I was sitting on Fritz’s couch when his daughter Sue asked me squarely, “Why do you want to do a story about my Dad?” I told her, “If I don’t do it, then who will?” I started to think about the 1,000 or so WWII vets that are reportedly dying each day. As I turned to look at Fritz, the tears started streaming down my face. It was like a levee had been breached, caving under the emotional weight. Playing out like the Lifetime movie of the week, Sue started to cry alongside me.
I learned a lot in that vulnerable instant. I learned that photojournalism is about real moments. I learned that gaining access and building trust is never as easy as it looks. But mostly I learned that it’s not at all about you, it’s about the people you meet and their stories.
I had pitched a couple of interesting photo documentary ideas that week, including one about a skateboard kid who had found Jesus. Actually, before I even set foot in Missouri, I had secured full permission from Troy’s fire department to sleep at the firehouse and ride on their trucks.
I think it’s every boy’s childhood dream to ride on the shiny red fire truck—and I wasn’t sure if I’d later regret passing this story on to a fellow workshop attendee. But in all honesty, this story had been done before, and it just seemed too easy. If I was going to really learn something from this experience, I knew that I needed to push myself out of my normal comfort zone.
After many discussions with my team mentors and back-and-forth deliberation in my own mind, I chose a story about a decorated 87-year-old WWII Navy veteran who was guarding the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered. Fritz also had Alzheimer’s. I wasn’t aware of his Alzheimer’s when I initially chased the lead—although it later became a critical element of my story.
I didn’t particularly want my story to focus on his medical condition, but I also had an obligation to be as honest as possible in my reportage—and this was an important part of who he was. As they always say, “Don’t photograph what they are, but who they are.”
If you don’t connect with your subject, then how do you expect others to connect with your images? I knew I needed to pick a story that would mean something. It was not only important to me to record the stories of WWII veterans, whose numbers are rapidly diminishing, but I felt a personal connection because my father served in the Navy. Ultimately, I wanted to leave a lasting legacy for Fritz’s family. I also felt a responsibility to do a story that would recognize the important role U.S. veterans have played in our country’s history. I think it goes without saying that the skateboarder story probably would have been more photographically dynamic, but it would not have been as personally significant.
It was interesting to see what stories materialized from other participants that week. Ironically, many of the best stories were about simple things, such as one that focused on the town’s Laundromat. It only goes to show you that it’s not necessarily about the story idea, it’s about the execution and emotion behind it.
Documenting Fritz’s story turned out to be slightly more challenging than I expected. To begin with, senior citizens lead a rather sedentary life, so there’s not a ton of action happening at any given moment. Most of the time, Fritz and his wife were sitting around the kitchen table watching TV shows such as “The Price is Right.” At least in my case, there was a tendency for them to treat me like a guest, just as our workshop faculty had predicted would happen. I did appreciate their hospitality though.
Some of the best advice came from Director Emeritus, Duane Dailey. Duane’s a living legend and country gentleman, and I could write an entire post about him. Duane told us, “You’re doing a dance. You initially engage them to get over the awkward silence of being there as people start figuring out exactly how they should act around you. In the beginning, you’re really setting the ground rules and directing them to some extent.”
Essentially, you engage them (for example, you might ask them a lot of leading questions) just to get them to a certain comfort level. Once they reach this level, you start backing away and you try to become invisible. Or, as National Geographic freelance photographer and MPW faculty member Randy Olson says, “You become extremely boring.”
Of course, every time I raised the camera to shoot, my subject became acutely aware of my presence, which didn’t help matters. At one point, I told Fritz, “You don’t need to pose,” to which he sarcastically snapped back, “I’m not posing, I’m just sitting here.” Yes, he had his moments of confusion, but when he was on, he was like a quick-tongued chameleon.
One of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was the shot limitation MPW placed on us for the entire week. We were only allowed to shoot 400 JPEG images and couldn’t delete or edit any of our shots. The problem is that I tend to shoot many images in the beginning with the goal of desensitizing my subjects to the fact that I’m photographing them. This also helps to warm me up and get me in the zone.
