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|| News Item: Posted 2010-10-03

Intern Diaries
'At my going away lunch, I received these awards: Best Romanian Intern Ever...'

By Octavian Cantilli

I don't want a job as a photographer. I want a career in visual storytelling. The University of Florida's college of journalism, a summer fellowship at Poynter and numerous wonderful workshops have cemented into my brain a solid core of journalistic and technical principles. But I wasn't comfortable regarding when to be literal and when to be figurative in my photography.
Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Bob Bowman has eight years of experience making wire art of all types. After growing tired restoring cars, his hobby for more than 25 years, Bowman wanted to find another way to keep his hands busy.

Should I use video, still images, sound or what combination of each to tell a particular story? What type of light should I use in this portrait? How can I be compassionate to people I just met, yet want to photograph them in difficult situations? Do I really care to work in a newsroom? These and many other questions can't be answered in any class. The answers are personal and come only with experience.

After graduating, and completing a summer fellowship at Poynter, it took sending more than 50 portfolios and more than five months to be offered my first paid internship. This was either because I was a real jerk or because my work just wasn't that good. I like to think it was the latter.

On December 2, 2008 at 1:45, I remember getting pricked on the forearm and getting my shirtsleeve caught in the bouquet of roses next to me after flaring my hand around in celebration from Mike Randolph's call to offer me a six-month internship at the Bay City Times. I was ecstatic and accepted the position on the spot. However, shortly thereafter I became quite worried about having less than a month to prepare for life in the Michigan cold, or Canada, as my grandmother who is still in Romania likes to call it.

At the time I drove a curb scraping fire-burning Honda, which would turn into a very inefficient snow plow somewhere in Ohio, way before ever reaching Michigan. Plus, in Florida ,'winter clothes' means a sweatshirt. Luckily, I hustled big time during 2008 with part-time jobs. The jobs included flower and pizza delivery and shooting cheerleading competitions on week ends. I shot a handful of weddings, occasionally shot an event for a local weekly and/or great dude, Andrew Sullivan, helped to cover three Dodger Fantasy baseball camps with the Noble family, and last but not least, got a well paying contract position to produce a textures library for a stock company that many of my non-photographer friends still call me crazy for giving up.

Seven months in Bay City was dyn-o-mite, with one major exception. Within my third week there, the entire newsroom was asked to meet in the conference room, where the publisher unleashed a bomb. Three of their regional papers, including the Bay City Times, were turning into weeklies come May, and the staff was going to be cut more than 50 percent. WOW! I just got there, and I felt like crying. All this was particularly hard because most people in the building, editorial, advertising and management hung out with one another. There was none of that departmental cliqueness. These people went to bars, church, played in softball leagues and volunteered in the community together. Even with all this going on, EVERYONE was ridiculously friendly and inviting. Many good times were had on assignment and after hours in Bay City.

I still keep in touch with more than 50 people I met in Bay City, but I must give a few special shout outs to Mike Randolph, who is the perfect bossman, professional yet open, super knowledgeable about photo and multimedia yet totally non arrogant. Former staffer, Dan 'Da Man' Staudacher, one of the most humble guys I know, who still makes time to check out every one of my blog posts and offer great feedback and encouragement. And writer, Ryan Stanton, who always had my back and will undoubtedly run a news organization one day.
Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Denny Heberly prepares to start his day in his Army-style tent reinforced by sheets of plywood. He supports himself, including his smoking and alcohol habits, with the money he makes collecting cans and bottles around town.

I was thrown into the mix from day two with the same full range of assignments that everyone else got. One assignment that sticks out in my mind was a portrait with a nice retired man, Bob Bowman, who makes art out of wires. He proved to be as energetic about making a cool photo as I was, so after exhausting the short time I initially had to spend, I told him I'd try to come back in 45 minutes to make something unique. I've always enjoyed making portraits of engaging people. It ended up taking roughly two hours to set up for that shoot between finding the right spot, the three lights, four stands, two flags, tripod, fishing string, and shooting tether, yet Bob's energy level just kept getting higher and higher.

Next up was a nine-month stay at The Grand Rapids Press. I don't know whether it was really my photos or my tennis game that got me this internship. Chris Clark is a fellow tennis fan, so I was automatically in. Jokes aside, I have to say right off the bat that Chris made my GR experience fantastic. He not only challenged me with numerous awesome assignments, he treated me like family from day one

Chirs is badass shooter who decided to become an editor so he could have more time with his super star overachieving kids. Yet, he still does the job of what in my opinion SHOULD be at least two jobs, day and evening photo and assignment editor for a more than 100,00 circulation daily newspaper. I have much love for the entire editorial staff there. They're all fun characters who are passionate about what they do. Let's put it this way: At my going away lunch, I received these awards: Best Romanian intern ever, looks best in moon boots, best use of ring light, most kept photo assignments, and most improved snow driver_ don't ask. Good times!

My favorite assignment in GR has to be a shantytown photo essay that showed me firsthand what photojournalism can do. It has to be my most successful attempt at what I was taught to be the purpose of journalism, to give a voice to the voiceless.

After publication, the community embraced the shantytown residents by donating large quantities of firewood, clothes, canned foods and other supplies. A police chief visited the camp to tell residents that they are welcome to stay as long as they like and to call him directly if they ever need to have someone removed.

Numerous letters were sent to the editor of the paper and hundreds of comments were left on It was published prominently in The Grand Rapids Press and two other regional papers on October 18, 2009, yet I feel most of my images were weak at best.

I was given more than a month to produce the storytelling images, but I still had to do other assignments daily. I just couldn't get in close with the camp's residents. They didn't seem to understand what my true intentions were. They didn't trust me, so most of my images were distant. Only after the first story was published did they begin to let their guard down around me. This is when the story began for me. Building trust worked both ways.

