The Power of the Frozen Moment

In conversation with National Geographic photographer Jay Dickman

Photographer Jay Dickman has enjoyed the kind of career that most aspiring photographers today would probably hesitate to even fantasize about.

He began his career shooting for the Dallas Times Herald — an opportunity, he admits, that intimidated him almost to the point of backing out of the job offer.

“One of the first photographers they introduced me to was Bob Jackson, who took the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarter following the assassination of President Kennedy,” he says. “I thought I was so far in over my head it was ridiculous.”

Not many years later, however, Dickman himself won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the civil war in El Salvador while shooting for the newspaper.

Later, as a freelancer, Dickman shot more than 25 stories for National Geographic. For one piece, he lived in a primitive village in Papua New Guinea for three months; for another, he spent a week under the Arctic ice in a nuclear attack submarine. He also participated in 15 Day in the Life books. His photos have also been published Life, Conde Nast Traveler, Time, Fortune, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, GEO, Stern, and many other magazines.

Dickman says that his attraction to the power of the still image began even before he started taking pictures. “I grew up in the late 1950s and early ’60s and I remember looking at Life magazine and National Geographic,” he recalls. “I lived in Austin, Texas, at the time, and we had only one TV station, so those magazines became the TV sets — they were the conduits to the world. It was the power of the frozen moment that just got me.”

It was that concept, of freezing a moment in time and then learning to combine those singular images into a narrative, that, Dickman says, remains the driving force of his creativity — and one that he teaches often in workshops. “When you look at a photograph, you pick it up, study it and let your eye luxuriate on whatever is occurring in there. It’s all about moments,” he says.

Dickman, who is an Olympus Visionary, took time out from his relentless travel schedule to talk with writer Jeff Wignall about his accomplishments, his work with National Geographic and his lifelong passion for the still image.

PPD: What was your first job?

JD: When I was in college I was dumb enough and young enough to think I could make a career of photography, and I liked news photography, and so I went to UPI, AP and to the Dallas Morning News, and they all kind of blew me off. Then I went to the Dallas Times Herald, and the director of photography really loved my stuff. They didn’t have an opening at the time, but he told me that if anything changed he’d give me a call. I thought I’d pretty much been blown off, but a couple of months later he called me and he said, “We had a photographer quit, are you interested?” That was a Wednesday, and he told me to come in on the following Monday. I was scared to death, but I showed up.

The newspaper was an incredible learning ground for me. I was thrown into the fire. I was getting four assignments a day and you had to produce. A few years after I got there the L A Times Mirror bought the paper. They decided to turn the Times Herald into a morning paper and take on the Dallas Morning News, which was the prominent newspaper in Dallas. They wanted to turn it into a nationally prominent newspaper. Since I was the new young guy on the staff, they wanted me to jump on stories nationwide at the drop of a hat. This was incredibly heady for a 21-year-old kid.

PPD: You won the Pulitzer Prize for your coverage of the civil war in El Salvador. How did you end up covering that conflict, and what was the experience like?

JD: The Times Herald decided to open a Central American bureau, and they asked me if I wanted to go down there and photograph. I thought it was an intriguing event. Here we had a war that was happening so close to the U.S. that a lot of young and inexperienced photographers were going there to cut their teeth, but a lot of them didn’t realize how utterly dangerous this was. I was curious how I’d do in a war situation. I worked down there for several months and made several trips there, building a body of work. A selection from my coverage ended up being a 13-image series that won the Pulitzer. The series had to do with death squads and election-day shootouts and a refuge camp in Honduras.

PPD: You were pretty young at the time. Was it a dangerous assignment?

JD: I was 32 when I first went there. When you’re shooting things like that, you’re trying to watch out for yourself. You’re also trying to create images that bring the story to your audience, and in your style, but still cover your butt. I was nearly executed there one night. I ran into a firefight where I really shouldn’t have been, and I was the only photographer there. It was in a barrio in San Salvador, and I got stuck in a doorway and there was no one else with me. It was a mistake. A Jeep load of government troops pulled up and started blasting guys up on a rooftop with automatic weapons.

