News Archive

Photojournalist Gabriel Tait Arrested At Accident Scene

On New Year’s Day, St. Louis Post-Dispatch photojournalist Gabriel Tait parked about a quarter of a mile away from a traffic accident on Interstate 70 and got out of his car to walk to the scene to take pictures near Berkeley, MO, a northwest suburb about 15 minutes from the heart of downtown St. Louis. Minutes later, instead of taking photographs, a Berkeley police officer was slamming Tait’s face against the hood of an emergency vehicle while arresting him, the NPPA Region 7 Clip Contest Chairman told his managers and coworkers after he was released from jail.

Yesterday NPPA vice president and NPPA Advocacy Chair Alicia Wagner Calzada sent a notice of NPPA support to Tait and to St. Louis Post-Dispatch photography director Larry Coyne and managing editor Arnie Robbins. "We are outraged at the manner in which your rights were violated while you were doing your job," the message said. "Overzealous and unconstitutional actions by the police against photographers are far too common."

Tait flew to Seattle today to cover this weekend’s St. Louis Rams NFL football wildcard playoff game against the Seahawks. Reached by telephone and asked how he’s feeling, Tait said, "I’m up and I’m down. I was up at 2 a.m. today because I couldn’t sleep. But then I got some sleep on the plane. It’s really hard to find a balance between how some people think it’s kind of funny and other people think it’s more serious, when I feel like it’s kind of serious. I really thought they (the police) would come to their senses, but the ball just kept rolling downhill."

On Saturday, Tait spent four hours in jail before being released on a $500 cash bond, a story yesterday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by reporter Sylvester Brown Jr. said. Brown wrote that the incident Saturday afternoon started when Tait responded to a radio report of an accident, and as he walked up to the scene Tait said an approaching police officer yelled, "You’re not allowed to take pictures here." Tait said he responded, "I’m from the Post-Dispatch, sir, and this is an accident." Tait said it was then that other officers joined in ordering him to stop taking photographs and to leave.

When Tait again tried to identify himself, the story says, he was handcuffed — but he still managed to push a button on his cell phone that placed a call to Sid Hastings, the assistant director of photography at the newspaper. Brown’s story says that Hastings could hear Tait yelling, "Sid, Sid, they’re harassing me!" and "Officer, does this mean you’re taking me into custody?" Tait told Brown that the police turned off the cell phone at that point, and that he was arrested and taken to the Berkeley police station and his photography equipment was confiscated.

The account of how police treated Tait up to this point is disturbing enough, but Brown’s story adds even more striking details about how the event continued to unfold after Tait’s arrest. An officer threatened to bring felony charges against Tait if he didn’t sign a paper that incorrectly identified his confiscated belongings," the story says. Also, Tait told his managers on the day after the incident, one officer told a colleague that he would gladly "take a day off" and come in to "help take him (Tait) down" if necessary, presumably meaning to appear as a witness or to go to court in support of the arresting officers.

"Your case is particularly disturbing because of the abuse and threats that you report," NPPA’s Calzada wrote in the Advocacy Committee’s message to Tait. NPPA’s Advocacy Committee was created in November 2003 to promote awareness and timely responses to issues threatening news photographers. "We are thankful that you are fighting this and that your newspaper is supporting you so vigorously. Each incident like this has a great effect on all photographers, not just the one involved. We stand with you and are available to assist you and your newspaper in whatever way we are able."

Brown’s story quotes Berkeley Police Captain Frank McCall as saying that Tait was arrested because he failed to follow the orders given by officers at the scene. "It was hard to get emergency vehicles to the scene," the story quotes McCall. "It was no place for people to be standing around." McCall said Berkeley police would file a misdemeanor charge in municipal court against the photographer, and that could result in a fine.

Tait’s digital images on his camera’s memory disc, examined later at the newspaper after he was released and his equipment returned, show that he was a "significant distance from the accident scene," the story says. Hastings, who is Tait’s supervisor, is also quoted in the story defending the photojournalist and his actions.

Brown, who worked with Tait on a story as recently as last week, managed to find some humor in the incident to weave into his report. "He (Tait) added that police made him pose for a (booking) mug shot five or six times because he smiled for the camera. ‘I smiled because the whole thing was silly,’ he said."


