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|| News Item: Posted 2007-07-31

Gray Matters: Looking for the perfect story
Jim Merithew says it is time to stop talking, and time to get busy with the doing.

By Jim Merithew, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chroicle

Photo by Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chroicle

Mike Kepka made a connection with these subjects: Ed and Gary share a rare moment together at the kitchen table on Saturday morning. The mundane reality of their lives, they say, might surprise even the most fervent opponents of same-sex marriage.
How does someone go about picking a good photo story? That seems to be the eight million dollar question. Of course we all want to find an albino Cyclops who teaches skydiving for a living, lives at home with his mother, wife and eight children, one of which is a Rhodes Scholar and basketball phenom.

Unfortunately, I don't believe that Cyclops exist. So don't waste your time.

Too many photographers spend their entire career looking for the perfect story. The energy they spend thinking about doing that picture story stops them from getting it done. It is time to stop talking, and time to get busy with the doing.

I'm not saying that good subject matter is not important. "Certain people make good stories, and others never will, even if both are in identical situations," said Sara Steffens, a staff writer with the Contra Costa Times. "You have to be willing to throw people back and find new ones. Sometimes I tell people I'm doing background research, and only later come back to the most dynamic ones."

One of the things I always tell my photographer is if you want it to be a story, you have to put a name to it. Give us someone, not something, to care about. The story is not about child labor. The story is about Johnnie Smith who works 10 hours a day in a rubber chicken factory because his mother is sick and his father was killed in the war. The story is not about breast cancer, the story is about Leslie Faithcart who was diagnosed with breast cancer. She lives in Marin, a city that was just found to have the highest rate of breast cancer in California.

One of the best picture stories I ever worked on was by San Francisco Chronicle photographer Mike Kepka. In 2004, when San Francisco became the epicenter of same-sex marriage, Kepka decided to do a photo story on married life. He went to San Francisco City Hall and photographed seven or eight weddings in hopes of picking one couple to follow. In the end he decided to follow Ed, Gary and their daughter, Kiki. The photographs from their wedding were among the weakest, but he felt a connection.

And in the end, it was this connection that made the picture story so powerful. He became a trusted part of their extended family as he spent the year documenting their lives. He photographed the big events, the birthday parties, parades, and trips to church. But he also photographed the quiet times; breakfast, bath time, a tired moment for the parents at the end of the day.

Photo by Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chroicle

Photo by Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chroicle

Mike Kepka made a connection with these subjects: After a full day of work, Gary reads a story to Kiki and her best friend Anna. Later, he leads Kiki through her bed-time routine, helping her list everyone she loves.
He figured out that their story was not made up of the big events. Instead he saw the story as a series of smaller events all strung together. Try to recognize the everyday moments that let us into people's lives in a much more intimate way. It's fine to have a couple of big moments in a story, but it is the supporting photographs that allow a story to have context.

Keep in mind, too, that some of best stories had nothing to do with tragedy or the extremes of life. Journalism is responsible for showing people things they don't want to or might otherwise not see. But it is also our responsibility to share the joys that everyday life has to give.

If you are waiting for the perfect story, wait no longer. For it is in the doing that great things get done.

In other news: My mother passed away on Friday of last week and I just wanted to let everyone know how much the kind words meant. It is ironic that I find myself writing this column now. My mother always said I should follow my true gift and write. I always told her that I could say more with one photograph than I could say with a whole gob of words. And with no disrespect to my Mother, I still believe that.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and the author alone. They do not represent the views of his employer, co-workers, friends or family.

(Jim Merithew is a picture editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Jim invites you to direct your questions and comments about this column and other issues involving photojournalism ethics to him through his member page:

Related Links:
Merithew's member page

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