David Leeson interview - Part A
Hopefully, everyone has had a chance to read David Leeson's biography. Below is 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.
Marie in North Carolina said her questions were existential in nature. First, she was curious as to what dimension the act of photojournalism and the art of photography has added to the life of each photojournalist.
Boy existentialism is right. It sounds like a very specific question, but actually that one’s very broad. It’d be like asking an attorney how has their career affected their lives.Marie also wanted David to compare and contrast himself as a young photojournalist to where he is now no only in his career, but in his personal life and how being a photojournalist has affected him.
Photojournalism in general tends to be incestuous in nature. Photographers tend to see there is something extraordinarily neat in the very field of photojournalism or in photography. Perhaps that’s more akin to the art field. Artists have a tendency to feel that way. At some level there are aspects of any career that really apply to all of us.
There are three things that have been important to me in my career. One of them is invention. At the earliest level, invention is just trying to think. It’s whenever a person gets a new lens, and they go nuts with it.
It’s going through all the gimmicks. But it is inventive. It is ways that you’re learning, you’re growing, you’re finding things out.
It’s like a baby. I have a new baby at my house. One of the things he’ll be doing to learn about his world is trying to taste everything eventually and touch everything. All of these things are good for the growth process and invention plays an enormous role there.
Think of it as a beginning cook, who in the beginning just adds new spices to change up a recipe. At the end of the career, he’s actually changing the entire recipe to create his own.
The second thing that’s important is passion. I don’t think anybody in any career is going to go very far without passion for what they’re doing. There must be some love, some drive within you that compels you to go out there and be inventive. Otherwise, why cook if you don’t like to cook? Beyond that, how much more can you go if you not only like to cook, but you love to cook.
Lastly, and I think this is the key, is a sense of mission. Without a sense of mission, none of the others really matter because they’re completely self-serving or they’re wildly directed in the wrong places. You have to have some sense of mission. What is the point behind what I’m doing? Why am I doing what I’m doing? That sense of mission will help drive the other two as well.
As a photojournalist, one of the things that is quite different from many other careers is the fact that we travel. We see this wide range of life from the richest to the poorest, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, and everything in between. We see them healthy and strong and in all walks of life and all cultures. So, it’s a unique profession in that sense. And, yes, I think that might affect you in ways that might be different that might be different than an attorney, who may be passionate about their career and doing pro-bono work and has a very strong sense of mission.
Tough question because it’s so broad.
Every person is affected uniquely. I think if you’ve got two photojournalists who are advanced in their career and sat them down talking, we would have a lot of things in common. I would have a lot of things in common with a beginning photographer, but maybe less so in some areas.
On the other hand, we’re unique in that my travels and some of the conflict coverage. That’s an area that has affected me deeply - in some ways, very negatively. In other ways, I wouldn’t trade for those.
Thank you Marie.
I was always a photographer. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t get a job as a writer. I took the job as a photographer hoping they would hire me as a writer. Of course they never did, and I fell in love about two months later.Michael in Portland also asked two questions. First, what’s in your bag when you go to shoot in a war zone. What kind of extra equipment do you bring, what’s your lens preference (prime or zoom, mm).
Well, I didn’t really get it. To me it was like taking pictures. It was fun. Somebody gets to do it. Somebody’s got to do it, and it sure was a cool job. But then when I first realized the amazing power of an image to affect people’s lives, I realized that I had something magical and powerful in my hands. I didn’t want to let go of it, and I never have.
I was so naïve when I started that I didn’t know anything about photojournalism. I didn’t know what photojournalism was. I thought a photojournalist meant somebody who took photos and wrote a story.
Very soon thereafter, I learned that the combination of the two usually is not a very good idea. Writers out taking photographs never was a very smart idea for newspapers - certainly not without giving them any training.
I was that stupid about what photojournalism was. I was completely uninitiated. Unlike a lot of photographers today. Today, to get a job at a newspaper as a photojournalist, my gosh, what do you have to have these days? A degree, maybe years and years of experience, a strong portfolio, great people skills, maybe even a great grade point average these days. I don’t know.
