I was thrilled to be back on the job on Monday, Jan. 21, 2008. My internship had ended about three months prior at the Herald and it felt great to be on assignment, covering Martin Luther King Day and shooting with publication purpose.
It's six years later and I'm stepping away from the only job I've known in my adult life to take a new position as communications specialist at Vertafore in Bothell. In a nutshell, I'll be writing and shooting photos and videos for the company's internal news service. But while the skill set will be similar, my day to day will be drastically different.
This outdoor cat will soon be office-bound, so I hope I don't scratch up the furniture or pee in the wrong place.
While spending the bulk of your work time out of the office is certainly enviable, there are downsides too. I certainly won't miss the requests to come in early to drive around town in case of commuter wrecks because the roads are icy and dangerous. There's no denying the adrenaline rush of heading to spot news, but covering tragedy is incredibly difficult and takes a toll on you.
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I won't miss the slurry of situations that conspire to ruin your photos. Horrible light and difficult subjects on assignment are so common they quickly became expected. Scrambling to figure out who the athletes you're photographing is a headache that crops up when rosters aren't available. Newsy days inevitably happen when there's very little space in the paper, while the opposite is also mind-numbingly true. And the daily grind coupled with an ever-shrinking staff means you have to roll with these situations under ever tighter deadlines with less preparation time.
It's not all bad, of course, and there's a lot I still love about this job. I've been lucky enough to shoot aerial photos several times, flying in everything from single-engine planes to hot air balloons, a World War II-era bomber and even a stunt plane:
I fell in love with covering the rodeo and I'll miss the excitement and danger of being in the ring. I'll miss the license to park like a jerk while driving a Herald car when I'm showing up at the second game of the night, after the action is well under way. And as much as I gripe about the downside of this job, I've had a lot of fun photographing everything from the sun-baked and beer-soaked Water Follies to joining a random family for a day at the park. Realizing the longtime goal of photographing a campaign-themed portrait series for our high school football preview was incredibly fulfilling.
Even more rewarding than the obviously fun assignments were the few times I actually got to spend some time with people. I'll always look back fondly at the story of the baseball-crazy Burgess family and the season I spent following the Kennewick girls bowling team. Neither of them were the home run or turkey story I was looking for, but those rare opportunities to try and go in depth reminded me why I fell in love with photojournalism.
This industry doesn't love you back, however. In six years, I've seen the number of reporters slashed from 18 to nine, the photo desk splinter from five to three and every other department suffer similar shrinkage through attrition and six rounds of layoffs and buyouts. Dozens lost their jobs when the Herald stopped printing the paper in house, which also moved deadlines earlier.
I remember watching in disbelief as former McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt wrapped up a video sharing the state of the newspaper chain a few years ago. The news was bleak, as we'd all come to expect, but perhaps even worse than some had feared. And as we grunts in the newsrooms, advertising and circulation departments were accustomed to, he delivered the message that we need to do more with less. The video ended with Pruitt asking us to keep in mind the words of the Rolling Stones: you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might just find, you get what you need. The chorus faded in and out as I shook my head and hoped that the company didn't have to pay any money to license the song for the video.
The job seemed to be trying to pull me back in after I started chasing this career change, however. Meeting Mushtaq Jihad and his family a few weeks ago and trying to visually tell a bit of his incredible story was a privilege. As of publishing time, he has only two more weeks to raise more than $25,000 for a new prosthetic leg, so be sure to read Sara Schilling's story and kick him a few bucks if you can spare it. If this community can chip in $30,000 for Chocolate, it surely can do better than $3,290 for Mushtaq.
I only had the chance to make a couple trips to their home, unfortunately, starting with a portrait session,
and ending with an afternoon with the family. Like before, I didn't capture any amazing moments, though I do like this one of Mushtaq telling his daughter Fatima that she needs to come straight home from school:
Other than that, it's a brief smattering of their lives:
What really hit me was sitting quietly with them, a language barrier preventing the idle small talk that usually fills those moments and reflecting on what a strange and wonderful this job can be. I was welcomed into this stranger's home after a brief meeting and introduction, allowed to hang around and take pictures and invited to stay for dinner. This generosity was not unique, but it felt like a gift every time. Few clichés are as accurate as the one about how your camera is a passport into people's lives and my likely impending departure from the business really made me cherish those scant couple hours with the family.
While I never spent enough time with a story to really do any of my long-term stories justice, six years in the Tri-Cities was enough to have become a small part of this community, which is a good feeling, and it'll be sad to leave that behind.
