The Unsung Heroes: A Tribute to Photogs

News photojournalists – or photogs – are really the unsung heroes of the news team.

They are given more to do than anyone. They are asked to shoot multiple stories a day, and still get sent out for breaking news. They need to run the live truck or know how to set up an in-studio shot. They have to be able to edit a VOSOT while writing the script for two others.

They are called in at 2 a.m. to drive to a tsunami hundreds of miles away, and asked the next week to turn something interesting about a hospital fundraiser. They are sent out to the fluffiest puppy dog stories and the most dangerous black ice stories. They are asked to set up one live shot at 6, then tear down and set up another across town by 6:30 (“oh, and if you can also shoot some video and FTP it back for the web, that would be great”). Reporters even use them as de facto mirrors; “is my hair messed up? Is my tie on straight?”

And even with all that, if you hand them a camera and give them room, they’ll still create a spectacular story or natpack.

(They just won’t get to be on camera to get the credit).

Didn’t I tell you it was thankless?

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Michael Cooper, who just LOVED getting his photo taken.

One of the best qualities of talented photogs is their ability to think differently about stories and assignments. A vain reporter might think: “How can I get creative with my writing? Will this end up on my reel? Will I look good in my liveshot?” But a photog thinks: “How can I make this reporter look good? How can the story be told in a different way? How can I get this done efficiently and get to the next assignment?”

I saw this on my very first liveshot. I was a couple weeks into my first job as a reporter, and I was working on a story about snow plows being prepared for winter weather. I rushed out to the Oregon Department of Transportation yard to set up next to some snow plows.

Because it was my first live shot, I was worried. Was I late? Would I remember my script without looking at my paper? Would I stumble over my words and look stupid? I didn’t want to look like an idiot in my first live opportunity.

I got to the site and met up with photojournalist Michael Cooper. I instinctively stood in a spot with a snow plow in the background. I could see Coop furrow his brow.

“Umm, do you want to try something different?” He asked out of the corner of his mouth. He had the tone of someone who had done this a lot longer than me.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

He chuckled. “I mean, we can walk along the front of the truck, we can move you to the side and look down the plow. You don’t gotta just stand there.”

He then walked over and showed me what he was talking about. Then it dawned on me: he was a photographer. He wasn’t someone who was being paid to just point a camera at a static shot.

Suddenly, having an ally who wanted to be creative got my own creative juices flowing. He quickly discussed different shots, different angles, different positions for me and the camera. Finally, we settled on a unique shot: Coop would point down the “barrel” of the snow plow to see me crouched down behind it, then follow me as I stood up. It was different and it was creative, and it resulted in a much better live shot than something I could have done by myself.

From that day, I knew all I wanted to do was collaborate.

(When you’re working alongside an artist, why wouldn’t you?)

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Scott Perry shoots everything from breaking news to live basketball.

I tried to make it a point to arrive at my live shot early, to begin talking to the photog about how to make an interesting shot. I was very lucky, I got to work with talented photojournalists who are now putting their skills to use in several markets, people like Cooper, John Bartell, Adam Thompson, Evan Bell, Scott Perry, Steve Kaufmann, Kathy Wing, Dustin Peters, Ric Peavyhouse, Julian Olivas and others. They set up near wildfires and alongside freeways. They shot during torrential rainstorms and tsunamis. They set up inside a hot van or on top of a rickety scissor-lift. That group knew how to take a basic live shot and make it fun.

I came with my own ideas. They came with theirs. I knew what information needed to be conveyed, and they knew the advantages and challenges of the camera, lighting, and environment. I’d come in with a prop and ask them to zoom out and focus off it, and they’d come with an idea for a “Tarantino whip-zoom.” The result wasn’t my live shot or their live shot, but our live shot.

When that trust is built, you begin to go to bat for each other, to see the other succeed. Moments after one 6 p.m. live shot, John Bartell and I learned where to find the actual scene of a crime, and discovered it wasn’t far away. We looked at each other and decided “let’s try it.” We worked together to tear down the camera and lights, threw everything into the van, hauled ass five blocks away, spotted the police tap, and somehow managed to set up a quick live shot in time for the 6:30 p.m. newscast. Our live shot was a success.

And it wouldn’t stop there. Many of the photogs I worked with were hungry to get stories on the air. Whenever possible, I loved going out on a story with a photog. They would get shots I would normally miss. They helped lend creativity to standups. They set up interview shots that weren’t just “head-and-shoulders.” And again, it resulted in something unique. Some of my proudest stories came from collaborating with photogs who suggested edits, got good shots, and helped tell the story better than I could myself.

Together, we made good TV.

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Evan Bell braved wind storms and the aftermath of a tsunami – plus Safeway-brand rain gear.

But as I said earlier, the photog job is often a thankless one. With so many TV markets pushing reporters to be one-man-bands, there are fewer opportunities to join forces on a story. As markets spend more money on backpack LiveU units, reporters are setting up live shots themselves and photogs are losing their jobs. And even in markets where photogs have a steady gig, I’ve seen them become the workhorses for newsrooms; being given the toughest and sometimes least rewarding assignments. I’ve seen many reporters arrive at a liveshot and spend the entire lead up to the show on their cell phone, with very little interaction with the photog other than telling them where to point the camera. I’ve heard discussions in the newsroom about assignments that went “Eh, that’s such a small story. Let’s just send a photog.”

These are the newsrooms that fail. The ones who have talented individuals and give them nothing interesting to do.

Great TV is the result of many people working together, from reporters to photogs to producers to studio crew to sales and front office workers. When it comes to producing a great package or liveshot, I would much rather work together with another talented individual.

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Dustin Peters had a knack for finding something creative in any assignment.

Reporters and photogs can be a great team, but there are things they should keep in mind to help the other.

Tips for reporters:

  • Don’t tell the photog what to do. They’re not there to serve you, or do the work for you. You’re a team.
  • Make reasonable requests. Understand that the photog probably can’t set up the live shot from inside the flying helicopter while also doing a pan and zoom. Know the advantages and limitations of a shoot.
  • Give credit where credit is due. Worked with a photojournalist on a package? Include that fact in your script and byline.

Tips for photogs:

  • Suggest shots, words, questions. Work together on every aspect, including shots, interview questions, and scripting. Your collaboration shouldn’t begin and end with the camera.
  • Understand a reporter’s vanity and work with it! Reporters want to look good on camera; that’s how they’ll get their next job. Work together on shots and find the right balance that makes everything in the frame look good.
  • Pitch stories. Attend the morning meeting whenever possible, or make friends with the Assignment Editor. Pitch the stories you want to make and enlist the help of others to get a great product on the air regularly.

If a reporter and photog are a dynamic duo, then the photog is Batman. He or she has every tool in their utility belt to get the job done. I was so fortunate to have worked with as many talented photogs as I did. Thanks for making all of us reporters better.

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