Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Michael Ainsworth Interview - Part B

Please see Michael's bio and images as well as Part A of this interview.

What keeps you motivated as a PJ?

A paycheck. (laughs)

Well, I'm too stupid to do anything else. (laughs)

It's just a lifestyle I guess. It's energizing what we do. It's about the people we meet and the situations we come across. It's about the challenge of making an image that means something - not just to me, but to someone else. That's pretty much it.

What does it take to be successful in this profession?

That's a tough one because everybody is different. Each photographer brings something different to the table. I'm going to say confidence.

I say that and at the same time know I don't have the most confidence in the world. There's still some there. Knowing that you can go and produce an image that is worthy of the newspaper you work at - worthy for people to see.

There's many different types of personalities in this profession. Each person brings their own vision.

For a college kid, what are some skills?

The main thing is composition and lighting. I mean lighting in that not just you get better at lighting things, but you are able to see light and use light. Then there's looking for moments.

Moments are definitely important in our profession. Just like peak action is important, there are also subtle moments - people's expressions.

Knowing a little bit about the technical side of it as well. We just did some portfolio reviews up in Missouri and it was interesting to see the different levels of people that were coming to get their portfolios reviewed.

There were people that were really, really good and they were the people in the master's program. Then there were people I know didn't know f-stops and shutter speeds work together because their images were all shot at f/8 and their pictures were all shot at the same distance. There was no foreground/background relationship in the photos and you have to talk to these people differently.

It's tough when you're looking at somebody's portfolio. You don't know their background. You don't know what level they're at. You try to (evaluate the portfolio) the best you can without being hurtful. Because some people can take it and some people can't.

After a certain amount of photography, hearing negative things about your work is what's needed to get you to the next level. That's what needs to be said. We weren't coddled when we were coming up. Of course, the people that we were asking opinions of knew us, but it's good to be pushed. It's good to have opinions about your work.

It's good to hear the good, but it's equally good to hear the bad and hear what you need to improve. If your (skin) isn't thick enough to accept it, maybe it's time to find something else to do. You're going to hear it from your bosses if your work isn't good enough. You better be able to accept it and learn from that.

Everybody has their own opinions, there's pictures some people like and other people hate. What I'm saying is you have to listen to the critical comments. The critical comments are usually only stated to try to make you better and try and push you and try and get you to the next level.

You're known as a "sports guy," please give some tips for young sports photojournalists.

If you're shooting baseball, stand right behind Louis DeLuca. If you're shooting football, stand right behind John Rhodes. (laughs)

Know the game. That's the first thing. Know the nuances and sometimes that just takes shooting a lot. That's how you learn. You learn from experience.

When you're shooting a certain team - let's say the Rangers - you know Cordero's going to point at the sky after he has a save. You're going to know a batter is going to twirl his bat if he strikes out. Little things. Those little things can help you make a picture.

Basically, you need to know the game and keep shooting.

If you're shooting a high school game, you're not going to have time to (learn players' idiosyncrasies) because you're only covering one game. But know The Game.

If I go to cover a new football team, I always ask are they a running team, are they a passing team, who's their running back, what are the team's tendencies, do they run inside, do they run outside. All that stuff helps you to shoot the game. Even though you may not know each individual player and how they'll react, you know the tendencies of the team.

Even if you've never shot the team before, there's always someone on the sideline that knows the team - even the cheerleaders. Well, some of them - you can ask them. The (parents), trainers or the cheerleaders they'll tell you, "They run it about 40 percent of the time and the rest they throw to this one guy." They'll let you know.

It's no secret, but it's a secret to you because before you asked them, you didn't know. Just ask basic information.

New sports?

Do some research on the sport. Ask people who have shot the game. If someone else is at the game, bump shoulders, ask questions. You'll get the answers. Unless that photographer is really antisocial, they'll be glad to help. There shouldn't be any reason why they shouldn't help.

The more information you know, the more prepared you are - even if you get there at the last second. There's things you can do to help you out.

In baseball, if you have a left-handed hitter, they'll usually pull the ball and it will usually go toward the 2nd baseman or the 1st baseman. If it's a right-handed hitter if they pull the ball - which they normally do - it'll go toward 3rd. Just little things like that.

You'll (learn the nuances by) listening to the radio. Whatever it takes. It's about information.

How important is competition in the industry?

To some it's very important. Some people, that's all they're concerned about. They see that as a validation of their work. (Contests allow) people to gage themselves or gage themselves against others. I personally don't hold much to that.

If you win a lot of contests, you're going to enter a lot of contests, you're probably going to win a lot of contests. I personally don't win that much. I don't put that much importance in it.

I enjoy just taking the photos. If I have something that I really like, I'll enter it in a contest. Some photographers, it's all about the contest first. That's how they go about shooting images and those are probably the photographers that will complain that they think an assignment is beneith them. In fact, I know they will.

The photographers who mainly work for contests, they're all about themselves. I see more of the big picture thing. It's more about people we photograph and the stories.

Maybe that's oversimplifying, but it's maybe contests are about ego. I don't think I have one, and I don't really care to have one and other people do. We'll get assignments that we don't like every day, but it's how you look at that assignment. My daily thing is to concentrate on people. Concentrate on everything.

Should you send images to competition?

Yea. But the contest shouldn't be what it's about. Maybe this is the way I'm thinking because you get your ups and downs from contests. If you're solely going to be determined with contests then you're going to be up when you win and you're going to be down when you lose, your going to be upset when you think the judges are idiots.

