Friday, January 28, 2005

David Leeson interview – Part B

Hopefully, everyone has had a chance to read David Leeson's biography and Part A of this interview. Below is the final part of his interview. I thought about writing it in standard format, but I think the PhotoJournalism readers would probably prefer the complete answers in context. So, I went with a Q&A format. I hope you enjoy and learn.

What keeps you motivated as a photojournalist?
What keeps me motivated to this day is the fact that I can make a difference. I was just discussing it the other day - through tears I might add - with my wife because I was having one of my tough moments. I'd just been writing about some previous experience years ago in Angola, and it was completely difficult. It was late at night – maybe two in the morning – you know, some of it gets to you. I was keeping it together until I said, ‘You know, I think one thing that keeps me sane is knowing what I did and the sacrifices that I've personally made maybe they make a difference. Maybe somebody's life somewhere is affected.’ I said, ‘Outside of that, I don't know what I'd do.’

I don't know anybody who would want to put themselves through some of those circumstances and not truly believe that somehow it matters. That's probably the greatest motivation today. It's still a profound belief that people care and if I can just show them how to respond or show them a need to respond, then they will respond. That's a pretty good motivator to keep you out there.
What advice do you have for young photojournalists?
I've never said this before to anyone else, but I think I'll repeat what was said to me whenever I was 14 years old. I rode my bike – I made an appointment with an ad agency in Abilene, Texas to go speak with a guy that does the commercials. I didn't know anyone else. I wanted to be a director. I wanted to be a film maker. So I went to him and I said, ‘What does it take to be a great director?’

I remember only one thing about the conversation, and he said, ‘Experience everything you can possibly experience. Keep the good. Throw out the bad.’ It made sense to me. I thought about that a lot throughout my career. About gaining experience. About going ahead and going for the moment and trying something different. Challenging myself and going places that maybe others might not want to go because I just wanted to experience it. I wanted to know what this is like.

There was a point where I used to refer to myself not as a photographer but as an experience collector. That's what I felt like I was doing. Now, I think that's going to the extreme. Again, that's passion without a sense of mission. It's unguided. It's unfocused. It's not about just going out and collecting experiences. That's just going out and having a good time.

I'm saying though that experience does play a role. One of the things that you can do as a young photographer is to gain as much of it as you can, as quickly as you can without going insane.
How would a kid in Kansas do it?
I just spoke with some kids in Kansas not too long ago when I was on the Flying Short Course. I remember the conversation. We talked about this vary thing. ‘You know, I'm in a small college in a small town in Kansas. What do I do? I'm not going anyplace great.’
I said, ‘The best thing you can do is get out and have your camera with you at all times. Always be shooting. That's all. Just find things to photograph. People are incredibly interesting.

Just to give a thought process or an idea to think about is I always wanted to do a story about ‘the common man’ or ‘the common woman.’ Just the ordinary guy. Because we have this stereotype of what's ordinary, what's normal. We say the ordinary guy has maybe an 8-to-5 job, he has a wife and a couple of kids, he doesn't get in any trouble, he goes to church on Sundays, he takes care of his business, he's nice to his neighbors, he supports his family, he's not strung out on drugs or alcohol or anything else, he's just got a nice, regular, normal, stable life. He's not out there protesting. He's not out there doing anything. He doesn't get involved in much because he's too dad-gum busy feeding his family and taking care of his business. He lives a relatively happy life. He's happy to mow his lawn and so on and so forth.

The truth is that person doesn't exist because every person is incredibly and powerfully unique.

So, what do you do if you're in this small town? Well, you get out and meet the so-called ordinary man and find out the incredible diversity that's out there in your own community. There's a 1,000 stories right there in a small town. It's just a matter of getting out and opening your eyes and caring enough about people to do it.

I should mention that a prerequisite for photojournalists is caring. It's about caring for people. If you don't care about people you're not going to do well in this business.

