Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Todd Heisler interview Part C

Please read Todd Heisler's brief biography as well as Part A and B of this interview.

From readers:
Bryon Houlgrave asks:
Could you talk about your own emotions as you covered these events? How did these instances affect you, and did your emotions impact the way you approached a photo?

It was just an incredibly emotional journey, and we got really close. I think everybody out there has covered funerals and things like that, and we got really close to it. There are moments when I couldn't make a photo. Just because it was too personal, or I was fighting back my own tears. Some, I just couldn't do, and it really hurt.

At the end of the day, when you're sitting by yourself, it comes back and hits you again.

There's a lot of things. There's the sheer emotion of it. There's guilt, whether it's warranted or not. You really think about your role as a photojournalist.

I feel like with the response we got from the family and other people - the way we handled it, I think it worked out.

The more you do it, the harder it becomes. Back to Major Beck and the things that we learned from him. He has the same people on the honor guard doing funeral after funeral. He said it shouldn't get any easier. If it does, he'll take them off the duty because it shouldn't get easier.

That was something that I thought about through this whole thing. It shouldn't get easier. At first, you think there's something wrong with you because the more you do it, the harder it gets. But then I realized that's a good thing. There were some situations where I just couldn't… especially when I knew I'd have to go back out and work with another funeral and another family. I'd get sick to my stomach, because I knew I'd have to go through that all over again.

So, anytime I have another situation like that, I feel the same way.

How were you dressed?

I wore a suit.

We went to South Dakota to do a ceremony at a high school basketball game. Well, then I would just wear jeans - how everybody else is dressed. But if it was a funeral, or I went to the airport, I would wear a suit.

Was the American Indian funeral part of this series?

That came afterward. I think all things are connected and that was the same honor guard that we had worked with. This was a couple of months after "Final Salute." They told us that they were going to go to this reservation and said, "You guys should really do this story."

We talked to the family, which was just incredibly open. So we did that.

It was different than "Final Salute" in some ways, but really it's just a continuation. It was still like being in that same place.

I think the parents were really wise to tell the story. They wanted to see the pictures. That helped. There were some ceremonies I couldn't do, but even some people from other towns in that area that knew I was there, they were kind of surprized that the elders would let me take pictures. But, they were very welcoming.

It was unbelievable. It was a high honor just to be welcomed there to witness that and to see that ceremony. It was like three days straight. We slept in the car. Slept a couple of hours at a time. Jim, the writer, got pneumonia after it. We ate balogna sandwiches and fry bread all weekend.

It was a spiritual experience to say the least.

How dressed?

I just wore jeans and very casual. Whenever I'd do those, I'd pack a suit and a tie and everything. We showed up at the funeral home the first day to drive to the reservation. When I showed up, everyone was wearing jeans and stuff, so I just take the cue from everybody else there.

That is a situation where you could have been overdressed. We stand out anyway because everybody there is Native American and then there's two white guys there. But, I think wearing a suit would have stood out even more.

But, I'd rather be overdressed for anything else.

How important is it to follow a code of ethics, such as what's provided by the National Press Photographer's Association.

There's just no question. It's not even a question of how important it is. It's just so crucial, especially now that we have some sort of code and to follow it.

That airplane photo from "Final Salute," I still get e-mails from people who think it's fake. They don't believe that all the faces are in the windows. They think it's Photoshop. I've seen blogs where people go on and on about it. That's a direct result of the public's lack of trust in what we do.

I think the photojournalism community is pretty damn good in holding to those standards. So, I don't know where that comes from.

There's definitely a lack of trust in the public's eyes because they understand technology now. They might have Photoshop or they use digital cameras. There are images where people just don't want to believe that it's real.

We have a pretty big responsibility to keep to that. The rest of the [ethics] too.

As technology gets better and more and more people are exposed to images from everywhere. We really have to hold to that standard. We all have our own standards, but something has to be written down.

Steve Newman asks:
How did you start your career as a photojournalist and what was your first profesional assignment?

I started my career as a photojournalist by working at the college newspaper [at] Illinois State - The Daily Vidette. I was an art major. I was always interested in photography, but I didn't know what to do with it.

Later in my college career, I discovered the newspaper and photojournalism and fell in love with it. But I didn't have the strict background that you might have from Western [Kentucky] or OU or Missouri.

I did an intership there in town in Wilmington. After that was over, I had to get out and find a job. After a few months of searching, I took a job at a small weekly in suburban Chicago and just worked my way up really slowly.

I worked at the weekly for less than a year and got to know people within the community and Chicago and started trying to get help with my work. I got a job at another paper that was a little better. I tried to build on what I had done at the previous paper, but also what I couldn't do - things that I really wanted to do, but wasn't able to do because of time.

