Photographers Do Matter, Thank You Very Much!
Video courtesy Chicago Tribune
Photographers Do Matter, Thank You Very Much! by BP
One of my most cherished memories of childhood is watching my Father read the newspaper. For the past 40 years, I’ve watched my father read the paper to catch up on politics and sports locally and globally. The newspaper was and is his tie to the world outside his front door. I remember him showing my brother and I articles that he found to be important enough to share with us. My brother and I were too young to understand the full import of the articles but we could comprehend the photographs that were present in the articles. The first time that we had an in-depth conversation about a news event was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. My pops looked at me sadly and told me, “We lost heroes today.” I looked at him, as he drank his cup of coffee, a usually stoic man, with somewhat of a puzzled look on my face. He saw this and told me to look at the photo. It was of the explosion. The photo told enough of the story for me to understand how devastated he and the rest of the world were by the tragedy. I later learned to read the paper like my father but even to this day, I scan the newspaper for photographs first..
I first heard about the layoffs of all the photojournalists over at the Chicago Sun-Times from a friend and photojournalist, John Lok who shoots for the Seattle Times. It was retweet that John had put out from Robert Channick of the Chicago Tribune, “Chicago Sun-Times lays off entire photo staff; about 20 full-timers let go w/ plans to use freelancers going forward.” Immediately after that John had tweeted to Rob Hart, one of the photographers from the Sun-Times, “Rob, so sorry about this. Like Kendrick Brinson (an Atlanta-based photographer) said, I know you’ll figure it out. I salute you +the S-T photo crew today.”
Photo Credit: John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune
I was speechless with surprise as I hadn’t had a chance to read any articles yet that day. When I went looking for more details, I saw a photo of a man, holding his wife, with a look of hurtful disbelief of the news that was given to him and his crew. That photo resonated with me. A lot!
So I began to read more about it and saw how disgraceful it was to treat such a dedicated team of photojournalists. The photography community was in full support for these great journalists. Twitter was on fire that week. Protests against Chicago S-T were being organized and letters of support were circulating throughout the cyber world. People weren’t trying to save their jobs as they were trying preserve the culture of photojournalism. Then I thought to myself, right after these photojournalists who are the ones to suffer from such an idiotic move by the S-T?
People like my pops who reads the paper everyday with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. People like me who get so much from each photograph. People like my son who will not be able to see the world through the lens of the greats.
My anger and disbelief continued growing as I read article after article about the layoffs. During my reading, I came across a name that stood out for me. Not too long ago, I wanted to find the most compelling images from 1973 (the year I was born) and use them as guides in my own photography. John H. White was a name I could not let go of. I didn’t know him or his name really until now. It was his work that resonated with me. In that post, “I Am Not A Crook: Photography from 1973″ I put up just one of his amazing photos, “A Young Black Man Showing His Muscle During A Small Community Program In Chicago On The South Side.” So this is one of the photojournalists who is being laid off? A Pulitzer Prize winner? This is how you treat him and his colleagues? I continued to read on about this story.
This is where I found Rob Hart. I had put a name to the photograph of the man and his wife in disbelief. Even more so, I found a connection with the photographer I admired in John H. White and this deep empathy I had for this man in the photograph. Along with the John H. White and the other photojournalists, Rob was outspoken about the layoffs and found solace in doing what he does best; tell his stories with his photographs – Nikon or iPhone.
B: BP R: Rob
B: First of all thanks for agreeing to interview. If you would please let our readers know who is Rob Hart outside of photography and the world of photojournalism?
R: He’s a guy that likes to hang out with his wife, kid, cats, and take pictures. Photography is my mistress, it’s what I do when I m not sleeping. Everyone in my life just lives with it, like being married to an addict, but I have all my teeth and never steal your money to buy a camera. Well now that I need a D4 I might.
“The day I met John H. White was the day I decided to change my life…” Rob Hart, 10/02/1997 7:00 PM
B: What got you started with photography and photojournalism? Who are your mentors? How’d you know you had the instinct of visual journalism?
R: My first two photojournalism teachers, George Waldman and John H. White were huge in turning my life into being what John calls a “visual servant.” They both look at photojournalism from the perspective of a contentious human. They both pushed me into developing my seeing and making, not taking pictures. I was always curious about the world and a camera is a great excuse to explore it. If I knock on your door and say, “Can I come in and take pictures of you?” People will open their door and lives to you. It’s amazing. How many other careers do you get to experience that?
I was talking recently with a high school friend of my wife and I, Stacy Thomson, and she wanted to be a photojournalist back in high school too. She said “I remember one day being in the darkroom with you and I looked over and your images in the developer, they were so much better than mine, you just had it in you.” As a child my room was covered in photographs of my favorite athletes. My grandfather read the paper every day, my father would bring the newspaper home and I’d pour over the hockey stats and stories about the Red Wings. Newspapers, magazines, and art books where a gateway to the world. Photography was the only thing I could do well, so I stuck with it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.
