Monday, January 28, 2013

Something to Someone

Rarely do I have the pleasure of working the dayside shift on a Sunday, but today I traded shifts with another photog at my shop in order to watch tonight's broadcast of the 2013 WWE Royal Rumble with a group of my brethren news makers.  Please excuse that and immediately dismiss it without passing any judgement on me.  Thank you in advance.

Today's story was a toss up - it could go in one of several directions, all of which ended with us doing a live shot at 6, just one block away from where a father of five lost his life to the barrel of a gun.

We had the overnight video.  We had the interview from the sheriff's department.  We had the nuts and bolts.  What we needed was the blue print of the design.  Who was this man? What was his name? What skeletons did he have in his closet?  Why did this even happen?

Reporter Catherine Bilkey and I arrived to the scene of the crime around 10:30am - A small ranch style brick home, resting about thirty yards off of a narrow road in rural York County, South Carolina.  The detectives were still conducting their investigation, and the quiet breeze bounced the yellow caution tape they had roped the property off with.

We found a place to park and I unloaded my gear.  I popped off about ten wallpaper shots to cover the package for later and then we saw her - this dead man's fiancé.  Upon our initial approach, one of the detectives advised that it wasn't a good time.  We obliged and I held back as Catherine approached and offered condolences, all genuine, but also in an effort to persuade her into talking to us.  She wasn't ready...

We found a neighbor who offered some insight as to what may have led to the shooting, and he indeed confirmed our suspicions: this was likely the product of some sort of illegal activity gone wrong.

We did our noon live vo/sot and drove into town to find some lunch and proper plumbing and then returned.  And there she was again.  Just standing along the side of the road, inches from the caution tape, staring... At what I'm not quite sure, but we decided to give it another try, and this time she obliged our request to find out who this man was - to put a face with his name and not just chalk him up to another statistic.

Her name is Channon Forte and her recently deceased fiancé's name was Shannon Jenkins.  The man who shot and killed Shannon is Vincent Bratton.  We didn't probe into the specifics of how this happened, or exactly for what reason.  It wasn't imperative to the story we were trying to tell today - his story.

In a compassionate fashion, Catherine just asked Channon: "just tell me about him", "what was he like?", "what's going on in your mind right now?", "how are you doing?".

Surprisingly enough, she opened up with one liners that news junkies dream of.  With tears in her eyes she choked out things like ""Our son just turned 2 in November. How am I going to explain to my kids that their father is not here?" - "He loved his kids, He didn't deserve this." - "From the day we met, day one, I knew that he was the one."

We thanked her for talking with us and she had promised to email a photo or two of Shannon to us in the following hours.  We parked the truck in our live locale, about a half mile round trip from where the crime had occurred, and as Catherine began logging the interview and writing her script I worked to establish our live signal and just kept mulling over the whole conversation we'd had with her.

Had Shannon been involved in some unsavory activity? Maybe, who knows? We didn't, and I'm thankful for that.  It would have taken away from the raw emotion we'd captured by clouding it with speculation as to what might have been the cause for the shooting.

I worked on editing the package and as I pieced it together, we had all the elements: scene video, neighbor sound, sound with the fiancé - but as I watched this woman cry and weep over her loss, something was missing.  We needed to see who this man was.  Without a word, I grabbed my camera and exited the live truck and hiked my way back to the house where a gaggle of mourning family members had begun to gather.

Channon greeted me and I apologized for interrupting her unfortunate reunion with family, but asked again for the picture.  She'd forgotten, and I can't find any cause for blame there.  Emailing a picture of your recently deceased to an insistent news crew would be the last thing on my mind if I were in her shoes.

She found one for me and I shot it off her phone and returned to the truck to finish editing the story.  Between clips of her tearful sobs, I edited in Shannon's picture and left it up for quite a while.  We concluded the story with a plea from his fiancé: "Turn yourself in..."

Now, in my own naive little world, I'd like to think that maybe our story helped in that, because we found out that shortly after it aired, Vincent Bratton turned himself into the York Co. Sheriff's department.

I'm certain it's just coincidence, but amid the tragedy of today's story, I'm proud of the job we did.  It might appear to some that we just followed the cookie cutter, "that's what you're supposed to do" method of putting together a story like this - but for me, it was a little different.

This woman was gracious enough to give us seven minutes of her time on what is arguably the worst day of her life, and I felt compelled to do the story justice.  To go above and beyond the status quo and inflect some real emotion, into an otherwise typical story, that sadly... I am all to familiar with shooting.