Veteran Employees Surprised By Rapid Firings When Paxton Buys Herald-Sun

When the sale of the 50,000 circulation Herald-Sun in Durham, NC, went through on Monday morning and the new owners, the Paxton Media Group LLC of Paduch, KY, took over as the deal closed, the newspaper’s four top managers were fired within minutes and escorted from the building without their belongings.

Then later Monday the new owners started firing employees, up to 25% of the newspaper’s more than 350 workers, including NPPA life member Harold Moore, 70, the Herald-Sun’s director of photography and an employee of the Herald-Sun for more than 50 years.

Less than 30 minutes after the sale closed, the surprised president and publisher, David Hughey, vice president and treasurer James Alexander, vice president of sales and marketing Toby Barfield, and executive editor and vice president William Hawkins were fired and then escorted from the building.

As the day progressed many more shocked employees were given word of their own firing and then taken out of the building. They were not allowed to clean out their desks or pack personal property or say goodbye to coworkers, according to multiple news reports. A story by Julia Lewis on WRAL-TV in Durham quoted one of the fired senior executives, Toby Barfield, who said, "They said you can’t touch the computer, you can’t touch the phone, you have to leave right now. We had no idea that 30 minutes after the sale our heads would start rolling."

After the executives were axed, then as many as 80 other selected employees found out that they were fired as well. Moore, a veteran of five decades at the Herald-Sun who joined NPPA in February 1956, was quoted Tuesday in Raleigh's News & Observer as saying, "I was planning to retire before long anyway, but I would have like to have left with some dignity." The News & Observer story also said that Monday evening several employees were huddled together in the parking lot, some crying.

The Herald-Sun has been owned for 115 years by the family of E.T. Rollins Jr. of Durham. It was one of the last independently owned newspapers in North Carolina. Rumors surfaced around Thanksgiving that the newspaper might be for sale. On December 3rd the sale to Paxton was announced to employees who were called to a gathering in the newsroom. And then this week, just one month after the newsroom announcement and on the morning the deal closed, senior managers and employees were fired as ownership changed hands. The sale price was not disclosed.

Paxton Media Group LLC is a privately held company that owns 28 daily newspapers, weekly publications, and a television station. TheHerald-Sun is its 29th daily newspaper and it takes its place as the largest property in the Paxton stable of daily newspapers. David Paxton is the company’s president and chief executive officer. Paxton Media also owns North Carolina newspapers in Forest City, Henderson, High Point, Lenoir, Monroe, and Sanford.

Paxton has a history of firing top managers and employees when they purchase newspapers. When they purchased the High Point Enterprisein High Point, NC, in 2004 they fired the managing editor, the general manager, and 20 employees.

Tuesday in the Herald-Sun’s own story about Paxton’s purchase of the newspaper, Paxton representatives called the firings "layoffs" and said they were part of a "sweeping corporate restructuring that included a new publisher and a new top editor." The story called the firings "job eliminations." The newsroom previously employed 87 people, the story said, adding that 17 of the newsroom positions have now been cut by the restructuring.

Three top editors from a Paxton newspaper in Kentucky have been appointed to run the Herald-Sun. Robert Childress is the newspaper's new publisher and Bob Ashley was named the newspaper’s new editor. Childress was publisher of the Paxton’s Owensboro, KY, Messenger-Inquirer and Ashley was the Messenger-Inquirer’s editor. Also coming along with them from Owensboro is Elaine Morgan, who will replace theHerald-Sun’s advertising director.


Susan Sontag, 71, Author Of On Photography, Dies In New York

Susan Sontag, the social critic, human rights activist, and author whose theories and writing influenced the way many perceive the role of photography and modern photojournalism, died of leukemia today in her hometown, New York City. She was 71.

Sontag’s classic book On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973) investigated the role of images in society, the intersection of news and "art," and the visual depiction of war and disaster. Two decades later she refuted some of her previous ideas in a new book, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), where she called into question the use and meaning of images, particularly those of war and suffering, and the motivations of those who make and view the images.

