Tag Archives: Journalism

My Mexico is Missing in My Photography

Wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico

They love the photos. My wife, my friends, my family, they all think the pictures are terrific. They stare at the faces of the people. They comment on the aprons of the women. The cluck over the cuteness of the children and they sigh at the images of the food. These are wonderful, they say, such marvelous pictures.

But they are wrong. Well-meaning and flattering, but wrong. The photographs are inadequate. They are incomplete. They don’t capture what I saw. They don’t communicate what I heard. They don’t convey the feelings I felt when I made them. They lack as much — if not more — than they contain.

So much is missing.

The heat, for example. Where are the streets roasted by the sun into hot concrete slabs that scorch the feet? Where is the smoky sweatiness of the kitchen where the women are cooking, their golden skin glistening and their gold teeth glinting through the haze? Where is that room in the house, the one with the refrigerator filled with Corona and Coke, the one so dark that its corners disappear into blackness, the one in which the bride, still encased in the frothy spume of her synthetic gown, seeks haven from the heat?

And the drinking. Where are the groups of men who sit on shaded street-corners and underneath trees and drain bottle after bottle of mescal all day long and into the night? Where are these men who stare at me, curious and friendly, when I arrive and ask directions? Where are these men who watch me, slack-eyed and smirking, as I walked through town at dusk en route to the highway? Where the shots of mescal at the wedding breakfast, the cases of beer at lunch, and the bottles of both at dinner?

Oaxaca, Mexico, children, hijos, lunca DalayAnd the stories of the people. Where is young man with the gang tattoos on his face who tells me he’s done five years in a California prison, including a year in solitary? Where is the drunken gatecrasher with the Yankees hat who wants me to come with him to some caves in the hills so he can show me the shards of pottery he found? Where is the lovely older woman who posed for me with her hatchet as she was hacking up the last of the 25 turkeys cooked for the wedding dinner?

And so much more. The animals – the skinny dogs, the condemned turkeys, the flatulent pigs, the shitting cows and the ubiquitous flies, on the food, on the faces of babies, on whatever is alive or dead. The outhouses – reeking in the heat, furnished with encrusted thrones devoid of seats and provided with reading material so that yesterday’s soccer section can be used as today’s ass wipe.  The food – the mugs of breakfast chocolate; the large, tangy tortillas that substitute for forks when ripping chicken from the bone in bowls of red mole; the sticky plastic cups of horchata.

Why don’t the photographs show these things as I really saw them?

It’s possible that I don’t have what it takes to make the photographs I want. Maybe I don’t work hard enough. Maybe I hesitate when I should engage.  Maybe I simply lack the creative eye to see through the camera what I see without it. If this is so, then it explains why other photographers return from scenes just like those I’ve been in with images that are much more powerful.

Another possible answer is that photography by itself is not capable of capturing everything a photographer sees, hears, and otherwise experiences. This seems self-evident, doesn’t it? After all, a still photograph is a limited representation of a moment. It lacks the sound, the smell and the other tactile sensations of the actual instant.

Of course, I prefer the second answer to the first because it is not a condemnation of my abilities, but the truth is that both possibilities are dissatisfying and deflating.

If indeed, as I sometimes suspect, that I just don’t have the talent or the drive or the know-how to make great photographs, then, naturally, that would be depressing. But, equally disappointing would be the realization that photography, a pursuit I wanted to follow since I was in my 20s, lacks by its very nature, meaning its capture of a brief instant from an endless stream of moments that together produce a memorable experience, the ability to convey that experience from one person to the next.

There is a third option, though. It could be that I ask too much, that I want photography to be the means by which I fill the holes in my life and when it doesn’t I blame the images for their incompleteness, condemn the craft for its impotence, or indict myself as talentless.

This supposition carries the advantage of preserving what measure of self-esteem I have about my work as well as giving photography the respect it deserves as a tool of communication and journalism, one wielded with great impact by many photographers more talented than I.

Some of those holes, those devoid of personal satisfaction, moral fulfillment and social purpose, journalism once filled. Not every day, of course, but often enough to keep the drudgery of the daily deadline at bay. Journalism is a story-telling mechanism. This is important to me. I believe in the power of the story as a means to produce social good (and, for me, to enhance self-worth).  I also believe the purpose of telling the story is to affect the reader (or the viewer or the listener), to cause a reaction, be it emotional or intellectual.

My photographs are not telling the stories I want to tell, and these days those stories have to do with the Mexico, or at least my Mexico.

My Mexico is complicated. My Mexico is a contradiction. It is a country of wealth and warmth and welcoming people. It is a country of corruption and crime and vast social division.

My Mexico smells of ripe mangos, pungent salsa and smoky mescal. My Mexico stinks of clogged sewage lines, leaking gas tanks and dark clouds of exhaust fuming from buses and trucks.

