Not too many journalists jump at the chance to report on the latest city council meeting. It’s one of those things, like running to the gas station to fill up a five-gallon can with fuel, that hints at the possibility of real work heading one’s way. It’s not sexy, and unlike mowing the lawn, going shirtless is usually frowned upon.
Though it’s unlikely to win any awards, that real work — reporting on what’s happening in one’s community — is exactly what makes the local newspaper so valuable. Helping one’s neighbors to be better informed requires a fully engaged journalist. Someone who is excited by the opportunity and has the skills to communicate in a way that makes people pay attention.
Readers can sense when the journalist is phoning it in. It makes them not want to engage. They rightly figure that if the journalist didn’t like writing it, they won’t like reading it.
This holds true for pictures as well as words.
These images of a monster generator getting delivered to a water treatment plant are a good example. When an assignment like this comes across the average photographer’s desk, he or she sees a chore. The hard hat, safety vest, and steel-toed boots have to be pulled out of the trunk. (You’ve got those things in your trunk, right?) There’s not much chance of making a prize-winning image. And there’s the smell. (You know what’s in that water that is being treated, right?)
Now, to the people who sold, delivered, figured out how and where to put this monster generator, and then used their brains and brawn to get all that done, it’s a huge deal. It’s a huge deal to their families as well. It’s how bills get paid. It’s also pretty important to anyone in the community who likes to drink clean water when the power goes out.
I didn’t shoot this for a newspaper. This was a commercial job for me. When I arrived in the morning, I figured I’d be working alongside two camera crews from the local stations, and a photographer (with a writer in tow) from the local paper. I was wrong.
Despite the lack of journalistic interest that day, there was an important economic story to tell. The generator alone cost close to a million dollars, and the entire project will cost about $80 million. For a community of 100,000 or so, that pencils out to about $800 per person. Not only is that a lot of money, it’s a safe bet that most of those people appreciate a clean and reliable source of water.
The hefty budget combined with the obvious public interest in clean water may seem like two fairly sturdy pegs to hang a story from. But news outlets have very limited resources, and they don’t really do the mundane. It’s a man-bites-dog business. This generator won’t be news until there isn’t any clean water to be had, like in Flint.
When something like Flint happens journalists drop whatever they’re doing. They risk life, limb, family relationships, and whatever else it takes to cover the big story. Never mind that the big story may not have happened if they had paid attention to the little things in the first place.
Flint, of course, is just a handy example, but the tendency for journalists to ignore the mundane until it blows up into a scandal holds true. For example, most communities in this country have some kind of migrant population, but we don’t have time to tell those local stories as we’re too busy trying to figure out how to get to the big story at the border.
Listen, most of you aren’t John Moore, the award-winning photographer whose image of a crying child at the border went viral. You haven’t been working the border for over a decade. You do however have a great story to tell, and it is somewhere very close to you. You might not realize it, but you’re surrounded by an ocean of stories that haven’t been told.
Right now, there’s a journalist in America who couldn’t tell you where his or her own drinking water comes from, and they’re pitching a story on well digging in Africa.
Right now, every journalist in every community across this country knows someone who has a serious drug problem. The person doesn’t look exotic, like the ones you’ll see on the pages of Time magazine, but that’s still a story that needs to be told.
The big stories need big pictures, there’s no getting around that, but what makes a picture big? Ten years ago, would Moore’s picture have been a big deal, or did the size of the story today make it big? Over the years, Moore has spent a lot of time on the border. How hard did he work, what personal sacrifices did he make, and how many local photographers did he pass on his way there?
Big pictures still need someone to make them. How many photographers overlook the story that’s happening right in front of them because it’s just too mundane? What happens every day in your community that you’re missing? What pictures are you passing on? What stories are too small for you to tell? Which story, and by story I mean people, isn’t worth your time?
It’s normally not the extraordinary situation that makes a great photojournalist. The photo of a plane falling from the sky can be made by the tourist with an iPhone. Seeing the ordinary in an extraordinary way is what makes a photojournalist great, and that’s a skill that cannot be easily duplicated or replaced.