35 years with the Chicago Sun Times, John and the rest of the newspaper’s photographic staff were fired.  It was a huge blow to the photographic community, magnified by the fact that even John H. White, the “chairman” was “let go”, without even as much as a thank you. John wasn’t bitter about it though.  Michelle Agins wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times where she quoted John: “A job’s not a job because of labor law,” he said. “It’s just something you love. It’s something you do because it gives you a mission, a life, a purpose, and you do it for the service of others.”

All he had wanted to hear from the executives who let him go was two words that never came: thank you. But even then, he did not respond with anger.

John spoke more about the Sun Times’ firings in an interview with NPR where he said: “I will not curse the darkness. I will light candles. I will live by my three “F” words: faith, focus and flight. I’ll be faithful to life, my purpose in life, my assignment from life. Stay focused on what’s really important, what counts.” He repeated those three “F” words last night as he accepted his award.  The audience was humbled.  John had shed his light.

I have been thinking a lot lately, about the value of photography and the value that a professional brings to this craft.  John H. White and his archive of work is a stellar example.  His images, capturing the subtleties of life stand out amongst the noise.  They make us take notice of what is often over looked – the quieter moments of life.

As far as what a professional photographer brings to the world, I think John stated it best: “Every day, a baby is born. Every day, someone dies. Every single day. And we capture everything in between. You think of this thing called life and how it’s preserved. It’s preserved through vision, through photographs.”

As John walked off the stage and back into the wings, I felt enveloped by his glow that had seemed to magnify.  I caught his eye for a moment and said “thank you”. He nodded, and flashed his wonderful smile and in that moment, we connected and shared our understanding, of the “value” of photography.

The Top 5 Mistakes the Chicago Sun-Times Made

There’s been quite a lot of talk over the last couple days about the Chicago Sun-Times ChicagoSunTimeslaying off their entire staff of photographers.  When media writer Robert Feder posted on his Facebook Page , he was flooded with nasty comments about what the paper was doing.

“Sun-Times reporters begin mandatory training today on “iPhone photography basics” following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,” managing editor Craig Newman tells staffers in a memo.”

There has been general outrage amongst professional photographers on listservs and social media channels adding to the extreme angst that already exists in this demographic.  I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, not only over the last couple of days but over the last decade as technology has thrust enormous change on my industry.  If I allow myself to look at the state of professional photography as an unsustainable profession because of these technological changes, than that’s what it will be – an unsustainable profession for me.  But if I turn the “problem” into an “opportunity” and realize that technology has brought me a lot more possibilities in how to monetize my craft, then I will have a profession that I will be able to sustain.

Biggest Mistakes that the Sun-Times Made when they got rid of their staff photographers:

  1. Cheated their readers.  Their readers will see the difference in the photographs that their paper is running.  A professional photojournalist doesn’t just take a picture – they capture a storytelling image.  They are visual communicators and they are good at it.  They make the viewer feel, empathize or connect with their images. I don’t think it will take a long time before their readers see that the paper’s photos aren’t any better than theirs or their friends and have no reason to get the story from the Sun-Times.
  2. Focused on the technology – the iphone.  How many times have I said “It’s not about the tool”?  Do I think that the iphone isn’t a viable tool for taking good photos?  No, in fact if it is the only “camera” you have on hand when a story is breaking – then it becomes the best camera for the job.  On the other hand, the same day the paper sent the memo out to their staff about the layoffs, their front page was covered with images that one wouldn’t have a chance of getting if all they had was an iphone.
  3. Burdened their writers with another job.  Let’s face it, something is going to suffer.  Just like when I try to shoot both video and still images on the same job myself, I always feel like I have the wrong camera for the wrong moment.  A lot of my writer friends can take pretty good photographs, and some merely make a “reference” shot of what’s happening, instead of an image that captures a story.  A writer’s workflow is different than that of a photographer.  Writers go out in the field and gather facts and write the story for the most part, back at the office.  A photographer does pretty much everything in the field.  Nowadays, many times that includes the edit.  Something will suffer, when one person sets out to do two totally different types of jobs.
  4. Made their “cuts” in the wrong place.  They undermined what a professional photojournalist brings to their paper.  You can’t find a more passionate, committed group than photojournalists.  They work long hours, under terrible conditions – many times dangerous ones, receive a lousy pay, but will go above and beyond to deliver “the story”.  Some say this was a “union busting” move and that after a decent amount of time, the paper will begin to hire photographers who will work for less and no benefits.  If that’s the case, then shame on them for cutting out health benefits for such a committed group of people. In the long run,  that is not a sustainable business model.
  5. They forgot that technology works both ways.  Let’s hope that photographers don’t forget that they can use technology to their advantage – that is if they can get past their fear.  Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune, writes in a blog post:  “Fear is the worst and greatest enemy of photographers. Why? Physiologically, fear triggers the fight or flight complex. You can’t think creatively, imaginatively and proactively when your entire body is pumping blood and adrenaline to the parts of your body necessary to fight barbarians at the gate. It pushes your body into a reactive-about-to-become-a-victim state of mind. The very creativity that is your unique selling proposition as a photographer is crippled. Your body become’s your mind’s worst enemy.