In my Mexico, the nights can be so silent that only the rush of the evening wind en route from the mountain to the valley catches the attention of the ear. In my Mexico, the cities are besieged by a harsh cacophony of honking vehicles stuck in clogged streets, boom-boxes blasting disco tunes from sidewalk stands, and of a nocturnal canine orchestra that never sleeps.

My Mexico has markets laden with towers of fresh fruit, aisles of locally grown and slaughtered meat and colorful comedores that serve platters of homemade enchiladas and tamales and moles. My Mexico has food contaminated with agricultural poisons and human waste and water no human can drink without risking intestinal disease.

My Mexico is limited. It is mostly Oaxaca. My Mexico is vast. It reflects the history of all of Latin America and represents the current social, political and economic conflict of an emerging democracy.

My Mexico is missing in my photographs and I want to see it there. Is this asking too much? Of the images? Of me?

OjedaRoberta_021815_344

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Periodismo Peligroso

Three Mexican photojournalists killed

Part of protest in Mexico City against the killing of three photojournalists.

Mexico is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to be a journalist. Three photojournalists were found dead and dismembered Tuesday in the Gulf state of Veracruz, bringing to 44 the number of journalists killed in Mexico in the last six years, according to Article 19, a press freedom group.

While that number pales next to the more than 50,000 Mexicans killed in the same period during the government’s war against the narco cartels (and cross-cartel fighting), it elevates Mexico to No. 8 on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2012 Impunity Index, “which spotlights countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.” Sadly, the year is still young.

Here’s what CPJ says about Veracruz:

… a battleground for the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, is one of Mexico’s most dangerous states for the press, according to CPJ research. Four journalists were murdered there in 2011, and on Saturday, the body of journalist Regina Martínez Pérez was found strangled in her home in Xalapa.”

I have a long history with Mexico, including being the owner of a house I built there, but with many Mexicans clamoring for an end to the violence, the repressive PRI party on the verge of regaining the control of the presidency that it held for more than 70 years; the cartels becoming increasingly entrenched in local and national politics, and a the country’s always ethically tenuous journalistic institutions fighting — quite literally — for their lives, I fear the worst for the country in the near term.

You think I’m being overly dramatic? Read this story about the threats against Jorge Medellín, a reporter for the national newspaper Milenio. An excerpt:

Mexican journalists take the smallest hint of a threat seriously because they know that killing a reporter is so easy to get away with. The word for this is impunity–killing with no consequences. None for the killer, at least. But the consequences for the Mexican people are that journalists are afraid to report the news.

Learn more: New York Times story on the latest killings; Committee to Protect Journalists; Article 19; Coverage in El Universal, a centrist paper from Mexico City

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Here, There, Everywhere

(Note: This is a note to my friend Michele McLellan responding to her Facebook post about newspapers outsourcing copyediting tasks.)

Michele …

As you know, I’ve pretty much stayed out of the “whither journalism” lately, but I’ll add a thought or two to your well-reasoned argument based on my personal experiences of the last two years.

First, I’ve been doing a lot of work for a glossy, local lifestyle magazine here in the Bay Area. I do a lot of photography, I also write and edit. Most of the magazine comes together from people who don’t work in the same place — the editor has an office, freelancers write, I edit them, a copy editor in another place edits me, a designer in the office sends me Adobe InDesign files or PDFs for proofing. Works well. Every two weeks we meet for story planning and idea exchange.

Also, last year I wrote and photographed a book (touted all over my FB page). My partner — a chef — wrote her parts from her office, I wrote my sections from mine, the designer emailed around concepts and pages. We all rarely met. Book came out, is doing well. Of course, you and I did the same thing the year before.

Finally, to underwrite such rewarding, but hardly remunerative pursuits as magazine photography and cookbook writing, I keep a hand in editing research for financial institutions. I work with a team of a half-dozen analysts in Denver and New York whose work I edit weekly. I’ve done this for three years. Although we meet only once a year for a feedback and review session, I know their work as well as that of any of the reporters who say across the aisle from me in newsrooms for years.

Newsrooms traditionalists might argue that proximity contributes to quality. They are wrong. The prodigious amount of so-so writing and editing seen in many newspapers is testament to that. Commitment to excellence, responsibility and, most importantly these days, personal growth lead to quality – and those values are highly portable.

First the doors came off newspapers, then the walls blew out. In the next couple of years, we’ll see the floors drop away. Knowledge work – which is what journalism consists of, i.e., literary and creative skill applied to principles of public information, access and transparency – doesn’t need an address. It just needs a platform.

Cheers …

Tim

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Children of the Canal

About a year ago, I photographed competing immigration rallies in San Rafael. On one side of the street were advocates for the local Latino community; on the other were members and supporters of the Minutemen, a conservative anti-immigrant organization. Both groups were a rarity in Marin County, an affluent, mostly white, heavily liberal enclave just north of San Francisco.