You might make a good portrait photographer or something in a studio at Main and Elm, but you're not going to be a good photojournalist. You might as well just give it up because you really got to care about people's lives. That's one of the things that drives you to know. They want you to get out there and hang out with a local farmer or something. Watch what they do. Be an observer.

I realized many years later that I didn't think of myself as a photographer. I'm a journalist. I'm just trying to tell a story. It didn't really matter to me if it's a camera or a notepad or video camera or audio or I don't care. I just want to get out there and meet people. The best part about my profession and my experience has been meeting people – even the jerks. It gives me something to talk about.

Another good way to advance yourself is simply to study photography. I don't mean study by going and taking a course. Maybe that's a good idea. I mean, go to a store and find a book with photographs in it that you really appreciate and touch you in some way. Take it home with you and don't just look at it once. Look at it over and over again. Stop just looking at it, but actually try to see what's going on with it. Why do you like it? What's happening with the image? How did they shoot it? How do you think they shot it? Why do you think it's affecting you in the way it's affecting you? How come it's touching you?

When you start asking those kinds of questions, you cannot help but grow. Not only as a photographer, but as an individual as well.

You don't actually have to go and do the stuff in order to actually have that. Some people are never going to go and cover a conflict. I think that's perfectly fine. In fact, I kind of regret that people know me more for the foreign work I've done in my career then they do for what I've done in the community.

The fact is the foreign work in my career has been miniscule in comparison to what I've done in the community – my daily work as a daily newspaper photographer. Maybe 99 percent of my whole career and every photograph I've taken has been local.
Most PhotoJournalism readers know you as a nature photographer.
Ho ho, that's wonderful! You just made my evening. Tell them that's just fine. They know the nature photography. That's wonderful because I've been working very hard to grow as a nature photographer and hopefully one day be able to make an actual full-time living doing nothing but that. We'll see.
What does it take to be successful in this profession? (skills & mentality)
Caring about people. We've talked about inventiveness, passion and sense of mission. We talked about making a difference. Although I would add you can make a difference without a camera. Sometimes you can make a difference in someone's life just by smiling at them at the right time. I know that sounds trite and kind of cheesy, but it's true.

Outside of that, it's like any profession. This is the part where you get into it. It's like this isn't just intrinsic to photojournalism. It's intrinsic to life. That would be ambition to get up, get out and do it. Stop talking about it. Go do it.

I always had a lot of drive and ambition, maybe a little too much of it. In fact, that's probably one of those weak and strong situations. Because that drive and ambition can turn around and be one of your worst enemies and cause you to overlook some of those things in life that you ought to be paying attention to in your own personal life and the lives of other people.

I've made a lot of mistakes in that area. To me, it just comes down to get out there and work hard. If you care about people, and you have a sense of mission, or you'd like to develop a sense of mission you'll probably do just fine with it. You'll probably be more successful than you could possibly imagine.

Obviously, you need to learn how to shoot. Those are the toughest questions because you need to know how to focus a camera. You need to know how to put your card in if you're using digital. If not, you need to know how to use film. You need to know how to expose it properly. You probably should learn how to use a strobe. Obviously there's a lot of technical aspects to photography – it is a technical field in some ways – but I never put a lot of emphasis on those skills.

I measured my skills on my intimacy with the equipment itself. When I started doing more video, I remember the thrill of one day being able to reach inside the bag where the video camera was, and I knew exactly what every control was. I knew how far when I turned it what it would be setting on so I could literally operate it completely in the dark. That's a level of intimacy that I think you have to get to with your gear before you can finally do what the whole point of that intimacy is for and that is to forget about it. The idea is to become so technically proficient, so confident in your technical skills that you just don't think about it anymore. That's the way I am today.

There have been times where my overconfidence in my skills and my intimacy with my camera has actually been one of my downfalls. It happened just a few months ago. I went and shot something. It was beautiful. It was a great moment, great situation and I was shooting. I even came home and showed the digital screen to my wife Kim and said, ‘Hey, check this out. Look! I kicked some butt today. Look at this. Oh yes, sweet.’ I was really excited about this image. I liked it. It was good.