Grizzled veterans of the Herald always say they only planned on staying a couple years at the paper before their tenure lengthened into decades. I'm far from that mark, but still doubled my original plan of three years here. In some ways it feels like I've been here way too long, and yet I have so many started projects that will probably never be completed.
I'll miss the odd, crass and hectic environment of the newsroom and most of my colleagues. Finding time to play the still-unnamed and juvenile game of trying to lob a stress ball at each other's nuts with Paul Erickson was always a nice break from the day, and our numerous inside jokes were a calming reassurance on facepalm-worthy shifts. I'll have to find a corner of a darkroom to weep in once we're not working together anymore.
Trying to shoot Jack Millikin and Jeff Morrow from across the room with my Nerf gun while they're on deadline was another favorite pastime. Jeff would end up buying after-hours beers for me anyway, and Jack was always generous with a quick smoke break to get out of the office for a few minutes.
Sneaking up and startling the situationally unaware Sara Schilling brought me endless joy and her endless stress. For some reason, she's still friends with me and her family has been a wonderful surrogate for a home-cooked meal and wine-fueled conversation when I’ve been stuck working Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Newsroom gossip with Annette Cary was a cathartic way to grumble through weekend shifts, and Cindy Church was always doling out motherly worries and exasperated head shakes at my stories and antics. Even talking to me about what kind of cake I wanted for my last day became a chore as my ridiculous suggestions ballooned.
I'll miss Craig Craker's aggressive vulgarities, which would be an HR nightmare in many work environments. Mostly I'm just mentioning this because he'd angrily tweet about being slighted in my last blog post and I don't want to risk my Klout score.
Kevin Anthony's masterful use of puns is unparalleled and always struck that balance between horrible and hilarious.
Tyler Richardson was always good for some NBA chatter in a newsroom full of people who couldn’t care less about professional basketball or my Portland Trail Blazers.
And most importantly, working with Kristina Lord helped keep me sane these six years. Ever the voice of reason in the newsroom, she also found time to edit almost every one of my blog entries, only missing significant stretches while on maternity leave.
Apparently her flesh-and-blood baby was more important than my digitally professional one.
Coming up with the headlines often took just as long as editing the post, but it was always a satisfying process. She's always been supportive, but also quick to let me know when I've screwed up and she was instrumental in helping me secure my new job even though my departure will tear a bit of her soul, possibly creating some sort of horcrux in the process. I'm guessing hers will be a typewriter.
And I will of course miss writing this blog. In 5.5 years, I've never missed my neurotically self-imposed Friday midnight deadline — working plenty of unpaid hours to keep my streak. This is the 291st post and while some are definitely weaker than others, I never had to reach too far into the B.S. bin for a column subject. You can find the full list during my fifth anniversary recap.
I've published 3,778 photos in that time, though I'm scared to look back through and figure out what small percentage of that total are photos I'm proud of. That was never the point of Behind the Fold, however, and I was happy to share my outtakes, successes and numerous failures in the hope of raising the visual literacy of my readers and teaching people about this weird and wonderful job.
While no number of readers would ever truly satisfy a narcissist like myself, the support and kind words from my small but loyal readership have meant so much to me. I never expected to change anybody's mind with this post about a drowning in Pasco, which was the only one to be published in print, but a woman recognized me at the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo and let me know I had done just that.
It will be strange to step away from this sometimes fun and fulfilling job, but I'm looking forward to new challenges while putting many of my same skills to use. While I'll miss the always-possible chance for a uniquely fun experience on the job, I'm also excited at getting more of my social life back. Low pay, bad hours, working holidays and enduring an endlessly critical readership are the prices you pay for a gig that many surmise must be the best job in the world.
Maybe instead of occasionally having fun with strangers at work, I'll get to do more things with the people I really care about. Maybe I'll enjoy what it feels like to work in a thriving industry that can fairly reward me for the work I provide.
Or maybe stepping away will rekindle the fire that drove me into this business in the first place, crying and running back into the serpentine arms of an abusive relationship to chase those fleeting moments of joy and satisfaction.
I won't know until I go, but I'm thrilled to start this next chapter of my life.
No links this week because it's my last post and it should be all about ME...
So instead, I'll invite anybody who wants to say goodbye to join me from 5:30-9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, at Sports Page in downtown Kennewick in the back room.
If you'd like to continue following my photo work, which will continue with occasional freelance assignments, weddings and portraiture, you can find my website at kaiphoto.net. My email is kai [at] kaiphoto [dot] net.
Thanks for reading and supporting me. If you feel compelled to come up with some sort of going-away gift, I would prefer you send some money to Mushtaq instead.