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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2007-09-24

Intern Diaries: The Washington Post
'I was terrified. Plain and simple. I wanted to do well. I was worried I couldn't cut it.'

By Pouya Dianat, The Washington Post

Photo by

Pouya Dianat had many photographs on Washington Post section fronts during his internship.
(Editor's note: At the end of each summer, it has been a tradition at the Sports Shooter Newsletter to have several students share their experiences working at an internship.)

Chicken salad from chicken shit.

I must have heard those words at least a couple hundred times this summer during my internship at The Washington Post, and I'm glad I did. I had the benefit of working with a staff that made those words come true every day.

I need to preface my internship experience with this, though.

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. I didn't go to a photojournalism school. My best resource was leafing through the pages of The Washington Post, scouring the Web site and seeking out the photographers whenever I was on assignment. (Yeah, that's right, I was the annoying kid who went up and introduced himself to the Post photographers.)

As one of the former picture desk editors Jay Premack passed me in the building one day this summer, he said, "Hey you're Pouya, right?" I had no idea, at first, who the guy was. I replied "Yes." still unsure to whom I was speaking. He introduced himself as the opposite side of my phone calls during the past few years and said, "Calling us all those times with photos paid off, I guess. You're persistent."

So yeah, I was that kid. I was the kid who walked up to people like Lucian Perkins, Carol Guzy, Michael Robinson-Chavez, John Newton, John McDonnell, Toni Sandys, Preston Keres ... and the list goes on. I knew these people through their photographs. I had learned from them, and I knew I wanted to compete with them.

At the University of Maryland, I'd walk to WaWa every morning around 4 a.m., after the Post flew onto the stacks at the store. I'd grab a buffalo chicken sandwich, a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a diet green tea, put a copy of the Post under my arm and walk out. I'd tear through the pages to see how badly I'd gotten my butt kicked on the basketball game, football game, breaking news event or press conference the day before.

One morning in 2004, I was going through the pages for an all too different reason, though. I had my first photograph published in The Washington Post on the front of the Metro section!

Yowzers.

But this was different. I was actually going to intern at the newspaper I grew up admiring. One of the most venerable institutions in the American landscape of journalism, the one that brought down a president! No big deal, right?

I was terrified. Plain and simple. I wanted to do well. I was worried I couldn't cut it. I thought I'd be cast off into the depths of the newspaper with occasional appearances on section R, page 74. That's surely what would happen. There was no way I was going to make it this summer.

Luckily for me, it didn't quite unfold that way because I had people around me who wanted to see me succeed. John Davidson (former director of photography at the Dallas Morning News and current professor at the University of Maryland's journalism school) and his wife, Post photographer Linda Davidson, invited me over for dinner a few weeks before the internship.

Maybe it was John's delicious shrimp ceviche and scallop dinner. Maybe it was just getting a chance to kick back and watch the Sopranos with them. Maybe it was that they sat me down, calmed my nerves and made sure I didn't start freaking out before I even went to the paper.

The first week finally rolled around, and after dodging some mandatory training for using LexisNexis to look up earthquake data in Guadalajara from 1894, I went to the photo office. I walked in, and there was Bill O'Leary.

Photo by Pouya Dianat / The Washington Post

Photo by Pouya Dianat / The Washington Post
For those of you who aren't familiar with the name, Bill O'Leary embodies the Post's motto: "Chicken salad from chicken shit." Bill can go to an assignment with the worst lighting in the world, the dullest subjects in the world, the crappiest story ever and make one of the best pictures you'll ever see. I had wanted to meet Bill O'Leary for years. I wanted to meet the guy who took rainy day feature art and made it an award winning contest entry.

Fortunately Bill's personality is as strong as his photographs. I shadowed him on a couple assignments that first week. We walked around the Jefferson Memorial and chomped on cigars as I got to see him at work. Bill's valuable words weren't alone. The rest of the staff pitched in. I owe a big thank you to everyone there for this summer. More importantly, I owe them big thanks for the past six years, when I was just starting out in this business.

During the following weeks, I tried my best on every assignment I could get. I started out doing a lot of work for the Extra sections, which were always fun and gave a nice spread for the photos. I got my first crack at a big assignment when John Newton, who was on desk duty briefly, handed me a couple assignments that were pegged for the front of the Sports section. I followed a kayaker for a feature and spent four days at the Action Sports Tour in Baltimore. Newton gave me a tough edit (I expected nothing less after working with him on the sidelines for a couple years). Like many of the other photographers I had run into, John wasn't afraid to give advice to a young kid.