B: If you would can you explain more about the “instinct” and how one may know if they have it? Also what are some ways to hone that instinct?
R: I hammer this into my students; plan, patience, execute. Put yourself in the place where you think you need to be when what you think is going to happen happens. Learning to anticipate is the best skill a photojournalist can develop. Just like any other skill it’s doing, and failing, and learning, and doing it again. There’s no secret to being good at something, it’s all about immersing yourself in it for a decade and doing it every day and surrounding yourself with people who are invested in you being a success.
I owe everything to the circle of photojournalists I grew up with. My Columbia College family, my A Photo A Day family, and my Sun-Times family. Spending 12 years in a newsroom with other talented people looking at work everyday, discussing photos, and laughing. That’s the only way to get better.
Bulls forward Carlos Boozer screams as he slam dunks the ball in the second half of of Chicago’s 92-79 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center in Chicago on Jan. 22, 2011. Photo: Rob Hart
B: Can you tell us one or two of the most exciting events you had covered as well as the most emotional and personal one?
R: I loved the little things, like shooting pet of the week, or the teacher of the year. When I show work to middle school kids they want to see Derrick Rose, but I loved making images of people that no one else knew existed. That old Carl Smith classic “I Overlooked an Orchid,” well I want to find that orchid. I worked for a few years with a great photojournalist Suzanne Tennant and I shared a lot of the same ways of seeing with her. We both looked for the perfect imperfection, the moment you don’t notice, or as I’ve said un-eloquently, ‘shot on the downbeat.’ We both so want everything to be beautiful, she found the highlight in every situation, and I’d be drawn to the shadow.
“Talking with the elderly really gives me insights on how I want to live and age,” Ricke said. “I never really thought about aging before. (This job) has taught me to live more deliberately.” Photo: Rob Hart
I worked on a story about a woman who drove cancer patients to their appointments, and the photos were borderline terrible, but after it ran the non-profit told me they got a dozen more volunteers to help out because of the story. Chris LaFortune wrote that story and many others that we worked on together and it really did have an immediate impact on the lives of others. I love making photos that make me happy, but affecting real measurable change on my community was great too. My last reprint request was a photograph of a hockey player holding up the state championship trophy. His mother was framing an 11×14 for his graduation present. That’s a cool thing to be a part of. To know your work will always be a part of the history of that family is pretty awesome.
Photographing the birth of my child was one of the most amazing, emotional and scary experiences. 50 years ago maybe neither child or mother would have survived, and photographing a team of doctors trying to get your 60-second-old baby to breath was terrifying. In that moment the two most important people to me were in danger and all I could do was keep making photos. A doctor told me to stop shooting and that’s when I understood the gravity of the situation. But I knew either way I wanted to have these moments preserved. I’m glad I did because my wife has no memory of the first time she saw Parker, and it was only for a second before she was whisked away to the NICU. We’re told in college to shoot what we love. Sometimes you’re given the best assignments of your life without knowing it. And more and more my best images were being made on my own time.
B: So our readers would like to know, what happened with the Chicago Sun-Times?
R: It was a cost thing. Photographers are expensive. We use expensive gear, you gotta pay to maintain that gear. We cost money to drive to assignments, freelancers eat those costs and there’s a ton of people willing to shoot for $65 per assignment. I’ve had sources tell me they know there’s a small window of time they have to make money for investors, so one way to make more money is spend less money. It’s pretty simple economics.
It breaks my heart that so many of the people in my community have reached out to me and said they no longer read the Sun-Times or my local paper, the Oak Leaves. Because all my friends that are still there churning out stories need to feed their kids too. All the research that comes out of the Poynter Institute says stories with compelling art gets read at a higher rate than stories without photos. Photo galleries get tons of hits but pre-roll video is easier to sell to advertisers. Just like any business they’re pushing the item with the highest margin on their customers. It’s the extended warranty model so to speak.
“Zero hour. Carpet on the 14th floor of the Holiday Inn where 28 Sun-Times photographers lost their jobs.” Photo: Rob Hart
B: I know that you had taken an iPhone shot (which also is the first photo on your blog) of the carpet and floor that day of the announcement. Can you describe for us why this photo was taken and describe the rest of that day?
R: It was just how I felt at that moment. I had just been told the only job I’ve ever had was gone. I was starring at the face of my hero John H. White when he was laid off after 44 years. Without anyone even saying thank you. It sucked and was totally opposite of how most of us were raised to treat others. So when I walked out I just wanted to preserve that feeling and that horrible/awesome carpet was exactly what I’ll always remember about that moment.
