What we do to get the shot

Most of the greatest photographs in history have come when the photographer goes beyond what the average person will to get the image. The idea of photography is to tell a story with one split second in a way that allows the viewer to almost experience the situation or subject. With those in mind it makes one think about the lengths that human curiosity and daring will take photographers in their never-ending quest to document the world and to tell the stories that only images can.

We see the images that come back from the war front and try to imagine what these soldiers are going through, but the photographer who shoots those images is in the same situation, with bullets flying but they’re only armed with their camera and nerve. One of the greatest war photographers of all time (arguably THE greatest) is James Nachtwey. He is renowned for his ability to capture the essence of whatever situation he is in. His hauntingly arresting photographs of war and human misery is a testament to his ability to engage his subjects and put himself in the middle of the action. We see the photos but we never usually see what the photographer behind the lens goes through to get it, but this photograph gives a glimpse of what they do to get their image:

James Nachtwey

Could you continue to do your job as a man with an AK-47 turns in your direction?? I’ve done some things to get images but I’m not even sure I would be able to keep my composure enough in a situation like that.

My own story, while not quite as dangerous, is pretty interesting and goes along to help illustrate this same topic. On July 18, 2007 I was in New York City to shoot an event uptown around 70th Street. When I got out of the subway I saw a lot of people standing around being blocked from getting onto downtown trains and I figured something was up, but I was on my way to a shoot so I couldn’t really investigate. Almost as soon as I got to the event I got a phone call from my editor telling me that something was going on in midtown and that I should get down there as soon as possible. So I jumped in a cab and told him to head downtown towards Grand Central. I got out my NYPD Press Badge and set up my cameras so I would be ready to go. My heart started pounding as I saw the giant plume of smoke rising above the building downtown as we started going down there. My editor texted me on the way saying that she was told it was possibly a building collapse (it was right as it was happening so no one really knew what was going on). The cab driver turned around to me and said, “We’re not going to be able to go right down there because something is happening” so I told him that that was exactly what I was going to. He gave me a very confused look and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the ride.

We got about 20 blocks away and the traffic stalled and we couldn’t get any closer. I paid the man and got out and began running towards the rising plume of smoke. As I was making my way down there were crowds of people making their way away from the scene covered in dirt. I was trying to catch bits of their conversations on the phone to get an idea of what I was heading into. I got about 4 blocks away and the police had the road blocked. I showed them my badge (which normally allows me to cross police lines) but the officer said “Sorry, no one, not even press, are allowed past this point. It’s a safety cordon.” Now I wasn’t about to give up yet so I started walking down a side street and put my step ladder (which I had for my original shoot) behind some construction equipment and kept walking. I soon saw an alley leading closer to the scene with no police in it. I started walking confidently down and when a security guard started to hesitantly walk towards me I flashed my badge and kept walking and he stopped trying to stop me.

So now I was on a walkway above the area where the emergency crews were but the police stopped me again. So I started to look for a way to get down and saw an attendant standing outside a parking garage. I asked him if he knew how I could get down there and he offered his stairway. So I went down their back stairway and was inside of Grand Central Terminal (which was closed off at this point by the police and National Guard). I looked across the concourse and saw flashing lights through a bunch of glass doors and knew that was where I wanted to go. I started making my way there but saw a bunch of National Guardsmen standing with their M-16s in front of the doors stopping people from going through. I figured they had only been told to stop people getting in but not the part about stopping the press so I walked up to them and said I was with the press and was allowed to go through, so he let me go.

So the second I walked through the doors I realized I really probably wasn’t supposed to be allowed in there. There were firefighters putting on their gear and police everywhere. I was a block away from where I could see the emergency personnel doing their thing. I was there with two other photographers (one from the AP and another I had not seen before) who had managed to make their way through as well. So the three of us started to make our way down the block taking turns getting closer to see when we’d be asked to leave. So we make our way down to the corner and see shattered glass windows, and by this point the brown liquid stuff was falling down on us. When we got to the corner and looked down the street it was maybe 75 feet away and did not look like it was under control. So I was shooting this whole time when a FDNY Officer walks up and says “I don’t know how you got in here but you shouldn’t be here. You’re already probably EXPLETIVEing yourself up. We don’t know what’s coming out of that thing.” So I then walk away, circle around a police car and come back and start shooting again. A second officer walks up and asks me to leave so I do the same thing and keep shooting and finally the second guy comes back up and says “Come on guy, I already asked you to leave.” So this time I did since I was getting calls from my editor asking for the photos. So I get out of the cordoned area and sit down on the sidewalk outside of a closed Starbucks using their WiFi to send the photos to my editor, getting calls telling me that when I get home to take off my clothes and throw them out since there might be asbestos in the stuff that was raining down on me, and noticing that everyone else in the area was wearing facemasks. Here are some of the photos I took:

