The Image, Deconstructed: Why Do You Do What You Do?

Deborah Pang-Davis spoke about how to do self marketing at The Image, Deconstructed workshop in Chapel Hill, NC. Photograph by Devin Greaney
Deborah Pang-Davis spoke about how to do self marketing at The Image, Deconstructed workshop in Chapel Hill, NC. Photograph by Devin Greaney

By Devin Greaney

CHAPEL HILL, NC – For three days in March at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a group of students and professionals connected with each other and with themselves to get deep into their passion of visual storytelling and relating to the people who may someday become the stories they tell.

The Image, Deconstructed” workshop began with a long conversation between freelance photojournalist Logan Mock-Bunting and Ross Taylor, a staff photojournalist at The Virginian-Pilot, on looking into images and video to see the psychology of HOW they were made rather than just seeing what is there. Two days before New Year’s 2011, their Web magazine “The Image, Deconstructed” was launched. Spot news photographs, studio, stills, video, and the tragic and the hilarious have been deconstructed through the words of photographer who made the image.

But Taylor said the backstory of the image was only part of why the Web magazine was created. “I had the idea of having a workshop from very early on. One of the things we’re trying to do is to help strengthen our community,” he said. “I also wanted to create the kind of workshop that I wish was available, one that helped target the mental approach to visual communication.”

“You are not each other’s competition you are each other’s support,” Taylor said to the group. 

“Connectivity” was a word used over and over as the students were encouraged to meet with their photojournalism heroes with whom they were now sitting in Room 33 of the UNC Journalism School. Exercises to break down barriers and to help others connect to those who may be reluctant on dealing with the media helped the group to be self-aware of doing things like not allowing the other person to finish his sentence and overlooking the other person’s verbal and visual cues.

“If you do become self-aware your images will be stronger,” Taylor said. He sees mistakes often coming from journalist’s lack of that self-awareness and purpose. “Start by understanding the fundamental question ‘Why are you doing what you’re doing? People want to know where you stand. When you understand your passion, verbalize it to others,” he said. He has noticed people want to feel safe and confident the journalist knows what he or she is doing. “Do you make them feel safe?”

The first of many tears were shed when Taylor introduced his step sister, Preston Gannaway. “I was nervous anyway, now I am crying,” she said. 

“A thing about putting yourself in a good situation is knowing a good situation when you find it,” she said. Gannaway talked about overcoming shyness, “so I first focused on the other parts of photography.” She said she would “make myself talk to people. It’s a little more natural now.”

Gannaway is perhaps best known for her shooting the St. Pierres, a young family in Concord, New Hampshire, over several months as the mother was dying of cancer and how the family tried to recover emotionally after the death. Gannaway’s images showed intimacy during the difficult times along with the happier moments. 

“Photojournalism can be a taking profession. With the St. Pierres, it was symbiotic,” she said. At times it was a tough sell to her editors, she remembered. “Anytime I really get into a story, I really get into it.” Taylor remembered getting a call from her in April, 2008. “I think I won the Pulitzer,” she said to him. She did. “A long-term documentary is tough. There is not a right or wrong answer,” she said.

Melissa Lyttle of the Tampa Bay Times was laughed at when she was she was hired at her first publication and told them she wanted to work at a place that put the community above the bottom line. Was she just young and naïve, she wondered. At her current newspaper she felt vindicated when they said they shared her philosophy of “It’s better to be a good human being than to be a good photographer.” She wished she had heard that earlier. “If I could address my twenty four-year-old self I would say ‘you’re not alone.”

Lyttle showed a group of photographs she took with friends on their own of people down on their luck living in a motel after her story was published on motel dwellers. “I sometimes think we don’t chose the stories, the stories chose us,” she said.  “It is helping out in the community publishing stories, physical actions, paying it forward and making connections.” Beyond the Tampa Bay area, she also considers photojournalists all over part of her community, inspiring her to create her Web site, “A Photo A Day.”  To her “community means many things.”

Assertiveness is an asset and Web designer Sam Saccone saw what assertiveness can get you. He got his internship at Media Storm by finding an error on the site and emailing Brian Storm telling him how it can be fixed. Much of his work was self-taught and by the time he went back to school “some of my professors were using graphics I designed.”  He has started Sam Exhibit, a user-friendly Web site for photographers to showcase their works. 

Pattie McNab, photography editor, discussed how living in New York City she was able to “reinvent myself.” She gave advice on dealing with editors. “Ask questions of the editors. The more you ask, the better your relationship will be. Talk to them in a professional way.” Sometimes misunderstanding will arise. “It may not be their intention to screw you, but they are busy and may have overlooked something.” 

Long-time editor Debra Pang-Davis, assistant professor at Syracuse University, discussed marketing yourself by creating a brand and how marketing is what fills the gap between you and your audience. Though everyone has different styles, she said all could benefit from her advice of “Do epic shit. Create epic shit. Be bold. Be awesome. Be you.”   

“The people we are spending time with are people not characters. We are not out chasing trophies,” said Logan Mock-Bunting, a freelance photojournalist and one of the organizers of the conference. “I know a lot who have won a lot of awards and they are assholes. And they are also miserable people.” His voice cracked with emotion as he remembered the late Chris Hondros, an early influence on him. “He was not pursing awards and image. He was not chasing trophies,” he said. “Remember the people who helped you get where you are at.”