There are some people who don't want to give back to the photojournalism community; they're too concerned with their own lives. John Newton and the rest of The Washington Post staff are not among them. They readily provided constructive criticism and showed unselfishness uncommon in any profession as competitive as this. It says a lot about them. With every shoot this summer and every shoot in years past I walked away with something to do better the next time around. It's the best way to learn.

The summer wasn't without its missteps I was nearly arrested thanks to director of photography Joe Elbert as a result of his constructive criticism (I am still 80% sure that Joe himself tipped off the Naval Criminal Investigation unit).

In a valiant effort to teach me a lesson about getting a strong establishing image, Joe asked me to go back out to the Frederick Douglass Bridge for a second time to get more overall photographs of the bridge that was under construction. Man, I took that advice to heart, I wanted to show Joe that I listened to every word.

I grabbed my cameras and hit the streets again. In a matter of hours I had gained access to the roofs of several buildings within close proximity of the bridge and the new Washington Nationals stadium. I wanted to work it even more, though. I drove my car, scouring out new spots from which to photograph the bridge. I went to the Navy Yard in Anacostia. I went across the river near Boiling Air Force base. Everywhere. I wanted to photograph this damn bridge from 360 degrees.

The idea would have worked out great but a passerby decided that a young man with a big white lens near a bridge was a threat and they reported me and my license plate to the authorities. Within hours my parents received a visit from the Naval Criminal Investigation unit. Oops, sorry mom and dad. Fortunately, the incident was resolved quickly with just one phone call explaining that I'm actually a professional photographer despite my country of origin and funny sounding name. And I will never forget that lesson from Joe - ever.

Despite my budding criminal record, the editors showed trust in me and gave me a lot of opportunities to crack the front page of the Post, which can choose from news all over the world to fill its front page slots. Harry Potter's book release, a mayoral photo-op at a long-lost textbook warehouse, the Virgin Festival and the new Washington Nationals stadium among a few others. I was having a great time running around the area that I had lived in for so many years, and working for the newspaper that taught me photography. It was a blast.

Photo by Elissa Eubanks / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Photo by Elissa Eubanks / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pouya Dianat gets harassed on a couch by AJC staffer Ben Gray on his first day of work at his new job as a staff photographer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
I followed around Tiger Woods, saw the last week of a legendary Italian restaurant, drooled uncontrollably as I covered the release of the iPhone, got beaten severely by a horde of people who were chasing a Bollywood star, and got soaked on a boat ride to the area's oldest lighthouse. I even tried on a kilt during one assignment, but ultimately did not purchase the piece of apparel, as it clashed with my shoes (and looked absurd).

So whether I was covered in textbook dust, sweat, saltwater, mud or bruises, I was having a good time on all my assignments. I was very lucky in that the editors I worked with (Joe Elbert, Keith Jenkins, Ray Saunders, Vanessa Hillian, Nicole Werbeck, Chanda Washington, Giuliana Santoro, Deb Lindsey, Mary Lou Foy, Michael Williamson and Melissa Maltby) trusted me enough to let me do the same assignments that the staff photographers were working.

I was fortunate, surrounded with people who only wanted to see me succeed. That's what everyone needs, especially in an industry like this. The entire staff of The Washington Post. The entire staff of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. People like John Davidson and Bob Rosato, who came to my aid countless times. Photographers like Sacramento Bee staffer Kevin German and University of Maryland team photographer Greg Fiume.

Even among students like myself, I was able to meet some people who've helped me endlessly - like Jimmy Deflippo, Nick Adams and Marcus Yam at the Eddie Adams Workshop. I owe all the good luck and fortune I've had to the help of the people with whom I've been surrounded.

Whether its loaning me equipment when I'm in a crunch, giving me an honest critique or even being by my side when something non-work related threatens to slow me down. I think that's the definition of a successful internship - throwing a student in with a group of professionals that are so unselfish they want to give back to a punk kid, even if it is the same kid that's bugged them for a few years.

So I've left the halls of the Post after three exciting months at the newspaper. Last summer's intern diary (http://www.sportsshooter.com/news/1658) has become this year's career opportunity. After an awesome three months at The Washington Post, I'm back in Atlanta. I started a full-time staff job a few weeks ago at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I had an equally enriching experience last summer as an intern. Armed with the lessons of three internships, some good friends and colleagues and a boatload of energy I'm back where I wanted to be.

I'm lucky. I really am.


(Pouya Dianat is now a staff photographer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can see a sample of his work on his SportsShooter.com member page: http://www.sportsshooter.com/pouyad.)

Related Links:
Pouya's member page
Intern Diaries: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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