By Jim Colton
Alex Garcia’s twenty-year career has included staff positions at The Los Angeles Times, The Press-Telegram (Long Beach, Ca.), and an internship at the Palm Beach Post. The multi-talented Garcia (photographer, writer, and lecturer) has been awarded every major photography prize from a First Place for Sports Stories from World Press Photo in 2001 for his story on boxing in Cuba to a shared Pulitzer with the staff of The Chicago Tribune, also in 2001, for coverage of gridlock at O'Hare Airport. Garcia has contributed to several “Day in the Life of…” books and has been an adjunct lecturer at the Medill Graduate School of Northwestern University. Another highlight of his time with the Tribune was working at the paper's Havana bureau in Cuba in 2001, after the Tribune was the first U.S. newspaper allowed to open a permanent bureau on the island. He’s covered everything from the Super Bowl to several National Political Conventions to the survivors of the Rwandan genocide. His assignments have given him the opportunity to travel the world yet he says the photographs taken in his local area are the ones that resonate with him most.
Jim Colton: How did the idea of "Assignment Chicago," come to fruition?
Alex Garcia: Scott (Strazzante) had started his photo blog as an endeavor outside of work. I was inspired by it so I pitched at work the idea of a photo blog that was a little more educational. I waited for official approval but we were in bankruptcy and strategic decisions seemed to be in flux. So I just started to blog anyway, like Scott, as an exercise. You pitch something, but even you don’t know if you’re capable of keeping it going unless you try it. As the blogs gained traction outside the paper, the A.M.E for Photography Torry Bruno found a means to bring them both to the Tribune platform as part of a community engagement initiative already in place called “Trib Nation.” I pushed for the images to be full width, like the “Big Picture” photo blog, but the web designer resisted, saying he couldn’t find a plug-in for images that large. I told him, “You don’t need a plug-in. We size the picture to the width of the post.” It’s as simple as that.
JC: Can you tell our readers a little about the process involved in publishing those photos...from concept to completion?
AG: It’s a little complicated. Many assignments, such as press conferences, are not visually interesting enough to post to the blog. Sometimes I’ll have a picture I like but have to wait since we can’t post before the stories run. So I riff off the news and shoot more feature pictures where possible. When you do have something, you prep the photo, write something that has some redeeming thought value to it, and then post it. I promote the posts on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. But even with social networks, you can’t just dump and run. Everything is about being in the community. Social networking takes time. So it’s like another train track in your mind.
At the beginning of my blog, I researched keywords to see what people were looking for online. I used that research to help shape and create posts. That strategy is still useful for writing SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly headlines. But I’m just overwhelmed to go that deep nowadays.
For the Tuesday Tips, I usually have three or four ideas circling as I head into each Tuesday. My editors give me time in the afternoon to work on it. More often than I like to admit, I’ll run into a stumbling block. It could be writing, editing or even finding a picture to illustrate the idea in the post. So then I’ll bring it home, struggle with it, then end up publishing at 11:59pm. But it’s still Tuesday! I’m often tempted to work a week ahead of time, but you want to be swimming in the current of ideas out there.
For about a year, my photo column ran in the Sunday paper. Picture editor Mike Zajakowski saw the benefit for readers and found a place for it. When that happened, I was writing a new post and editing an old post with the weekend photo warrior or serious enthusiast in mind. The editing and writing for both columns each week, with multiple editors, took a day out of my schedule, which was not making anyone happy. Because of staffing changes, the column is now exclusively online, so I don’t have to think about parents with cameras as much. Today, Robin Daughtridge, Associate Managing Editor-Photography and Video and Todd Panagopoulos, Director of Photography and Video have both been hugely instrumental in keeping the blog going.
JC: What do you look for when trying to find that perfect picture? What kinds of pictures excite you?
AG: I’m always looking for pictures that say something about the human condition and have some symbolic or timeless aspect to them. But more often than not, I’m just happy to arrive at a situation that’s not a “photo opportunity” or portrait. I get recharged when I see someone’s pictures and think, “That’s crazy! How did that happen?” Recently online, I saw Sara Lewkowicz’s image (http://saranaomiphoto.com/Shane-and-Maggie/24/ ) of a toddler stamping her feet in order to stop a boyfriend from abusing her mother. Wow!
JC: Can you cite one particular example of published work that you are particularly fond of...and why?
AG: When the NATO Summit came to Chicago, I was a part of the team that covered the protests. It was a global event with media coming in from all over. I was delighted to be a part of the craziness. That week, we ran a double-truck of images with one of my pictures as a lead image across both pages. I had never seen one of my pictures run that size in a newspaper, ever. It was the shock and awe of newsprint. In the days of mobile phone screens and photo gallery templates, to see an image published two feet wide is just plain cool.
JC: Our industry is going through major changes regarding how images are published, in print and on line. Do you feel there are advantages/disadvantages to either?
AG: The great thing about what’s happening is that photographers can publish their images widely, as if they’re standing in a room of humanity, showing them their slideshow. They can communicate their authentic voice, unencumbered. Similarly, one of the benefits of a photo blog is that I can offer an alternative take from how the assignment runs in the newspaper. I think readers really enjoy this. I wish more newspapers would give that opportunity to their photojournalists. It’s that authentic voice that drives traffic and creates connections with readers. It’s what the Tribune calls, “community engagement.”
The downside to more images online is that there is more theft, devaluation of content and toxic terms of service. It’s one of the reasons the Tribune doesn’t allow us to post our photos directly to social networks. I think that hinders us from a social sharing point of view, but I respect the desire to preserve copyright integrity.
JC: What advice can you give to young photojournalists who are looking for new ways of getting their material seen by a broader audience?
AG: I would take a different tack with the question. Instead of getting their material seen by a broader audience, I would emphasize getting themselves seen by their targeted audience. I would encourage young photojournalists to build face-to-face relationships with editors they want to work with. Blogs, emails, social networking all can help, but we’re all still flesh and bones and make decisions based on relationships. At the very least, getting known in person will speed up the process so you can know whether they have any interest in you. It could save you a lot of time and wondering. How to do that? You can request a meeting, start as a freelancer, attend an event where they will be in attendance, chat up their staff, etc. I would do your homework too before meeting the person. Understanding their needs, wants, interests and desires can create a lasting relationship.
JC: Could you tell us how the recent layoff of the entire photography staff at the Chicago Sun-Times has affected you, both personally and professionally?
AG: Personally, I felt sad, empty and sick for my friends to lose their jobs. It was done terribly, with a 30 second send-off. I know some of them have families and will have a hard time replacing their income, especially through photography. I'll miss seeing them on the street, not just from a personal basis, but professionally as well. Having someone shooting near you keeps you on your toes and challenges you.
I'll feel less confidence that our communities are being served knowing there are less photojournalists, especially those from the Sun-Times, on the street. No single news organization can cover everything. Many of these photojournalists knew their communities like no other journalist. When a news organization lays off its photographers, it plants a bad seed in the minds of other publishers who think that is a way out of an economic mess. It's not a way out; it's a way further down. The lower quality drives readers away.
JC: Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers or exciting things on the horizon that you are at liberty to share with us?
AG: I’m really excited to announce that the Chicago Tribune is publishing a book of my photo columns from the past three years. It will be an e-book, which I’m designing right now. I’m very excited about it. I’m updating and rewriting old posts and publishing my favorite pictures from my time at the Tribune. It will be about photojournalism, photography and the creative process from the view of a newspaper photojournalist. I cross my fingers that I can get it published in print as well.
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