By Frank S. Folwell
ATHENS, OH (February 2, 2013) – Washington Post photojournalist Michael Williamson regaled an audience of students and faculty at Ohio University this week with stories about the art of finding pictures while documenting poverty and homelessness. “Take your eyes for a walk. Anytime I get off my keister and go looking around and engage people, something always happens,” he advised.
After an hour of looking at Williamson’s pictures no one doubted that things happen when he’s on the hunt.
Williamson was the inaugural speaker to kick off the Morris Berman Lecture Series, a program sponsored by the National Press Photographers Foundation that was hosted for its launch by Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication (VisCom).
Berman, a past president of the NPPA and board member of the Foundation, established the Morris Berman Lecture Series to advance photojournalism education.
Williamson took the crowd along for a journey on how he employs his serendipitous approach to finding pictures.
“I see the world as a photo. I always have a camera, I’m always shooting, all the time, every day, always,” he said. Williamson told the crowd that his pictures are not pure luck, he keeps his camera set and practices shooting quickly, sometimes bringing the camera up to get the picture without looking and framing.
He said he collects portraits, ”faces in places,” as he calls them, using an approach he says is like going for a kiss on the first date, usually just asking instead of a lengthy plea. However, those listening to his gift of gab, sense of humor, and boisterous personality might doubt that just asking is all he does. He warns, “They [subjects] have BS meters that have four bars. I don't know how you teach ‘be real,’ but that’s the secret.” He also advised, “Get out of the car, people will engage you.”
The veteran photojournalist described his technique as “shooting first and figure it out later,” admitting that some of those moments never make it.
He told the audience that he sometimes imagines himself as a foreigner who is not familiar with American culture so that he will take a fresh point of view. Williamson made his point with three photographs of kids he found playing on a trampoline. “It’s the same place, same group of kids, and three entirely different ways of looking at it. None are right, none are wrong, just different,” he said.
Good pictures or bad pictures are not the issue in his world. It’s interesting pictures. He reminded students that portfolios with familiar situations that are shot traditionally are not going to catch the eye. “If I’m flying through your portfolio, I stop when I haven’t seen it,” he said.
“Peopleizing,” proximity, and planning are of key importance according to him. A picture of a store taken at dusk near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant illustrates his point. “I knew it was going to rain, I knew where the moon would be. I knew there was a 6 p.m. shift change when they come in to pick up pizzas. It’s not about the stacks, it’s about the people and the proximity. It’s very simple, but it puts the power plant into relationship to the town into relationship with the people,” he said. The picture is a perfect composition with an outstanding point of entry. Planning put Williamson in place when the best picture was going to happen.
Williamson described his pictures of food distribution to 5,000 needy people as a result of desperation, not genius. “Metro lead,” his editors told him. He described the elements: people in line, but no context, they could be in line for Rolling Stones tickets; free haircuts; kids getting balloons; a mountain of bags. “Then it starts hitting me: personalize it. I need a face. Find the one person to tell the story. And then, it’s the bags. I don't have to show 5,000 people, I can show 5,000 bags.”
Warning the audience that he was going to rant, Williamson launched a hilarious George Carlin-style litany of pictures and commentary: Five Hour Energy, Six Hour Power Booster, Ruffles Max, Jacked Doritos, caffeine-infused Cracker Jacked, and finally Crackheads candy. He’s bummed at words like “extreme” and “jacked” because they are overused as self-motivators.
Advising students that telling editors “I’m passionate about photography, so I would make a good intern” doesn't work, Williamson says. “That’s understood, that’s bare minimum. What’s important is what’s extra special about you. So, don’t drink this stuff for energy; create your energy with your art. It’s about you. You can’t change the world, but you can change your attitude toward it.“
He also supplied crowd-pleasing personal anecdotes. “I don't wash socks, I just buy news ones at Walmart. Costs eight dollars to wash ‘em and four dollars for a new bag of socks – photo tip 3a.”
Photographing the Keystone Pipeline for The Washington Post was a challenge, he says, because it doesn’t exist yet. He described the story as having “a sense of place, where’s it gonna go, what it looks like, and who are the people who are going to be affected.” Starting off with a picture of tar sands he described as “Armageddon 2,” he led the audience on a journey from North Dakota to Port Arthur, TX. Farmers, trailer parks, clear cut forests, toxic holding ponds with lame scarecrows, and six-story tall dump trucks are his subjects. Ultimately he focuses on the people, the workers attracted to big wages, and people being displaced by the project.
“With stories it’s not the whole wide, medium, and tight thing ... it’s also emotion. We have to visually mix it up and also emotionally mix it up. None of this is the whole big picture,” he says, “but you put the little pieces of the puzzle together.”
Williamson surprised the students in the crowd when he said, “The glory days of photojournalism are ahead. There are more viewers, more people consuming news.” But he warned young photojournalists that viewers are sophisticated and expect high quality.
“I have never had any interaction on an assignment where one of those little pieces of magic didn’t happen. It could be the pictures choked and ran badly, but the person was cool. Or the person was mean and the story was bad, but I enjoyed the drive or I won an award later,” he recounted.
“You guys have to understand you have the best job in the world,” he said emphatically. “You have the greatest opportunity in the world to make magic, see magic, experience magic that nobody else gets to do. This is serious business. My only advice for 2013 is you have to be better than you used to have to be.“
Williamson closed with this inspiring thought: “When someone asks your mother, ‘What does your daughter do?’ You want your mom to say, ‘Oh, my daughter, she’s a magician.’ So go make your magic.”
The crowd was pleased with his presentation and followed it with many questions.
"Students love seeing the work of other photojournalists, but what they really want to know is how the photographer captured the images,” said student Kate Munsch.
“Michael Williamson's candid lecture focused on the process of visual storytelling. Hearing from one of the greats that creating exceptional images is about intent, thought process, patience and - most importantly - engaging in the world around us was really inspiring.”
“This was a fantastic launch of the Morris Berman Lecture series,” VisCom director and professor Terry Eiler said. “Michael brought a dynamic, positive message about the challenges of being a working visual journalist. I am always delighted when students realize this profession requires good thinking and not just good equipment.”
Folwell, the treasurer of the National Press Photographers Foundation and a former deputy managing editor of USA TODAY, is an international media development specialist.