I grabbed my co-worker Curtis Lemkuhl and we went to the Billy Goat. It was where we went after college classes, where every serious journalist drank. If you’re going to have a wake for the photo staff that was the place. Newspapers like the Detroit Free Press called and tried to buy us all a round and my weird sports amigo Sol Neelman called to buy a round, alas the Goat is cash only. Every TV news station started showing up and we did press all day. Then the Tribune folks all donated money to buy us beers. So you can imagine how getting laid off at 9:30 AM then having people buy you drinks ended. Let’s just say my wife wasn’t happy and Friday morning taking care of my baby was rough.
B: You’ve mentioned John White many times in your interviews, on your blog, in photographs; can you talk more about your relationship with him from taking his class to being in the same room with him when being let go?
R: Besides my parents and wife, John had the biggest impact on the trajectory of my life and career. My good friend Tamara Bell kept a journal from our first photo class together with John, Oct. 2nd, 1997. It’s full of his quotes and I still live by his lessons and practice them every day. I show my current class a picture of John and I together because without him, I’m not standing there passing on the wisdom he handed down.
Some of my favorite quotes:
“You must have intimacy with light and nature.”
“Stay connected to the people that fuel your journey.”
“We are visual servants.”
“Talent unused loses it’s usefulness.”
“One of the greatest things in life you can do is give.”
“Be like the lightning bug, never let anyone contain your light.”
Photo credit: Ray Whitehouse, Chicago Sun-Times
I could recite these and more all day. His class changed my life in three hours. He was so supportive and positive. He would inspire you to do your best and take you to task when you weren’t. I always wanted to be like him. When my photo was printed in the same paper as his, on the same page I was ecstatic. I am now teaching a class at Medill that John once taught. He was there when a great chapter of my photographic life started and he was there when that chapter ended. As I’ve said it was a huge honor to be there in that room. I just wish I had made photos with my D3. I couldn’t stand to see the bloodbath. I shook John and everyone’s hands, told them how much they all meant to me and left for the Billy Goat. I mean it was 9:30AM…
B: Let’s talk a bit about your thoughts on mobile photography and photojournalism.
I know that I can speak on behalf of quite a few mobile shooters in saying, there is no way we believe that replacing a photojournalist with a reporter who has just learned how to take a picture with their smartphone, is best practice. For many of us, we know that storytelling by way of visual imaging is totally different than a journalist with a keyboard and an iPhone. Prior to the layoffs, how did you view mobile photography? After the layoffs and the news of S-T teaching reporters to use their iPhones as photographic tools, has it changed how you view mobile photography?
R: I’ve viewed every camera I’ve owned as a tool. It has it’s limitations and a good photographer knows it and exploits the tool for it usefulness. Years ago, like 2008 or something, I saw my homie Shawn Rocco shooting at A Photo A Day’s Geekfest with a crappy little cell phone and the images were amazing. I think he called it the Kodak Brownie of the digital age. We all need ways to keep us creative, and the iPhone is pretty rad for that. I can shoot a photo of my cat and send it to my wife in a second. With my D3 it’s a process of editing, and converting the RAW file and toning and exporting, and sometimes you just want to do something that’s not like work. An iPhone in the hands of someone who knows light, understands human emotions, and has the experience to be in the right spot will always yield better results than someone who is trained to ask “What happened?” Photographers live on an emotional level, where reporters are largely detail and fact orientated. It’s a different skill set.
When you think about the Boston bombings you don’t remember all the crappy cell phone video. The John Tlumacki photo of the runner knocked off his feet or Kelvin Ma’s images of the guy with the cowboy hat. Photos are our collective memory. I think great content will continue to be produced by talented people. A bad photo taken with a DSLR is no better than a bad photo taken on an iPhone. The DSLR will be WIFI enabled soon enough and the iPhone will continue to get better. These are all tools to get a job done. If a person is 45 feet away, at this moment the iPhone is not that tool, but it could be soon.
B: Your blog, #LaidOffFromTheSunTimes, best captures the storytelling aspect of your photojournalism background. What is your mission behind your blog?
R: It was just a gut reaction, honestly. I was just shooting to keep from feeling it. I enjoy things that are equal parts heartfelt and sarcastic. I slowly realized that the stupid iPhone flicks I was making could tell a story that isn’t told often. My wife has been laid off numerous times and never got interviewed about it. So I’m lucky enough to have made something that resonated with people. I got hundreds of emails and a few late night phone calls in support. I figured it would be a good record of a time in my life. I didn’t intend it to be so big, but again life just presents you with things and you gotta use your talents.
