Thursday, November 27, 2008

In praise of ageing hacks and snappers

Tuesday’s Dominion Post carried a great front-page pic taken by its veteran Auckland-based photographer John Selkirk. It showed Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder fending off a female anti-mining protester in a Santa suit who was trying to squash a custard pie in his face.

Their arms are entangled, Elder appears to be falling backwards with his eyes closed (presumably to avoid being blinded by goo), and fragments of bilious green pie are flying through the air above them. The shot has the same quality as that famous picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, capturing and preserving a moment that would have passed too quickly to be taken in by the human eye, and one in which the participants are oblivious to the presence of the camera.

It reminded me that we don’t seem to see as many good old-fashioned hard news photos (“hard” meaning a picture showing a genuine, spontaneous news event, rather than something stage-managed) as we used to. It also made me pause and admire, as I have done countless times before, the skill and instinct of the good news photographer.

John and I worked on the old Dominion together nearly 40 years ago, when he was a skinny kid from Masterton and I was a skinny kid from Waipukurau. One of the things that impresses me about photographers like him is that no matter how long they’ve been in the game, they never lose their hunger for a good picture. Neither do they lose their ability to “read” a situation and anticipate what’s likely to happen next, and where they need to position themselves for the best possible shot.

They are constantly alert for potential pictures in even the most unpromising circumstances. In this case it would have seemed a humdrum assignment: Solid Energy’s annual general meeting at Auckland’s Langham Hotel. Selkirk was probably sent there to get a routine shot for the business pages, but his antennae would have been twitching for something more rewarding, and he got it. (Incidentally I hope Elder laid an assault complaint against his assailant, as a lesson to self-righteous protesters who consider it their right to disrupt other people’s lawful business. The photo could be “Exhibit A” and the prosecution would rest its case in a trice.)

Phil Reid of the Dom Post is another outstanding veteran photographer, still regularly winning awards after decades of snapping. There are several others I could name, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Being able to compose and take a technically sound picture is only one of their skills, and arguably a less important one than it used to be, due to the technological advances in their equipment. Even more vital is that instinct for the picture, that uncanny anticipation and decisive grasping of the moment. It’s a skill that particularly comes into play covering sport, when the best photographers – even those not especially interested in sport – show a remarkable knack for being in the right spot.

The right personality is important too, because a photographer often has to go into tense and uncomfortable situations in which a camera may be unwelcome or intrusive, or coax reluctant subjects into doing things that they might not particularly want to do. There have been times when, as a young reporter, I was pathetically grateful to my accompanying photographer for helping to jolly along a taciturn or unco-operative interviewee. I would have come back empty-handed from an interview I once attempted with a stubbornly reticent centenarian had Jack Short, then the chief photographer of the Evening Post, not come to my rescue and got the old bloke talking.

Thank goodness people like Reid and Selkirk are still at it. The same can’t be said, unfortunately, of the legions of reporters who have quit the newspaper business for easier and/or better-paid jobs in other fields. That journalism has lost a vast body of experience in the past 20-odd years is obvious the moment you walk into a newsroom. The collective memory deficit grows larger with every year.

We should value not only the veteran photographers but also the reporters who have stubbornly hung in while their contemporaries have migrated to PR or opted for a quieter life on the sub-editors’ desk. It’s great, for example, to see the Dom Post’s Hank Schouten still energetically ferreting out good stories. I’m surprised the Defence people haven’t put a contract out on him, given his habit of breaking embarrassing stories about military equipment failures and costly tendering blunders.

Hank has spent his working life making a nuisance of himself, which is one of the most honourable things that can be said of a reporter. Fortunately, being Dutch, he has the hide of a rhinoceros and seems happily immune to criticism from those who object to his robust style. He drove Lower Hutt’s then mayor John Terris to distraction in the 1990s, when he covered Hutt affairs for the old Evening Post. Terris, a former Labour MP, was a shrewd and controlling politician who had his council and city pretty well stitched up except for one rogue factor – Hank, who insisted on reporting events and opinions that the mayor would have preferred remained unreported. It was a reminder of the importance of journalists in ensuring public accountability when more formal mechanisms fail, since without Hank’s efforts many issues of local significance would have been quietly swept under the carpet.

And since I’m writing about unsung journalism heroes, I want also to refer to Simon Collins of the New Zealand Herald. Simon’s a little younger than the other personalities mentioned here, and I hope he isn’t offended by the implication that he’s a grizzled veteran. I first encountered him when he came to the Evening Post in the late 1970s as a graduate of Brian Priestley’s Canterbury University journalism course. I remember Priestley, with whom I shared a car to and from Avalon TV studios on Friday afternoons for the recording of a long-forgotten TV show called The Media (once spoofed on A Week Of It as The Tedia), speaking very highly of his quietly industrious pupil. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, Simon being almost painfully unassuming, but Priestley was right. Simon is an exceptionally fair and capable reporter who seems as committed now as he was then, and who has never succumbed to the fashionable cynicism that many older journalists affect.

What particularly impresses me about him is that he’s able to set aside his personal beliefs. His own politics – as anyone familiar with City Voice, the lively free weekly paper he once edited and published in Wellington, would attest – are of a distinctly pinkish hue, but you’d never guess this from reading his stories.

I was amused a few months ago to see a story in which he interviewed the American Catholic theologian Father Robert Sirico, who advised George W Bush on welfare reform. I imagine that Sirico’s views – which include the belief that welfare leads to “moral decay” – would have gone down like a cup of cold sick with Simon, who I seem to recall once wrote an article in City Voice arguing that the state had an obligation to support people who chose not to work. But his piece about Sirico was dead straight, without a hint of disapproval. I’ve seen other pieces by Simon in which he dispassionately reported on the huge social costs of welfare dependence – stories that I imagine would have made him wince.

I’m sure there are people on the left who criticise Simon’s resolutely detached style, but I applaud it. He demonstrates that objectivity, a concept much derided by politicised journalism educators, is achievable even by people with very emphatic views of their own. I would be hard-pressed to think of a better role model.

1 comment:

Steve Withers said...

Having known a few pie throwers in my time, I doubt the prospect of a prison sentence for assault would have deterred them.

They often see themselves as 'everyman' (or woman) standing up to the holders of entrenched and unaccountable power.....and there is no small amount of self-sacrifice in their view of what they do.

At the extreme end of the scale, death did not deter the 9/11 hijackers...who I have no doubt absolutely believed they were right in what they were doing.

In my view, it boils down to respect. People who show little can expect little.

In this context, flogging dirty, carbon-rich coal while the ice caps melt and world warms is seen by many to be ignorant contempt for the consequences one's actions will inflict on others. That shows a lack of respect.

You and others may not have any time for the evidence showing human-driven climate change is no longer debatable. In the eyes of people who have looked at that evidence and find it convincing, such arrogant ignorance fundamentally disrespectful of the 'truth' and intellectual integrity.....with very real consequences.

I'm not justifying anything.....I don't throw pies and won't be. I show respect to people even when they show none. I won't follow their example, I will set my own.

But I do understand the cycle of thought that sees essentially powerless people decide to stand up and challenge those who won't respond on any normal, civilised level to the real concerns of others.

Respect is a two way street...and the coal industry to show some where concerns about carbon emissions are concerned.