News Columns & Blogs

Passéd Gas

What's appealing for people to read isn't always as fun for us to photograph and write about. Maybe the best example of this when we have to go out and localize stories about gas prices. The text usually revolves around holiday travel statistics and local AAA gas price averages as compared to national ones, but photos are a little tougher to make unless you're willing to settle for a dry-as-stats photo of a gas station sign.

You can luck out and happen across an attendant changing the prices, but even that isn't exactly gripping. I tried flexing my creative muscles once in 2009,

with the groaner of a cutline, "You may have thought high prices at the pump were behind us, but gas prices have begun rising again." An extra bonus is that the taco truck is in the "future," leaving Taco Bell in the past. Also funny is that prices were less than $2 per gallon two years ago.

Maybe not funny ha-ha, but funny painful like a kick to the groin.

Creative framing is but one crutch in the lame exercise of gas price photography. Another handy go-to is to find somebody with an interesting story to put a human face on the issue.

You know, so readers can relate to dealing with high gas prices.

A compelling back story also makes up for the generally boring nature of these filling-up space fillers. There's nothing worse than a trite photo with a do-nothing caption that follows the redundant [subject] does [verb you can plainly see in the photo] formula.

I found Bill Gentes of Spokane using a mileage booster once to go with another gas price story,

opting for a wider look than I had a year previously when I photographed Jose Cardoza of Portland topping off a half-tank fill-up on his Nissan Pathfinder en route to Moses Lake, where he worked:

He told me that he commuted to Portland every weekend and that the round trip cost about $250.

The owner of that gas station was angry with the factual, but unfriendly way I ended my cutline with, "Though the average gas price in the Tri-Cities is $3.98 a gallon, according to AAA, the Chevron on Vista Way started charging $4.09 on Saturday." That was a few days prior to the business story about the impending local arrival of $4-a-gallon gas.

I probably should have worded it differently, but ended up banned from photographing at that gas station in the future after a lengthy phone call from the owner who was especially mad that I hadn't sought permission to shoot at his business. I had asked the on-duty clerk, who said it was no problem. Most people err on the side of caution when it comes to allowing media access, so I assumed he knew the policy and didn't go out of my way to ask for further permission.

I just hope that guy didn't get fired as a result.

So when my work week started last Wednesday with the task of making a photo to go with a Fourth of July travel story, I decided right away that I was going to avoid the hassle, fumes and boredom of hanging around gas stations.

It being Wednesday also meant that people I met at the gas station were not likely to be filling up for holiday weekend travel, so I tried my luck at cruising neighborhoods to see if I could find somebody either preparing for the weekend or forgoing tradition to stay home because of high gas prices. My strategy was to look for RV or camper owners whose garage doors were open, hoping that they were taking inventory, cleaning or loading.

After failing at my first five stops to find anybody who fit the bill, I stopped in at a meat market to see if anybody was stocking up for weekend barbecues, but the owner told me he expected a rush on Saturday. I was running out of time before my next assignment and struck out about three more times before heading from Pasco to Eltopia to photograph college champion barrel racer Liz Combs.

On my way out, I saw a potential situation and figured I'd give it one more go. Another detail I had been looking for were motorcycles, figuring that I could tie in the bike's better gas mileage with the story. It looked like somebody was doing some tuning up, but as I approached the driveway, I saw he was actually working on the bicycles next to the motorcycle. He was chatting with somebody else and nobody really noticed me as made my way down the driveway, and I briefly considered aborting the mission before realizing how creepy and weird I would look if I walked halfway there before turning around without saying a word.

A brief chat revealed that Rusty Bachman was a member of the Iron Butt Association, and had just completed a more-than-4,000 mile round trip from Salt Lake City to Buffalo, N.Y. in three days the weekend before. He and his family were also planning on traveling to the Portland area on the Fourth of July weekend. He told me he was about to break down his endurance riding gear from his bike, so I shot a few frames of him removing the extra gas tank to make room for one of his kids as a passenger:

Maybe I should have stayed longer to work the scene more creatively, but I was already late for my next assignment. Photographically, it's no better than a gas station shot, but it tied in fine with the story and had an interesting angle involving a sport I'd never heard of.

Sure, I could have made a shot with equal visual impact at a gas station in a quarter of the time it took to find Rusty, but sometimes the journalism part outweighs the photo facet of my job. I hope readers found the extra tidbit edutaining, but for me, it was a nice change of pace and added a blip of excitement to a dull assignment when my scavenger hunt ended with a decent prize.


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