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|| News Item: Posted 2007-08-14

Gray Matters: We belong inside
Jim Merithew's mom gave him total access to photograph her as she was during her final days.

By Jim Merithew, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Jim Merithew

Photo by Jim Merithew

Patricia Merithew realizes that she is about to be released from the hospital and a smile crosses her face. At left, the official wheelchair man makes sure she gets to the door alright.
I have taken a lot of pictures of my mom. Unfortunately, not many are candid. Like so many people, she was used to staring right into the camera every time someone took a picture. It was un-natural for her to act natural.

All that changed during this last visit when I helped her move out of the hospital and into hospice care. For some reason, she stopped caring about my camera. During those final six days I spent with her, she gave me total access to photograph her as she was. We made an unspoken pact. It was the deal all photojournalists should be trying to make with their subjects. The one where if you let me into your life, I will make the most compelling, thoughtful, honest, real photographs I can of who you are and what you do.

The problem is, too many of us never take the time to make the deal.

As journalists, we're tasked with trying to bring the world to our readers. But how can we do that if we're standing in the street trying to peer in from the outside? Why aren't we in the bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms, and dining rooms of our subjects every single time? How often do we assume the door won't open for us, so we don't even knock?

How many of you have stood around staring at your feet waiting for the start of the game instead of talking your way into the locker room?

Too often our decisions are based on fear. Fear that we'll be denied. Fear we'll put ourselves out there and be rejected. Fear that someone will smell our fear and call us on it. Fear that we'll show up early and stay late, but we still won't make a picture worth a damn. I suggest that you check in with this fear. Are you aware of it? Are you in control of it? Or is it controlling you?

Once you've introduced yourself to your fear, crush it. I sometimes use a technique that Bryan Moss taught me to get over my fear. He told me he figured a photographer belonged wherever they were until someone told them otherwise. We belong inside. It's where we want to be. It's where we should be.

Photo by Jim Merithew

Photo by Jim Merithew

Chuck and Patricia Merithew watch the movie Chicago in their son Scott's living room. This is one of the last photographs Jim took of her. She lasted 16 days after being released from the hospital.
It is the photographs that you take while "in" that will set you apart from the pack. Anybody can take photographs at a parade, or a speech, or a football game. It is the photographer that can talk their way in that will stand out.

I've been inside on several occasions. None of which were easy. I, like the rest of you, find it hard to push past my comfort zone and wander into the unknown. It's never been easy to sit quietly and wait. It's never been easy to put the camera to my face during stressful situations. But let me tell you, it is an amazing thing to realize what you will be allowed to witness if you only learn to ask.

Case in point, it took me 42 years and my mom's impending death to be truly allowed in. But as I looked back through the film (yes, film) that I took during those last six days, it was a gift I will be eternally grateful for.

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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