Want to Be a Photojournalist?

They say the odds of becoming a front page photojournalist are extremely thin. I really believe that but I also really believe that you can accomplish what ever it is you set out to do. I have never been good at sitting around and to make matters worse I was blessed or cursed (depends on how one perceives it) with very active mind. I don't know maybe I was dropped on my head when I was a baby. My only weapon against my very active psyche has been activity itself. In short I stay busy. Not reading, I love to write but my mind goes into some kind of rebellion mode when I command it to sit and read.

When I signed up for a writing course the very first thing my instructor emphasized was, read a lot of material. I should have thrown in the towel then but that's not me. To make matters worse the course I had chosen was writing for children I thought it would be fun. I mean how much brain power would it take to create children's books with very limited wording per page. You know, Rusty The Zebra Has A Bad Day At The City Zoo, kind of thing. But turns out its way more complicated than that. I had forgotten that I hated English 1 in school or it hated me. Either way it was my adversary. My writing instructor drove home the point that I should just be myself when writing but then she went on to re-write all the assignments that I turned in. I suppose when the course was completed I had learned something but I never did publish a children's book. So I chalk that one up to experience for later application.

The next wild idea I came up with was to become some sort of a photographer, perhaps wildlife. After all I love the out of doors and spend a lot of time in Idaho's back country. The opportunities would be limitless, I thought. After all Ansel Adams did it with black and white photos. Photo technology had made leaps and bounds since the days of black and white film. It should be fairly easy to break into some level of photography and make it pay.

Oh Yeah, I would Need Equipment!

I was really enjoying the photography course but it was putting financial demands on my wallet. Probably the first thing one realizes when getting involved with photography is that skies the limit when it comes to buying equipment. Man that stuff can get pricey! I still had kids at home extra money for camera equipment was way down on the list of priorities. But as I said earlier, I'm no quitter. I scratched out the addresses of all the pawn shops in the surrounding area and headed out to find equipment. After studying at least fifty older 35 millimeter cameras and a half million or so assorted lenses ( of which I knew nothing) I settled on an Olympus with a wide angel lens. The shop owner assured me that it was in good condition. Turns out he was mostly right accept for the slight light leak somewhere in the frame that demonstrated itself by a slight red streak on the upper left corner of intermittent photos. But the price fit so I put up with it. As I moved through the course I became aware of what lenses could do for the photographer. I had also set my mind on the holy grail of cameras a Nikon 800S. The camera alone was something like $500.00 but it offered all the bells and whistles. I suppose now when I think back on it that camera is what really opened the door of opportunity for me.

I also think back to how much firewood I cut, split and sold to pay for it. In those days one just didn't dip into the financial cookie jar. I poured through the photography equipment magazines in search of cheaper lenses that would fit my new camera. I finally found lenses by Tamron that fit the wallet but would involve more wood cutting. I really didn't mind it offered more time in the beautiful Idaho forests.

With camera in hand

I was learning a lot from my photography course and the new camera and lenses were producing great photographs. But I still had no idea how I would make any money at it. A friend of mine had recently started a business photographing weddings and other social events. I watched him go through the gyrations of trying to please both sides of the family, I deduced that it wasn't going to be for me. I continued honing my skills taking pictures of flowers, babbling brooks, scenery and wildlife. All very enjoyable but it wasn't putting anything back into the old cookie jar.

I guess it was providence.

I would like to take all the credit for what was about to happen but I have to give some of it to the poor truck driver. I was on my way to get a loaf of bread I eased my jeep up to the intersection stop sign. I watched it happen the poor truck driver never had a chance. The old dog in the highway scenario, truck swerved, jackknifed and tipped over. That alone was somewhat newsworthy but what came gushing out of the tank he was pulling made it a whole different story. I just happened to have my camera bag with me. I drove to the crash site getting there way before the cops. I jumped out and started taking pictures I burned up two rolls of film. I jotted down the name of the trucking company and headed for our local newspaper office. I walked through the front door with what I thought was the scoop of the year, a chemical spill on a state highway! The girl at the front desk asked if she could help me, suddenly I was dumbfounded, I held the film up and said, " I might have some pictures of interest." She simply pointed at a lady at a distant desk and said I would have to talk to her. I pushed through the swinging half doors and approached the obviously busy woman who was presently talking rather boisterously on the phone. I stood in front of her desk like a school child at the principals office. She hung the phone up looked over the top of her glasses and inquired as to how she could help me. I held out the film and told her what it was.

