These are extraordinary times. Extraordinary for many reasons, yet perhaps the most striking is that most of us are being asked to do our best by…doing nothing at all.
At least, it feels that way.
Staying at home. Keeping our physical distance from others. Helping our kids, our loved ones and trying to stay sane ourselves.
Life is not normal for us. We may be staying in one place, but we aren’t exactly doing nothing. We are willing ourselves to not take action so that we can protect others, often at great personal and financial cost.
But what about those who don’t have the choice—whether by necessity or by mandate—to stay home?
I’m referring of course to many of the people who I’ve spent a career photographing: the police, the firefighters, the paramedics, and the medical professionals. But this group also includes the sanitation workers, the grocery store workers, the pharmacists, the pizza guy and the mail carrier. All are front-line workers in this time of fear and contraction.
So take a moment and reflect on the sacrifice so many are making while many of us stay home. We all must do our part.
I grew up Catholic, which might explain why I have a deep-seated belief that anything good in my life must be accompanied by a healthy amount of suffering.
That’s not the healthiest story to tell oneself, but I’ve come to replace it with another, more powerful story: if you want good value or results—a great shoot, great assignments, great clients—then you have to first give great value.
What does ‘value’ mean? It means that you should do your best to be remarkable in your work, your attitude, your professionalism. It means that you ask first how you can help before you ask for help. It means that you give more value than your client expects. It means that when you are on a shoot, you go that extra mile: look for an extra angle, take a creative risk and push yourself to take something different once you’ve satisfied your client’s needs. Sometimes you’ll end up with something that surprises you and delights your client.
If you consistently do this and have the attitude of giving more than you are getting, you’ll find—like I have—that you get an amazing amount of value in return.
It starts with you.
I didn’t initially set out to photograph Maine cops.
As a newspaper photojournalist I spent years covering fatal car accidents, fires and the occasional armed standoff. My interactions with police were polite, professional and purely transactional. It’s fair to say that we viewed each other with a healthy wariness that at times seemed adversarial. My job as I saw it, on the behalf of the public’s right to know, was to make the images that would best tell the story. As far as I could tell at the time, a cop’s job was to thwart my ability to easily do so. To be fair, I imagine that to them I was a pain in the ass at best, an annoying gnat with a press pass. A problem that sometimes made their jobs a lot harder.
We coexisted, at times uneasily. I certainly encountered many officers who treated me fairly. They taught me a lot about professionalism and coolness under pressure. I realized: It takes a certain kind of person to put on a badge, strap a gun to their hip and patrol dark streets. Cops are like you and me, but they aren’t. They belong to a unique tribe of men and women that is often closed to outsiders. Whether seen as heros or opressors the reality is that a badge carries more weight than the metal it’s made of.
Back in 2004, I was embedded with Army Reserve’s 737th Transportation Company in the Middle East. I found the soliders, wary of my presence at first, relaxed once they got to know me. The stories I wrote were less about what they did and why they did it—why they had made the choice to serve thousands of miles from home, to say goodbye to their families for months or years at a time. I enjoyed getting to know the people they were and no matter my personal thoughts on the war it changed my perspective on soliders—and by extension, cops—forever.
Years later, living in Maine, I met and photographed South Portland Detective Sgt. Steve Webster (now retired) for a book he’d written about a case involving a little girl who he’d promised to find justice for (he did). He handed me a signed copy of his book and I read it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the idea of making portraits of officers at the exact locations where they had experienced life-changing, career-changing incidents was born.
I met with Webster and the idea gelled further. He encouraged me to expand the idea—to photograph officers from various types of agencies across the geographic span of the state.
“The biggest problem you’ll have,” he said, “is that cops don’t like to talk.” That was an understatement. He agreed to introduce me to Pete Herring, a Maine Warden. Pete introduced me to York County Deputy Steven Thistlewood. And one opened the door for another, as slowly I met and photographed officers from Acton to Ashland.
It remains an incomplete project. There are 146 law enforcement agencies in Maine, employing more than 2500 police officers, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies.
I’ve photographed less than a dozen.
I’ve had conversations with them about events that happened months or in many cases years before, but it might have been yesterday. The trauma is still fresh, the wound still raw: moments where time is measured in milliseconds and layered with sound, color and smell. Winslow Chief Shawn O’Leary recalls the moment he fired at a man threatening him with a knife, the slide of his weapon ejecting spent casings and smoke as if in super slow motion; the billowing puffs of the man’s shirt as the rounds impacted. One. Two. Three.
I chose to photograph them in the same locations where the painful or meaningful events happened to them—either the same spot or as close to them as possible. Forest Ranger Bill Greaves stands on the gravelly outline where the trailer once stood that housed the man who shot him and a deputy in 1989. Marine Patrol Corrie Roberts sways on the deck of her bobbing patrol boat, the Protector, yards from the spot where she leapt onto the deck of a runway lobster boat whose owner had died of a heart attack at the helm.
