Making it Click

November 25, 2010 

Do anything for long enough and it's easy for strange things to become mundane. While the people who wishfully tell me how much fun my job is are right about some of my tasks, I've pointed out some aspects that suck big time — facets that people often overlook when assuming my days are filled with happy snaps and pretty pictures.

Despite my weekly attempts at convincing you that I'm peerless in my observational skills, however, one assignment last week poked a sizable hole in my perfect picture of self-awareness.

The task of getting a photo for a localized story about the recent airport security controversy of body scans and junk-grabbing was one of those groaner assignments at the outset. Air travel is enough of a hassle without being photographed in the process and access hinged on TSA cooperation. I wasn't counting on being stonewalled, but definitely wasn't banking on being welcomed.

While waiting for a TSA management type to come from their off-site office, I tried to come up with a more interesting CYA than the baseline shot of people standing in line. I tried working the reflections, but the multiple panes of security glass made it tough and these are the best I managed to snag while waiting for clearance:

I can't remember the TSA boss guy's name except that his middle name was "Kai." We bonded briefly on that and he was pretty accommodating. I wasn't allowed past where people need boarding passes, but he let me lean past the glass and I had a clear view at the pat-down area. With how smoothly everything had gone, I was bracing for a long wait, but lucked out and the metal detector went off, triggering a hand-search. The TSA rep stayed close and explained what I was seeing and I tried layering the focal point with a familiar part of airport security as a point of reference:

After getting my shots, I starting plotting my next move of getting some caption information. My only apparent choice was to ask my TSA handler to approach her after she was done and give her my card and ask her to call me. I didn't like that option. Leaving my access in the hands of others never seems to work in my favor. He could have felt guilty about her having gone through a pat down and approached too timidly, overstating the fact that she was under no obligation to talk to me, or he could have come on too authoritatively, implying that talking to me was part of the deal. That could blow up in my face with an uncooperative subject.

Thankfully, I didn't have to find out. I noticed the woman looking back at a friend or relative and giving her a sheepish shrug and smile. This too felt too good to be true, but I approached the friend with my quick pitch, asking if she would mind calling her friend after she got settled. She was very obliging, as was Marci McCabe, who gave me a quick phone interview about her experience. McCabe told me it was the first time she'd been patted down at the airport and offered a perspective that differed from the prevailing outrage.

"It was fine," she said, "She explained everything she was going to do. She was very sweet."

Not wanting to make her late for her flight, I got her cell number for reporter Cathy Kessinger and thanked her for her time. While doing the same with her friend, a bystander interjected. I didn't write down exactly what she said, but the jist was that she found it extremely ironic that there we were, concerned about invasions of privacy when a "strange man" took photos of her friend without either person knowing and that her friend was willing to give me her name, city of residence, length of vacation and cell phone without asking me for any credentials.

Not sure if she was seriously trying to blow up my spot, I tried a light response first.

"I have a trustworthy face," I said with a grin.

Her confrontational social commentary continued, but after reiterating her points she admitted that she would have probably given me the same information.

"You should probably ask for ID next time," she offered as her parting wisdom to the helpful friend.

It wasn't an angry "how dare you?" confrontation or even accusatory, though, and she did raise some interesting points. I could have done without being called a "strange man" repeatedly, though I suppose that's preferable to "strange lady" or "strange kid," both possibilities due to my long hair and boyish good looks. It is pretty amazing how a confident, empathetic and professional demeanor will open people up to being photographed and interviewed in inconvenient situations. Thinking back to how timidly and sneakily I used to approach and photograph people made me realize how that tactic unnecessarily raised the access hurdle — a hurdle that I usually clear these days with relative ease.

I repeated last year's strategy while feature hunting on Veterans Day, hoping to make a photo of somebody paying tribute to a veteran who had passed. It'd be wildly inappropriate to approach people who are already graveside, so I wait for people to arrive. After being politely declined by a guy visiting his dad, I met Marvene Lovato who was visiting her late husband. She, like many who I ask to photograph in everyday situations, chuckled at the prospect, but let me tag along. We ran this shot of her running her hand along the headstone after dropping off a rose from their garden:

A couple days later, sports editor Jeff Morrow asked me how that photo came together. "You just went up to her?" he asked.

Again, when stated simply and clearly, a work situation sounded crazy, but the subtleties I'm always harping about are what make my actions a shade less shady than they appear on the surface. I'm always striving to tell a story and to catching the little moments that most people probably didn't notice. My job is to offer my vision and perspective on the people, places, events and culture of the community. Photographing the things that people aren't clamoring to show off is an important part of the gig. It's good to be questioned like this from time to time, however, to really think about the reasons I do what I do. It's a hell of a lot more than just pushing a button.

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