Then I put it in the Powerbook, fired it up and looked at it large and realized it was totally out of focus. I got to tell you that I was so confident of my ability to shoot. For shooting that photo I didn't even look through the viewfinder. I didn't see any need to. This is pure confidence. Why would I even need to look through the viewfinder, I know I've got it.

I was autofocus. Pushing the little button, you know, hit a few frames. I wasn't really paying attention. I wasn't actually looking through the finder. If I was looking through the finder, I would have seen how out of focus it was.

It was really out of focus. We're not talking a little bit, I'm talking marshmallow.
If you could change anything along the way, what would it be?
Ed note: this question was meant to address professional decisions (ie. “I should have taken a business class in college, etc...”). David chose to follow it as personal decisions. I considered dropping this question, but we can all learn from his answer.
That's always been a tough one for me. I talk about it quite often with my friends. I sometimes wonder what the balance is between profession and personal life. Ultimately when you ask that question, that's what it's going to come down to. It will come down to what things did you do that harmed others or harmed yourself and hurt your personal life.

I used to say I didn't have any regrets about anything I'd ever done. I don't feel that way anymore. I think I've matured quite a bit since those days. I actually do have a lot of regrets, and I'm actually grateful for those regrets. Now this is the odd thing, I don't know if I would have changed them. Because I know that to change them I would be someone completely different today.

Would I be better? I don't know. Who's to say. At some point, you have to look back and say, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’

I was growing. I was learning. I never wanted or sought to hurt anyone in my personal life or myself. There were times that I did. I wished I hadn't. How can you change those things? How do I know? How do I know that going back and making a different decision might not leave me in a worse place today? That's how I feel.

I think a better thing to do than to sit around regretting what you've done is to look at what you can do today. So, I stay pretty focused on my opportunities today and my choices I'm making today. I hope I learned from the past and try not to make those mistakes again. But, I'm pretty happy with my life.

I love knowing that at 47 years old I can look back on my life and my career and know I spent it the way I was supposed to. That's a real sense of peace.
What do you see in the future for news photographers?
Nobody likes it when I say this, but the future of photojournalism is video. Everyone freaks. Everyone calm down. Everyone needs to just relax. Take a deep breath. I said video. I didn't say the death of the still image. I didn't say that still photography is no more, it's going to be all video. I'm not saying that.

I'm saying in the future for photojournalist – particularly those working for newspapers – if you don't develop those skills in multi-media – whether it just be audio or audio and video – you're going to have a lot tougher time advancing in your career or getting a job in the first place.

It's already showing up. There are already people doing it. There are already students who probably know how to do it already. They're going to have those skills and those skills are going to be put into play.

Let's face it. The demographics continue to decline for readership. Newspapers across the country are putting more and more emphasis on their digital product, being the Web. And if they own TV stations there's a lot of work being put into those.

I don't want to declare the death of newspapers yet, because I think they still have quite a bit of life left in them. But I don't think we have to discus what's going to happen to newspapers in order to have a meaningful discussion about what is going to happen with the Web. The Web is going to continue to grow. We have an opportunity here to make a difference in another medium.

People ask me, ‘Why should I be interested in video or audio? Why should we do it?’ I say, ‘Because you can.’ Because you can do things and speak in ways with motion and sound that you cannot do with a still image.

By the same token, the power of an image is inarguable. Nothing that I know of – any media – can form an entire icon for chapters of history. That speaks to the power of the still image. Everybody would agree with that.

I have a little lesson I like to pose to high school students because I talk about the power of the still image. They don't get it. I can see they're not. So I say, ‘Sometimes it's just content alone has power. If you don't believe it then how about I show you a photograph of your girlfriend with another guy making out.’ It wouldn't even need to be focused to affect your life in a powerful way. So, content alone – visual content – can make a difference. Of course we go far beyond that hopefully.