There is nothing quite like it!

She took the film from me and the name of the trucking company. She informed me that they don't pay for walk in pictures but that they would replace the film, which they did. She also took my name and phone number. Ok I confess, I was standing at the grocery store the next morning waiting for the newspaper to be delivered. There it was my photo of the wreck right on the front page, and my name was even written under it as the photographer-holy cow!

How lucky is that to have your first newspaper photo on the front page? Yup your right, I purchase all of the newspaper from the rack. I surmised in my mind that if I got myself a police scanner I might be able to get a lot more accident photos and get more pictures in the newspaper. This venture will require more firewood sales. I purchased the scanner and tuned in the local police and fire department action. I stayed busy zooming around in my jeep pickup to all the traffic accidents and then delivering the pictures and information to the lady editor of the newspaper. Each time I did the pictures would show up somewhere in the newspaper. Great fun but still operating in the red. I guess I could say that I broke in to the newspaper business on the misfortune of others. I justified that with the old saying, somebody has to do it. Finally I had delivered so many accident photos that editor requested that I cut back informing me that they really didn't care to run too much of that kind of thing. I thought for sure that I was finished but she went on to inquire if I might be interested in covering a 4th of July parade in a small town in Idaho. I accepted the assignment without having the slightest idea of how to do it.

This is when you find out if you have it

I must have ran two miles covering the parade not knowing what to shoot I decided to shoot it all. I delivered the half dozen rolls of film to the editor of the small town newspaper and went home. The editor was pleased enough with the pictures that he called the editor that tipped me about the job and bragged about me. This probably inspired them to ask if I would be interested in writing a short hunting and fishing colum for a new section they were adding to the newspaper, of course I accepted the offer. Over the months this small colum eventually worked into several pages of an insert magazine that featured events throughout central and southern Idaho. While the original intent was to have me cover hunting and fishing (what they called the blood sports) I eventually went out on all kinds of assignments. I kind of helped this along by self assigning myself (sometimes at my own expense) in hopes of persuading the editor to buy the story. I also got creative like telling the editor that I was taking a drive up to check on a huge forest fire that had been closed to the press because of dangerous conditions. I knew that any newspaper would be glad to get their hands on photos/material from the fire. She said they would pay mileage, etc. Now I'm not telling you to do what I did but some of the stuff you see on television has some truth to it. I will also say that these tricks to the trade are your secrets the Editor can't know about them. Before going up to the fire I stopped by Walmart and purchased a couple of bright yellow t-shirts kind of the same color as Forest Service uses. Now this is down right sneaky but if your going to excel, well. Anyway I pulled my jeep into the long line of vehicles loaded with firefighters. I slipped a yellow t-shirt on, and put a piece of cardboard with a series of numbers I grabbed out of the sky on the dash so they could see it through the windshield and they waved me through the gate.

Play it to the end? Of course!

It was nearly dark when I parked my vehicle along side one of the fire buses. I slipped out opened the door to my camper shell and climbed in. It wasn't long until I realized that I was engulfed in thick grey choking smoke produced by the forest fire .

It was going to be a long night. The next morning brought no relief from the smoke but there was a hidden bonus. I found out later that the diffused crimson colored sky had added a special effect to certain photographs I took. I got kudos for something Mother Nature had actually created. This is when you recognize the fact that your camera will always see things that you don't. I definitely felt like a fish out of water as I roamed through the fire camp shooting pictures. I captured all aspects of fire camp life, mess hall, showers, rows of small two man tents, and mystical lines of firefighters walking across smoke laden meadows. I was though surprised how cooperative everyone was, however I never let on that I was Press. I can tell you though that a huge dose of good manners will go far in such a situation. Eventually they caught on and I was busted. This next part still tickles me to this today. The fire boss that thumbed me threw me a hard hat loaded me in his green pickup and drove me to the fire line. He said, " Hell long as you're here we might as well get some good pictures."

I got full front page coverage and inserts on A and B sections for my troubles and made good money also. I also moved up a peg at the newspaper and was allowed to pick and choose my own stories. I covered everything, skydiving, drag races, river rafting, contact sports, even line dancing, you name it. I can still remember when they issued me my Press Card (which I still carry to this day) it was the icing on the cake for me. Anyway, this is one way that you can become a photojournalist. It was by no means a short cut but it was pure adventure all the way.

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