Sgt. Steven Thistlewood wipes tears from his eyes on the spot where 12 years earlier—almost to the day—he and his partner shot and killed a man who was trying his best to end their lives. It’s the first time he’s revisited the site.
Maine Warden Pete Herring braces himself in a blowing snowstorm on the shores of Lake Arrowhead, where months earlier he had recovered the body of a drowned teenager.
All of these men and women have incredible stories, each tied indelibly to the places in Maine where they happened. Each story, and each officer is as unique and varied as the geography of this state.
It’s my hope that seeing the stories and viewing the images will give a better connection to, and understanding of, the men and women who put their bodies and lives on the line for the public good.
Cops are people, which means there are good ones and bad ones. Lucky and unlucky ones. But read the stories and look at the portraits and ask yourself: if you wore that badge and were in their shoes, what would you have done?
For the first time, I’m publishing a few images from a project on Maine’s Peace Officers that I’ve been working on for over a year with the working title, Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge.
‘Arrested’ is a series of portraits of law enforcement officers from across the state of Maine, photographed at the actual locations where they experienced a life-altering incident on the job.
The diversity of situations the officers I’ve interviewed have been incredible: some have been shot; others have had to use their weapons. Some have been injured, some have saved lives. All have had to react in situations that required skill, judgement and humanity.
Nationally, the idea that cops are dangerous and out of control, and are to be feared–this is an additional burden on officers in Maine, many of whom police the same communities they and their families live in. When a difficult incident occurs, they are reminded of it every time they pass the spot where it occurred.
This project is an attempt to convey the reality of the difficult work officers do every day. I’m thankful to the officers who have participated. I’d like to say that it’s been a good experience for them to share their stories, but I also know it’s not been easy for people who tend to avoid the spotlight.
It’s been an incredible experience for me as well and I hope to share the complete project, as well as the many stories, soon.
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.
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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This is pretty fun—this month’s issue of Popular Photography Magazine features a two-page spread of my image of a Portland, Maine roller derby team in their regular “How * Lighting” feature. It’s a simple lighting setup that is extremely effective in creating a sense of drama. In a word, perfect for a subject like the roller derby dolls.
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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You’ve heard of the acronym, ‘KISS’, right? It stands for ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid.’ It’s mantra that software engineers, among others, use to keep them on track during development to guard against product bloat. I keep a similar line in my head when I’m approaching an assignment: It’s the Story, Stupid.
Now, maybe you’re one of those rare photographers who can always stay focused and zeroed in on your work, but me—I get distracted. I’ve been known to set up a bunch of lights in a daisy-chain, lighting up God Knows What just because I could. This is a photographer version of tunnel vision, and it makes you a slave to a concept rather than what you should be: flexible, in the driver’s seat, and asking yourself the kinds of questions that lead to images that truly tell the story you’re trying to show.
On an assignment, lots of things are going on: you’re interacting with clients or subjects, fiddling with your gear (why won’t that PocketWizard remote fire??), keeping an eye on the clock and the shot list, managing your assistant or team. It doesn’t matter. You always have to be aware of why you’re there and what story you’re there to tell.
It’s that awareness that leads you from the image you (by necessity) planned for to the one that Serendipity bestowed upon you that works much better.
Recently I photographed Jim Twombly, a retired Portland police officer, at his home for a story featuring patients of a large medical practice group. Jim was diagnosed a couple of years ago with diabetes and was facing a slew of health issues. He worked with his doctor to completely change his lifestyle. As a result of eating healthy and exercising regularly, Jim dropped more than 50 pounds and is stronger and healthier than he’s been in years. I was there to photograph Jim as he did his morning routine—exercise followed by an oatmeal breakfast. During my earlier scouting visit, we had decided to move his starionary bike to the more visual solarium he had built onto his home. Early in the morning, as the sun was coming up, it would make a great visual.
And it was. The only problem is that, devoid of the usual clutter, it made the solarium look a little bit sterile. After photographing Jim in his home, I asked to go photograph him in the workshop above his barn. Once we stepped into the sawdust-infused atmosphere, stacked with woodworking tools, Jim seemed to relax. This was his element, clearly. I set up a couple of lights but wanted to keep the portrait low-key, focused on Jim in his world. We chatted a little, Jim settled into a comfortable position, and the image at the top of this post was made. Once I took it, I knew it was my favorite image because it told more of a story about who Jim really is–a hard-working guy, a Mainer, a craftsman. A guy who is tough enough to stick to a complete revamp of his lifelong eating habits because it just needed to be done.
Good on you, Jim. For more about Jim’s story, check out his feature on InterMed’s website.