You can view the story here.

Something was different about today and I can't quite put my finger on it, but I do know this: meeting Channon Forte reminded me that everyone is something to someone.  Shannon Jenkins was her something: her fiancé, her provider, the father of her children, her great love.  You cannot watch this story without that kind of emotion and sincerity piercing you in some little way.

Today I learned something about myself as a journalist, but more so, as a person:  the grind we ride hasn't completely hardened me.  I can still feel a little, and those feelings stir an urgency in me to do a story justice when it's otherwise doomed to become just another ninety seconds of television.  I suppose I can thank Channon for that...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Respect Your Elders...

There's a question I ask my self every time I load my fancy cam, light kit, tripod, and various other pieces of gear necessary to make television, into the vacant abyss of a live truck: "Why do I do this?"

The truth is, there is no simple answer.  Sure, I need health insurance.  A steady paycheck is pretty nice.  Unlimited access to local politicians? - Not so exciting, but stick with me for a moment...  I'm going somewhere with this.

My job is different than any other on the planet.  I meet new people every day.  Sometimes, it's on the best day of their life, and sometimes... it's on their worst.  News photographers stick their lenses in the faces of perfect strangers and quietly record history.  It might not be yours or theirs, but it is someones history.  It's a delicate science that even the most decorated scholar couldn't master without years of practice and perfection.  It's an art I will forever be perfecting.

Have you ever pinned a microphone on a mother who just lost her third child to gang violence?  Have you ever asked a homeless guy how he plans to keep warm when the temperature dips below 32 degrees tonight?  Ever wiped fresh soot out of your eyes while a home continues to smolder in the back ground of an interview you're about to conduct with the owner?  These are all things I've done - in just the last six months.

Between the sirens, crime scene tape, flashing lights, and general calamity of the daily grind we ride, we seek moments.  That 10 or 15 seconds you know you've just captured, and you know that it is pure gold in the eyes of the news gods.  For even the most self indulgent of my breed, it's a ego stroke that will surely carry you through the next scene of claptrap that will surely befall you - but that's not the point.  Not even close.

These moments should affect us in a deeper way.  It should make us better.  It should leave us asking ourselves "what about this can make me better at my job, and more importantly, a better human being?"

Now, the following list of guys will inevitably give me a good ration of crap for this next line, but this particular rant wouldn't be complete without it.  These veteran photographers, these seasoned lenslingers, these guys who have been doing it alot longer than I have, these elder brethren of mine... have somewhat managed to master this fine art of tv news photography, and each in their own way. 

Exhibit A: Leighton Grant

He's the chief photographer at my stations' main competitor, and arguably the best friend I have in Charlotte.  He once asked me a question that continually sticks with me: "When is the last time you cried in your viewfinder?"

The implied lesson being that if it's an emotional story, it should move you.  You should be doing more than just hitting record when you interview a person who has just experienced a great loss.  You should regard them speaking to you as an honor.
Exhibit B: Rick Portier

The self proclaimed "turd polisher" is a guy I haven't ever met personally, but in keeping up with his social media rants and recent vow to only post positive updates, it's obvious that the guy has an unbridled passion for what he does for a living.

So much so that he recently published a 300 page novel entitled "Shooter in the Crosshairs".  It's an awesome read. I highly recommend it.

Exhibit C: Stewart Pittman

When the aptly named "lenslinger" isn't rubbing elbows with the folks from American Idol, transmitting RF around the triad, or tossing back Jack & Coke's with yours truly, he takes a break and writes some of the most insightful photog fodder you've ever laid eyes on

It's an amazing juxtaposition of scathing sarcasm for the business and raw, personal humanity.  It's a true look at how to NOT let the business break you.
Exhibit D:  Richard Adkins

"RAD" as he's known among his peers, has basically been my mentor for the last few years.  His lessons on the business, the daily grind, shooting and editing, and maintaining sanity while navigating the world of TV news have been invaluable and have shaped the way I approach each day at work.

So what do these four camera jockey's have in common?  They have each, and in their own way, contributed to the answer to my aforementioned question: "Why do I do this?"

Through their own work and lives, they've demonstrated that conditioning and patience is key if you're expecting to make it long term in this business.  They've shown this photog that our jobs are coveted for irrational reasons, but that we should never forget why we started pushing glass in the first place: the people.

So why do I do this? I do it because it reminds me that there is life outside my viewfinder, that there is life outside of my own little world.