From there, I moved to another group of weekly - I worked at a lot of weeklies. A group paper called Sun Publications, they're owned by Copley. That was the place where I felt like I really took off and found my vision. Again, I could build on the things that I couldn't do at the previous papers. The things that I knew I could improve on or do better, but I knew I could do better.

What was my first assignment?

I won't [include] the internship because I wasn't technically a professional out on my own, but my first assignment at my first newspaper job, they handed me three rolls of film and they told me to go out that day and find six feature photos.

They told me to go cruise and find six enterprise pictures. (laughs)

My heart just sank. I though, "Oh my God." The place where I was interning, people would drive around all day just to get one good one. Now they want me to go get six. What am I going to do. And I had three rolls of film.

Needless to say, I've come a long way. (laughs)

Could you do it today?

Six feature photos on three rolls of film? Yea I could. Maybe, I don't know. That's a good challenge. I bet I could. It depends on how many hours you gave me to do it. Yea, I could do that. That would be a great challenge. I like to say that I could do it. (laughs)

Some successful photojournalist say early in their career they hope to change the world with their images and then later in life they feel unfulfilled because little has changed. Do you feel fulfilled with your work?


I think everyone [who] gets into this thinks they can change the world. You look at all these great photographs from the past and think, "I would like to do that." Then reality sets in. I was working my way up very slowly working for small papers.

I never thought I'd get to make change on a really grand level. I put myself into the little things. Try to make change in the very small ways that I could in my community - as little as it may be.

As I got more mature in my career and done some bigger projects, I've actually been more optimistic about the possiblity of change - inspiring people to look at things differently.

Right now, after last year and the response that I've gotten to my project, I believe in it more now than I ever have.

I've been motivated beyond what I ever thought I was capable of. That goes back to what I was saying about the small things. You never know what kind of impact you can have. So any assignment you do or anywhere you do it has the potential to have a great impact.

Pro advice:
How important is competition in the industry?

I think it's important to have them. I think there are many out there that keep the bar high. That's what they should be doing to try to elevate what we do and recognize what has been done, but try to raise the bar. Recognize the greatest - at least what we hope is the greatest - work of what's being entered.

I think they're very important. They can help young photographers advance in their careers. It helps them get noticed. But at the same time, that's not everything. You can't do this job to win contests. If you do, I think your heart's not in the right place and I think people will notice.

When we did this story, we didn't do it to win awards. We really became immersed in the subject and immersed in the lives of the people we were covering. When you get that close, you can't think about it. You can't think about awards. You shouldn't.

Then, when we got done, we saw how big it was - it was almost surprizing how many awards it has received. That wasn't the motivation.

You have to look at contests for what they are.

One of my mentors, Vince Musi, was judging POY one year. They had just announced Photographer of the Year. He said these great words - and I hope they don't come off as off-putting or synical, but he said, This person is not the best photographer in the world. So, if you didn't win, that doesn't mean you're not a great photographer. This person just happens to have - at this particular moment - the best body of work among all the other portfolios that were next to it.

I think it was a reality check. This is great work. It deserves to be recognized, but just remember what it is and what it means. I thought those were great words.

Any contest, three judges may pick three completely different portfolios. You have to remember that. It's great when you win, but if you don't remember that's not the sole purpose of why we do what we do.

Entering the Pulitzer competition is a daunting undertaking. Did you prepare the entries for all these competitions or did you get some help?

I had help. We have an imager, a guy who tones pictures, we have an imaging staff. One of our imagers helped me tone the images for the prints. Part of the reason he's so good, the other reason is I'm a little color blind and need a little help in color correction. (laughs)

You definitely need a couple of people to help you put it together. First of all you have to have a decent looking book with good presentation. Your pages have to look good. Your prints have to look good. They should be mounted well.

You have to make sure all your captions are accurate the way that they were. You might be retyping them. Since it's a journalism award, you don't want to have typos in there.

I think the most important part of it is the editing and how you put it together. For us, I think that was the most time consuming: trying to get the edit to something we could all agree on.

We had about three or four of us. Janet Reeves, our director, myself and a couple of other photo editors, we'd go back and forth on exactly how we wanted to edit it for pacing and whatnot. Then we'd have a word person come in and look at the edit to [look for flaws] they notice that we may have missed.

Since it's a print portfolio, you edit it differently than for POY. [For POY] you're doing slides and somebody's sitting in a room, where something's projected and they're not necessarily getting the captions. It's a different experience. So, you have to think about it differently. This is a book that somebody's paging through.

You have to decide one picture per page, or are you going to put two. How is this going to flow? How are you going to tell your whole story in 20 pictures? You have to look at it differently. It's a different animal than other contests.

You enter all the pages because you have to prove it was published. [In addition to PDF proofs] we threw clips in the back, just so they could see it if they wanted to look at the sections. Especially with this one because people who may have known about it may not have gotten to see it in a printed piece. We did PDFs mounted in the back of the book. They'd get a rough idea of how the pages were laid out.