At first, I parked my car far away, wore steel-toed boots and brought pepper spray when visiting the camp, but it wasn't too long before I felt comfortable enough to leave the weapons at home. There was never any physical aggression directed my way. However, there was plenty of "crazy talk." You know how conversations can get pretty heated when alcohol is involved, and no, I wasn't the one drinking.

They seemed to accept my explanation about why I couldn't ever drive them to the corner gas station or food store, but accepting my explanations wasn't always the case. The most memorable exchange had to do with explaining why the newspaper couldn't pay them for telling me their story. Their argument was the newspaper was making a profit off of their story, so why not pay them a share? A comparison was made to Hollywood paying for the rights to make a movie. Initially, I explained how newspapers are not or at least shouldn't be interested in stories to sell newspapers. Unlike Hollywood, newspapers don't alter a story to make it more interesting to readers.

They have one real purpose, to inform readers of the events and issues facing them, and if they were in the business of paying for it, stories would become altered by the people in them. The conflict of interest between financial rewards and accuracy would make it hard for anyone to discern the true from the not. In all honesty, there was no way I explained myself this clearly, but I know that these were the points I tried to make. It didn't go well. The other parties involved left huffing and puffing, bottle in hand. I feel I told that story about as well as I could have, while working for The Press 40-50 hours per week. If I hadn't been offered an opportunity in Columbus, I could see myself giving that story a lot more of my time.

Now, I'm at the Columbus Dispatch, where I'll remain through the rest of the year. While things are definitely different at a large metro, I find myself again surrounded by a fun staff of fun characters. In my few years of being a photojournalist, I had never covered a vigil, however, three days after my first, I had to cover my second! Luckily, the people at both vigils wanted me there, but there was a big difference in the way they wanted to be remembered.

At the first, everyone showed their devastation right in front of me, in some ways ushering me to the front of the crowd to capture it. My editors actually called me off this assignment, because it was taking so long to start. It was already 9:00. However, I told them I would stay, because I had never experienced anything like that. Initially, there were only a couple of people there who were just standing around. Then, all of a sudden a mob of people came walking up the street. I called my editor as soon as I made a strong image, and when I showed her, she had the front page switched to that image.

The second vigil felt different. It was held in between a middle school and high school, and students were invited to watch a slideshow of pictures from a boy's life. Some made you laugh, while others made you cry. I positioned myself next to but in the shadows of the screen, visible yet unobtrusive to everyone there. I watched the slideshow like everyone else, periodically raising my camera to make an image. It didn't take long for me to notice that roughly 4 of the 6 times I did this, the reaction on the face of the deceased boy's mother turned into smiles. It became evident to me that this was how she wanted to be remembered. This vigil was also different, because a couple hundred children showed up. I needed to show that. As soon as I arrived there, I made friends with Jose, the janitor, and asked if he could get me on the roof. He initially said no, but half way through the vigil, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I still wanted to go up there_
Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Olivia, left, and Omysha Boswell mourn their cousin Katrel Parker during a candlelight vigil at Oakwood Avenue and E. Columbus Street on Thursday, July 22, 2010.

But the photo side of my life wasn't always this fulfilling. In college, I had two unpaid internships. The first was at a newspaper, which equated to 62 assignments in two and a half months while going to school full time (I kept all my assignment slips). Despite producing images deemed good enough for the front page of every section of that paper, I felt like the work I was given was doing little to improve my storytelling skills. And there were other issues I considered to be unprofessional. When I gave them content of my own finding, it was given little attention and even less feedback. I finally wrote the photo editor a heartfelt series of lengthy emails stating my issues and basically said, I don't feel like the staff really want me around, so I'll make it easy on everybody and not show up any more. I never got any kind of response.

My second unpaid internship was a four and a half month, 40-plus hours per week gig with a national advertising photographer and his finely tuned team. There, I saw a systematic approach to controlling multiple light setups and learned about grip equipment I never even knew existed.

I also saw how not to treat people. The level of animosity among the staff was downright nasty, which in turn was often directed to the interns. How it didn't rob everyone there of their creative powers, I will never understand.

Three other interns were cycled through while I was there. Our responsibility was to get lunch, sweep, vacuum, paint walls, answer phones, mow the grass and pull weeds around the studio. We each have a similar story about that place, so it wasn't personal against any of us. That's just how interns were treated there.

The experience was definitely a low point in my life. Thoughts of arson and hitting someone so hard that the gallon of coffee he drank earlier that morning exploded out of his nose were frequent. Luckily, I made incredible lifelong friends away from the studio, who kept me in check. I'll always be grateful to Chuong Doan, Joe Paladino and Alistair Tutton ... much love!

It's ironic that three years ago, I felt like I didn't need no fudging newsroom. I could find, capture visuals and write stories by myself! Now, I think I was crazy. Three years ago, my portfolio was more than 90 percent self-assigned. Now, it is 90 percent assignments from editors who trusted me. I feel much smarter.

The newspaper industry may be going through its toughest times ever. However, newsrooms remain a fantastic place to develop journalistic skill, have fun, be creative, do meaningful work, learn about the world and contribute to other people's understanding of the world.

This was my mentality going into the field, and it has kept me excited about the future of visual storytelling. To wrap things up, some of the things numerous internships/experiences in this field can offer are a support group with similar interests, a tough skin, a solidified realization of the type of photography that makes you tick, a chance to let a lot of talented people to rub off on you, and a knowledge bank of the various ways things are done.

Octavian Cantilli work can be viewed on his member page:

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