I just know that I’m not sure that I could have gotten a job as a photojournalist if I had to do what you guys are having to do. I don’t know how they do it. You have to really develop some skills early on. You’re going to need to get that passion early on. I didn’t have it because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know what it really was. I did have a passion for taking photographs, and I also had a real passion for telling stories. I think if there is one key element here that makes me somewhat similar to some of the young photographers is thinking back from my earliest age – even in junior high school – I always enjoyed being a story teller.
The logical thing for a storyteller is what? A writer. That’s the first thing one thinks of. I certainly never thought of photography as story telling because I didn’t have any training. I was not initiated to photojournalism. So, I kind of discovered it after I already got the job. They just hired me because I knew how to process film, because I liked taking pictures and I had my own darkroom.
I used to take photographs up to them – the Abilene Reporter News – I used to try to get them to run it. They never did use any of the stuff.
I was in college, and I got my job at the newspaper while I was still in college. I was working full time at the Abilene Reporter News while I was a junior in college. I was taking heavy loads. I was even took extra courses in high school in the summer so I could get out of school because I just despised school. I didn’t like it. I love to learn about a lot of things. I love education in general, but I didn’t like the school systems. I never much cared for that. I appreciate them more today than when I was in it.
The university I chose was one of the best universities I could find within reach – Abilene Christian University – I’m very proud to be an [alumni] there, but I was really ready to get through that too because I wanted to get out and start my career. I wanted to get a jump on people to be honest.
That’s another thing that I had too that really probably helped me a lot in photojournalism. I was highly competitive. But, I’ve always been a very sensitive person. I’m still sensitive to a flaw to this day. It’s been a tough burden to live with sometimes. Yet, I’ve always considered it one of my greatest strengths. There’s a verse in the Bible that says when your weak, that’s when you’re strong. There’s a lot of truth to that. A lot of our very worst aspects, are also our best attributes at the same time.
The passion sometimes knows no bounds and that’s a very weak character flaw sometimes. And yet at times it’s also the absolute best. And so the trick is learning how do we channel those things. I think that’s the part that changes as we mature as photographers, as people, as our character grows, as we grow as individuals, as we get more experiences. We learn how to function with our own flaws and allow them to be strengths more than they are flaws.
That’s a good question. It’s kind of a fun question. First, I’m not at all a technical person. For years I had a nickname at The Dallas Morning News. They called me the “Prints of Darkness” because my prints were so dark. I usually shoot things underexposed. Well, actually these days with digital, I shoot everything at least a stop underexposed, maybe more. Sometimes as much as two stops and on a rare occasion 2.5 to three stops. I do that to lower the contrast, purposely, so I can hold the highlights. I cannot stand blown-out highlights. That’s about the extent of my technical talk, ‘cause I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know the ultimate effect of it except to say that I think I know how to get to what I want. I figured out my own way of doing it, and I haven’t got a clue as to whether it’s right or wrong and don’t really care.Speed?
My equipment, you almost have to answer that question based on back then and today. In the past, it was pretty simple. In any conflict situation, you need to be very light and mobile. So, I would usually have two bodies. I always did a motor. On a rare occasion, I would take one motor and leave the other one as just a body – without a motor – just to save weight. I always found that having another motor with a camera body didn’t really affect performance. It wasn’t that much of a burden to carry that additional weight for me. It was worth it because I like to have it handy.
I don’t like having to use two different types of bodies. I want the weight, the feel, the heft, the way you grip it and all the controls to fit into my hand exactly the same as the other camera with the only exception being the lens you have on it. I never did like the thought that I could lose a few seconds or even a second switching to a camera and have to actually hold it a little bit differently because it didn’t have a motor on it or a different design of the body. So whenever possible, I always have the same thing.
