A Tale of Two Stories: An Interview with Robert Gauthier

  • PHOTO JOURNAL: ROBERT GAUTHIER -

By Jim Colton

Robert GauthierJim Colton:  You've covered a variety of subject matter in your career from fraud in the medical system (which earned a Pulitzer in 2005) to the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Can you give our readers a brief history of Robert Gauthier including how you were drawn to photojournalism?

Robert Gauthier: My mother was a news junkie.  Growing up we subscribed to three newspapers, Life and Look magazine.  I can’t remember not spending time with a newspaper at any point in my life.  In my early teen years, after years of thinking I was going to grow up to be Darin Stephens (Bewitched), smoke cigarettes, drink martinis and pitch ad campaigns, I fell in love with photojournalism.  It started the day I saw Nick Ut’s photo of the Napalm Girl in 1972, then Stanley Forman’s 1976 photo of a man wielding the American flag as a weapon sealed the deal.  Both photos, among many others, deeply inspired me.  “Our democracy needs another set of eyes,” I thought.  All that, and I wanted to be one of those guys who got to stand on the NFL sideline during a game.

JC: Do you prefer shooting news or features or sports....or do you like shooting all genres...and why? 

RG: I like doing all of it.  Each genre offers unique challenges.  After three weeks in a war zone, I might dress in a tuxedo to cover the Academy Awards. One day, it’s the Dodgers, the next day I’m documenting a family coping with their father’s brain disease.  Although I aspire to make great photos and tell each story in a superior, unique way, my real satisfaction comes from the experience.  I will never forget being poolside when Michael Phelps won a Gold Medal by a fraction of a second.  I will never forget the day I spent with Dr. Ted Rulison, 97, who, despite laws against it, plans to take his own life should he become a burden to his wife of 64 years, Jean. The list is endless. It’s filled with big events and amazing people living life. 

JC: The Olympics are a huge undertaking for any publication. Can you take us on a short journey of your time in London this past summer describing what an average day might have been? 

RG: London was my fourth Olympics.  For a newspaper photographer at the Olympics, there’s a certain amount of “hurdle jumping” we must do to make the photographs we were sent to make. Last year, I spent most of my time covering the swimming venue.  Americans were expected to make a big splash and we cover Americans.  Most days, my colleague, Wally Skalij and I would try to cover up to three events.  Typically, I would roll out of my hotel by 9 am and catch the bus to the main press center (45 minutes)  There I would check with on site editors and take care of any equipment issues at the Canon (CPS) booth.

One day I had assignments to shoot the US volleyball team, men’s and women’s swimming and US women’s basketball.  From the press center, a shuttle bus weaves through heavy London traffic to Earl’s Court.  During the volleyball match, news hits that an American wrestler has advanced to the gold medal round and I should see if I could get there on time.  Now, it’s time to use London’s world famous Underground.  From Earl’s Court to ExCel, one transfer and nearly an hour later, I’m humping through the crowd to the wrestling venue, one of seven at ExCel.  It always amazes me that we make it on time, but somehow it always works out.  I roll into the wrestling, put my belt back on and our American’s quest for glory is on.  Thirty minutes later, I’m boarding another shuttle bus and heading back to Olympic Park for an afternoon of swimming. Packed like sardines with computers and 400 2.8 lenses, we shoot as many as six races and three medal ceremonies. 

It’s 9 pm London time and I’ve sent an edit of the day’s shoot to Los Angeles and set out to cover basketball.  Tired of shuttle busses, I walk across Olympic park to the basketball arena located more than a mile away.  It’s just past midnight and I’m packing up after moving my basketball images. A shuttle to the MPC hub to transfer to my shuttle back to the hotel and I walk into the lobby at 1:30 am.  Thankfully, the bar serves food until 4 am.  I eat a decent hamburger and head to my room where I clear CF cards, re-edit the day’s shoot, and plug in batteries.  Lights out at 4 am!

JC: You have produced many multimedia stories for the Times. How do you change gears and approach your subject matter with video in mind over stills? What different equipment and skill sets are needed to produce quality work?

RG: I’m still learning how to do video.  It’s just a completely different muscle and I suspect it will be a while before I’m consistently proficient at it.  I love doing video.  I started my career as a reporter/photographer and find those skills re-emerging as I work on multimedia stories.  The most important things for me to have when doing video are my lav mics and tripods.  I can’t tell you how much unusable sound and video I produced when I wasn’t properly prepared.  

A funny story illustrates my rocky transition;  While working on a video/still feature about a Caucasian Lucha Libre wrestler with intern Arkasha Stevenson I found myself ringside rolling video with two Canon Mark IV’s.  The promoters were accommodating and allowed us extraordinary access.  As our protagonist dueled in the ring, the action was heating up and I was getting real excited about the footage.  Unfortunately, I have years of experience of trying to capture the “peak moment.” Reflexively, I would push the shutter button every time the wrestlers were in a mid-air kick, or flying out of the ring.  The camera captures the still, but obliterates the video and inserts a good, five-second lag after each still frame.  Live and learn!

JC: The video produced on “Death with Dignity” (see link below) was very personal and powerful. Can you walk us through the process on how the project was started right up to its being published and do you know what the viewer reaction has been?

RG: I didn’t have much time to prepare for this one.  I got the assignment and I was off to Sacramento a few days later.  Fortunately, Dr. Rulison is a very engaging, articulate man.  At 97, I’m afraid his brain is sharper than mine has ever been.  I spent two mornings with him.  The reporter was there much of the first morning and he was typing during the interview, so I knew I’d have to get my own A-roll interview later.  While they talked, I walked around the house and grounds and shot as much B-roll as I could see.

During a small break, I learned that Dr. Rulison was an accomplished underwater filmmaker and he was anxious to show us his work.  Seeing him light up as he watched the video from the 70’s inspired me to incorporate that part of his story into the narrative. I had him give me digital copies of his work.  The second morning I was alone. Dr. Rulison made breakfast and sat down for my A-roll interview.  We shot some portraits and began to wrap up the day. I felt a real connection with him and his wife. I finally asked him if he’d show me the safe and the lethal dose of drugs he had stored away.  Without hesitation, he grabbed the keys and took me to the closet.

The story is part of a series of stories our lead columnist, Steve Lopez, had done over the course of a year. You can read the comments on the web page.  I believe there were more than 50 comments on that particular day.  Most are supportive of the “death with dignity” issue.  But the debate was spirited.

Special thanks to LA Times Deputy Managing Editor Colin Crawford for allowing his very busy staff to share their incredibly valuable time.

Do you have a story you think is a good candidate for Photo Journal? Email your suggestion to: jimcolton@aol.com

Part One: Interview with Alan Hagman

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