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The grind and hustle of daily news photojournalism is no joke. Some people can be a bit sniffy about news photographers. Screw them.
As much as possible I try to ignore the haters and the artificial boundaries they construct in the photoworld. True, my interests primarily lie in documentary, participatory, vernacular and some fine art photography, but in every interaction with photographers I want to explore and understand the contexts in which they make work. Therefore, it was a pleasure – for the latest Eye On PDX feature – to chat with Thomas Boyd.
The lifestyle and work-style of news photographers has always intrigued me. Unfortunately, often my discussions of news photography begins with iconic or controversial images, images’ subtexts and imagery’s distribution in our larger ad-fed visual culture; rarely do I get to ask nuts-and-bolts questions to the individuals who create the widely-circulated images we see daily.
An avowed Oregonian, Boyd is a news shooter through-and-through. He is a staffer with The Oregonian, the state’s biggest paper and as such has important insights into journalism (past, present and future). Here, Boyd talks frankly about his experience with the paper; what makes a good image; the peers he admires; and the rise of the amateur.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
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Prison Photography (PP): How long have you been in Portland? How long have you been with the Oregonian? What’s the deal with this town?
Thomas Boyd (TB): I came up from Eugene five years ago, but before that I lived in the Portland area for about 10-years. I grew up in North Bend on the Oregon Coast and Portland has always been a special place for me. I find it endlessly fascinating.
PP: Day to day, what do you shoot?
TB: I shoot assignments! I shoot between one and three assignments a day and I never know what they’re going to be until the night before or even an hour before. Yesterday, I shot a basketball game in Eugene, today, I shot a portrait of a documentary filmmaker and an overweight police horse. Tomorrow, I’ll shoot a cat show. That’s a typical random week. I also shoot a lot of Duck football, Portland Timbers and track and field.
PP: I understand the photo staff has shrunk at The Oregonian in recent years? Tell us about the changes at the the newspaper.
TB: Like all newspapers, the business is eroding. With that came layoffs three years ago and buyouts before that. We now have three less photo editors and the staff is down to 10 with two part timers from 19 full timers five years ago. They hire very few freelancers. However, in a recent meeting the we heard the paper met it’s financial goals for 2012 and merit pay raises may be possible. The paper is making money.
But, even with these changes, the way I work really hasn’t changed. I pitch story ideas and I shoot assignments.
I actually see more change with the organizations I cover. I’m seeing them keeping us out of situations so they can document it themselves and drive traffic to their own websites. I’m seeing this with all types of organizations from non-profits to professional/college sports teams. We are essentially competing with the organizations we cover.
Reporters are also being asked to do more with photos, video and social media. I’ve found myself competing with them on stories as well. It’s really awkward for the people we cover. They don’t readily understand what our roles are.
The amount of bloggers covering events is big change too. If you look at the amount of journalists just covering the Timbers, you’ll see that newspapers and television stations are drastically outnumbered. It’s really strange to me. As far as I can tell, none of them are making any real money. If there are two dozen photographers on the field, maybe only four of us are actually getting paid. They do it because they are fans and have day jobs. It’s a head-scratcher for me.
PP: Do you make images outside of work?
TB: I shoot outside of work quite a bit. I take as much commercial and editorial freelance as I can, shoot a few weddings here and there, and pick away at my personal projects.
PP: Do you have time to follow the news, blogs, discussions online, or are you too busy being a producer and filing stories?
TB: I wouldn’t say I’m too busy because I somehow find the time…but I don’t follow all that stuff as much as I used to. I probably spend as much time online reading about motorcycles and home remodeling as I spend reading about photography. I also write for a blog called ApertureExpert.com.
PP: Does a lot of the gas-bagging (I’m being self-referential there) online affect the daily life and work of photojournalists? If so, how?
TB: Good question. I suppose photojournalists are influenced by influential work. We see a trend and try to emulate that or be inspired by it to some degree. I’m probably more influenced and more interested in talk about the photography business than actual shooting. As far as my daily work, I’ve become pretty good at sticking to my approach and not preconceiving a situation. It took me a long time to get to that point. When I first started I was all over the map stylistically and how I approached a story. I’m much more methodical and disciplined now, but I do still like to try new things and experiment.
