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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2009-08-13

Sports Shooter Q & A: with Matt Mendelsohn
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
(Editors Note: I decided that a Q & A would be a good format to discuss Matt Mendelsohn's story and photographs of Lindsay Ess. This Q & A was conducted via Instant Message and covers a wide range of topics concerning his story, the media, self-image and balancing writing and making photographs while reporting this personal project.)

Robert Hanashiro
You mention in your story (
http://www.sportsshooter.com/news/2266) that you first heard about Lindsay from a makeup artist friend. When did you think this was a story and you wanted to pursue it?

Matt Mendelsohn
So much of my post-journalistic life revolves around weddings, so it wasn't a surprise that this story came to me at once. A makeup artist friend---we see each other every weekend it seems---asked me to say a prayer for her friend's daughter. It took me by surprise. I said, "What's going on with your friend's daughter?" and she started to explain.

At this point Lindsay was on life support, before the amputations. I thought it sounded like a story that needed to be told. And so I approached Lindsay's mom. At this point it was just me. No newspaper involvement. I just thought it should be told by someone and I didn't want to waste time. So I started going down to Richmond.


RH
When was this?

MM
In the fall of 2007, Lindsay was very close to death. In the spring of 2008, I started going down there. Lindsay was just receiving her prosthetics. I told Judith that I didn't really have a reason to be there except that I was a former journalist who thought the story needed to be documented. She graciously allowed me to come into their home.


RH
You've worked a long time in journalism, was there a point before you began to report this or during the beginning where you felt this was going to be one of those "disease of the week" stories we dread?

MM
Never, ever. Have you heard of many other fashion majors who have lost all four limbs? And are teaching fashion a year later? I was with Lindsay for about ten minutes when I got a whiff of her sense off humor and her spunk and her strength. Lindsay is a force of nature, to be sure. And the message that seems to follow her was hard to ignore: A young woman, like many young women, obsessed with her body image in high school and college. But Lindsay puts body image into a whole different arena now.

In fact, this week, there's a big controversy surrounding Self Magazine. It seems they Photoshopped about 30 pounds off of Kelly Clarkson, so that, according to the editor, she could "be her best." That's so absurd. Lindsay's story flies in the face of that nonsense. Lindsay has a better sense of body image and worth and self-esteem than that editor.


Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
RH
That's another element of your story that I think adds so much. In addition to telling a very compelling story, there's that added dimension about the societal issues with weight, looks, perception, media...

MM
Lindsay knows how the game is played. Remember, just a month or two before her amputations, she had graduated with a degree in fashion merchandising. She knows now how much the media can affect young girls with all this thinness, all this beauty, all of this pressure. She knows about Photoshop, believe me. With no arms and legs and a degree in fashion, Lindsay is better suited than a lot of people to weigh in--no pun intended--on this whole body image debate.


RH
Did you go into this knowing you wanted to write AND make photographs at the same time?

MM
I've been slowly gravitating towards writing for a while now. I know that there aren't many photographers out there who are writing 10,000 word pieces. I love to write. I knew that I wanted to try both on this story. In an age when everyone is worrying about shooting video, I considered this to be a more quaint form of multimedia. Perhaps the original form!

Last year, I was shooting the wedding of the daughter of the USA TODAY page one editor. After his toast, the editor joked to the guests, "This is the only wedding you'll ever attend where the wedding photographer can say he has an op-ed in tomorrow's Sunday New York Times. That was true. And so I want to continue to try and mix writing and shooting.


RH
Was there a time when Lindsay said "enough" or you were uncomfortable about something?

MM
She didn't like me taking photos of her smoking. She didn't want her grandmother to see. She asked me if I had to and I told her that I did, but that I wouldn't use it unless it was key to the story. Other than that, she was completely open.


RH
That has always been one of my pet peeves with a lot of multimedia I see today. To me you have to have a STORY first and foremost…

MM
Absolutely. No offense, so much of multimedia seems to be stories about skateboarders hanging out at the skate park. It looks good on video, but there's no story there, if you know what I mean. The story is the most important thing and too many newspapers are abandoning good stories for things that they think one demographic or another wants. I would love to help more photographers be better storytellers, not through gadgetry but through developing stories. An HD video camera looks good but it doesn't guarantee anything. I'd pick the endurance of the human spirit over a multimedia video clip about skateboarders any day of the week.


Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
RH
That has been the struggle that we all in the newspaper business have been experiencing. With downsizing, less money, less staff, more dependency on wires and stock agencies so content can and often is very homogenous ... I hope that good stories will still be told.

Sorry...my soapbox...

MM
Look, it's no surprise that newspapers are in a bit of panic mode right now. The money folks are clearly in charge and the editorial side is thinking of ways to cut costs, not do long special projects.


RH
Obviously you invested a lot into this, especially time, did you have an idea where this would eventually lead?

MM
Well, after I had been working on it for a bit, I pitched it to the Sunday magazine of a big paper and they liked the idea a lot, so it was intended as a cover story for that mag. Until, that is, the decline of the industry got in the way. I was told by the publisher that advertisers wanted happier stories, not "depressing" ones. I was taken aback, obviously.


RH
This goes back to what we talked about a couple of minutes ago...

MM
To label Lindsay's life "depressing," especially as if she needs to make some advertiser comfortable is, well, depressing in its own right.

I want to be clear: The newspaper had the right to kill my piece. I don't want there to be any confusion over this. It's their paper and I'm just a freelance journalist. But the reason for killing the piece--that the news needs to be more uplifting--is just so fundamentally wrong. Lindsay's story isn't easily labeled. She's heroic at times and she's depressed at times. But she goes on. That's the triumph. We can't start trying to pre-package news to fit certain types of holes. Life is life is life, if you get my drift.


RH
I was taken by not only Lindsay's story, but her mom especially. Labeling the story depressing is an oversimplification of a very intricate story, but one that has much more of an uplifting feel...because of Lindsay's attitude and her mom in my mind,

MM
My wife said to me one day, "This is a story for Mother's Day more than anything." It really is a story about a mother and a daughter's love. It can be contentious, sure, but what 26-year-old wants her mother around all day.


RH
As you said, life?

MM
Judith, in her own way, has a remarkable story to tell. She's been a rock, yeah life throws a lot of curves.

The reason I wanted Sports Shooter to have this story is that I didn't want it to just fade away because of a bad call. This isn't that paper's story anyway. It's Lindsay's story. It belongs to her. And if it can teach some photographers about storytelling and writing, even better. By the way, if you've done a multimedia piece about a skate park recently, it was just an example! Don't send me nasty emails!


Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
RH
Did you think about pitching this to another magazine? This is a wonderful story, wonderfully written and photographed…

MM
I did. One great newspaper magazine loved it but had just done some body image stories. Others never responded. It has a regional peg, obviously, and perhaps they thought it was too far from home. As I said, I didn't want its shelf life to expire. Like Dr. Brown said in the piece, I'm a believer in Lindsay and I didn't want her story to be for naught. And when I read the comments by that Self magazine editor, I knew that it was even more pertinent right now.


RH
The first thing I did after I read the final draft was put the copy on my daughter's desk to read when she got home from school today.

MM
I hope Emma likes it. It's a tough story. In fact, in my mind, I always thought it would have a heroic ending. But life is more plodding. Those endings are for TV shows. Lindsay's making it to the bathroom--ten feet--is heroic enough, if you ask me.


RH
Except TV and movies don't have the detail that the written word does.

RH
Back to a good story...

MM
You know, that's funny. One of the biggest challenges I had was figuring out when to shoot and when to record. Ultimately, I ended up with a solution that involved carrying my Olympus LS-10 digital recorder in one hand. But it was much harder than I thought. A left brain, right brain kind of thing.


RH
What was the most difficult part about reporting this? Note taking? Taking photos? Balancing of the two? Did you ever think that in doing both, there were sacrifices one had to make for the other?

MM
Absolutely. Sometimes I missed good pictures because I was trying to record conversations. Other times I was shooting and wanted to make a note. I guess there's a reason that not too many photographers are writing pieces of this length!

But as Crosby, Stills and Nash say, life is for learning.


(Robert Hanashiro is the founder and editor of the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
The Lessons of Lindsay

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