In an essay "Regarding the Torture of Others" in The New York Times in May 2004, Sontag wrote about the photographs of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, that the snapshots — taken by soldiers, not photojournalists — would likely become the defining images of the Iraqi war. She wrote, "For a long time — at least six decades — photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events, and it now seems probably that the defining association of people everywhere with the war that the United States launched pre-emptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, Abu Ghraib."

In the Times essay she also wrote, "The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however, reflect a shift in the use made of pictures — less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated."

Known to the photography world mostly for On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag’s 17 books — which have been translated into 32 languages — covered a much broader range of topics than just photography. She wrote about politics, pornography, science fiction, and penned four novels. Her work included plays and film scripts and essays for The New Yorker, Granta, and other literary magazines. She wrote and directed four feature-length films, as well as stage plays in the United States and Europe. Among many career awards she won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1977 for On Photography, and the American National Book Award in 2000 for In America, a portrait of the new west of 1876.

Born in New York City on January 16, 1933, Sontag grew up in Arizona and California before going to college at the University of Chicago. She did graduate studies at Harvard, Saint Anne’s College at Oxford, and later at the University of Paris. The Times of London wrote, "Susan Sontag was the most provocative and prolific of the new wave of New York intellectuals who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. Her writing during those years of enormous cultural and political change earned her the sobriquet of ‘the evangelist of the new.'"

Sontag died this morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, a spokesperson for the hospital told the Associated Press. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, said his mother died from complications caused by acute myelogenous leukemia, and that she had battled cancer on and off since the 1970s, AP reported.

The February 2005 issue of News Photographer magazine will feature a story about Sontag and an examination of On Photography andRegarding the Pain of Others by New York City writer Stephen Wolgast.


New Captioning Plug-In For Best Of Photojournalism Contest Entries Now Available To Download

DURHAM, NC -- The new software plug-in to use for captioning and preparing still photographic entries for the Best Of Photojournalism 2005 contest is now available for downloading from the NPPA Web site. Please click here to read the plug-in instructions and download the Macintosh or PC version of the application.

BOP will begin accepting online entries beginning January 3, 2005. There are new categories in this year’s contest to reflect two large stories from 2004: the political campaign and elections, and the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

This year’s updated contest rules and entry guidelines are also posted online. Please click here for links to the rules and guidelines for each division. If you have any questions, please contact Eric Waters, BOP contest coordinator, at [email protected]


Virginia Photojournalist Survives Suicide Bomb Attack In Mosul


Photojournalist Dean A. Hoffmeyer of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and reporter Jeremy Redmon survived an explosion in a military chow-hall tent at Forward Operating Base Marez, in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, on Tuesday, December 21st. The Pentagon said the blast killed 22 people, including 13 U.S. troops, five civilian contractors and four Iraqis. As many as 70 others were wounded. Initial reports said the explosion was the result of a rocket attack, but military officials now believe the blast was caused by a suicide bomber wearing an Iraiqi military uniform who infiltrated the mess hall.

The two Times-Dispatch journalists are accompanying the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion of the Virginia National Guard and they had been embedded with the unit for only a few days when the attack came. Six soldiers from the 276th were among the blast’s casualties; two were killed and four are being treated for injuries.

Reports in the Times-Dispatch said Hoffmeyer and Redmon, who were not inured, were just sitting down for dinner with the troops when the blast occurred. Hoffmeyer’s photographs show the immediate aftermath of the bomb, scenes of troops carrying wounded soldiers off the floor, and soldiers using tabletops as stretchers to evacuate the seriously injured. Sunlight streams through the smoky scene from large holes ripped in the tent’s roof by the force of the explosion. His pictures also show about a dozen soldiers in the background working with the wounded and the breadth of the destruction caused by the bomb.

Hoffmeyer’s exclusive photographs, distributed by the Associated Press, carried the front pages of nearly every American newspaper on the day after the attack, as well as illustrating many news reports across the Internet.

In addition to their exclusive news value, many military families were anxious to see Hoffmeyer's photographs. A story in the Rapid City Journal tells how a South Dakota family learned their soldier son, Wayne Shepardson, was alive and uninjured following the attack when they saw Hoffmeyer’s images online. In the pictures they could see that Shepardson was assisting his wounded comrades.

