Monday, August 08, 2005

Dissect imageless stories

Every PJ has heard Bill Garret's PJ solution is "f/8 and be there." This equation makes sense for spot news, but it doesn't seem to work for vaporous news stories or features.

The technical how-to is the easy part. Being there is more difficult. To be in the right place at the right time takes considerable thought.

Jodi Cobb, a National Geographic staffer told Nikon Net she prefers Louis Pasteur's quotation, "chance favors the prepared mind."

Cobb said,
"Photographers rely on serendipity for a lot of their best photographs, but you've got to know what you're looking at. You've got to do the research, and know where to go and at what time of day and what you're best chances are in order to get that moment. A huge amount of preparation goes into serendipity."

The challenge
For every news story there is one perfect image. Frequently, this image is impossible because it would involve a PJ's death. However, simple stories and deeper features are absolutely possible for PJs to capture IF they know enough about the story (and have some luck).

Today, I'll pose the challenge for everyone to read news stories like PJs do. First, understand what the story subjects are doing (or did). Then, understand who the primary people are. Lastly, imagine how to best document this story. When and where will answer themselves. Why is often a second sentence in the cutline.

If the story is a retrospective, ask how to best illuminate the story now. We can't go to Normandy Beach in 1945, but we could go now. Who (specific names) would we want to see there (must be a living person)? If they were there, what would we expect to see and how would we shoot it? What emotional barriers must we overcome in ourselves to get the shot we need to tell their story? How would we convince people to let us hang with them during this emotional time?

These are the challenges PJs face on every assignment each day. It becomes more difficult when the story isn't about anyone in particular, but a community-wide or global situation (global warming, famine or war as examples).

The point is to use your imagination to pre-visualize a single ideal image. Then, break down this ideal into achievable steps to get to where the ideal image actually might exist today.

When faced with a similar situation, and armed with pre-visualized images, a PJ knows where to go and what to do to try to find the ideal image for the story. Again, it may not be a possibility, but by considering what could be captured we have the "chance favors the prepared mind" part of the equation handled.

"Being there" becomes a logistical and economic factor once we know what we want. Once we are in the location and everything is right, the ideal image may never materialize. On the positive side, an even better image may happen once there with a prepared mind.

The exercise
Today, let's keep it simple. The next time we read a newspaper, we'll ignore the stories with images and focus on the stories without images. These stories are often written hastily because news broke near deadline or nobody thought to ask a PJ to tackle a complicated issue.

For new PJs, it's a good mental exercise to get in shape for showtime. For seasoned pros, it helps us prepare for the inevitable follow-up or localized stories. After this exercise, we can get something in the bag before they ask.

I'd suggest everyone turn off the computer, pick up their local paper and go through this exercise now. However, I know it wouldn't happen. So, I'll walk through a fictional example story. Then, y'all can go look at the hometown news to see the undocumented stories and mentally document them.

Information needed
Each image tells a story. Therefore, we must answer Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Additionally, we need to know the specific name of a person or organization as well as all the contact information on this person or organization.

As we read a story without an accompanying image, we need to answer all these questions. Then we need to formulate a desired image to match the story. If the story is about urban decay, a pastoral scene doesn't work.

What - the Verb
For many news stories, what seems to be secondary to who. However, to understand the most complicated stories PJs face, we'll tackle the issue first. What is the "verb" of our visual story. Without understanding what's happening, we can't document it.

If someone asks, "What happening?" and others answer, "Dog," and possibly drool upon themselves then we get a creepy feeling and look for an exit. The answer to "what's happening?" is always a verb.

As an aside, when you arrive for a full day of hardcore PJ work and ask what's happening, the answer may be a noun. When a reporter says "school" or "new business," it's OK to imagine drool. It makes the day bearable.

The most difficult stories to document start with what and then move to who. For today's example, let's imagine a tax abatement bill passed and soon becomes a law. This new law benefits a particular industry while it creates difficulties for others.

Public relations firms are paid large fees to put positive spins on bad news. They frequently employ key terms such as "growth" or "gains" (in labor or service support businesses). However, the truth is the government (or the biz itself if it relocates for the abatement) took money from one person and handed it to another person. Good, bad or indifferent, this is what happens with tax abatements.

For this particular story, we'll say the abatement is contained within the community (rather than a new, out-of-state biz, which is good locally and bad elsewhere). We must understand how much money is about to leave a budget. We also need to know which specific services will be cut back or eliminated.

Our research shows the government has been helping support a not-for-profit day care center in our community. The amount the government contributes happens to be the same as the monthly abatement revenue lost by this community and they plan to cut all funding to this center (it's my story, I can make it convenient).

Now, we must document the results of this action in one to three frames. However, as PJs, we must document this in present tense for a past or future action.

