Category On Assignment

Showcase: Ivett Toth

Maine is beautiful, but winters can be a bit…tiresome.  Spring in Maine usually just means heavier and wetter snow.  Of course, that makes this season a perfect time to stay in the studio and play with light a bit.  The following images are just a few I really like from a recent shoot with local model Ivett Toth (styling and makeup by Brianna Rothman).    Ivett was amazing to work with and I love the ethereal look to her final images.

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Showcase: Portland Pirates Ad Campaign

A few months ago I had the fun duty of shooting a series of images for an ad campaign for the Portland Pirates hockey club.  The campaign, “A Pirate’s Life for Me”, features former Pirates players and current junior Pirates in split-view, in street clothes and in their hockey gear, game faces on.   I worked with the crew at Pulp & Wire to create the images, which I photographed in my downtown Portland photo studio.   I love how completely the demeanor and look of each player changed so dramatically once the pads and helmets went on.  I asked Pirates CEO and former player Brad Church, bottom, to show his game face during the session and he clearly had no problems doing that.  I’m just glad I wasn’t a player on the opposing team.

 

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No, I was not attacked in Iraq

 Note:  the above images are mostly outtakes from my time embedded with troops from the 737th Transportation Company from January-March 2004.  All images © Yakima Herald-Republic.

CORRECTION:  I mentioned “bulletproof” vests in my article.  The troops at the time had fragmentary resistant vests, later upgraded to the type of vest I wore–a ballistic vest with ceramic plates in the front and back.    Also, a soldier with the 737th pointed out that he had never heard a mortar ‘whistle’.  While the sound is clear in my memory, I’d have to describe it more accurately as a loud hissing noise, increasing in intensity to a roar.  In any case, terrifying. 

Like many of my journalist friends I’ve followed with fascination the controversy over NBC anchor Brian Williams’ misrepresentation of his role during an incident in Iraq in 2003.  As someone who spent 16 years as a photojournalist and photo editor, I’m particularly sensitive to the topic. Just a few months after Williams’ incident, I was also an embedded journalist, living with and reporting on troops in Kuwait and Iraq.