Trisha Ralston in Hinesville, GA, also saw Hoffmeyer’s photographs online and recognized her fiancé as one of the soldiers in the bomb-damaged tent. She wrote an eMail to the editor ofNews Photographermagazine: "I’m writing regarding the photographs that photojournalist Dean A. Hoffmeyer of theRichmond Times-Dispatchreleased after the blast in Mosul. I saw the photograph of two soldiers helping a wounded solider. My fiancé is the solider on the right. I saw this picture and knew that he was okay. I had not heard from him, and this was my reassurance after seeing the picture."

Ralston, who is a third-grade teacher at Button Gwinnett Elementary School, wrote, "This is my fiancé’s second tour in Iraq. Since he’s been over there he also was hit with a car bomb and suffered minor injuries. First he was there with the 3ID 3/7 Infantry from Ft. Stewart, GA, and now he’s with the BCO 1/5 Infantry out of Ft. Lewis, WA. As you can imagine, this is a challenging time knowing that the person you love is over there serving his country and risking his life everyday."

"Because I am a teacher, and we knew he was going to be deployed back (to Iraq), I didn’t want to start all over and to be alone in a new place. So before he left, he was at Ft. Lewis and I was still in Georgia (at Ft. Stewart). We were not able to get married. This is just another set-back that added to our lists of disappointments. So we will have to wait until he gets mid-tour leave or comes back after his tour. It’s so hard having our two-year-old son who carries a picture of his Daddy and I around. He points to the picture saying, 'Mommy' and 'Daddy,' but his Daddy is gone. I saw the picture (by Hoffmeyer) but I couldn’t show him this one. This is something a 2-year-old would not understand."

Ralston ended her note, "I want to tell Mr. Hoffmeyer thank you for reassuring me and the rest of his family that my fiancé was okay. His name is Sgt. Wendel Jack."

Hoffmeyer has been a staff photojournalist at the Times-Dispatch since 1996, the same year he joined NPPA. Redmon, who normally covers the City Hall government beat for the newspaper, has been with theTimes-Dispatchfor five years. Previously he worked forThe Washington TimesandThe Journalnewspapers in the Washington, DC, area. Hoffmeyer’s photographs and Redmon’s stories, along with audio and video reports, are online here.

Photograph courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.





Dan J. Fager, 86, NPPA Life Member

Dan J. Fager, 86, a longtime Tampa Bay, FL, area news photographer and NPPA life member, died December 22, 2004 in Tampa, FL. He joined the NPPA in 1955 when he was the assistant chief photographer for The Tampa Daily Times, and over the years he was an active NPPA member and a leader in Region 6. At different times Fager served in Region 6 as a director, an associate director, and as the region's secretary and treasurer. For more than four decades his photographs appeared in The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Daily Times. He retired from the Tribune in 1984.

In 1959 Fager received NPPA’s Samuel Mellor Award, which is given to the regional associate director judged most outstanding in the performance of their duties, and in 1962 he was given the NPPA President's Award. He was also the recipient of the Burt Williams Award, which honors those with more than 40 years of service to the profession of photojournalism.

The Tampa Tribune reports that Fager came to Florida from his native Cincinnati, OH, in 1932 and worked for the Tribune from 1938 to 1950. During World War II he was an Army Air Forces photographer. The newspaper said Fager was a commercial photographer for four years until he joined The Tampa Daily Times in 1954, becoming the chief photographer in 1956.

Fager is survived by two children, Jimmie and Robin. Services are planned for Thursday, December 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Palma Ceia Christian Church, 3516 Bay to Bay Boulevard, Tampa, FL.


Chinese Photojournalism Contest Invites American Participation

China's Photojournalists Society (CPS) is sponsoring the first annual China International Press Photo Contest on the theme "Peace and Development." CPS says the competition is the first and largest of its kind to be held in China and invites professional photojournalists entering the contest to "create a visual record of 2004 focusing on the challenges and struggles for a peaceful and prosperous world." The winning photographs in seven categories, picked by an international jury, carry cash awards and the pictures will be printed in a yearbook and featured in a traveling exhibit, the announcement says.