I’d have two bodies with motors and generally a 20mm lens and a 200mm lens, and that was it. I always use prime lenses. In fact, to this day, I still don’t own a zoom. That doesn’t mean I don’t want one, I’ve been thinking about buying one. I’m not anti-zoom.
I think you have to look back on the fact that I’ve been in the business quite a while. It’s coming up on 28 years.
When I first started out, zoom lenses were not the quality that they are today. You couldn’t get the kinds of zooms that you can buy now. So, I’ve stuck with my prime lenses and always used prime.
Believe it or not, the bulk of my career was using the old Nikons – Nikon F2s, F3s, then I went to F4s for a while. The F4 was such an atrocious camera that I think that was the end of my Nikon era.
I actually went backwards. After I reached the F4, which I had with me during the Gulf War – the first Gulf War, it was a fine camera, but it just wasn’t the same. I just thought they had ruined it. So, I went back to my F3s, because I like the F3P a lot. I thought it was a great camera, but then I decided I was going to go back to the F2.
I went through a really serious slump many years ago. I wanted to return to some basics. I wanted to get back to where I was before so I could start all over and rebuild from there, and see what I had done wrong that had lead me to a slump.
Again, invention. Doing something different to the recipe to affect the outcome. In the end, I was using F2s that were 27-year-old bodies.
Back in the Nikon Days, it would have been a 180mm f/2.8 and a 20mm f/2.8. The 20mm was a staple of my photography for well over two decades. I still use a 20mm even on my digital camera.Iraq seemed wider.
I just know that I’m not as wide anymore. I don’t care.
The work I did in Iraq was not [prime lenses]. I did use zooms there. I borrowed them from my wife, who is a photographer also. I borrowed her 17~35mm f/2.8 and her 80~200 f/2.8. I borrowed those for the trip because I wanted to cut down on weight. I also took a converter. Throughout my travels, I usually took a 1.4 converter with me. ‘Cause you never know if you need to extend that 180mm or 200mm to get more out of it.Michael also wanted to know about access and ethics in conflict areas.
Back in the old days – 10 years ago – then I would just carry a lot of film with me. On some stories, we were having to file daily stuff. That was a real job because you had to carry an entire darkroom with you, and set it up in bathrooms. You put your trays in the bathtub, set the enlarger on the toilet seat, process your film on reels, tape off the bathroom door. It was a big job and then you’d use the old drum transmitters – AP drum transmitters – it would take upwards of 32 minutes to send a single color image. It took eight minutes per separation and there are four separations.
Strangely enough, in the digital age during the Iraq conflict, actually carrying the gear just to support the job itself was just outrageous. Now it was not only the equipment – the lenses and the bodies – now it’s the disks, which are lighter than carrying 200 rolls of film. Then you have to have the chargers for all those things and the Powerbook for doing your scans. I guess in one point it’s actually lighter than it was in the old days. At least it wasn’t a full darkroom. But, it’s still burdensome. Of course, then you have a big satellite dish too. Although some photographers are just using those [satellite] phones.
Mine is about the size of another thick laptop - a really heavy laptop. Remember those old Powerbooks years ago that were real thick as bricks. It’s about that size. And then, part of it folds out to be an antenna.
The big issue is getting them charged up every day.
I took inverters with me also. I blew them both out. So, I didn’t have any more inverters. I also took a generator. It worked for about four days. It got choked up and died. I left it there. It was a brand new $800 generator.
I gave it to a captain in the Army. I saw him months later, and he said he got it back home and got it fixed. It needed a new filter or something. He was kind enough to offer it back to me, but I said, ‘No, you carried it all the way across Iraq. You can keep it.’ I think that’s only fair. If he didn’t take it, I was going to leave it anyway.
The part that I think people maybe even more interested in is I carry earplugs with me. In the Iraq War, I carried a video camera. I also carried a small medical kit everywhere I went. In a few situations I had to carry my own tent. In some places – depends on where you’re going – a water purification system. There’s a lot of odds and ends. Those change depending on where you’re going.