When I was doing it all I could think about was getting the images which is what I imagine goes through the head of all photographers in situations that seem crazy to most people. But I guess that’s what makes us Photographers …

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Photographer’s Rights

I am a freelance photojournalist and I have been sent on a number of assignments of varying complexity and directness.  At each of these assignments I have taken photos of people, some with their express permission, but many times without their express permission.  I’ve been told many times by some of these people “You can’t use a photo of me without my permission.”  These comments inevitably come in angry, derogatory, and dismissive tones.  It’s one of those things that really seems to catch me the wrong way because the plain fact of the matter is that, yes, yes indeed I can use a picture of you without your permission so long as that photo is not being used “for advertising or purposes of trade” which has, through legal decisions, been narrowed to EXclude art and any editorial usage.  This extends to any public space or anywhere that the expectation of privacy (not simply from photographs) is not implied.  This means that I cannot climb your fire escape, shoot you dancing in your boxers in your living room and publish those photos, but if you came downstairs and danced in your boxers in the middle of the street and I photographed you, then I CAN publish those photos without your permission.

Sometimes it becomes very contentious, such as when a police officer decides you’re not allowed to take photos in the subway (which you most certainly are allowed to since the proposed legislation to stop that was put down) or when someone gets in your face.  With a complete lack of factual information, these people take it upon themselves to assert what they think without any regard for what is actually the truth.  It’s annoying and pertinent to all photographers, both professional and amateur, in their everyday activities because without our rights to document and express we have nothing.  So if you are doing something in public that you don’t want other people to see, don’t do it … or take it inside.

And just to show that this is a reality that is faced by all photographers, look at the lawsuit Philip-Lorca DiCorcia faced http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nussenzweig_v._DiCorcia

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Canon Vs. Nikon … Really??

So I am, by all counts, a Canon Guy.  I love the sight of a white-gray lens attached to the appropriately named body (it’s number THEN letter).  I love the Ultrasonic focusing and the red is a much cooler accent than the yellow/gold.  But when it comes down to it there aren’t many truly exceptional differences between the two competitors in photography.  People talk about Canon’s superiority in telephoto (which is true) and Nikon’s superiority in flashes (… maybe it’s true …), but in the end they both are exceptional producers of quality photographic equipment.  The reality of the situation is that regardless of which outfit a photographer might have, whether or not they will be able to produce a beautiful photograph is entirely dependent upon their ability as a photographer.

The argument about who is better isn’t reserved solely for photography, people argue this same point about pretty much everything.  Some people will buy no other car but Ford, some people will only use a particular brand of cereal, some people refuse to eat at certain restaurants, etc, etc … The fact of the matter is that in each of these cases an argument can be formulated to support the position (“Ford has the highest towing capacity in its class” “Total has more of the vitamins and minerals I need to start my day off right” “McDonald’s hamburgers are far inferior to the flame-broiled goodness that is Burger King”) but equally strong cases can be formulated in response (“I don’t need towing capacity to go grocery shopping and Toyota has a better drive train warranty” “Why would I need 100% of my daily recommended allowance from one piece of one meal in my day when I can have the tasty, never soggy crunch of Crispix?” “Flame-broiled or not, McDonald’s Chicken Sandwich is far crispier and fresher than that sorry excuse Burger King offers”).  It becomes a matter of personal taste in the end but no one seems willing to admit it.  I may enjoy the Canon over the Nikon but a photographer with a D200 can still get an incredible picture if they know how to use a camera … Hell, I could get an incredible picture with a D200 despite my love of Canon.

If we could get past this confusion of absolutes Vs. personal preference I think we could all get along much easier … over the far superior and smooth taste of Dr. Pepper …

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Photo of the Week is Up!!

Photo of the Week begins today with a rather pretty picture of the sun setting behind a tree if I do say so myself.  It is up top there in the Page called Picture of the Week … Enjoy!!