James Zeng-Huang, a picture editor for China Features for Corbis in Beijing who studied photojournalism at Syracuse University in New York, encourages American photojournalists to enter the contest. "There is no entry fee, but you could win a big prize," he said. Each category will have two Gold Prizes for the Singles and Portfolio categories, along with 100 honorable mention awards. "Photo Of The Year" is a cash prize of RMB 60,000.00 (approximately $7,200 USD) and a round-trip flight to China, and the 14 Gold Prizes are a cash award of RMB 10,000 (approximately $1,200 USD).

"There have been many changes in the photographic industry in the past twenty years in China, especially in photojournalism," Zeng-Huang wrote. "I was an NPPA member when I attended the photojournalism program at Syracuse University from 1987 to 1992 and I may be the first one to introduce NPPA and its annual Best Of Photojournalism competition to China."

Judging the photographs will be an international panel of photojournalists, picture editors, photography critics and journalism scholars from France, the Netherlands, Russia, Japan, Singapore, China, and the United States. CPS says the jury will include Robert Pledge, the president of Contact Press Images, and Jim Dooley, formerly the assistant managing editor for photography at Newsday in New York.

The contest is open to photojournalists who work for news agencies, journals, newspapers and photographic agencies and there is no entry fee. CPS says that freelancers can enter the contest if the entry is accompanied by "professional certificates or a documentary letter from an official press photo organization." Photographs for the contest must have been shot and published in 2004.

The deadline for entering the contest is February 15, 2005. "The date of the postmark on the envelope containing the entries will be regarded as the date of entry," Zeng-Huang said. "No entries will be accepted that are postmarked after that date."

"Peace and Development" is sponsored by the Shenzhen Press Group and the Shenzhen Association for International Cultural Exchanges. Complete information and entry forms can be found online at


Haraz Ghanbari Is NPPA's National Student Photographer Of The Year

By Elaine Laps

KENT, OHIO – At the age of 15, an old Minolta Maximum 7000 was his camera of choice, but only because it was all he could afford and Grandpa would accept installments.

The first pictures came back blurry, too dark or too bright.

But the young man kept going, and this year Haraz Ghanbari, graduate of Kent State University, is the National Press Photographers Association’s National Student Photographer of the Year. The award tops an already impressive list for Ghanbari, including last year’s Ohio News Photographers Association’s Student Photographer of the Year.

The eight-year journey from blurry to award-winning photography has been documented every step of the way. Ghanbari has gathered so many clippings from freelancing for local papers to interning for the Associated Press that it would take a long, rainy day just to flick through them all.

As it should, each picture tells a story — and as a collective group, the pictures show that Ghanbari has experienced more than the average 23-year-old.

"I’ve been around the block a few times," Ghanbari said. "In this business you’re exposed to a lot of things and it eventually gets to you."

From fatal crashes to house fires that claimed lives to capturing people burying their loved ones, Ghanbari has been there camera in hand. Experience has taught him that the value of a good picture is not just in the graphics, but in the emotion captured.

"I use my camera to connect to my subject — like a catalyst for human emotion," Ghanbari said. "Some people treat their subjects as objects, but I like to think I’m at least compassionate toward mine."

Growing up, Ghanbari used to watch tapes of journalistic photography with his father, also an awarding-winning photojournalist, and sometimes he would see his father cry as the images played on screen. As a child he wondered why, but as a man entering the professional world of photojournalism he empathizes.

"Sometimes when I’m taking pictures of families who are sad and crying, a tear will roll down my cheek," Ghanbari said. "This job takes a certain type of person."

As well as working for AP and The New York Times, Ghanbari has worked as a military journalist. He signed up for the Ohio National Guard at the age of 17 and in 2001 spent six months in Bosnia as the official photographer for a two-star Army general.

Whether it’s his military training, his father’s influence, or his passion for capturing pictures that cause people to think, Ghanbari will stop at nothing to get the best shot.