B: Since we are on the topic of mobile photography, what apps do you got on your phone, man?
R: I started shooting with the Hipstamatic app, because I don’t know why. It just seemed like the time to shoot with something I couldn’t control. That’s one of the things I love about mobil photography with these apps is it’s unpredictable and I don’t have to think about it. I use the Black Keys Super Grain + John S for B&W and and Foxy + Sugar for color. One of my major hero’s Scott Strazzante shows his iPhone and regular photos to my class and I think we both land on the same side of this, it’s just fun dammit. I don’t care that someone thinks using hipstamatic is stupid, and maybe it is. I’m sure in 20 years I’ll curse myself for this but who cares. It’s just a picture. Pre-layoff I was shooting everything in Camera Control Plus and editing in Snapseed. But sometimes you just want to whip out your phone and hold time. I do wish there was an app that allowed me to control my exposure. Maybe there is? I’m sure one of your readers could help make my iPhone flicks better.
B: As a photojournalist, as a teacher, what can you tell mobile photographers, who may or may not have had experience with photography ever, what can you tell us if we want to tell our stories with our smartphone?
R: I’ve always been a fan of loving the camera that you’re with. I’ve shot with a fixed 35mm lens everyday for 7 years now. Uncomplicate things. I tell my students to spend a week and really learn your camera, then forget it’s there and make photos. If you’re focused on the camera and what it can do and what it can’t you’re not feeling the moment. I find the people that get into photography for the gear love to talk about the gear and those of us that fell in love with the process and experience of photography don’t want to be bothered with anything but the photo. I had a student that was having a hard time after we learned the Sam Abel “Compose and wait” lesson. So she went and shot little league baseball and I could tell looking at her take every photo she shot with a huge smile on her face. Photography is super fun. Reach out to professionals and ask them for their opinions. Seek out a community who will give you criticism instead of just a pat on the back. I take crappy photos all the time. The magic bullet is a decade of experience. If I spent the next 10 years learning to build a gazebo I’m sure it’d be way better than me building one today. And at the end of the day it’s just a photo. We just take a rectangle (or square) and fill it with stuff. We allow light in.
One of my goals with my students, who ironically are graduate students studying journalism, is that they are going to be making images their entire lives, not just for their jobs. Photography is best when it’s personal. People documenting stories they care about should be celebrated, no matter the skill level. These awesome mobile camera devices take some of the technical mumbo jumbo out of the equation. You don’t need to know shutter speeds, apertures, and ISO. I helps to know, but you can focus on just making a photo and send it around the world in the blink of an eye. That’s pretty damn fantastic and almost unbelievable.
One thing that still hasn’t changed is going back and looking at the classics and what made each image work. Garry Winnogrand is as revenant today with mobile photography as ever. I still pull out my photo books and just loose myself in some Robert Frank or Walker Evans. Feed your visual language through books and galleries. I find getting offline for a bit and spending time with an image is a much better option than my Instagram feed some days. I think there’s room for both in my life.
B: What’s next for you Rob?
R: Well, I’m planning for my baby’s first birthday party, so that’s going to be amazing. For work I’m shooting a lot for non editorial clients and I’d love to make the jump to more commercial and advertising work. I’m joining a new news delivery platform as a visuals editor or photo coach (we’ve yet to decide) called BreakingVoices.com that is going to revolutionize the way news content is delivered, monetized and consumed. Our goal is to create a news organization that operates for the benefit of the community and it’s employees, not some investors. We’re going to pay people to tell great stories. I do miss waking up everyday and not knowing what situation I am going to find myself in. The adrenaline rush of a deadline or covering a big structure fire was kinda sweet. I’ve had more people thank me for my work in 3 weeks than I had in 12 years at the paper. There’s much less security, but it’s more rewarding. Freelancing fits my lifestyle but not really my personality. I loved being part of a team and feeling ownership over coverage of a neighborhood. I’m really enjoying editing photos while watching Steven Seagal movies, couldn’t do that in a newsroom.
B: Big thanks Rob! Best to you and the others!
With the reds, yellows and blues from the DJ’s lights rotating around the room, Melissa Broz danced as if she were in the spotlight at The Snowflake Prom, a dance for residents with special needs. Each song the DJ played, she seemed to know the words. “Greased Lightning” pumped from the speakers, and Broz not only mouthed the words, but mimicked John Travolta’s dance routine. John Travolta, Broz said, is the best. The dance scene, she has it memorized. Broz enjoys dancing, to say the least. “Because it gets me moving,” the Franklin Park resident said. Photo: Rob Hart
Contact Rob Hart:
Email // Website // Hot Soft Light Blog
#LaidOffFromTheSunTimes (mobile photos) // Twitter // Instagram