Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Riding the rocket is an uncomfortable rush

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News
Dallas firefighters battle a fire at the Fitzhugh Apartments near the intersection of Fitzhugh Avenue and Monarch Street in Dallas on Thursday, July 1, 2004.

The worst day a photojournalist could have is when there are no assignments. Many might imagine this is a great situation. PJs could catch up on archive work, research story ideas, prep contest entries, turn in paperwork (mileage, etc.) maybe even get something to eat. At a smaller paper in a small town, this may be correct. At a metro daily, we call it “riding the rocket.” Yes, you can start doing the typical office things BUT...

To an editor, a PJ without an assignment means s/he is available for the next crisis – anywhere on the planet.

Imagine a huge rocket sitting outside the back door of the building. If something goes wrong, a PJ will run to the rocket, strap her/himself onto the side and blast off. Of course this is a fictional rocket and the actual rockets are our cars and trucks, but the feeling is similar.

The PJ often has no idea what s/he is roaring toward, where it is or how long s/he will be there. The PJ is merely screaming away in a general direction and waiting for additional instructions. This is riding the rocket. It’s an uncomfortable-bowel-syndrome wait for something to go wrong.

We hope everyone plays nice today, but expect something bad to happen. We are excited to cover something big, yet we know the bigger the assignment the bigger the potential failure. It’s often something tragic, which we wish on nobody. It’s a rush, but it isn’t for everyone.

Editors expect definitive images in the system by deadline. This isn’t a “maybe” situation. Deliver compelling, definitive, story-telling images by deadline or don’t bother to come back.

PJs without assignments are the first on the rocket. Those between assignments are next, followed by those who are closest to the event (this is why it’s important to get a shot of something/anything the second we arrive at a scheduled shoot). I’m not sure how it goes from here, but if it involves guns in less-desirable metro areas it seems to be mine.

Additionally, vacation is subject to cancellation at any time. We must have our pager with us at all times (particularly while on vacation). A vacationing PJ can be reactivated and put on the rocket in their flip flops with a margarita hangover and sent who-knows-where. Laugh now, but wait until it happens to you.

Sometimes there is absolutely nothing there. The event happened and the bodies were removed hours ago. One photographer said this is where photojournalism ends and documentary photography begins. You take a few images to document there wasn’t squat there. However, they better be compelling images of nothing in the middle of nowhere.

Enough for now,

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