Elmer Broz, city editor of The Alton Telegraph when I signed on as a reporter in 1969 — and the man I would replace after he died — told me that it was the job of a newspaperman to “explode a picture in the reader’s mind.”
Broz, a throwback to old-fashioned, Chicago-style newspaper reporting,, through of using reporting to tell a story as about 750 words along with a black-and-white photograph or two. He taught me a lot about using words to tell a photo. During my five years at The Roanoke Times from 1965-69, Jack Gaking used sharp, often biting, criticism to make me a better photographer.
A good reporter is a master storyteller — someone who can not only, as Elmer Broz said, “explode a picture in the reader’s mind,” but also leave a lingering impression that lasts long after the newspaper is thrown out with yesterday’s trash.
As I approach 50 years in this business, I have witnessed how much we’ve moved from using words to paint a picture to letting the images — both still and moving — tell the story. I started out shooting photos with a 4×5 Speed Graphic — the legendary “press camera” of the 50s. Now I shoot with digital SLRs and video cameras.
Where we used to use words to tell a story, the focus today is more on the visual. Some of the best documentaries and news footage I’ve watched recently contain very little verbal narrative. The images and often the music deliver the message — and do so with passion, power and clarity.
I find myself working more in visual mediums — still photography and video — while trying to tell the story without letting words get in the way. The National Press Photographers Association — a professional society I’ve belonged to for four decades — recognized this long ago and at one point considered changing its name to “The Society of Visual Journalists” until the membership rebelled and called the moniker too trendy.
Visual journalism is what we do. We can paint the picture with words, photos or moving images but our goal is still the same: to let the reader visualize the story. Much of my work nowadays involves working with — and hopefully mentoring — young, aspiring journalists but I find myself learning more from them because they see things much more visually than I. I’m the old fart, the ink-stained newspaperman trying to cope in a visual age. When it comes to visual storytelling, the teacher becomes the student.
And why not? The cliche says “you’re never too old to learn” and sometimes cliches can also be truth.