So we're not arguing the veracity of still photography. I would hope that conversation was done decades ago. But we are arguing about the veracity of motion and sound. I like to say that rather than video because the moment I say video people think ‘journalist + video camera = TV.’ No it doesn't necessarily equal TV.

That's what I've been working in for the last four years or more. My work has been experimenting with the process of translating still images into motion and sound. That does not mean I'm taking still photographs and putting them in video and calling it a video. No, I'm actually using a video camera and using it just as I would a still camera.

It's a very powerful medium. I'm hoping to learn to exploit it more. I think that we're going to see some of the world's greatest films will come out of what's happening right now as more and more people have the opportunity to take a relatively inexpensive DV camera and non-linear editing like your iMovie and create your own film in a weekend.

I've done seven documentaries and last year started to win television awards: the Edward R. Murrow Award, the National Headliner Award for best television documentary (“War Stories”). I won a regional Emmy Award for television documentary. I was also finalist for “Best Short Film” at the USA Film Festival last year. All different [documentaries].

I'm coming to realize my own style, my own approach and ways to do it. It's not easy, but it's not that difficult. Some people who teach this say you have to start over. You have to re-learn everything. It's a different medium. You have to learn things differently. It's not the same approach.

I take an entirely different approach to it, and I say any decent photojournalist is a good storyteller, and they're probably not too bad technically. You have virtually every skill you need right now in order to go out and use that video camera. There's only a few small things you'll have to learn additionally.

It's just like back when we used to shoot all black and white and then they gave us color. Color was just another layer that I had to deal with in an image. Before, I was just looking at the quality of light. Now I was looking at quality and color of light, and the color of an image and how that played a role in telling a story. Now, I've added two more layers. Now I've added sound and motion.

I look at it as communicating and now I have two more layers to work with in order to tell a story. But it does not replace still photography. It never will. Still photography is here from now on as it should be as it will be. Because why? Because it's a different medium. Let's get past that argument. Let's move on to the fact that you can make a difference to an entire different group of audiences speaking in a different language that has just as much power and veracity to affect people's lives as the still image.
What is your finest moment?
I guess we're talking about professional life because if my wife saw it she would say, ‘You mean it wasn't your wedding day?’ or ‘It wasn't the birth of our baby?’ Of course those are amazing moments.

A moment when I was particularly thrilled. I wanted people to understand the veracity of using video in combination with shooting still photography. I had encountered some resistance from higher-ups at the newspaper for taking a video camera with me to Iraq. But I was convinced I knew exactly how to work with both of them. So I told them, ‘You don't need to worry about the content of the photographs. You don't have to worry about the photography. If I give you my word that it's going to be top level, that's good. Just leave it alone. But, I'm going to do this video. I'm taking it with me.’

It really wasn't up for negotiation. I'm taking it, period. And there was one fine moment that stands out when I found out that on the day that one of my still photographs had been published on the front page of I think they said 43 newspapers nationwide on the very same day, later that evening, on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings one of my videos aired. So I had network news and 43 front pages nationwide. And that was the day the video camera died. At the last possible moment, when I had one last chance.

It illustrates so powerfully how you can do both, and you can do both really well. For those who don't know about TV or video, it's just not that easy to get something on World News Tonight. It has to be pretty good for it to make it. It has to be incredibly unique or something. There's a lot of video shot every day. It doesn't all make it because there's a limited time there. By the same token, it's not that easy to hit that many front pages in a single day. The fact that it happened on the same day was a big moment.

By the way, that's not like my biggest moment in life because I don't know what it would be. It was a great moment, but my life has been filled with a lot of great moments. I've had an incredible life. I could die tomorrow and no reason to shed tears for me because I've lived more than I was supposed to be able to live.
Enough for now,


vineet mathur said...

Incredible interview, Mark! I have cutouts of Leeson's photographs from the paper... reading him speak was quite enlightening.

Mark M. Hancock said...

He's a really nice guy.