Everyone remembers incidents differently over time.  Ask a cop whether eyewitness accounts are reliable.   Williams’ account isn’t the first time that someone with an incidental role in a major event ends up over time recasting themselves closer and closer to the action.   But I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when a professional journalist of such stature—someone paid to bear witness and to tell truth—has so been accused.
It’s not just his dramatic retelling that happened in the years since the episode. For me, it’s interesting that in the report Williams aired immediately after the incident, he reported that the chopper ahead of his had taken fire and was forced to land.  It implied that he witnessed the scene as part of the convoy rather than on a ‘following’ chopper arriving later at the scene.      I suspect that Williams’ error has less to do with some moral failing and a lot to do with the nature of TV news.     The emphasis is for TV journalists to be in the picture, part of the scene, and encourages them to imply an immediacy that may be misleading.    It’s a desire to be part of the story, and is in contrast to the type of journalism practiced by print and photo-journalists whose emphasis is should be on the subject and never on themselves (with some exceptions, I’m sure).
I witnessed both approaches during the time I spent embedded with troops of the 737th Transportation Company back in 2004.   I was one of two journalists from Eastern Washington state given the opportunity to document the lives of some 160 Army Reservists whose unit had been last called to active duty during the Vietnam War.      The goal was to tell the story not of the war, but  of the men and women from my community who put their lives on hold for a year (or more) to go to war far from home.   My sacred mission was to keep the focus on them and not on me.   Looking back, it was easier for me as a newspaper journalist to do that—to stay behind the scenes, watching, reporting, photographing.    For a TV journalist it’s not so simple.   Embedded with me was Patrick Preston, a reporter from KXLY-TV in Spokane, Washington.    Both of us were doing double-duty:  I was photographing and writing stories and he was filing reports on air and handling his video camera and gear.   After looking at his bags of gear, I realized that I had the better end of the bargain.  Even with my RBGAN satellite data phone, my voice satellite phone, two cameras, lenses, laptop and backup drives,  I was 10 times more mobile than Patrick (see his picture, above).    I also could ‘embed’ easier, hanging out the soldiers, photographing them as they went about their business.  Patrick had to do a lot of stand-up interviews, usually at 5 am each morning in time for the Spokane broadcast.  He also had to be in front of the camera, essentially narrating and shaping each broadcast while I had the luxury of letting my photos tell the story with a little help from a caption or two.
This gave me a distinct advantage, and allowed me to grow closer to the troops.  For Patrick, his broadcast time restraints and his heavy gear all made it tougher for him to just be one of the guys.  During a convoy escort mission into Iraq, Patrick and I were given space in separate Humvees.  The reason was simple:  a journalist doesn’t have a weapon, and so you spread them out so that you’re only missing one rifle in each gun truck, rather than two.     The First Sergeant told us in no uncertain terms to stay awake.  His theory was, if a hostile is looking for a weak spot in a line of trucks, they’ll go with the one that has one less rifle–especially if they see a civilian not paying attention.   Because Patrick had to do daily early-morning stand-up reports, he tended to pass out after hours in the Humvee.   Eventually, the First Sergeant got so frustrated that he came to my Humvee, pulled out a solider and traded spots with him.  He was worried that Patrick’s Humvee would be hit, and he didn’t want to tempt fate.
Through it all, I think Patrick did a great job with very little resources or sleep.   I had the easier time.   But having gone through that experience, I can understand some of the context around Brian Williams’ faulty memory.  To me, it’s really not about a faulty memory.  It’s about an emphasis in TV news about being on screen instead of behind it;  about being part of the story instead of simply reporting it.
Patrick and I spent about five weeks with the 737th, living with them at Ft. Lewis, Washington and deploying with them overseas to Kuwait.  We actually feared that we wouldn’t make it to Iraq at all, given the fact that the mission changed, and changed again after our arrival.    The last week of my embed—the very end of February, 2004—we were given the mission to escort a convoy into Iraq.   We were nervous, excited, but happy to be given a chance to show the folks back home what the Iraq experience might be like for their loved ones.
We spent five days in Iraq.   During that time, we ate a lot of dust, saw a lot of destruction and saw the troops perform admirably.   We were subject to two incidents: one in which unknown persons hurled a large rock from an overpass in Baghdad, hitting the windshield of a Humvee (not mine, nor his), and another in which two mortars were lobbed indiscriminately from beyond the perimeter and landed among our lines of trucks at the motor pool at operating base Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq.    In that incident, we were relaxing and awaiting departure when we heard the whistle of incoming mortars.  We were unprepared.   Many soldiers were missing their Kevlar helmets and others (probably me among them) had taken off our uncomfortable bulletproof vests.   There were casualties with minor injuries, as the rockets landed a hundred yards away between lines of fuel tankers.  It could have been much, much worse.
We were lucky, and neither I nor Patrick ever ‘conflated’ our role in either incident to one of prominence.   After all, it was about the troops and not about us.   Whatever happens to Brian Williams, I hope the incident isn’t cast as a simple failing of an egotistical TV personality.  It should be a reminder for all journalists, TV or otherwise, of something my ASU journalism professor Bruce Itule always told us:  “It ain’t about you.”
–30–

Recent Work: Maine Standards Company

It’s surprising to realize just how many amazing, world-class companies we have in Maine that fly under the radar. Maine Standards Company is one of those. Based in Southern Maine, Maine Standards develops and provides kits for the precise testing and calibration of medical diagnostic equipment. They’re doing cutting-edge stuff using some pretty cool tools. My job was to spend the day photographing their lab, testing kits and analyzers for use in trade show materials. It was a jam-packed day of setting up and breaking down gear, gelling lights and blocking light from reflecting everywhere in those shiny lab surfaces. I love, love this stuff! Check out some of our results.

 

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–30–

Recent Work: ecomaine

This is the second time I’ve showcased some of my work for ecomaine, a non-profit waste management company.   That’s due in part to the fact that the work they do is so interesting and their industrial environment lends itself to amazing images.   This time around, I spent a day following around the people who work at ecomaine’s landfill, waste-to-energy plant and recycling facility.   The job can be difficult and the environment is ever-changing, which makes it a photographic challenge.   I opted for a very portable lighting kit that I could set up and take down at a moment’s notice.  Even though the lighting looks complex, I kept it fairly simple, choosing to incorporate ambient light into the scene whenever possible.   Here are some of my favorites that I think really capture both the environment and the diverse people that work there.

 

 

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Inside the machine shop.

 

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Operating the Recycling Facility compactor.

 

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Inside the “tipping hall”, where garbage is unloaded into a seven-story bunker.

 

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The ultimate result of all that garbage is tons of ash.

 

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A view of the landfill through the window of a vehicle.

 

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Recycling Facility supervisor.

 

I can’t say enough positive words about the ecomaine crew.   It’s not fun to have a camera in your face, and likely it’s even more uncomfortable when you’re operating heavy and fast-moving equipment.   They were fantastic to deal with and I think the images make them look like the rock stars they are.

 

–30–

Make them love you. Hint: it’s in the details.

 

Storytellilng detail images from an assignment about a local water district.
Storytelling detail images from an assignment about a local water district.