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Duck-mada!! … Adventures in Roanoke, VA

So I’ve been asked many times “Hey Phil! What makes you so crazy??” My usual response is “Huh??” cause I always seem to ask “Huh??” when I am asked a question that I don’t immediately know the answer to. After a few seconds of thinking I usually say “Well, it’s a compilation of life experiences really …” Now some would think that by this I mean situations like sneaking into the cordoned off area around a steam pipe explosion or being on a two engined passenger jet over the Atlantic when one of the engines cuts out and you have to turn around and land on a US Air Force base in the Azores … but no, those add flavor to the crazy but the bread and butter of my crazy lies in the more everyday craziness that seems to follow me like rats behind the Pied Piper. I give this one example as proof that, no matter where I go, crazy will inevitably happen …

This weekend I went down to Roanoke, VA (not the lost city I thought I had finally discovered … sorry to disappoint) with my girlfriend to visit her hometown … of Roanoke. On Saturday we decided to go down to the river side and play some tennis. Now I haven’t played tennis since sometime in High School which leaves me approximately 7 or 8 years out of practice. As I was, in fact, as bad as that statement might imply, we soon grew tired of chasing tennis balls all over the court and decided to go walk down by the river. When one goes by a river, one almost always decides that one’s feet must be dangled into said river. While enjoying the cool water on our feet, a bunch of people started to show up. What had originally started out as just the two of us dangling feet in the water soon became a horde of people (mostly children and their respective “adult supervisors”). Now our first inclination was to leave, and to her credit my girlfriend had our tennis gear in her hands ready to vacate the area, but something in the undercurrent of conversation kept my attention. There was something coming down the river and two people with event tee-shirts were wading out into the river with nets to deal with the situation. So I asked my girlfriend to wait up because I wanted to see what was happening. Soon enough I saw what everyone had raced here to see … a monstrous wave of these …

Rubber Duckie

That’s right … 2000 rubber ducks were swarming towards us on the river. Realizing that two people with nets were not going to be able to capture 2000 wily rubber ducks we volunteered our services to the effort. So I found myself knee deep in a river with thousands of rubber ducks racing towards me. Now it seems appropriate at this juncture to describes what led up to this event…

It was the weekend of the Kentucky Derby and apparently every year they have a Duck Derby in the Roanoke River where each of the ducks has a serial number and all the children get one duck to be their duck and all the ducks are released in the river and the winner receives a prize. Now should everything go according to plan, they have nets set up to catch all the ducks when they cross the finish line. This year the nets that were set up were too close to the water’s surface so all the ducks washed over the nets and proceeded, to the complete shock of all the planners/volunteers and I am sure the complete joy of all the children, to race down the river uncontrolled and unimpeded. And this should catch you up to the point we left off at …

At this point my girlfriend and I are wading in the river with a handful of unprepared volunteers (in their jeans and skirts as they had not expected to have to touch the river let alone wade out to retrieve renegade ducks) and a few fishermen who happened to be fishing in the river getting ready to try and fend off the onslaught of terrifying (aka: rubber) ducks. As they came we started catching them and tossing them to the riverbank to the crowd of waiting children who would catch them and place them in piles. I’m not sure if the image of 2000 rubber ducks flowing down a river to a bunch of people tossing them to the banks is quite complete without mentioning this was occurring right in front of a waterfall … yes, waterfall. It may not have been very tall but it did cause some rapids down below them that wouldn’t be too fun to be caught up in.

Things seemed to be going relatively well with only a few ducks escaping our clutches and the piles of ducks growing on the shores when I heard a yelp from behind me. I turned around to see my girlfriend waving her arms and leaning forward yelling “I am getting pulled away by the current!!” Now imagine this coming from someone with two fist fulls of rubber ducks and the reality of the ridiculousness of it all should start to set in. I immediately snap into action and carefully wade my way over (so as not to hurt my feet on the sharp rocks of course) and grab her right before she lost it and started to pull her back. About this time one of the fishermen holding the net looks back and yells in his most dramatic and Perfect Storm worthy voice, “LET GO OF THE DUCKS!!!”

I am dragging my girlfriend back from falling down a waterfall as rubber ducks wash by laughing at the situation and trying not to fall over myself. Soggy, bemused, and kind of tired by now, we walk back to shore as the stream of ducks had subsided. We climbed up the bank and walked back to the car with our shoes in our hands and the stories already beginning to be told.

So there is Exhibit A of what makes my life so ridiculous and so incredibly … crazy.

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Blogging for … THE FUTURE!!

So I’ve decided to enter the new millennium … and only 8 years late!!   This will be the central location for all things Phil and a weekly  (or more often if I feel like it … or less if I forget sometimes) Photo Phil Photophile Post with a photo I took that I thought you might find interesting.  If you have any requests on subjects I should pontificate upon or photos you would like to see please let me know.  So until next time … PHOTOS PHOREVER!!!

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