We no longer need a publisher to publish our images.  With technology we can create and publish with a variety of platforms and portals.  Just take a look at Issuu a portal for digital publishing. With a modest amount of effort, I put together a test for a new magazine called “The Back Story”.  Future issues will be composed of my image outtakes from the dozens of commissioned assignments that I’ve shot over the years.  Maybe, down the road it will include other photographers’ work and give the readers an opportunity to see the images that never ran and get “the back story.”

Fear not, my fellow professional photographers.  We are in a position of opportunity if we begin to realize that and make a conscious effort to change our mindset.  We don’t have  control over the choices that the Sun-Times or any other newspaper makes. We only have control over how we react to those changes. If we think and act smart and not from a position of fear, maybe one of the best business decisions we can make is to take control, and create and publish story telling images that the public will want to see.  And the public  won’t be finding those kinds of images in the Chicago Sun-Times.

 

Words of Wisdom For and From Young Photographers

I’m on the advisory board of the YPA (Young Photographers Alliance) and while there are times that I feel I am on one too many boards and spreading myself too thin these days, it’s nights like last night that make it all worthwhile.

Last night was the Mentee/Mentor Exhibition and Awards Ceremony at the Calumet Gallery in New York City.  I must confess that I really didn’t want to go for a couple of reasons:  I needed to get up at 3:30AM to leave for the airport (this morning) and I’ve been in a bit of a funk that I can’t seem to shake myself out of and I didn’t want to be one of those negative cynical people bringing the “mood” down.  But I’m also one of those people that everyone can count on – so I did my best to rise to the occasion.

Before the affair, there was a meeting with the young photographers (mentees) and the mentors to receive and give feedback.  One of the students said that they wished some of their time with their mentors had been spent discussing the “business” of photography – something she didn’t feel she was learning in school.  I pointed out that there was a lot of information about business practices on the ASMP website, including contract shares and encouraged the students to check it out.  And then I told them that the best “business” advice I could give them was to be true to themselves and that if they did that and didn’t stray from their “purpose” that would set that apart from their competition because there is only one “you”.

And then I relayed my “Jay Maisel” story as I have dozens of times. Gail at the Great Pyramids 1971 I had gone to see Jay when I was just starting out.  My heart and my passion was in photojournalism, but countless professional photographers had told me that I couldn’t make a living doing that kind of work – so I when I went to see Jay, I had my “commercial” portfolio with me, which I thought was pretty good.  He looked at it, pushed it back at me and said, “ This is crap – this isn’t what you want to do is it?”  I said no and told him that I wanted to be a photojournalist.  He asked me how old I was to which I replied “25 years old”.  He looked me straight in the face and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”.

I told the kids that it was a turning point in my life and that whenever I strayed from my purpose – and felt it – over the last 35 years – I remembered Jay’s words.  Then one of the students asked me a question that I hadn’t ever been asked when telling that story over the years.  She said “What was it about your work that made him think your heart wasn’t in it?”  I hadn’t really ever thought about that – I had always focused on what I wanted to do instead.  But when she asked that question, I had to reply, “I really don’t know”.

