Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Michael Ainsworth Interview - Part A

Please read Michael's bio and see his images.

Has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed anything for you?
No. I heard from a lot of people I haven't heard from in a long time. It's been unreal I guess. Even when they called us up at 11:30 and told us to be here at 1:30, I should have known from then. They don't call somebody to be at the office - they knew. Even then, it didn't quite sink in.

I got the name Pulitzer next to my name and that's very amazing.

Since then, well, I'm still working. I do what I do. The daily grind stuff and do it the best I can.

These questions are intended for young pro photojournalists with one to five years experience in the field. What general advice do you have for this group?

Don't do it!

The main advice I have for this group is never give up. It took me seven years to get hired part-time and then it took me five years to get hired full-time. I kept grinding and doing the best work I could.

Good things come from patience and perseverance and not giving up. I could have given up a couple of times. In fact, there was a time when I tried out to be a police officer, went back to school and thought about nursing, but still stuck with it and things worked out.

Daily beat?

Daily beat - the way I see it - you're always thinking about the images, but it's more important to enjoy what you're photographing and the relationships you make while you're photographing people.

A lot of the times, this is the only time the person will be in the newspaper and only time this person will ever be photographed by a newspaper photographer. It’s important to enjoy the relationships you make while you're taking the photograph. That makes your life so much better all the way around, and it shows to the people you're photographing.

How many times do people have their picture taken for the newspaper? Most people, if it's a feature photograph, they're lucky to get in a feature photograph for a newspaper unless they're a very good high school athlete or a celebrity or something. Most people live their daily lives and there's not a reason per se to be photographed. So when a person has their picture taken for a newspaper, it's usually a very big thing in their life. It's a very important event. Even if it's a planned event or a feature photo, it's still something that makes their day. Hopefully. If it's a bad news story, it won't make their day, but most of the stories we do are positive.

It's about relationships and communication. That's what our business is about anyway.

What's the photojournalist's responsibility when meeting a subject?

To document accurately the scene and show respect to your subject.

It's easy to... everybody's done it, you get an assignment and you're just like, "this isn't important," or "why'd I get this assignment?" A lot of photographers have that attitude of "this is beneath me."

I finally realized that every little assignment is about relationships. It's about making bad assignments into good. You have to find something in that assignment to make it special for you.

Then, it becomes about the image. Because if you show passion for the assignment, it shows in your photographs.

Shooting a nice detail shot of a product - a lot of photographers wouldn't put their full effort into it, but it's important. It's not just the fact that it's a photograph that you're taking and it shows how hard you work and your dedication, but it's about the relationship. If you go to the assignment with a bad attitude, it'll show in your photographs. It wouldn't benefit anybody.

How has being a photojournalist affected your life?

I have no life.

It's a difficult profession. As far as getting married and kids and stuff, you've really got to find a special person who can handle it. It's not for everyone.

But, there is such a passion in this business that a lot of professions don't have. Everything we do is so creative. You put so much of yourself into the images that it's - I can't say it's addictive - it's a way of life. It's very hard to blend that with a regular life, family, kids, whatever.

The travel is a problem. The time dedication is a problem. Still, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm doing this as long as I can.

I enjoy my co-workers. I enjoy the variety that it offers. I enjoy the challenges that it offers. The people you meet. It's true, every day is a different day. You have a blank canvas a lot of times to create a nice image out of a situation that probably didn't deserve it to tell the truth. You have to be very creative, it's just a challenge to push yourself.

I'm scared of change - pushing the envelope - failing I guess, but it's something that we all need to do.

What special precautions do you take when you know you're going to a natural disaster area?

When you're flying in, you're behind the eight-ball because you can't take everything you need. If you're flying in late, you can't buy everything you need. You're pretty much bare bones if you're flying. You're kind of living on the edge. You're relying on others. That's where the journalistic community - like you helped us out for Rita and TV stations help each other out - the media is always an extended family. That's your basic support system there.

If you're flying in, you can't take gas cans and you can't buy gas cans there. You'll probably be able to find fuel for your vehicle but you can't keep extra. There's no way to do that.

I made a mistake going into Katrina. I forgot to take a satellite phone and I never did own a pair of hip waders, which since then I do have them and would take them again. You take your power inverter. You take everything that you need to charge - all the cables - realizing that in the worst case scenario, the car will become your power station. You can't take Fix-A-Flat on airplanes. If you can get that when you're there, it's another thing to take.

If you're driving, you can carry all that stuff with you. You're much more self-sufficient that way.

In New Orleans?

I got the second-to-last SUV before they closed the place down. You get full coverage on it even though the company says you don't have to. Get full coverage because you don't want to be liable for anything.

Normally, we don't get that coverage, but if you know there's going to be problems and you're going to be driving into problems, full coverage is a necessity.