The panel discussion had a similar theme of people and community, reminding the participants journalism is not just about journalists but about people. Durham photojournalist Justin Cook sat together with Joslin Simms, Kelli Evans and Gayle Erdheim. The three all worked with Cook as subjects of different long-term documentary projects. Though the projects had little in common, all had similar stories how they were won over by Cook’s empathy and his ability to convey his respect, genuine interest in telling their stories and how they were treated in the story. Evans was raising children in a lesbian relationship with her partner and was taken by how well he was able to put down the camera and genuinely enjoy and play with her kids. Simms, whose son was murdered, told of some less than gracious reporters who contacted her. Simms recalled a story that sounded like something from a movie. Before Simms lost her son, a neighbor’s son was killed. Even before the body was removed, the woman received a knock on her door from a reporter asking the infamous “How do you feel?” question. An audible gasp was heard from the audience. Despite being journalistically jaded, she sensed Cook’s empathy and let him join her on personal moments of dealing with the tragedy and senselessness. She now calls him “my brother by another mother.”

Empathy like Cook’s is something the student’s may feel yet have trouble expressing so the attendees  were given exercises to understand how better to relate to the public. The first was to ask questions of each other without interrupting the other person. As the group became more comfortable, the exercises became more intimate. Day two participants stood, face to face within two feet looking at each other without talking. At first uncomfortable, then even within each other’s “space” it seemed a bit more natural. Meditation exercises and writing down answers to questions of “what is your biggest accomplishment” and “why do you do what you do” were enough to get students out of their comfort zones and some cases misty-eyed as they became mindful of their passions. 

Lunchtime shooting exercises were less about lighting, moment and composition and more about getting participants and the people they met to open up. “Try photographing someone with whom you may not be comfortable talking” was the general theme of both Friday and Saturday’s lunch assignments. Ohio University student Logan Riely got into a conversation with a woman who, like Riely, was adopted. She tearfully opened up to him as she said now that she has a child of her own she fully understands the loving sacrifice her birth mother made in allowing her to be adopted. Miguel Martinez of Atlanta approached a restaurant worker saying “Let me borrow your face.” And Kathryn Carlson, student at UNC- Chapel Hill, had a quick comeback to the question “What do you want me to do?” from her subject. “Just look awesome!” 

Scott Strazzante’s work became almost a backdrop for discussing his close connection with those people he has come across through photography. He became emotional discussing the close relationship he developed with a family after their father died. “I wouldn’t change anything. I love the photojournalism family.” He used to have a feeling in photojournalism there was a “higher up” group and “the rest of us.” He now feels fortunate to have that access to people and events. “What do you do when you have that access? Do you look down on the others or help to bring the others up?”  

Martin Smith-Rodden, photography editor for The Virginian-Pilot, is a PhD candidate in Psychology and he gave a scientific look at the human processing of images. “More than one half of the cognition portion of the brain is visual,” he said. “We make unconscious decisions in 100 milliseconds.” He has started researching the power of photos on stories to see how, for example, a graphic photography with a war story effects perception of a reader versus an article with no photography or one that is much more benign. Preliminary studies showed people with what he called “more hawkish” attitudes moderated their stance after reading the story with the more graphic photography. Others showed little change.

Chad Stevens, visual communications professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, discussed the elements of a compelling story though movies. Showing clips from the film “Little Miss Sunshine” he illustrated how Greg Kinnear’s character at the end of the film was made more powerful by the contempt the audience had for him earlier in the movie. He showed the power of great storytelling in two completely different films - the hard-hitting “Hell and Back Again,” about an Afghan War veteran, and in the whimsical “King of Kong,” about two rival video game players. 

The conference closed on a cold rainy afternoon that felt more like a March in Seattle than in Chapel Hill. “This is the workshop for us as twenty-year-old students,” he said in closing. What would he want as a takeaway to tell himself? “I would tell myself not to worry about others so much and just worry about my own path. I would tell him to worry more about understanding my own motivations and reasons for my behavior, the worry about my own map of success-less reliant on others.” Hugs and tears flowed amongst the participants wishing each other best on their journeys home and their careers. Dreams, technique, mindfulness and passion were all open for discussion over the past three days and something to marinate into everyone’s minds after the conference.

One of those marinating minds belonged to Ohio University student Laura McDermott who called it “an indescribable learning experience and a great time.” A week after the conference she posted “Missing the TID Workshop.”

“At The Image, Deconstructed, the professionals hung out and befriended the students, which was amazing. Also, Ross and Logan, and the rest of the speakers did an incredible job talking about the psychology behind our images, the importance of intimacy and community, and why we do what we do.”

Long-time photojournalist and picture editor Mike Davis of Syracuse reflected after the conference. “This kind of community used to exist at newspapers. Now staffs shrunk and demands have increased on the prevailing people. There is now a greater need for this kind of get together,” Davis said. 

“I don’t think anybody mentioned f-stop or aperture,” Davis said. “The talk where the photographer talks about the subject they photograph, I don’t find those terrible interesting. This group talked about what they learned, why they approached it and how they approached it. You can learn a lot from them,” Davis said. “They were trying to advance the profession.” 


Be sure to read "Photo Conference Networking #101" by Maura Friedman on Page 38 of the April issue of News Photographer magazine.