I’ve been thinking about it all morning on my way from Newark to San Francisco and I wonder – was it the work that felt empty or impersonal?  Or was it the way I looked when I handed it to him?  Or was it both?  I’m waiting for my next leg to Honolulu and then on to Molokai to meet up from one of my mentors, PF Bentley who taught me everything I know about how to tell a story in motion. I’ll have another 7 hours to contemplate that question and even if I never come up with the answer, that question pulled me out of my funk.  Just in time to once again put my head in an “open” place to learn and get back on purpose.

The Eyes of Our Times

I was looking through my emails and social media posts and I saw something on my Facebook feed that Daymon J. Hartley posted. It was a link to a lightbox of 9/11 images on Time Magazine’s website. It was a collection of images that had run in a variety of magazines and newspapers in the days that followed that tragic event. Along with the images ran comments from the picture editors, why they had chosen that particular image.

As I looked through the images, I was overcome with emotion and moved right back to a very deep place within, remembering the pain, the fear and disbelief of what happened that day. This time I looked at the images online. Ten years ago I first saw these photographs in print publications. Regardless of how I saw these images, in print or electronically – the effect was still the same.

It reminded me of how powerful our photographs and videos are. We are the eyes of our times, the ones to document history. We not only record history in imagery, sound and motion, but we have the power to create the future. History has been rewritten by imagery. Take the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s in America. Photographs created awareness of what was happening in the South and put the eyes of the world upon us. That forced change.

As photojournalists and video journalists and non-professionals as well, we need to realize the power of what we do and the influence it can make. It’s a responsibility I take seriously. I feel that it’s not just my duty to document history as it unfolds, but it’s my right to do so as well. These days those rights are being questioned in some places. We need to be diligent in keeping those rights in America. Isn’t that what makes our country different?

As we race towards a destination unknown with technology quickening the pace – let’s be mindful who is controlling the portals of the future – so that future generations can learn from the past.

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“You’re Only 25 And You’re Already Making Compromises?”

There’s a story that I love to tell because it explains why I followed the path I did – in my career and my life.

It was 1976 and I had just graduated from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California.  I had my technically perfect portfolio and I was ready to set the world on fire.  British schoolboy, Bath, EnglandMy plan was to move back East, and pursue my dream of becoming a photojournalist.  That was where my heart was – “telling the story” through my images and I wanted to share those images through the pages of magazines. But even back then photo essays and the magazines that printed them were threatened by a bad economy and changing times. Look had just folded and Life was seeing its demise – the first time around.

Back then everyone told me that to make a living in photography you needed to get a studio and shoot commercially.  I bought into that, geared my first portfolio toward that and got a job assisting a commercial still life photographer.  But it didn’t feel right -it  wasn’t the right fit for me.  I had wanted to become a photographer to capture people and their cultures and what was going on in the world – not to shoot static objects in a New York City studio.

I had admired Jay Maisel’s work at the time, his eye for the detail and the streets of New York.  I decided to give him a call and ask if he had time to look at my portfolio and maybe give me a critique or some advice.  He agreed so we set up a time at his studio down in the Bowery. The late ’70’s was not a great time for NYC – economically speaking it was broke and Mayor Beame had just been turned down by the Feds for a bailout.  Just taking the trek down to that part of Manhattan at that time,  was an adventure in itself. Jay was a true pioneer in buying that old bank building back then. I’ll never forget the contrast between the graffiti covered exterior and amazing space inside.

Jay looked at every perfectly mounted print of technically perfect photographs and tossed them aside.  He looked at me and asked me if this was what I really wanted to do.  I started to go into a lengthy explanation of how I really wanted to be a photojournalist and proceeded to tell him all the reasons that I had given myself when I talked myself out of pursuing that dream.  And then I took out some snapshots of things I had shot on my travels before I even went to Brooks.  He looked at the images and told me that he could tell that this was what I should be doing.  And then he asked me how old I was.  I replied that I was 25.  He looked me straight in the eye and said “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises?”.

It was a turning point in my life.  Every time I’m tempted to go off course, I remind myself of Jay’s words and I get back on track.