Scrambled the order?


There were some things that we had done daily stories on that weren't in the actual section in the end. Something that had run in April. It fit in differently. We didn't scramble the order too much. We followed the story line pretty close to how it was printed.

For Feature Photography, it's a body of work from a story. It's not Breaking News. It's not one event.

What keeps you motivated as a PJ?

One is just being out there. Being out on the streets, meeting people, making images, doing what I do. That's what keeps me motivated. We can get really caught up in contests and our own work and how we think it's going. It can be a selfish endeavor.

When you get back out there, you get on the street, and you cover a story that means something to you or you witness something that you didn't think you were going to witness. Just by chance you pull an assignment that you don't think will be much, and then you get out there it just makes your whole day. Not even because of the pictures, but because of the experience. That's the fun of it. Being around people and documenting life.

Also what motivates me is great photographers. I try to interact with friends whose work I really respect and they're really inspiring. If I'm having a bad day or feeling lost, I call them and I look at their pictures. I ask them to look at mine. It keeps me going. It helps me look at things a different way.

That's what's so great about the Internet now. When I was coming out of school, we didn't have the Internet. It wasn't very readily available, so I couldn't just go look at images. I would go to the library a couple of times a week and get out a couple of books that really kept me going. I'd look at photo books.

Now, there's so much photography on the Web. So many different types of photography. Just get out there and find something you haven't seen before. Look at paintings. Try to be inspired from a lot of different places. Ultimately, that will help your work.

Does the Internet "water down" our visual literacy compared to books?

Yea, it's been watered down. It's been accelerated. It might cancel itself out because earlier I think it was harder to find good work. Where I went to college in central Illinois it's not like they had an abundance of photo books like the ICP would have in New York. So you weren't exposed to it as much good work as somebody else might be.

Now with the Internet, there's so much more out there, but there's so much more you have to weed through to find what really speaks to you. I feel like it's worth it for what you might be giving up in simplicity, but I think it's worth it because there's so much more out there to see.

Newspapers are G or PG while many books are seriously R rated.

I never thought of it that way. I don't know. I'll have to go look.

Because [the Internet] is such a public environment, you have to be concerned about what you put out there. I don't know. I never thought about that. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

What do you see in the future for news PJs?

Oh boy, that is the question. I think there's always going to be a need for good photojournalists. When I was coming out of school, 12 years ago, people were saying, "Newspapers are going away. You're not going to have a job." Look, we're still doing it. Look after 9/11, some of the most memorable images you saw were still images.

I think there's always going to be a need for it. The venue's going to change. Every paper now is talking about the Web. Everybody is talking about video. Sound is a new element. I can't tell you where I think it's going to go, but it's going to go where we take it.

Do we want to sit back and let technology dictate where the industry goes? Or, do we want to embrace it and we dictate where our industry is going to go. Instead of letting some people who might not know anything about journalism try to dictate what our job is going to be, I think we have to embrace the technology and create our own future.

With unlimited Web space, do you see great photo essays of the golden years returning?

Sure. Yea. Why not? You have unlimited space. Why can't it come back like that? I don't see why it can't.

I try to be pretty optimistic about it, and I try not to dwell too much on it. I don't want to take a synical view on it because I feel it's counterproductive. But I don't see why it can't come back like that. There is so much great work being done on the Web. Look at newspapers and see what people are doing, but you look deeper and there's just a lot of great work out there.

What is the importance of photo stories to new photojournalists?

There are a lot of different ways to tell a story. I would say telling a picture story, that's the most important thing that we do and that we should be doing. We don't always get to do it the way we'd like to in the newspaper, but that is the most important skill that a photographer should learn.

Even with single images - the images that come from stories of really getting into a subject and spending time on it - spending time getting into people's lives, that's where the deeper images come from. Whether it's a single image or a whole story, that's where all the great work that you see comes from. It comes from stories. It comes from spending time.

I think - especially for younger photographers - that's something that they should aspire to. I mean if somebody is interested in sports, then they should go do sports. But some of the greatest sports photography goes deeper off the field and beyond that. That's the most important part of what we do.

It shows passion for a subject. That's when it really comes through - somebody's passion - because they're committing to something. It's not just a quick thing. That's not to say beautiful, powerful images can't come from quick moments and quick stories.

If I'm looking at somebody's work, you can really see where their passions lie by their stories. That's what they really want to commit their time to and their energy to. That's what we should be doing.

Enough for now,


Steve said...


Amazing interview as usual! Your work is my fuel to persavere. Thank you!

Do you have a link that consolidates all the interviews you have on your blog? I tried to find the others and had some difficulty.

Thanks again!


Mark M. Hancock said...

I put links on each one to the others. To find them in the future, look at "All PJ-related posts" on the sidebar in the Special sections area.