A young soldier, he had to be about 16 or 17, saw me hiding in this doorway and he came running over. He grabbed me by the shirt and spun me around and threw me in the gutter and put his weapon in my face. He was saying in Spanish, “I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you.” I felt like I was in this gutter forever but it was probably only 45 seconds, and I was speaking to this kid with my eyes saying “Don’t do this…” and all I could see was the barrel of his rifle a half inch in front of me. Finally, another solider ran up and made him turn around, and I just got up and sprinted.

PPD: How did you begin shooting for National Geographic?

JD: Shortly before I went to El Salvador I shot my first assignment for National Geographic. I photographed part two of a story about a guy named Peter Jenkins, who wrote the book A Walk Across America. I shot that one assignment for them, but I didn’t pursue more assignments for the magazine, as I didn’t feel I was prepared to shoot for National Geographic.

In 1985 I was invited to New York to attend an event marking the 40th anniversary of World Press Photo. Tom Kennedy, who was the director of photography at National Geographic at the time, was there. During dinner he said he’d love to have me shoot for them, and I told him I’d call him, but I really didn’t want to make that decision, and so I never called him. A year or two later he called and asked me again if I’d be interested in shooting for the magazine. That’s really how it happened. My first story for the them was covering the 1988 wildfires in Yellowstone National Park.

PPD: What is the mental process like when you’re shooting such immersive assignments for National Geographic?

JD: When you’re under contract and you’re in the field, you are there for National Geographic — that’s why you’re there. It’s not the kind of thing where you can work a couple of hours a day, or where you can take off a couple of days here and there. The absorption and that involvement and connection with your subject is just amazing because when that story comes out it’s your baby. Part of the thing when you’re shooting for National Geographic is creating this connectivity of images — finding the connective tissue that carries the theme, the palette, the structure, the composition and the narrative from one image to the other. That’s what they need from you. It’s a lot of pressure.

But this pressure is also part of the magic of working with the magazine. You do a story conference early on to make sure that everybody is on the same page about the story that you’re telling. The stories involve you so much as a photographer. Once you start getting it, and once you’ve got the flow going, things start working. It’s not like you’re floundering and trying to figure out what you’re doing. The stress is on because you realize that at some point you’ve got to start creating a narrative that addresses the theme and the direction of the story.

PPD: What’s the difference between shooting one key still image and producing a narrative?

JD: Creating any good photograph is about freezing a moment forever and putting that moment into the hands of your readership. Creating a narrative is the same thing; you’re just using still images to create the narration. That’s kind of what of the whole process is about, especially with a Geographic story. As I said, you’re creating connective tissue — what’s going to connect this image with another, what’s going to make it work on this particular page or in this particular layout. That’s one of the magical things about working with the magazine. When you finish a shoot and it’s all approved, the photographer is often involved in the layout. They know they can’t divorce your voice from the layout at that point, because you’ve been building that connectivity of those images.

PPD: You spent a lot of your career shooting with SLRs, but you were an early adapter of mirrorless cameras. Did you have any reservations about adopting the small size of the sensor format?

JD: I was very hesitant at first, but Olympus explained to me where they were going with digital, and that was to small cameras with the Micro Four Thirds format with a cropping factor of 2 to 1 on all of the lenses. People can argue with me that the noise and the dynamic range were worse on that smaller sensor in those early days, and I wouldn’t argue with them. But as the technology has moved forward those differences have disappeared almost completely.

Today I love it when people come to me and say that they need a full-size sensor. My first question to them is always, “Why do you need it?” I ask people in my workshops, “What’s your output going to be?” “Do you travel?” “What is your world of photography?” Let your answer to those questions drive your decision about cameras. I have lots of shots printed at 30 x 40 inches, and I challenge people who say you can only work with big sensors to show me that the smaller sensor makes a difference. I say, “Put your big prints up, and I’ll show you my prints, and you show me the real differences.”

PPD: How has the smaller size impacted your travel logistics?

JD: The majority of my work today is made up of location travel photography, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to travel with equipment. There are eight airlines this year that signed an accord between them that is further reducing the size of allowable carry-on luggage on the aircraft. Do I want to ship my equipment under the plane? No. I could give you horror stories of having had to do that. But with this smaller gear, I’m able to carry my entire system on the plane. If you get into intercontinental travel in Europe and Asia and Africa, it gets far worse. I’m seeing photographers being turned back from carrying equipment, and they’re having to ship it under the plane in cargo. I’m not going to do that.