When they are tired of all the attention, they eventually let down their guard. Sure, you can always pull out your memory card and shoot blanks, but you might miss something important along the way. The fact that I couldn’t shoot that much only made the shots I did take all the more noticeable, which made those authentic, unscripted moments slightly more elusive.
I know we all wish we could photograph like Bresson and capture a decisive moment in only one click, but the reality is that the best shots often come from capturing a series or range of “decisive moments” as realized in a burst sequence.
In other words, we shouldn’t take a machine gun approach to image capture, which is nothing more than a “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” approach.
But by the same token, I see nothing wrong with using our intuition to anticipate behavior and shooting a burst sequence in order to increase the likelihood of capturing that fleeting intersection of emotion and compositional geometry that peaks as the moment unfolds.
Whether you shoot one image or 1,000, you still need to understand good design, composition, light, backgrounds, and of course, how to anticipate real iconic moments. You just can’t rely on your volume of images to somehow compensate for your lack of expertise in these other areas.
Trust me, what MPW was trying to teach us with this shot limitation didn’t go over my head. There’s a lot behind the idea of making every frame count. Former National Geographic nature photographer Jim Brandenburg reaffirmed this philosophy in his compelling book, Chased by the Light, in which he limited himself to only one frame per day over a 90-day period.
Then again, it’s somewhat ironic that these very same National Geographic photographers will often blow through thousands of images when working on magazine assignments. I wonder what would happen if you gave them a 400-frame story limit?
So what did I learn about my own photojournalism skills that week? Well, I’d probably have to write a novel to list it all. I learned that I need to get in closer to my subjects and fill the frame, that my people shots feel as if I’m more of an observer than a participant, and that some of my shots are not as spontaneous as they could be and come off as more contrived or formal.
I will only add that some subjects and situations lend themselves to more spontaneity. I suppose that, had I been in a more chaotic environment, it would have been easier to be a fly on the wall. That’s not to say that my story was harder to photograph than others because I think each story had its own challenges and quirks.
My amazing mentor, Peggy Peattie (Staff Photographer, Union-Tribune San Diego), wasn’t shy in telling me that I shot too many frames of the same subject. Or as Peggy humorously stated, “How many different angles of pill bottles do we really need to see?” There was also a strong emphasis placed on seeking out the most dynamic lighting.
Throughout the week, we collectively learned how to research story ideas, gain access and build trust, decide when a story is or is not worth pursuing, analyze subject relationships and interactions to determine the best track for our stories, draw connections between our stories and broader social issues, use picture and editing filters to advance the narrative, and, finally, how to tell stories with honesty and integrity.
These lessons came in the form of one-on-one mentoring with faculty, group discussions, nightly presentations, student interaction, and field critique.
The week I spent in Troy with the Missouri Photo Workshop was one of the most immersive, insightful, and intense photographic experiences of my life. While I can’t speak for the Eddy Adams Workshop (another highly touted photojournalism workshop), I can tell you that MPW is one of the best, if not the best, photojournalism workshops in existence.
MPW is raw and real, and you probably won’t get much beauty sleep the week you attend. And there is a high degree of vulnerability that will leave even the most seasoned photographers crying in their hotel beds at night, questioning their own skills. But, like anything else, what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it, and that requires you to take a huge leap of faith by embracing the entire experience—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
MPW was the kind of workshop where even the most accomplished photographers seemed to struggle, and the least experienced shone, yet we all walked away much better photographers and storytellers than we ever thought possible.
Only 2,500 or so photographers have had the distinct privilege of walking through MPW’s doors since 1949, and I’m honored to count my name among a select few. Leaving Troy at the conclusion of the workshop, I felt like I was taking a small piece of MPW founder Cliff Edom with me. I also felt great pride in being able to document a true America hero like Fritz—an opportunity I might not have experienced had it not been for MPW.
I will never forget the lifelong photojournalism lessons I learned that week, lessons that, like a seed planted in the fertile earth, will continue to grow. There’s an organic, almost family-like quality about MPW that is hard to describe unless you’ve actually been there. From the workshop camaraderie to the insightful advice dispensed, one could not help but think that there was something undeniably profound happening at MPW.
My MPW.64 photo documentary, “The Greatest Battle”: http://mophotoworkshop.org/mpw64/the-greatest-battle/