At 15 he rode his bicycle to the scene of a crash on the interstate by his house, jumped the fence, and boldly told the police he was with the press. This past summer while covering the trial of the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, he broke away from the herded media, set up his tripod on top of his car on the other side of the street, and captured the shot of the day.

"Editors don’t want to hear excuses of why you didn’t get the picture — they want to see the picture," Ghanbari said. "That motivates me."

As a graduate fresh out of Kent State, Ghanbari knows he has a lot more to learn, and he appreciates the freedom his professors gave him to learn through experience.

"My professors were receptive to my last-minute calls telling them that I had to miss class because The New York Times needed me," Ghanbari said. "They realize that completing an assignment in the field is more than I’ll learn in a classroom."

Although he has a wealth of experience and fine tutoring, Ghanbari still believes that he is not above unfavorable assignments. "You learn being a grunt, you learn getting crappy assignments, and you learn getting great assignments," he said. "I’m still young. I still have a lot to learn."


Photographic Auction Benefits Amnesty International

By Huub G.M. Kohnen

WAARDER, THE NETHERLANDS — A photography benefit auction for Amnesty International, conducted in late November at Sotheby's in Amsterdam, generated profits of $301,627 from the prints of famous and well-known photographers. Hundreds of people in the salesroom, on the phone, and via bids in writing were responsible for the results. The idea for all this started two years ago and then got wide and global support from Magnum Photos, AIPAD dealers, collectors, a frame shop, a printing house, a transport company, and photographers and photojournalists from all over the world. Sotheby's Amsterdam embraced the initiative and the Netherlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam held an exhibit of the work.

Slightly delayed because of bidders who had to be pre-registered, the first lot was offered. A 13x10" silver print of a 1930s Manhattan street scene (printed 1960s) by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), signed and with the photographer’s stamp on the back, changed hands for $1,720. Diane Arbus's picture "Soothsayer Madame Sandra, California 1963, print 5 of 75," printed later by Neil Selkirk and donated by the Jeffrey Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, sold for $5,300. Two Cibachrome prints approximately 15x22.3" shot by Bruno Barbey in Morocco were sold exactly in the estimate range of values ($1,457 and $1,855). Bill Brandt's "Gulls Nest" (1947), a 9.8x11.4" silver print, was sold for $1,987. Number 11 of Burtinsky's series on Chittagong Shipbreaking in Bangladesh did well ($4,239). A salt print by Roger Fenton of the demolished Balaklava post office in 1855, first published by T. Agnes & Sons, London, November 19, 1855, was donated by Weston Gallery and Hans P. Kraus Jr. of New York. It changed hands for $1,457.

Next sold were two icons, both personal gifts from the photographers: Stuart Franklin's photograph of the Tiananmen Square resistance and Leonard Freed’s photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the back of a convertible in Baltimore in 1964 ($2,914 and $3,974). A large silver print by Belgian Magnum photographer Carl de Keyzer from his series "God Inc." sold for $1,060. Peter Martens (d. 1992), who extensively covered the homeless in New York in the 1960s, was represented by three silver gelatine pictures of Lagos and East Turkey donated by the Peter Martens Foundation; they sold for $1,325 each. Although she "tried very hard" for a higher price, the auctioneer had to accept an offer for Steve McCurry's signed and dated splendid lambda print (16.9x11") of a Tibetan girl wearing traditional jewellery for $1,722.

An advertising picture, a silver print by Norman Parkinson shot on assignment for J. Walter Thompson, of a "Duchess Being Robbed While Indulging in Creamy Cornet" (1959), which was a gift of the Angela Williams Archive, sold for only $928. James Nachtwey donated three inkjet prints, signed in ink, from his reportage in Baghdad and a photo studio in Kabul, which sold for $1,259 and $1,325.

The sale showed that names don't guarantee success. Weegee was with us in three silver prints from various private gifts that raised $1,457 to $2,252, selling in or slightly above their estimated ranges, while "The Buzzclub, Liverpool, March 3, 1995" from Rineke Dijkstra sold for $15,985.

Huub G.M. Kohnen is a photojournalist in The Netherlands.


Missouri Grad Students Learn From CPOY Mock Judging

By Ryan Fagan, Shana Lynch and Ali Ryan

COLUMBIA, MO. — Pictures are pretty. They're emotional, intense and sometimes a bit amusing. But mostly, they're pretty. At least, that's what we thought.

