From the Gutter

February 17, 2011 

Our monthly staff-produced Sunday Extra photo stories and essays have gone a long way toward preserving my sanity. The never ending weekday feature hunts often leave me wishing I was in Yakov Smirnoff's Soviet Russia where the features would hunt me, introducing some much needed excitement into my day.

Excitement for me doesn't revolve around gritty breaking news like many might assume. Covering fires, car wrecks and drownings aren't assignments I look forward to. Sure, they can get the blood pumping as you race off to an unknown and potentially dangerous situation, but those shoots are very rarely fulfilling. Since starting down this career path, I've always loved working on long-term projects.

The opportunities to work on such projects have been alarmingly rare here, but Sunday Extra has provided a consistent photo page and a compelling reason for us to pursue more in-depth projects. Now, I'm not talking about deep, important work like Eugene Richards' Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue or anything — just having the chance to spend some time with a subject and working a story long enough for him/her/them to stop sucking in their guts — both literally and figuratively.

Last Sunday, we ran my feature on the Kennewick girls bowling team. With only one page in the paper, we cut it down some, but you can see my edit here. I also put together a multimedia slideshow recapping the three-month season in a four-minute presentation.

The idea behind following them was to explore the concept of what makes a team while shining a spotlight on an organization that has had a lot of success, but not a whole lot of coverage. My previous bowling assignments were about specific bowlers during competition and a combination of terrible light and boring action made me want to find a new perspective on the sport.

I don't think I nailed it, but I had a blast working on the story and especially enjoyed having time to photograph the aspects of being on a high school team we don't usually get to cover. As I wrote before, spending a lot of time and effort on an assignment leaves you with a lot of babies to kill, and after three months, more than 2,000 photos and about and hour and a half of collected ambient audio and interviews, I had quite a few. My shameless, Manuel Uribe-esque gallery caught a lot of the spillover, but judging by the web traffic, not many people were willing to wade through the 75 photos in it, so here are some of my favorites that I couldn't squeeze into the multimedia slideshow.

One of my goals was to give the viewer a glimpse into what it was like being on the team, using the access I had built through invested time to get this behind-the-scenes peek. I think this was most successful on the bus trip I tagged along on, but while I like some of these shots, I don't think any of them quite elevate to that level:

I also liked this look into teenage phone culture, but couldn't find a good spot for it in the slideshow:

The same goes for this shot during team photo day:

I liked this moment from photo day as well, but didn't like the camera awareness in the background:

Camera awareness is somewhat of a bane on daily assignments, but with so many chances to make photos that convey the same theme,

it was actually fun to look through and find some of the goofy things people did when they spotted me:

Other outtakes included shots I made thinking I was really clever, like this reflection of bus-ride homework as the countryside whizzes by,

or moments that aren't quite timed or composed like I had hoped:

This shot of bowlers working concessions could have added another wrinkle, but isn't very compelling and didn't fit into the slideshow:

The same goes for these details:

And these seemed a little inappropriate without more context:

The first involves an inflatable punching bag clown the coaches had talked about using to help some of the bowlers vent their frustrations. I hadn't seen him in use all season and after a rough round of league play at regionals, I asked if he'd make an appearance. It seemed like they had forgotten about the punching bag and I felt documentarily guilty for influencing the situation like I had. In the shot, Brittany is joking around as Charlotte starts inflating the clown. Soon, they tried passing it off onto the freshmen boy team managers, who declined to continue inflating it, and Bozo never showed up.

The second was when Brittany decided to warm her hands down Karissa's pants while working the concession stand. Besides, I already had stuff in the story about the hand prints on their butts, which I thought was a fun parallel to the quintessential sports cliché — the butt pat.

It was tough distilling the story as I saw it after following them for so long and it's always a challenge for a narcissist like myself to edit as tight as I should. But, as photo editor Bob Brawdy said as I tried unsuccessfully to get an extra page for the print treatment of the story, trying to figure out which strong photos to drop "is a good problem to have."

Having unlimited online space to show the edit I wanted is a nice consolation, though, and I hope I at least got some broad strokes down in this essay on what makes a team. Looking back, I do regret not having as many glimpses of the bowlers away from the bowling alley and learned that I need to check in on story subjects more regularly than I did. Still, I'm happy to have had the chance to cover them as much as I did and had a blast doing it. For me, this job is most interesting when I get to spend time with people and see subcultures I would probably never experience without my camera, and while high school girls bowling ranks pretty low on the excitement scale for most people, I'll take working on a project like this over cruising for features or covering a house fire any day.



Contest judging season is upon us, and a couple recent winners of POYi and World Press Photo stirred up some virulent debate within the photojournalism community. I considered writing this week's blog completely on the subject, but decided to continue my rigid weekly publishing schedule. Consequently, all the major points have been made, but I doubt anybody outside the photoj world even noticed.

A Photo Editor has a nice round-up of links related to the two controversies. Damon Winter's iPhone Hipstamatic series, "A Grunt's Life" took third in POYi and Michael Wolf's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" won honorable mention in World Press Photo. The controversy for Winter's work was based on the stylized imagery produced by the iPhone app, while Wolf simply took photos of his screen while finding strange scenes using Google Street View. Both raised interesting discussions, which you can look through on the A Photo Editor link above, but Winter has his say on the New York Times' Lens Blog.

I tend to agree with Winter's arguments defending his choice of format for the story, but while I find Wolf's series to be very conceptually interesting, I agree with the photoj outcry that work like this has no place in a photojournalism competition, and this post on The Russian Photos Blog sums up my feelings on the subject without me needing to spend the time to write it.

Thanks, Internet.

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