PP: How do you define a successful day/shoot/assignment/image? What brings the smiles at the end of a day?
TB: The only thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is walking away with a photo I like. And, that is a rare thing. Starting out I was more into the experience of making the photo. The results were not as important to me, probably because I couldn’t differentiate between an above average image and a great one.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy great experiences on assignment and that happens all the time, but making a great image is where it’s at. I will forget all the suffering I experienced, if I end up with something worth looking at.
I really love the rare times when I’m in the creative zone and everything falls into place. I have an idea, the circumstances are ideal, and I get lucky. The thing about photojournalism is, you never really know if what you are doing will work until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s all about anticipating what will happen instead executing a plan. If what you are striving to create is spontaneous, real and in the moment, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. It’s all about putting your self in a situation to that favors luck. I’d compare it to hitting a home run or a hole in one. The more you do it, the luckier you get.
PP: Are photo editors important?
TB: Good photo editors are important in that they can take great work and make it better. Mediocre photo editors get in the way of good work.
I rarely sit with an editor and have them go through my work. I mostly work remotely. I’ll send in my top picks and they take it from there.
I seek out advice on projects, but I believe photo editing is as important and creative as shooting. For that reason, I like to do it myself. I like the idea that I have more authorship in the final product. We make online photo galleries for the web and that’s really what I’m shooting for these days.
PP: How do you characterize the photo scene in Portland?
TB: By my estimation, there are way too many of us. Worse yet, there are too many mediocre photographers that manage to get work by under-cutting better ones. I suspect they won’t last much longer than their trust fund, but that can’t be too soon. That sounds harsh, but I’ve stood in the rental line at Pro Photo and watched a Craigslist wedding photographer rent $400 worth of gear to shoot a $800 wedding. That’s happening in all sectors of photography on different scales.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some great, highly accomplished Portland photographers that deserve everything they get. Dan Root, Lars Topelmann, Steve Bloch, Sol Neelman, Chris Hornbecker, Bruce Ely, Jamie Francis, Brian Lee, Leah Nash, Chris Onstott, Thomas Patterson, Jonathan Ferrey, Ray Gordon, Anthony Georgis, Craig Mitchelldyer, Andy Batt, and many more that inspire me with solid, professional work.
PP: What lies in the future for you?
TB: If I could have my way, I’d retire at The Oregonian doing what I’m doing now. I’m a newspaper shooter and have been since I started stringing for the AP and The Oregonian while I was still in college at Portland State in the late eighties. I’m a home grown Oregonian and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’m hardwired to shoot newspaper assignments and I love it.
The future probably won’t turn out the way I want. If it doesn’t, I see myself launching a successful freelance career, starting a business and riding motorcycles.
PP: Anything else you like to add?
TB: For the first time in my career, I’m worried for the future of the photography business. There are just so many forces out there driving down the value of photography and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom. At the same time, there are so many people wanting to do it and schools are cranking out more and more photographers. I’ve always believed that with desire, hard work, a bit of talent, and a little help, a person could make a go of it. I’m not so sure anymore. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it now.
The internet has created a huge demand for photography, but it hasn’t translated into more work and money for photographers.
The challenge is to avoid thinking about all the negative stuff, and keeping my level of creative energy up. At the end of day, I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to do it this long.
PP: Thanks Thomas.
TB: Thank you, Pete.
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All images: Thomas Boyd.
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I started Wednesday Words last week to throw out some brief and wise writings on prisons. I’ve got Winston Churchill, Charles Darrow and David Ramsbottom lying in wait. But they must all hold fire because I am taking the podium this week.
I have just unsubscribed from Getty’s Photoblog. Having it filter through my reader next to thoughtful and (in most cases) non-commercial blogs it became plainly obvious Getty are pandering to their audience. The result is a bland regurgitation of celebrity imagery. I guess this is what their audience wants. GettyBlog is watery gruel compared to the rest of the blogophotobiosphere.
My conclusion: Getty is effectively held captive by their audience.
Apparently, Getty Blog’s readership wants about 60 or 70% of Getty’s narrative to be about young, famous women and their clothing choices. Well, I don’t.
