Photo Journal: April Saul

  • CAMDEN, NJ: NO PLACE TO GROW UP

July 29, 2013

By Jim Colton

Family first! It’s an adage we’ve heard all our lives and in all industries. But what if you’re an aspiring female photojournalist in the 1970’s and a preeminent photographer tells you, “If you want to do what I do, you can’t get married!” What kind of a picture does that paint for one’s future? Can you pursue a career in photojournalism while maintaining a commitment to your family? The answer is YES!

April SaulIt’s all about striking a balance. And few have done that better than Philadelphia Inquirer staff photographer April Saul. A 30 plus year Pulitzer Prize winning veteran with a warm smile and a compassionate heart, Saul is an inspiration to all photojournalists. In 1980 she became the first female photographer for the Baltimore Sun before landing at the Philadelphia Inquirer…and has been blazing the trail for aspiring women photojournalists ever since.

“I would love to say it’s been easy being a woman in this business, but it was hard from the get-go,” says Saul. “Being a single mother for over 20 years has also defined me. The good news was my children made me a better person and a better photojournalist.  And that being a mother did not destroy my career; it only forced me to tell stories closer to home.”

One of those “closer to home,” stories was a personal project on the city of Camden, NJ, which recently was recognized by both POYi and the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contests. This week, Photo Journal talks with Saul about the project, discrimination along her journey, and what it was like to be a woman, a mother and a photojournalist through some difficult years.

Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself? When did you first realize that photography was going to be your calling? And can you give us a little tour on how you got to the Philadelphia Inquirer?

April Saul: My love of journalism comes from my mother, a columnist and editor.  As a child, I filed photos at her newspaper for a little spending money; then wrote obits and bridal notices, and did paste-up.  A crusader for civil rights and women’s issues, she also helped fuel my passion for social justice.  I campaigned for LBJ when I was 9, and I still have a note from him thanking me for the buck-and-a-half I raised by putting on a puppet show!  After that, I worked for so many peace candidates who lost that I got disillusioned and gave up on becoming a politician myself.

I loved writing, and was an English major at Tufts University when I decided to spend a semester in London studying photojournalism with Syracuse University. I spent a weekend shooting violence in Belfast to impress my teacher (Frank Hoy) that I was serious. I graduated early and got an MA at the University of Minnesota.  Between Jim Brown’s photojournalism classes and three years at the Minnesota Daily--an amazing student newspaper that actually paid us and even sent us on national assignments--I finally felt like I might know enough to get a real job.  My dream was to use photojournalism to help people understand each other better.

In 1980, I became the first female photographer at the Baltimore Sun.  I discovered not only how lonely that was; but unlike at my student paper, at unionized metro dailies, you were supposed to do only one thing!  When I wrote a front-page story on one of my first photo assignments, I immediately had a grievance filed against me! 

The following year, I landed at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where office politics and competition were more intense—but where pictures were used infinitely better.  I loved picture stories, and the Inquirer had a much lighter assignment load so that it wasn’t that hard to pursue projects.  In the 1980s, the Inquirer was a great place for shooters; we had a beautiful Sunday magazine and a cadre of photo editors in place to promote and defend our work.  

JC: What is the structure of the Inquirer? How many staff photographers, editors, etc., constitutes the photo/visuals department? Do your assignments include shooting video or creating multimedia/galleries for the website?  

AS: Like most metro papers, we’re fighting to survive.  We are down to 13 photographers, two of which have extra video responsibilities although we all do multimedia.  When cutbacks resulted in the loss of two production editors, the photographers had to take on the responsibility of filling those chairs late at night, which is akin to having a prize-winning reporter typeset the newspaper.  

JC: The newspaper industry has taken some deep hits this year. In some cases, entire photography staffs were let go in favor of their reporters shooting images on their iPhones.  Does this trend worry you? 

AS: Besides a struggling economy, I think iPhone-wielding reporters are probably our second-greatest threat, and my hope is that the Chicago Sun-Times took enough flak for eliminating their photo department that it might help keep our current owners from taking that path to save money.  Even given these circumstances, my co-workers constantly inspire me with their vision and dedication, and I am proud to be a member of my photo department.

JC: Has gender ever played a role in your career? Were there ever any advantages or disadvantages while covering stories? And do you think it ever matters?

AS: I would love to say it’s been easy being a woman in this business, but it was hard from the get-go.  In the late 1970s, I attended a workshop and was blown away by how sexist the atmosphere was, with some male faculty members hitting on female students and making inappropriate comments.  At about that time, Mary Ellen Mark told me: “April, if you want to do what I do, you can’t get married.”