 

No photographer is an island. We own our creativity but everything else—our technology, our access, our assignments—are enabled by others.  Even our creativity is enhanced by our collaboration with the art producers, editors and designers with whom we work most closely.  These are the folks that take the work we create and publish it, display it, print it and turn it into amazing displays, stories and campaigns.

Without them, we’re just shooting cool photos and sharing them on Facebook.

I try to approach each assignment as if I were back at the newspaper. Even if the assignment was to make a single simple portrait, I went into each job thinking about what else I might photograph. Back then, I challenged myself to come back with a three-picture package that told the story and might give the page designers more options. I always looked for storytelling details to include, too.  That approach gave the designers the ability to use images as teasers on the front page, for example. Sometimes designers used none of it.  Months down the road, looking for a timeless detail image to illustrate a different story, they’d see my image and  find it a perfect fit. This storytelling approach challenged me creatively, led to better visual play and better designer/editor kharma that I’m hoping will benefit me in my next life. It’s something I still do today, reflexively.

The editorial assignment photographer needs to always look for telling details. Sometimes these visual metaphors are more compelling, more storytelling than the ‘main’ image itself. In commercial photography, these types of details are just as important. In an era when companies have greater ability to publish content on their sites, there’s an even greater need for storytelling details that can be used as evergreen content, on company blogs and in ad campaigns.

Details also come in handy for designers who need a key visual element, or require ‘filler’ content, etc. These details solve a lot of visual problems. Having a photographer who actively looks for them is a big win because it gives the designer options.

The thinking photographer who goes the extra mile for their editor or designer will be the go-to photographer for those people. Realize that the assignment isn’t just about the image being requested, just as your job is not solely about you.

 

–30–

 

Native Sons

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Back in the early part of the 2000s, I was chief photographer of the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, a Seattle Times Company newspaper centrally located in the part of Washington State Seattlites refer to as “the Dry Side”, among other things.

Yakima derived its name from its nearest neighbor—the sprawling reservation of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.    Comprised of 14 separate Columbia River tribes, the Yakamas now occupy a 2,185-square-mile sized territory that includes a portion of nearby Pahto (12,281-foot-tall Mt. Adams).

Growing up in Northern Arizona, I’ve always lived around and interacted with Native Americans.  My first reporting job out of college was to cover the Yavapai-Apache in Arizona’s Verde Valley.   When I moved to Yakima, years later, I was eager to explore the Yakamas.   A proud people, the Yakamas still live on a portion of the ancestral lands and practice their hunting, gathering and fishing traditions as best they can.   They fought the US Army in the 1800s until a federal treaty recognizing their rights was signed.  They fought many battles in federal court since, with precent-setting law the result.

For much of five years I met with interviewed and photographed many Yakama tribal members, and met many new friends along the way.  One of the results was a project with writer Phil Ferolito, published as a special newspaper section, called “Native Sons:  The Men of the Yakama Nation”.    As best we could, we attempted to show the unique struggles, challenges and triumphs of different generations of Yakama men and their families.    I’m proud of what we were able to do, but so much more could have been done to promote understanding and appreciation of Yakama, and native, culture and life realities.  See the pages of the published project below.

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Storytelling for John T. Gorman Foundation

One of my favorite projects this past year was working with the John T. Gorman Foundation here in Portland.  This unassuming group directs their resources to many significant non-profits statewide, from early childhood education to homeless teens and more.  Especially at a time when the state has cut its funding back of such groups, private foundations like JTG have become even more important. 

My assignment was to document the people and faces of some of their supported programs, and to show the human impact of what they do.    Over the course of a month and a half, I created a series of images that tell the story of what JTG does by showing the lives of those impacted by their efforts. I was given wide discretion over what I photographed, and focused on populations served by the foundation, among them single mothers, early childhood education and teens.  Here’s a sampling of my favorites.

Enjoy!

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Limit yourself—and become a better photographer

I suspected things might end badly when Garin’s pickup ran over a Gila Monster.   Then again, I always figured that my week-long trip photographing a ‘tough-love’ camp for teens was going to contain some ups and downs.   We were reporting on one of those organizations that parents bundle their troubled teens off to, figuring that six weeks spent sleeping and hiking in the middle of a southwest desert can reach them in ways they haven’t been able to.  They aren’t usually wrong.

I pitched the story and a writer,  Garin, was assigned.   We would be backpacking and living with the kids for almost a week, at least 50 miles from the nearest town in the middle of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.    We had to pack in water, and weight was an issue.  Due to the lack of ability to recharge my digital cameras, I shot with a reduced kit:   two Nikon film bodies, three lenses and a flash.   A couple of hours into our hike towards the first night’s camp, I forded a river, slipped on a rock and went down hard.  I emerged from the waters with my primary camera body soaked, the electronics fried.  My 80-200 mm lens dripped water, the front element smashed on the same slippery rock.