This minor alteration to my daily visual feed came a day after I read Confessions of a Former Online Producer, a candid piece by Jake Ellison;
During my last year at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in its last year as a newspaper, I published online thousands of pictures of half-starved, mostly naked women – celebrities and fashion models. I even became so deranged as to argue vehemently in the newsroom that those photos were necessary because we were a dying industry and people wanted to look at those women, so get on board.
The Seattle PostGlobe is an all volunteer, blog-reporting venture made up of many former Seattle Post Intelligencer journalists. The P-I went under a couple of months ago and the PostGlobe is simultaeneously a service to the now one paper Emerald City, a boredom evasion technique, experiment in new-journalism and an acknowledged unsustainable economic model. For all those reasons I love it, support it and endorse it.
I’d tweet its stories more often but the PostGlobe’s URLs are 142 characters long!
Chris Jordan was low on my list of priorities but this timely post by Mike Kelley at Change.org (a blog as impressive for its readers’ comments as it is for the straight forward presentation of Jordan’s work) compelled me to bump it up and champion the depressingly and unfathomable figures that arise when one simply runs the numbers.
In reading Change.org’s straight forward commentary on America’s broken criminal justice system, I signed up for Change.org and read a few of their older posts. In doing so I was presented with the catalyst to comment on Obama’s momentous inauguration without repeating the media-lovefest that has surrounded the 44th’s swearing in. This post will cover Jordan’s astounding artwork, Obama’s astounding tasks-at-hand and where they politically overlap.
Chris Jordan has spent his time making larger and larger photographic constructions to communicate the scale at which American society wastes its resources, its environmental future and its grasp on logic. In his effort to catalogue the linear and thoughtless waste of the US, he has progressed from crushed automobiles, to cell phone chargers, to polystyrene cups to American prisoners.
Jordan is a bright guy, now consumed by his photography (which to be quite frank is eco-hip and brilliantly executed). He talks passionately about a sea-change in our cultural consumption. He specialises in highlighting “the behaviours that we all engage in unconsciously on a collective level … the actions we are in denial about and the ones that operate below our daily awareness … like when you’re mean to you wife because you’re mad about something else or when you drink too much at a party because you’re nervous.” Jordan is no prophet, he just sees the necessary u-turn we must all make in our habits and thoughts to move toward sustainable existence.
I like to think the strength of Jordan’s visual framework that deals with soda cans to the landfill as it does with prisoners to the cell blocks is deliberate. As hard as it is to acknowledge, the majority of Americans have turned their back on a seven-figure-minority as if it were worth no more thought than discarded packaging. Mass imprisonment is the result of widespread apathy, denial and unpinnable responsibility. How unconscionable is this situation? We are all responsible. Barack Obama talked very little about criminal justice and prison policy during his electioneering. This is not surprising as helping the invisible incarcerated masses is on the electorate’s mind as much as the whereabouts of their last twinkie wrapper. But, Obama also made it very clear that this was the time for personal responsibility and accountability.
So after a week of photography gallery after gallery, the militarised eye vs. the personal touch, Gigapan-assisted user-generated snooping, faux controversy, minor mishaps, cult worship, sentimental clap-trap, unending debate, media catfights, nerdcore details, celeb fluff and even UFO’s isn’t it time we adopt the same realism that Obama trusted in for his inaugural speech?
A wonderful article from the Wall Street Journal lays out the realism and “the audacity of hope behind bars”. (Via Change.org). Angola prisoner, Mr. Dennis served up some REALISM: “He’s got his hands full: Two wars, the economy is going in the tank and the health-care costs are skyrocketing – I’d be surprised if he has time to brush his teeth in the next four years.” While another prisoner took care of the HOPE: “If the men here can have hope, then why can’t the rest of the country?”
So how does this all connect? Jordan and Obama share the same call to think, with serious intent, about the things invisible to us. Both call us to consider the reality of our society and accept our shared responsibility for its faults, weaknesses and injustices. Both men challenge conventional wisdom; the logic that just because we didn’t turn the key nor bring down the gavel, we are not complicit – by our silence – in America’s mass incarceration.
What can you do? You can start by signing this petition immediately and by using web2.0 to access Obama’s administration as his team reached you during the election.