At one point I was carrying a very small survival gear, which includes like a fish hook and stuff like that. I also have made a point throughout my career to always carry a couple of my own hypodermic needles. That’s because in third-world countries they re-use needles. I always planned - if I needed one and I was conscious - I was going to hand them my needle. ‘Use mine because it’s sterilized and I know it’s good.’
Access varies widely. There’s really no answer for it. You don’t really know. Some places are completely wide open. For instance, covering Central America, it was like if you had the nerve to go someplace, then no one was going to stop you. The army wouldn’t. They’d say, ‘Hey, it’s your neck. Have at it if you’re stupid enough to do it. We’ll let you, but we’re not coming for you.’Recon?
They’d just leave you alone.
Contrast that to the first Gulf War, where I spent most of the war fighting Marines trying to stop me from taking photographs. Some of my best images were shot illegally. It could have got me thrown out or worse. I did it for history because I thought it was important to be there and cover it, and I wasn’t going to abide by the rules.
Let’s fast-forward to he embed program, which the word ‘embedded’ means ‘stuck.’ I thought that’s what it was going to be because my experience in covering things with the U.S. military had always been very negative. So I wasn’t particularly thrilled about doing it. I didn’t know anything about embed programs. They just tossed me in and said, ‘You’re doing it.’
I had probably more freedom than I’ve known in my entire career. I had complete and total access, unfettered, no censorship, no one saying ‘No,’ anywhere I wanted to go, anything I want to shoot. That simple.
I’m not talking about the ground rules. There were ground rules that said if you photograph a U.S. casualty, you have to give it 48 hours for notification of next of kin. Which to me, the ground rules were either common sense or common decency. Out of common decency, I would hopefully not send a photograph back before next of kin was notified anyway. ‘Cause I don’t want to notify someone’s mother by her seeing her son on the front of her newspaper. I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s wrong. It’s incredibly poor ethics, and I would never do it.
They tell me that’s a rule, and I have to follow it. And I’m like, ‘You wouldn’t have to tell me to do that.’ But I understand some journalists you probably would – unfortunately.
Another one is like you wouldn’t [transmit] your location. We all had GPS. I could have given the exact coordinates of where I was at any given point. And they had maps back at the office where they could have said, he’s exactly right here. But, I didn’t do that. That’s common sense. Why would I want to risk someone targeting us – particularly me – with a mortar round. That’s common sense.
The exception is being able to go where you want. You can’t leave the unit. You are with that unit the whole time.
I would have loved to have gone with the scouts. The scouts are crammed into these Hum-Vs packed with gear. They got no place for you man. It’s not that they don’t want you there, or that they would have refused. It’s just they have an operation to do and they have no place for you. The same [is true] with the Bradleys. The Bradleys, oh my gosh, it looks like one of those clown acts at a rodeo where they keep coming out of the car. I can’t believe how many poor guys they shove in the back of these Bradleys. Amazing.
It’s all filled up. There are not a whole lot of options for you to just jump in and travel. Again, it’s not because they didn’t want you there, there’s no place.
That’s why I was in a M113 (armored personnel carrier), which was also crammed. At least they made room for me. They did put me 7th vehicle in line though. At any given point, I was seeing the lead tank. So I was at the very front lines. Of course, obviously that’s why I have some of the photos I got. If it were not for that, you wouldn’t see a lot of that stuff because it’s overwith by the time the back of the line gets there. These convoys can extend four kilometers.
There was a TV crew embedded in the same unit. They put them at the very back. I went weeks and never saw them, but they were with us.
The lead units would normally spend a day or two fighting before they would bring up the thinner-skinned vehicles, light-skinned Hum-Vs and communications equipment.
That’s where those guys were.
They kind of got a bum deal out of that. Again, they really didn’t have a place for them. They had a place for me, and I think being just one person really helped. They were two people and they had an unbelievable amount of gear with them, and I didn’t. I was traveling very light.
Enough for now,
Please also see Part B of this interview.