We are graduate students in the University of Missouri's School of Journalism who are taking a class in visual communication. We are writers and advertisers. We appreciate pictures, but we are certainly not photographers. Nor are we qualified to critique one of the premier competitions in the country, the College Photographer of the Year contest.

Founded in 1945, the event honors the best student photojournalists in the country. The contest is hosted by Missouri and Kappa Alpha Mu, an honorary photojournalism society, and more than 250 students from more than 50 universities compete each year. (Note: CPOY is also sponsored by the National Press Photographers Foundation. The NPPF Booster Club provides the $1,000 Col. William Lookadoo award and the $500 Milton Freier award.) CPOY selects a panel of four judges, award-winning professionals who donate their time and knowledge to help recognize up-and-coming student photographers, and recognizes outstanding work of students currently working toward a degree. It's the real-deal Holyfield.

Yet, there we were.

This semester has taught us that pictures are more than just pretty, they're also meticulously composed, technically involved and masterfully complete. We are learning how terms such as Rule of Thirds, color saturation and story flow apply to the photographic process. We can even use them in a conversation so we sound smart. In theory, at least.

Now these three non-photography journalism grad students were going to put our book-learning to the test. As the graduate component of the class, we were mock judging the CPOY contest. We were excited, we were a bit intimidated. Our big fear was that all of our finalists would be cut by the real judges in the first round. That would be embarrassing. Not too surprising, but embarrassing.

Tucker Forum was set up to look like the bridge of some spacecraft in a Star Trek movie. Four chairs sat center stage, surrounded by computers and mechanisms designed to make the judging process run efficiently. But even in the empty room and laid-back atmosphere, we felt a bit out of place.

And we, of course, made amateur moves. We judged the spot news category, which had a total of 167 photographs. After round one, we still had 97. We were often drawn to images that seemed impressive at first ­ grand fires erupting from buildings, violent scenes -­ and had a difficult time understanding that these images were often clichéd.

But after our nervousness wore off and the soothing rhythm of the process took over, we got the hang of it. We narrowed the large number to 63, then narrowed further as we discussed technical issues, the definition of spot news, the level of difficulty the photographer went through to get the shot. We argued over whether the important content of looters chased by police overcame a black-and-white image with poor contrast. We debated whether a humorous photograph of a cow at someone's front door was worthy of an award simply because it made us laugh each time we saw it. We discussed which of the myriad fire images was worth bringing to the final round after realizing how many were clichéd images.

Despite our reluctance to disqualify images, our final round showed a series of strong photographs. Without needing to discuss it whatsoever, we gave first place to a beautiful image of an illegal immigrant caught by the spotlight of border patrol. We all recognized the superb black-and-white image portraying the intimacy of fear and defeat in the man's expression and body posture. Second place went to a grisly and terrifying image of a murdered man surrounded by onlookers in Port au Prince.

Our third-place winner involved a bit more debate; we chose an image of firefighters spraying a house to protect it from impending fire while a group of children looked out from the house's front window. We agreed that the children's faces peering out made this a wonderful image, but that at first glance, most of us hadn't seen the children. Was it still worthy of a placing? After some debate, we thought so.

We gave more honorable mentions than most professional judges might. We awarded an image of a field sobriety test that we were drawn to for its beautiful light, a photograph of a street gang, a young man wading his bicycle through a monsoon, and a group of protestors fighting with police. We also awarded an image of a man with a machete guarding a gate in Port au Prince where the photograph's subject had been swinging a machete at the photographer. For us, it seems, the danger of taking the image increased the quality of the image.

After we judged the images, we looked forward to the real judging that would take place the next day. What had we missed that professionals would see? Would any of our images place?

The following day, nothing looked different in the room. Same science-fiction lighting. Same voting buzzers. Same fiddly headsets that recorded every word the judges spoke. But the feel of the room had changed. This wasn't just an exercise. This time, three of the photographs would garner CPOY medal recognition. And this time, there was nothing we could do to sway the outcome. We sat quietly in the back row as photography professionals Teri Boyd, Lynn Johnson, Fred Sweets and Chris Wilkins judged the images we'd seen a mere 24-hours before.