Newspapers were equally grim.  For every talented and supportive male editor, there’s been one who treated women so terribly I had to file a discrimination complaint—or another who was so uncomfortable around females that he created a boys’ club.  As a woman—and a photographer in a business where words rule—it’s been a double whammy.  The times that I have written stories for the Inquirer and actually won reporting awards, I felt as if I was saying: “See?  I can actually do what you folks do and still prefer to remain a photojournalist!” 

Being a single mother for over 20 years has also defined me.  Today, Mary Ellen would probably agree that you could have a great career with an understanding spouse, but children are a game-changer—as I’m sure they are for some of my male colleagues as well.  My dream right before my marriage blew up was to become a magazine freelancer; instead I stayed at the newspaper working part time through some very hard years.  Still, I rushed between my kids and my shoots, usually feeling like a lousy mother and a lousy photographer!  

The day I won a Pulitzer (1997 for Explanatory Journalism for a series on the choices that confronted critically-ill patients who sought to die with dignity) I almost couldn’t make it into the office for the celebration because I couldn’t find a babysitter! And I remember one POY celebration in Washington, DC in the 1990s when Gene Richards (always a hero of mine) told me if I could stay a little longer, he’d introduce me to someone important at Magnum; perhaps I should think about joining? And I had to tell him, no, because I had to get back to pick my kids up from day care!

The good news for me was that, ultimately, my children made me a better person and a better photojournalist.  And that being a mother did not destroy my career; it only forced me to tell stories closer to home.

JC: Do you have any flexibility as far as generating your own stories for the paper or is it strictly shooting what is assigned to you? What types of assignments do you like most…and…dislike the most? What floats April Saul’s boat?

AS: As a newspaper photojournalist, I do a little bit of everything.  I have never limited myself to what was assigned to me, though those jobs have often led to deeper, more interesting stories.  At an event for inmates’ families, I met a frustrated grandmother, and I followed her family for a year as her daughter got out of prison and tried to get her life together.  On an assignment at the airport, I met a young Cambodian refugee getting off the plane, and I decided to document her Americanization because her beautiful, haunted face made it impossible not to want to know more about where she’s been and what will happen to her.

JC: Your recent story on the city of Camden got some recognition at a few of the national photography contests last year.  Can you tell us a little about that story? How long it took to shoot…how you found the subjects…and also could you tell us why you decided to shoot it in black & white?

AS: In 2006, I was so alarmed by gun violence in Philadelphia that I decided to write and photograph a column for each child killed by guns in our circulation area—while doing about 250 other daily assignments, of course.  It was a crazy, incredibly rewarding undertaking that bound me to the community, and probably helped lead to my ongoing Camden project which is now in its third year. 

Camden, NJ--currently the poorest city in the America (According to the US Census) and most violent (According to the FBI)--is only four miles and light years away from my little town of Haddon Heights, NJ.  Since 2011, when dozens of police officers and firefighters were laid off, I have tried to make it my unofficial beat.  The most rewarding story I have told was that of little Jorge Cartagena, blinded by a stray bullet in June 2011, who I met in the ICU and have been friends with ever since.  After writing about the senseless deaths of 24 children I would never meet in ’06, it was amazing to be able to meet a kid who had survived, and who I could actually help.  The coverage helped him find a better home in a safer neighborhood, and that was the most satisfying outcome imaginable.

I was shocked and thrilled to find myself winning awards this year with images from Camden in 2012.   Almost none of the photos I’ve been entering were published in my newspaper—though they all appeared on our website--and many of them were taken on my own time.  Covering Camden is particularly difficult because the Inquirer has few readers and advertisers there, and in a recent survey, respondents complained of too much depressing crime news in the paper. 

I originally shot the Camden story in color but converted them to Black & White because the subject matter was so grim; it seemed more appropriate. This year, I have done some Camden stuff that's much more upbeat and is really lovely in color.

JC: Are there any other stories that you are currently working on that you’d like to share with us? 

AS: For three years, I’ve been documenting a career military man who decided to become a woman at the age of 77; the pictures won a first place award at the Atlanta Seminar last year and I’m currently shopping for a place to publish them.  For 30 years, a passion project has been my documentation of five diverse American families from one generation to the next; who knows, maybe I will have to resort to Kickstarter to get that one out!  But it will happen. 

JC: Lastly, is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers that we haven’t covered? Do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement to the up-and-coming photojournalist that you’d like to share with them?

AS: My personal rule—and one that I’d urge young photojournalists to adopt—is to follow your heart.  When the Inquirer isn’t interested in a story that I believe in, I do it anyway.  Always, it finds a home…either with my own paper, or somewhere else. 

Sometimes I think there was this 30-year window to be a female newspaper photographer; before 1980 it would have been even harder than it was, and who knows what will happen going forward.  But in spite of the problems, I feel so very lucky to have been able to do this.  And if for whatever reason this ride is nearing its end, I want to go out doing the best possible work—and trying to make a difference in people’s lives.

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