A few weeks earlier, federal immigration agents had raided homes and businesses in the city’s Canal neighborhood, a tightly packed area of run-down apartment buildings and small homes that is home to 12,000 people, 86 percent of them immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. The agents arrested 65 people, 23 of whom were eventually deported.

The raids were part of the broader immigration debate in the country, a divide that had spawned huge marches across the country. I wanted to put something together for Marin magazine about how the issue played out in suburbs, but was hesitant for a couple of reasons. First, I was jammed with doing the book. Second, after 20 years of traditioal journalism I didn’t want to write an on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other type story where the emotion got buried under a slag heap of official statements from either side.

After I finished the book this spring, I began talking with Tom Wilson, head of the Canal Alliance, the Canal neighborhood’s primary social service group, about different story ideas. He pointed me to an after-school program that tutors neighborhood children, teaches them other academic skills and exposes them to a world of possibilities outside the Canal. The program guarantees that if a child sticks with it, he or she will graduate from high school and enter a community college.

I told Tom I’d like to photograph the kids in the middle-school program and ask them a few questions about their dreams. Then I pitched the idea to the magazine, adding that I’d write an introductory essay — not a story — about the immigration issue. To my surprise, they loved the idea.

I made the photographs over three afternoons in a classroom. I wanted the pictures to be simple portraits, so I posed the children in the middle of the room and lit them with one umbrella and a big reflector, using the far wall for a backdrop. I spoke with each for about five minutes first, talking about their dreams, their families and their countries of origin. Most of the interviews were in English, a few were in Spanish.

Some of the children dreamed big — to be doctors or lawyers. Others wished for little more than a visit home to their family in Mexico. Some rushed forward to be photographed. Others I had to persuade through cajoling.

If you look at the photographs, you will see the faces of children, but also, in many of them, the eyes of adults who have seen more of the world, a rough world, than any 12- or 13-year-old should.

If you read the essay (below), you will learn how I feel about this children, which is that regardless of how any of us feels about immigration the children of immigrants should not pay the price. Who are we to deny them better lives — especially in the United States, a country founded on that very principle?

* Here are the photographs.

* Here is a PDF of the Marin Magazine package, including the essay.

* Or, click the jump for the essay.

Continue reading »

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Grab Shots

* Martin Gee, a designer at the Mercury News in San Jose, has posted a Flickr gallery of the effect in the newsroom of multiple rounds of layoffs and buyouts. Sad stuff. Empty chairs, discarded computers, blanks walls. (For a good analysis of the latest newsroom census, read Alan Mutter’s explanation of why it’s bunk.)

* A Photo Editor, aka Rob Haggert, has posted the results of his photo talent search. Here’s the Flickr gallery.

* Chase Jarvis says don’t let the internal demons get the best of you:

“At one time or another, we all get sideswiped by that little internal voice. It is that nay-saying voice that’s so often the barrier between each of us and our creativity. Shedding that calculated, censoring voice, is one path to success.”

* My current favorite photographer (that means for today) is Martin Prihoda. Bold lighting, striking portraits. Here’s a behind the scenes video of a band shoot he did.

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Pulitzers, 2008

Pulitzer PrizeEven though the bulk of the 2008 Pulitzer Prizes announced today were won by large news organizations — the Washington Post took six — one of the awards demonstrates that capacity of great work exists even within the smallest of news organizations.

Photographer Preston Gannaway of the 20,000 circulation Concord (N.H.) Monitor on the Pulitzer for Feature Photography with her intimate essay of a family coping with death. Looking at her pictures is difficult emotionally, but rewarding in their honest portrayal of something that is real in all of our lives. (Slidshow here.)

In my previous blog about newspaper journalism, I once wrote about the power of one, the capacity of any journalist, writer or photographer, to strive for excellence. Gannaway proves the point.

* Also: The Pulitzer for Spot News was won by Adrees Latif of Reuters this picture of a wounded Japanese photographer being held at gunpoint during the riots last year in Burma. The photographer later died.

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Private Lives, Public Moments

Holly SeelerA great privilege of doing journalism is the temporary passkey it gives me into the lives of others.

At times, this entrance is burdened with sadness or results in a stinging anger from the injustice in our society that holds so many at the bottom despite all their efforts to the rise up.

More often than not, though, I am rewarded with the pleasure of meeting someone who is charming or beautiful or enticingly smart. They allow me their company, permit me to question them in precise detail or engage me emotionally as I photograph them.

I treasure these moments, hold them in memory as long as possible and savor them for their simplicity of purpose. For me they are the essence of journalism — written and photographic — the inquiry, the interaction, the engagement.