Who - the Noun
As we dig through the story, we want to find the names of the primary people. It could be the person (or biz) named in the story or someone directly affected by the news. If it's slow-moving news, such as a new law, there's time to find people affected by the law and document the law's results.

In either case, we need to distil the story down to the people involved in the story. This doesn't mean "a poor person" or "a mother." This means we need to find a name and eventually a phone number and address. Then, we need to gain access.

Get help
When we're faced with larger issues, we need to get help from others to connect to the subjects. We know this new law affects poor people and mothers. Consequently, if we can locate a poor mother who uses this day care center, then we have someone who is most affected.

For other stories, we could search for community organizations that try to help those most affected. This requires a phone book, a deep business card file and some time searching the Internet for contacts.

Our goal is to document the story, but if we can help some people along the way it's best. The leaders of these organizations understand this aspect of "media" and are willing to help because they understand many newspaper readers want to help their neighbors with donations or petitions once they know what is needed.

We'll contact the center directly and ask for our specific ideal - a low-income mother with children at the center. The center may suggest a few folks who need the most help and give us names, phone numbers and/or addresses.

Make contact
With telephone numbers, we can contact the subjects and see what concerns they have. If we make contact before the money flow changes, we can document the "good times."

Now is when some of the other when, where and how questions are answered for our visual story. Where is dictated by the story. We need a specific address and phone number for the center. We'll also need to know when the subject arrives at the center. We'll talk some more and find out the best way to shoot the situation (how). Possibly the subject tells us something unusual about her day care experience. Then, we'll want to document a drop-off or pick-up ritual.

Seek the image
After asking the subjects many questions, we learn enough information to formulate some possible ideal images.

We know this mother picks up her excited child at a specific time on a specific day. We also know the child is a toddler who waits in a playpen until its mother arrives. We additionally know the mother lifts the child out of the playpen and carries the child to the car.

Now, what's the ideal image for this specific story?

The shooting window is very tight. So, we must know which equipment, lenses and angles tell this story best. What light should we expect? What background/foreground elements should we expect?

BTW, when you arrive at the center before the mother, the child is sleeping. Does this change your ideal image?

Publish the results
Not every story comes to a logical conclusion in a timely manner. Sometimes, PJs need to do what they can and get it to the press while the issue is still hot or while there's still enough time for readers to act and help someone.

This is why it's best to plan on finding the singular best image for a story. Although we would like to have the time and page space for a full-length photo story, it's not a reality at most daily newspapers. We get one crack at telling the story in one frame and move on to the next story. We can visit again later, but there's a hole in the paper waiting on an image.

Consequently, find the one frame to tell the entire story or at least compel readers to read the story. If a PJ plans on a three-image package and space gets cut, the package goes down to one image anyway. If the lead image tells the whole story, the message stays intact even after the cut. If the lead image only tells one-third of the story, the PJ hasn't accomplished the mission.

The entire point of this job is collecting stories and getting them onto a press.

Follow the story
Later, we should follow up with these folks periodically to see how situations have changed. If we later learn the center is closing, we'll want to be there for the final, likely tearful, day.

Possibly, the subject needed to find alternative child care or had to quit her job because her income wasn't more than new child care costs. Meanwhile, the subject could have won the lotto or perfected cold fusion, now lives in a mansion overlooking the lake district and created an endowment for the center (now there's a story).

When it doesn't work
Occasionally, a story implodes or turns out to be something other than expected. The resulting images don't tell the deep-issue story we hoped to have. Even then, the PJ has some nice shots documenting vignettes of someone's life. It can still be turned into a feature story about the person. It's fine. It happens. Run the feature story and work on the next issue.

Enough for now,


CarmenSisson said...

This should be posted to every reporter/low-level editor's desk and they should be forced to regurgitate it verbatim until they scream for mercy.

Okay. Maybe that's a bit harsh.

My assignments this week included an airplane. No pilots. No allowance inside. No way to move it from the cluttered background, no way to tell any sort of story with it. The University got a new plane for the coaches. It cost a lot of money. On the outside, it just looks like a plane. I went there with the understanding that I would meet the pilots. Turns out the reporter never got to talk to them.

I had an assignment where a lady donated a kidney to a man. The reporter wanted a photograph of the lady with a needlepoint pillow she made with a Bible-verse on it. A little planning would have allowed a better photograph of donor and recipient together, laughing, talking, sharing LIFE. But the reporter need the photograph that day and the recipient was out of town. I photographed the lady going about her daily life. But without the photos meant nothing without the story. And what ran? The photo of the lady holding the pillow.

There's more, but I'll just be quiet now.

CarmenSisson said...

Sorry for the typos. I should proof before I hit enter. I am just so tired. I'll try to be more careful in the future.