I'm going to buy a flexible underwater housing for my cameras. Yes, trashbags work, but they only work so long. Anywhere where your camera is drenched, you always have to send them in to be repaired after-the-fact. It would just be a smart investment because you have to make sure your equipment works while you're there. To keep them running is to keep them dry.

If your cameras go down, then you're out of business. If you get more than two flats and you can’t get them fixed, you're out of business.

The key to all this is your vehicle. In a rental vehicle, you have to look at the risk/reward. Will putting your vehicle in harm's way be beneficial? Most of the time it isn't. Most of the time, you can wade in yourself. The vehicle is your home. It's how you survive. It's how you get around. It's everything.

If your vehicle gets stuck, you have to rely on other media people for help. As far as medical emergencies, you have to get out of there.

You're bosses don't want you to leave, but there's certain reasons you should leave. If your health is in danger, try to get out as fast as possible. If your gear or your car is damaged, I'd still try to find ways around it.

Our bosses like reporters and photographers to hang around together. One, for security reasons, and secondly there will - hopefully - be two vehicles. We'd drive in one and keep the second one as a back-up. Sometimes that's not possible, but you have to look at the benefits of being cautious.

I was lucky. When we were down there, we had other photographers who could help us out. If you're by yourself, you rely on other media people. It's best if you can go with a reporter and they have a car. You can use their car as a back-up or our car as a back-up. Just make sure there's another option - another solution.

I noticed you had a SUV while you were in Beaumont. Where did it come from and what's the normal policy for hurricanes and such?

I drove that one down. They ran out of SUVs or they weren't renting them out down there. In fact, they weren't renting a lot up here. I drove it down to Houston and then drove from Houston to Beaumont.

I'd definitely rent. Don't take your own car in that situation because a company is not going to pay to fix your own car. If that happens, then you're out of luck. Whereas with a rental car, they reimburse you for the rental and there's insurance on it.

Was access a problem as you traveled through the region?

The only access problems you have are individual people who don't want their picture taken. You might get some access problems with police officers and stuff, but usually the damage is so widespread that you move on to someplace else.

People don't want to be photographed. Definitely, I understand. It's not worth the hassle of getting yourself in trouble and upsetting these people. Respect their views and move on.

What ethical considerations do you keep in mind while shooting around civilians?

People were devastated. People weren't injured by the flooding. It was mainly psychological. It was just the fact they were where they were. Traumatized people.

If someone needed help, I gave it to them to the best of my ability. There were people who wanted me to drive them out, and I couldn't do that.

What about around bodies?

There was a guy who fell off a bridge - an elderly gentleman - I felt a lot of sadness. I was looking at this guy in his 80s. I was saddened that this gentleman had to die this way. He wouldn't have died if he wouldn't have been on a bridge if the place had been evacuated.

I felt sadness there. I don't know what this guy's life was like - the joys and sorrows and everything - he deserves a better way to go. All these thoughts were going through my head.

He was at the bottom of a stairs and all these people were walking over him - that was the way people went to the restroom, so people were hopping over him. I wanted to do something, but I just (sighs)...

I went up to the top of the bridge and talked to a woman who had been trying to take care of the guy. She was all upset because this shouldn't have happened. She felt the same way I did. He was an old man and shouldn't have died that way.

Please describe a typical day's schedule in a disaster zone (wake up, transmission times, travel, etc).

A typical day when Irwin (Thompson) and I were sleeping on the bridge in our car. You sort-of sleep in your front seat and try to rest. Obviously, because you're sleeping in your car, you're going to wake up as soon as the sun comes up.

You get up, grab some water, brush your teeth, maybe grab a granola bar or whatever you've got with you. If you're by yourself, you try to find out what the story is for the day and where you think you should be.

It was difficult in New Orleans because there wasn't much communications. But because Irwin and I were working together, and we knew the Superdome was still a hotbed and we knew the convention center was a hotbed - where people were. That's how we decided to split things up.

We did drive together at some points, but we split up the city and you (listen for) rumor. You hear where things are bad and you try to get there because there was no real "news." Luckily we could hear some radio stations. That would help us out.

Then, you just drive around. Find whatever you can to tell the story of the day. You keep doing that until the sun goes down. Then, you scramble to figure out how you're going to transmit.

Luckily, Irwin brought down Verizon cards for everyone and those were working at that point and Irwin had a satellite phone. So, that helped a lot. Before that, there was one day where I couldn't find a phone line, couldn't find a DSL, so I was struggling.

Basically, you work until the sun goes down, and then you've got to find a place of safety. A place where you can work to do your job, where you feel safe and send the pictures and eat another granola bar and try to get some rest to do it again the next day.

Grab what you can eat when you can. You really don't have time to think about it.