The professionals efficiently whipped through round one and knocked out 135 images, including three of our honorable mentions: the bicycle monsoon, the street gang, and the machete-wielding Port-au-Prince guard. But they kept the cow photograph -- laughing every time it appeared, even though, as one of the judges put it, "it'll never make the final cut" -- and five of the images that had made it to our prize round.

Our egos took a blow in round two as our second-place finisher, the startling image of a murdered man in Port au Prince, was eliminated. Groan. The gorgeous sobriety test shot also went out, but the loss of one of our honorable mentions didn't sting nearly as much as the loss of a placer.

But we still had three contenders, the immigrant, the protest, and the near-burning house with the children in the window, as the judges began the final round. We sat up a little straighter and listened intently as the interesting part, and the hard part, began. "The difficult part of judging is when you've gotten down to several really good images," says Boyd, the visual project director for the Comer Foundation. "They might be on the same level, but for different reasons, and this is where you have to bring in other factors about the images to see which one will rise above the other."

As the judges began to talk, we recognized much of what they were saying because we'd been exploring the same ideas in our discussions the day before. They too wondered if the children in the window of the endangered house were too subtle. They sparred over whether at least one spot news winner should be an active shot. They noticed the lack of contrast, of pop, in the photo of looters fleeing a warehouse. They wavered, as we had, between putting the shot of the protesters in third place (which they eventually did) or selecting the house fire.

Just as it had with us, the photograph of the illegal immigrant went into the first place spot and stayed there. No discussion. No objection. The image was so personal, so visceral, says Johnson, freelance photojournalist and Sports Illustrated staff photographer, that the connection was immediate. "When you can feel some common ground with the person in the image, a lot of other parameters just drop away," she says. "It lets you in."

But the judges' second-place selection, a complex, layered shot of a motorbike accident scene, was one we'd outed early in the second round. Most of us barely remembered seeing it. Officers held up a white sheet in the background to block a body from view. Friends of the rider killed sat on a guardrail at roadside. A motorbike and an ambulance were prominent at the front of the frame. Johnson was the image's biggest supporter, and, she says, articulating what it was she saw in the shot became a personal and professional challenge. "I immediately connected to that photo," she says. "I think it was because it felt different. It was not a classic, expected image." And, she says, it wasn't a typical accident shot. "It had so many layers," she says. "It required something of the viewer. There was nothing in it to romance you. It was a much more subtle image." Wilkins, a picture editor at the Dallas Morning News, seconds the subtlety. "I later met the photographer and he was amazed it won anything," he says. "That's the beauty of photography, a single picture can say many different things to different people."

Still, we aren't chiding ourselves too roughly. Three of our images did make the final round, and our first-place selection was dead on. Does this mean the four of us should sack our writing, editing and advertising interests to pursue our obvious talent as photography contest judges? Well -- maybe not just yet. "I would imagine that your reasons for your choices were different than ours, even though the outcome was the same," Boyd says. "In a contest like this, the better images really do stand out above others, and that may be an explanation as to why our results were so similar."

And after all, the judges say, the process is inherently subjective. "After 20 years in the business, I still am amazed at the lack of consistency in contests," says Wilkins. "There have been many Pulitzer winners that didn't even place in POY, and also World Press grand prize winners that came up empty in POY." It's important to remember, Johnson says, that the results do hinge on the judges. "It's just one person, or two people, or three," she says. "It's not a voice on high. Even though I have 25 to 30 years of experience, it's still my perspective. It's my standard."

Maybe the most important thing we take from the experience is the same thing we'll take from the visual communication class -- the ability to talk intelligently about photographs. "The process of talking about it is valuable," Johnson says. "It really helps you, as a visual professional, become clear about what you think a quality image is -- what moves me. What inspires me."

Well, we did figure out what inspired us. But if the CPOY judges need any help next fall, they know where to find us.

(Editor's note: College Photographer of the Year Rick Gershon, from the University of North Texas, is the cover story of the January issue of News Photographer magazine.)