There I was, miles from anything, down to one film body (a Nikon FM2) and two lenses—a 24 mm f2 and a 35-70 f2.8.     I had approximately 5.5 days of our six-day trek left.    And I was sweating.

That trip was when I learned a fundamental truth:  that limitations can be a great thing.    Freed of the need to switch camera bodies, and forced to use a wide-angle and a medium telephoto lens, I adapted.  I spent time with each lens and worked them.  I got in close when before I might have stayed at a distance.  I didn’t worry about the shots I couldn’t get and focused on the types of shots I could.    In the end, I left at the end of the week with a set of images I was very happy with, and the sense that I had learned something important.

Why is this pertinent?   Because today it’s all about choice.    As a photographer, I’m always tempted to buy the newest gear or learn the latest technique, but I know that sometimes imposing limitations on myself makes me a stronger shooter.   Instead of taking all of my lenses to an assignment, I might force myself to shoot with just my 50mm lens.   I might forego the larger studio lights I typically use and instead shoot with speedlights or just a large window and a silver reflector.   It’s very, very easy to get distracted from the actual story that you’re trying to tell.   Too many gear choices, and too many possible locations tend to muddy the waters, sapping your energy and leaving you with weak images.   Better to commit to a couple of visual situations, and to a limited selection of gear, and then spend your time actually thinking while you photograph.

 

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Stories from the past: John and Zelda Robertson

Over my career as a photojournalist I’ve met some amazing people and been fortunate enough to photograph incredible events. When I reflect on the stories I’ve done, however, one really stands out: the story of John Robertson. I’m revisiting his story because I think John and his wife, Zelda, have a story that’s worth telling even today, more than a decade later.

At that time I was photo editor at the Provo (Utah) Daily Herald newspaper, a scrappy 30,000 circulation daily newspaper situated in what truly must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. In between the Pet of the Week and the required weekly commercial construction feature photo (titled, of course, ‘What’s up!”), the four of us staff photographers were constantly on the lookout for meatier fare: long-term photo documentary projects. While our daily diet of spot news and features and sports kept us busy and shooting, the photo projects we started (and did largely on our own time) stoked our souls and fed our passion. I’ve worked for larger newspapers in my career, but a 30,000-circ. paper has about the right combination of resources and autonomy to allow motivated photographers to do great project work.

Often these projects would grow out of daily stories that we connected to and felt there were more visual potential in. That’s how I met John Robertson. Our health reporter, Ann Potempa, was doing a story on hospice care in Provo. The story centered on an in-patient hospice facility, with patients having six months or less to live. I met a hospice nurse named Kit who visited patients not just at the center but at their homes. As I learned more, I knew that I wanted to explore the idea of terminally-ill patients who decide to live life on their own terms, often in their own homes. Kit introduced me to the work of Dr. Ira Byock, a leading figure in hospice and palliative care. Ultimately, she introduced me to John Robertson, 72, and his wife Zelda.

On the surface of things, John’s story is about hospice care and the comfort it can provide during the final months, days and hours. For me, John’s story is about living—and then dying—well.

I met with John and Zelda and the first thing I noticed about this former school teacher was the long braid of hair running down his back. The elderly couple both ran marathons until John was diagnosed with cancer. After a long battle, he was placed on hospice, and true to his independent spirit had no intention of dying anywhere but at his home. I explained to them that I wanted to document their hospice journey. Amazingly, they agreed, but with one caveat—John wanted to hide nothing, and wanted me to be there for everything—the towel baths, the emotional visits with their many children and grandchildren, and ultimately, his final breaths as he lay on a hospital bed in his living room surrounded by family. The graciousness of the entire family to me, and their grace throughout what was obviously a painful journey was awe-inspiring. A month after John passed, his adult children invited me to hike to his favorite fishing lake deep in the Uinta primitive wilderness area in Northern Utah. We hiked in, camped, and the next morning committed his ashes to the winds and water. Much like they had been able to do during the period of hospice care, each of his children were able to spend a moment alone with John and say their goodbyes. Humbled by it all, I photographed as little as I needed to.

In all, the series ran in six weekly parts. The newspaper got some criticism for showing images such sensitive images of John, but mostly the reaction was positive. Frankly, hospice is an easy sell—the idea that one can die well, even in comfort, and on their own terms—is an attractive one. The Robertson family was thankful for the coverage, though I always knew they’d given far more to me than I to them. I think from the pictures below, it’s possible to see John and Zelda as the people they really were—not victims, but strong and courageous people.

Note: all photos courtesy of the Provo Daily Herald.

 

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