Issue oriented stories are getting harder and harder to publish in mainstream media. Much of the space allotted in today’s newspapers and magazines is being occupied by news and entertainment which garner a larger audience. So how does a local newspaper tackle important social issues affecting local markets? The Denver Post takes them head on as it did with its recent three part series on the re-emergence of heroin in Denver neighborhoods and how it has become the drug of choice for many 20-somethings.
Staff photographer Joe Amon documents this story with extremely personal scenes captured in stills and video which were published in the newspaper as well as their web site. I asked long-time friend Tim Rasmussen, the Assistant Managing Editor for Photography and Multimedia, for a peek behind the scenes in the development and eventual publication of the photographs and multimedia for this most intimate of journeys.
Jim Colton: How does one go about obtaining/earning the trust between the subjects and the photographer on a story as personal as this that requires such intimate access?
Tim Rasmussen: This is Joe's greatest gift. He has an innate ability to relate to his subjects and breakdown the barriers they put up. For this story we heard that heroin was back in Denver and it was the drug of choice for 20-year-olds. Joe grabbed onto the story and hit the ground running. Over the next few weeks Joe brought in images of many different people on the streets. These people saw and felt his commitment to their stories. He was out with them from when they woke up in the morning until they went to bed. He became part of the experience for them on the street. When working with folks living on the margins, it is important for them to know that their story is important and that you want to tell it in the best way possible. Although you are not an advocate for them, it is important that they know that you will treat them with honesty, with fairness and will tell their story, the good and the bad. One caveat, the more you are with them, the more you risk becoming part of their story. It is a fine line and one dangerous to cross. It’s important you remember you are not their friend…that you are a photographer.
JC: Was it difficult to get the Denver Post to commit to publishing this story? Did they commit before seeing any pictures?
TR: There was a strong commitment up front for this story. Our Editor Greg Moore backed us out of the gate and completely trusted Joe to get the story. As Joe's work started coming in, we knew he was getting access into these folks’ lives, and Joe was telling intimate and compelling stories with his camera. When it came to publishing in print, space is always a difficult proposition. We published seven inside pages and three front pages. Greg truly got these pictures, when we were going through the edit he was adamant that some of the most difficult images run, and run on the front page. The story of twenty-year-old kids living on the edge with heroin available on any street corner was not a complete surprise, but the amount of it was pretty amazing. This story, and many like it need to be told, space or no space, support or no support. Great photojournalists have long ignored the mainstream media and told the stories that needed to be told.
JC: The Denver Post is extremely active with multimedia (including this story). How important is multimedia when factoring in coverage? Does it affect who you assign or do you expect ALL your photographers to have this capability?
TR: Multimedia is critical to our coverage. It complements great photography and gives us an outlet to tell stories as we reported them. We are very careful to not diminish great photography by adding additional video requirements to photographers’ assignments. For this story we teamed Joe with photojournalist Mahala Gaylord and multimedia editor Meghan Lyden, they worked as a team to tell Angel, Alice and Amanda's stories. Joe's commitment to the story kept him out there day-after-day, for months, and when he could he used his Nikon D4 to capture documentary video and stills. Mahala joined him for the interviews and a fair amount of documentary video as well. Meghan edited it and brought it all together for online use. For projects we try to use this model where one photographer is responsible for stills, one for video and an editor just for online. Daily, our shooters are great about producing multimedia. The majority of their work is from their photo assignments and creating strong local photo galleries. Each member of the staff has been trained on Nikon DSLR’s for video. They are also going through a one month rotation where they produce multimedia and video daily to hone their shooting, audio and editing skills.
JC: What words of wisdom and encouragement can you offer to up-and-coming young photojournalists who are trying to make a living in today's tenuous economic climate?
TR: It's hard. I have hope that the industry will continue to grow an audience online and printed newspapers will be around for quite a while. What’s important is that you work your skills and perfect your journalism. Learn to tell great stories. Do not get caught up in the negative outlook, create your own future, no matter what is happening in the industry. The tenuous economic climate, as you put it, is nothing more than a great opportunity for telling a powerful story.
JC: I know you love going to work every day....so what floats Tim Rasmussen's photography boat?
TR: When I was shooting it was the people I met along the way, my subjects. But I loved watching a print come up in the tray, and knowing you got the picture. Now for me it is watching the photographers images show up in the archive. I love to watch our shooters and editors grow, succeed and change the newspaper with their ideas, images and hard work.