Meeting Holly Seeler and her family — Tess, Jack and Victor — the other day in Sausalito was one of those moments. Seeler has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that is attacking her ability to walk. Her response to the illness is energetic and forceful, and she has left a career as a creative director to focus on spreading the message of personal change through positive outlook and action.

I spent less than an hour with her. We made pictures. Her husband, a photographer as well, showed me his work. I met the dog, Roxie. Then I left — reluctantly. This was a good house, a good family. They gave me hour out of their lives. I added it to my collection.

See a gallery of pictures of Holly Seeler and her family.

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Schwarzenegger’s CEO

Susan KennedyAs much as I don’t like politics, I confess that I do like politicians – in person, at least. One on one, pols of various stripes are among the smartest, most engaging people I’ve met while doing journalism. They’re articulate, their words are pointed, and they share the same off-center sense of humor that is found in most newsrooms.

Susan Kennedy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, belongs in that group. I photographed her in her Fairfax home for a Q&A with Marin Magazine. I have my issues with how she and the Governator are running California, but she’s someone you’d love to sit next to at dinner – intense, unflinching and intellectually persuasive. Plus, she’s twinkly.

When I got to her house the reporter was about 30 minutes into the interview. They were in a small office, big enough for her desk and two chairs. There was window on one side with a bench in it, and I immediately decided to use for a post-interview shot. The rest of the room was dark.

There was no space to set up an umbrella, so I decided to point a couple of snooted Speedlights at her, one from the long end of the office, the other from across her desk. I put one like on a stand, gelled it warm, super-clamped the other to the rim of the desk, and started shooting, squeezing my way around the reporter. (See an overview of the scene.)

About 10 frames in, the clamp popped off the desk and it and the strobe clattered to the floor. The upside was that it loosened us all up; the downside was the $100 repair bill.

I reset another strobe (didn’t you mother tell to always have a back-up?) on a stand, and began again.

I shot for about 10 minutes more, listening to them talk, working the angles. I liked the light. It was strong, but tight. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to getting her by the window for some softer light.

That wasn’t to be, though. Another five minutes and her phone rang (with the caller visible on the video-phone screen on her desk.). She was late for a meeting. By the time I stowed the gear, Kennedy was on the conference call.

The lesson of the day is one I learned early on – both as a photographer and as a reporter: As soon as you enter the room (or the event or the whatever), start working. It may be your only chance.

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The Second Draft of First Draft

Welcome to Second Draft.

The last time you heard from me I was still blogging over at First Draft and had just finished a book on newsroom management and strategic learning. That was a year ago.

At the time, the newspaper industry was in the tank, newsrooms were laying off and I was finishing a transition from a manager of institutional journalism to a doer of personal journalism (and other creative endeavors). Just as the news industry was undergoing reinvention, so was I.

Today, the newspaper industry is still in the tank, newsrooms are still laying off and I’ve returned to the humbler roots I planted when I left college. My business card now reads, simply, Tim Porter, Photographer & Writer.

The switch was not the leap you might think it was. My first job in journalism was as a photographer, first for the now defunct UPI in San Francisco and next for a small newspaper. I began reporting so I could better sell my photo stories to the paper’s skeptical city editor. Then, a few years later, ambition got the best of me and I jumped into management.

I blogged about newspaper journalism, management and innovation for nearly four years at First Draft, a process a pretty smart professor once called my re-education — “Tim Porter started journalism school the day he left the newsroom.”

He was right — and some day I may tease out the steps of that learning in a longer piece. But not here. Second Draft will be more personal, more about my freelance life in both photography and writing. If that sounds too narrow to you, thanks for dropping by. But I can promise you my world of creativity, media, technology and, at times, journalism is much larger than it ever was.

I’ve moved into a post-institutional media world that in some ways resembles my early days as a freelancer while in college (the lack of guaranteed pay, for example), but I’ve arrived with a lifetime of skill and, more importantly, the ability to learn new ones when necessary or desired. I’ve learned how to learn — and am quite good at it.

Many of the new tricks this old dog has acquired are applicable to those just starting out in journalism — adaptability, resiliency, just-in-time learning — and in those you may find some value.

I will write a lot about photography, my first love and my first newsroom paycheck. I do a lot of magazine and commercial work (here’s my portfolio) and find that the tools of personal connection that served me well as a reporter and manager are just as handy in the studio or on location.

I will write about reporting, too, because I can’t stop wanting to tell stories even though writing is an anxiety frought experience for me. (I like to quip that I like having written).

I will write about technology because it is the tool we all use in the digital age.

And, I will write about journalism because I still believe it’s important and perhaps more than ever in a world where our most systemic, intractable social ills fight for scant attention among a populace intoxicated by media intended to mesmerize but not illuminate.

Stay tuned.

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