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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2006-11-16

Preserving our Vision
By David Leeson, Dallas Morning News

Photo by Kim Ritzenthaler

Photo by Kim Ritzenthaler

David Leeson
Six years ago I began work on a philosophy designed to meet something I perceived as a threat to our profession - the demand for rich content, primarily through video.

I knew that still photos would remain forever - the undisputed champion for visual reporting. Actually, it could be the victor of ALL forms of journalistic reports. But, of course, I am prejudiced to the eloquence of the unmoving image that seems to move hearts and minds better than any.

But I also knew that we were about to be overrun by hordes of reality: circulation drops, declining reader demographics, bloggers kicking the ass of traditional media, iPods and podcasting, YouTube, MySpace - the list seems endless. Our best answer at that time seemed to be no answer at all.

As we buried our heads in the sand, our industry continued naively down a road marked with signs that said, "Bridge Out." Warnings of future peril didn't stop our presses, still cranking out newspapers from a gazillion sacrificial trees so we could print news everyone else was reading on the web before it even reached a TV newscast. Undeterred, we sent out our aged missives each day to be tossed over the roof of someone's burdened car onto the curb where another member of a fading demographic waited to smell the newsprint. In other words, surely you've considered that the cultural shifts have pitted us in a battle we can't win using traditional means of journalistic "warfare."

Somewhere along the way we became outdated. The word archaic seems fitting. Most of us still are and consider still images combined with audio as something highly innovative even though folks like Shelley Katz, a former Time magazine photographer, was doing that in 1970 for TV broadcast on WFAA in Dallas. Audio and stills can sometimes be an effective storytelling mechanism. All too often it is not.

Some of the older newspaper photographers remember the battles fought against authoritative newspaper designers. Our mantra was that design should follow the efficacy of the image and not the other way around. We fought type on top of our photos. We fought the cropping of horizontal images into verticals at the whim of "outsiders" who always screamed about page layouts and better design. Our response was to use our cameras to best their argument day in and day out with images that demanded respect.

Today, legions of us scrape together an extra 20 or 30 images that would have never been selected for publication a decade ago. Then, we string them together to create a (shudder) multimedia package. Here's some news for you - audio won't make bad editing any better. But what really disturbs me is a nagging question - has design finally won? It would be just like those slick designers to sneak up on us like that. Sigh.

Some of you have heard rumors and whispers of the work I have been doing in video since 2000. I'm grateful that a fair number of my colleagues apparently respect me enough to not tell me exactly how they feel about my "new" role in photojournalism. So, let me clarify what I've been doing. I've been fighting to preserve your vision. I've been waging war against a myriad of personal agendas while at the same time questioning my own.

I've agonized over my purpose and feel positive that I can declare myself purely motivated by preservation of photojournalism. Still images will remain but video has grown. Sometimes my beloved industry reminds me of a distant aunt visiting a reunion for the first time in 25 years. Last time you saw her you were sitting in a booster seat. Today she appears a tad smaller than before and marvels at how big you've become. Video was a child when most of us first picked up a 35mm. Now, video is all grown up and on its way to becoming a powerful storytelling tool.

The 35mm SLR is slowly being replaced by HDV cameras at places like the Dallas Morning News but the tradition of powerful photojournalism remains through our frame grabs. Why? Because we approach video reporting in the same way we photographed essays. Video isn't just video anymore, just like your photos stopped being "snaps."

If you had the skills in video today - there would be a very long list of opportunities before you. To move forward in life requires a measure of risk. There is no greatness outside of risk. The future of the traditional newspaper is looking pretty risky these days but the health of solid visual reporting is getting stronger every day by those of us who value visual journalism and ethical storytelling above and beyond a 35mm.

If you're still struggling with this then take a look at your average construction worker paid to build a house. Imagine showing up at the job site with only a circular saw. You walk around discussing RPM and torque. You talk about a recent seminar you attended about proper saw techniques. But, then, the boss approaches and asks you to hammer a nail. Unfortunately, you don't have a hammer and your beloved circular saw won't do the job. The moral of the story is that the purpose of the job was to get a house built and not to cut some wood.

The same is true for us. The purpose of the photojournalist is to visually report with honest and ethical stories - and, hopefully, change lives. It's the people that matter - not your photos. Your 35mm has always been nothing more than a tool for getting a job done. You may love it (and I assure you that none of you love it more than I do) but it isn't your purpose in life as a journalist.


(David Leeson is on the staff of the Dallas Morning News. To see his work, check his personal website at: http://www.davidleeson.com.)

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