PPD: Are there other things about the smaller cameras that appeal to you specifically as a travel shooter?

JD: One of the other reasons that I like smaller equipment is that it makes you less obtrusive. For photographers, the world is becoming a more dangerous place to work in many ways, so l welcome a camera that makes me seem like less of a target.

PPD: What do you carry on you when you are out shooting?

JD: I almost always have two cameras on me, both E-M1 bodies. One has an M.Zuiko ED 12–40mm f2.8 PRO lens on it, which is equivalent to 24–80mm, and the other has the M.Zuiko ED 40–150mm f2.8 PRO lens on it, which is equivalent to 80–300mm. I literally can carry those all day and I’m not worn out, and they are there when I need them.

PPD: How do you like the EVF viewfinder, as opposed to an optical view finder?

JD: It’s a slightly different viewing experience, but I don’t even think about it anymore. And there are a lot of benefits to using an EVF. For one, if you have the auto-enhance option on and you go into a low-light situation, it ramps up the brightness in the viewfinder for you so that you can see what’s going on. Plus, there are a lot of special effects that you can see live in the viewfinder. The electronic viewfinders are new, and some people resist them, but there were people that argued for the horse and buggy, too. Technology moves on, and I think we’re at a pivotal point in the history of photographic equipment.

PPD: One of your recent images that is really fascinating is a shot of a wave breaking through an iceberg in Alaska. Are you still delighted when you see those moments happening? Was that shot with a Micro Four Thirds camera?

JD: Yes, that was shot with a Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera, and I have that printed at home at 30 x 40-inches — you walk up to it, and the sharpness in those waves holds; it’s astounding. I love that shot. But it’s funny, I use that picture in a presentation when I’m talking about working a situation. When you’re working a situation, when you’re working a scene, you’re watching for when that moment happens. The beautiful thing about digital is that it’s got that immediate confirmation. When I shot that picture, it was like, ‘Holy cow! I know that was it!” To me that was an image where everything worked. I remember seeing a quote once, and I don’t remember who said it, but it was, “Every situation has its best picture.” I think that if you apply that to your thinking when you’re shooting, it can certainly improve the quality of your work.

PPD: What are you working on now?

JD: I’m doing my FirstLight Workshops, which I run with my wife. We offer a really good workshop series. We were actually listed by American Photo magazine a few years ago as one of the top 10 photo workshops in existence. We’re doing a two-week-long workshop in Namibia next year. Namibia is amazing.

Also, in 2007 National Geographic asked me to start working with their expeditions and their workshops, and I’m doing tons of those now — they’ve become one of the main focuses of my life. One of the reasons that I like doing them so much is the incredible diversity of the places that you get to go. I just came back from three weeks in Tahiti and Fiji and the Cook Islands. On these expeditions, I’m lecturing, because obviously I love to talk about photography, and I’m also shooting heavily for my image collection. I also work with the smaller adventure groups, with between six and 15 people. Between all of those things my calendar is always full. They’re booking me into 2017 already.

PPD: Is teaching workshops a fun experience?

JD: You get a broad spectrum of people at workshops. One of the reasons I like doing this stuff is that I like talking about photography. I think the still image is really important, and I love sharing whatever knowledge I have with these people because I think it’s an amazing craft, sport, process, hobby and profession.

Last year I was out of the country more than I was here. All that travel can be wearying, but whenever I pick that camera up, the electricity still goes through me. I get to do this! That’s the feeling I get. And if that ever stops, I’ll have to get a real job!

This story was written by Jeff Wignall, contributing editor for Pro Photo Daily & Motion Arts Pro and an author of The Photographer’s Master Guide to Color (Ilex Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @jeffwignall.

David Schonauer is Editor of Pro Photo Daily, Profiles and Motion Arts Pro. Follow him on Twitter. Jeffrey Roberts is Publisher of American Photography (AI-AP) the finest juried collection of photography in hardcover as well as Pro Photo Daily. Follow Jeffrey on Twitter. Follow Pro Photo Daily on Facebook.

Sign up for the free Pro Photo Daily Newsletter.