But if you live your life every day about enjoying your life, enjoying what you photograph, enjoying the people you photograph and our profession, then you'll be much better off I think.

If you do win something, "Wow. Great." But it's not the end-all.

How do you know when to enter then?

You're probably talking to the wrong guy about that. If I knew how to take a picture that would win a contest regularly, I would do it. I don't. To me it's more of a - there are people that know how to shoot for contest. They have that talent. I pretty much don't.

I shoot plenty of pictures that I think are really nice images, but they're not contest winners. I shot many an image that I really, really like, but I know it won't win a contest because it doesn't have that whatever-it-is - extra umph - to it. That doesn't mean they're not good pictures, but they're not going to win.

That being said, every so often you'll shoot a photo that you just know has that extra whatever-it-is. It could be emotion. It could be action. It could be light. It's hard to say what that one element is. Usually you'll know and your colleages will tell you.

What do you see in the future for news photographers?

That's a scarry one. I'm not quite sure. We probably will have jobs - I'm not sure in what capacity. I keep changing my thought on this. I keep thinking, "Wow, if I can make it 10 more years, I'll be happy." Now, I'm thinking, if I could make if five more years - especially what we're doing now - I'll be happy.

There'll always be a need for photographers, I'm just not sure how they will be utilized. I mean what form.

Right now, there's a big push toward video. I'm kind of concerned about that because it's a different way of seeing. It's not the way we're used to seeing and we're being told you can pull a still frame off that just fine. But, that's not the way we shoot. It's not the way we were trained.

The problem with that is the training in another medium. It'll probably give us more longevity and at the same time give us a new way of seeing the world - another way of storytelling. But it's a very difficult time.

It's probably what the guys were thinking when we went from film to digital. The older photographers in our profession were - in fact, some of them retired rather than do it. But, it all worked out OK. In the end, people were happy with digital and that's the way the market has gone.

Now, people are scared about the video thing. You have to accept the fact that that's the way the business is going and try to find your groove in that. You have to accept the fact and learn it and some will be better at it than others. Just like we are in photography. Some are better portrait photographers, some are better sports photographers.

Video could totally do well. We're not going to be good at that. We're not. It's a new challenge.

I haven't played with it. They're training us in waves. I'll probably be (trained) in about four to six months. I think they're giving everybody about two or three months to learn in each wave.

It's still going to be difficult to implement. It's going to be hard for newspapers - for small newspapers - to use the technology because at this point if you shoot video that pretty much takes up your whole day. First the shooting and then editing.

It's not a quick process on the back end. You still have to edit and produce the video. As people do more of it, they'll get quicker at it, but it's still not as quick as still photography is.

So, newspapers are still going to have to have people who do video and are selective in the video they do and people who do stills mainly because of that. You can't be shooting three assignments on video and then come back and edit because it takes so much more time.

Adequate stills can be pulled from the video?

Yes. What I've been told is like it's like when we first got the digital cameras. Remember the quality that we had back then? It's probably the quality we have now from stills - from frame grabs or whatever they do with the video - but think about how the image quality got so much better so quickly. I'm sure it's going to happen the same way in video.

Yes, it would be an image that would be usable in a newspaper.

If you could change anything in your career, what would it be?

It would have been early. I think it probably would have been - I don't know where I would have ended up - but, it would have been good to maybe go to UT and go to school there.

I always wanted to get out after college and move away and I never really did. I'm happy here. I wouldn't be where I'm at now without going the path that I went. Although I made a determination to get a job here and stay here.

I guess at this point, nothing.

What is your finest moment?

Well, this Pulitzer is pretty special. That would have to be it. I've had a lot of good moments - most of them being pretty subtle - but that's fine. This Pulitzer, what's important to me is that it was a team project. It wasn't just about one photographer, it's about the whole staff working together to cover this - to cover Katrina.

Everybody went overboard and did so much more than somebody should have done physically and emotionally to get this thing done. I'm just very proud of the staff. The dedication that was shown.

Talk about Colombia.

When I came to the states, they put me in a 2nd grade classroom and said, "Speak English." I learned English in about a year and forgot Spanish in about a year.

What's frustrating is about three or four years later they came up to me and said, "You know, it would really benefit you to learn a second language." As a kid, it was probably the first time I flipped somebody off.

They took it away from you because at that point it wasn't important. At that point, there wasn't any bilingual education. They took it away from you because of ignorance and then all of a sudden they want you to have it back. It's not that easy.

Should PJs know a second language?

A second language is beneficial - any second language would be beneficial. It's only going to help your career and, secondly, knowing more about the world.

The other thing I think more Americans should do is visit another country. Get to know the world. There are many views out there. There are many cultures that are just as important as the American culture. Sometimes Americans, that's all they think about is America, they forget there's another world out there.

People have different ways of thinking, different emotions, different cultures, different lifestyles. That doesn't mean they're less important than what we believe. They should get the same amount of respect. A lot of Americans don't have respect for the world.

It's about accepting and understanding world cultures.

Enough for now,


Gretchen said...

Do you have an e-mail address for Michael? I believe he was the photographer that took our picture on Sunday at the Jazz Fest as we huddled under a blue tarp to escape the rain deluge.
I am trying to rebuild my photograph collection since it was destroyed by 10' of water in my home.

Mark M. Hancock said...

I don't think he was at Jazz Fest. You might want to look at his photo on the DMN site. I know they have a directory on their site if he's the same photojournalist.