In your daily travels, are you looking for a specific shot, a specific situation or simply reacting?

If you know there are areas that are hard hit, you try to get to those first. Try to go where the news is actually happening at that point in time. There might be rescues.

A lot of the stuff you hear on the radio might be late, but still it might give you an idea of where damage is - especially if you're going to a place where you really don't know the area.

A lot of times I'm just driving around going, "Where's the damage?" You try to get as much information as you can about where things are happening.

Before hand, a lot of people are trying to evacuate. So you go where people are congregating, or you hit the freeways and you have the bottleneck of people leaving. People boarding up their houses, or people doing just what they can before the storm.

After the storm, it's all chaos. You have to show what the devastation is there. If you're lucky, you'll get a little bit of emotion and human response to that. But, a lot of times, people are just in shock - as they should be in that situation having lost what they lost.

Does it take a personal toll on you?

Yes it does.

I've covered about 15 hurricanes in my life and a couple of dozen tornados. Until Katrina, you get into a rhythm. You shoot destruction, but there's very little personal - it's hard to get personal interaction with property and damage and stuff. It wasn't until Katrina that you actually saw the human side of it. How a disaster affected people.

A lot of times people would have evacuated their homes or in a news situation like a tornado, if there were injuries or damage you wouldn't be there when it happened and you would have the established emergency response to handle it. The situation would be over by the time you got there.

It wasn't until Katrina that they didn't have that response. It was too overwhelming and there were people there that were suffering and having to live through this. So, that made it unique.

The other thing that made it unique is that it was a hurricane, which most people - it wasn't like a tornado where it's unpredictable. It comes down, it damages stuff. This is a hurricane where people knew it was coming. In a way, I guess they were complacent about it or didn't believe it was going to be that bad.

There were a lot of human tragedies - a lot of stories to be told out of this disaster. While we were down there, we became therapists for the people we talked to. People would come up to us and ask us what the news was, and we would tell them what little we knew. Then they'd tell us their problems and tell us their stories.

In a way, we became therapists for them. You had to spend time with them. You can't just, "Oh, yea, yea," and walk off. That's just not human. That's not the way you treat people.

With me, I'm kind of a listener. I let people talk and a lot of times I don't have anything to say. I mean I can reassure them and comfort them, but I just let them speak and let them know I'm there with them. I wasn't leaving.

They saw you as you were there with them, but at the same time they thought that we have some kind of special power - I don't know what they were thinking - but, no, "we're here with you. We're not leaving."

In reality, yes, we did have a little more water than they did. We had a vehicle where we could get in and out of the city, and a little bit of food, but at least we had mobility. We had more security than they did. But, we had to reassure them that we weren't leaving. We were there to tell their story.

Just like in real life. People handle their lives differently. Some people are extroverts. Some people are introverts. You have all different types of people. Some people are angry and get angry easily. Some people are not as easily provoked - I'm not sure how to say this.

There were certain people that would see us and they would get angry at seeing us for whatever reason. Maybe they think we're exploiting them, I don't know. But those people, I'd let them speak. If they're angry at me, I'm not going to take their picture because I would be the person who was (causing the) response. Just let them be angry and respect that.

Then there's people that are sitting on the side of the road, you say, "hi" to and ask them if they're OK. And they say, "Yea dude, we're fine." I don't know if they're in shock or if that's the way they handle things.

I'm kind of like them. I observe and am patient about things. Whereas, some people aren't. Some people weren't patient, and they had a right not to be. They were wondering where the help was, where FEMA was, when they were going to get evacuated, and they had a lot of concerns. If you had a family sitting on that bridge and your grandkids and there's no food and no water and it's hot and there's no answers to how long you're going to be there, you have a right to be concerned. You have a right to feel angry or resentful or everything - every emotion known to man. You have a right to those emotions.

About you?

I talked to other photographers as well. It was really weird after I came back. I came back to work, probably nine days after the storm hit. I walked in the building and all I hear is, "Oh Michael, you did such a great job," and "We're so proud of you," and "You're images were incredible," and people just being nice. They were just commenting on the images I produced.

To me, I felt... ill. Because I would look at these people with this look on my face like, "What the hell are you talking about?" Because I should not be praised for the suffering of others. That's the way I saw it.

It took me about a week and a half to finally see that these people meant well. But they weren't seeing it the way I was seeing it. They were being good people and being conscientious and appreciative of the work that I did, which is still kind of difficult for me to understand. I was just doing my job and anybody would have done that.

I talked to other photographers and they felt the same way. It was weird. We just got ill feeling.

After about five days, you get to the point where you can say, "thank you" and mean it. At first the thank yous were - I couldn't even get that out - it was very weird. I felt ill by hearing compliments. I physically felt ill.

Enough for now,

Please also see Part B of this interview.

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