Photo Journal: The Life of Brian

  • PHOTO JOURNAL: BRIAN PETERSON

By Jim Colton

Brain PetersonOur industry is constantly changing.  And as with any evolutionary process, newspaper photographers need to adapt...or they will face extinction. Photographers are continually faced with new challenges, new technology and new needs. In addition to satisfying their print versions they must now take care of their web sites and their voracious appetite for multimedia, galleries and videos.

They must do so in order to remain relevant in the workplace while at the same time, attempt to retain their individuality. There is nothing more sacred to a photographer than having a strong and unique visual voice. So how does one go about dealing with new technology and the new workload without compromising that voice? With all the recent newspaper layoffs, and publications settling for “serviceable,” and un-vetted citizen journalist imagery, how do you stay current and vital in a market that seems to be placing less value on the work of professional photographers?

Look no further for your answers than to Brian Peterson at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 

In a 30 year career, Peterson has embraced change, has stayed true to his visual voice and provided relevant insights to his community through his images. Along his journey, he has been recognized with a litany of photographic awards from the Robert F. Kennedy Photojournalism Award in 1995 for a six year project on a local Minnesota family infected with the AIDS virus to being named Minnesota Press Photographer of the Year nine times to winning two regional Emmy Awards in 2009 for his video work for the Tribune.

And although his assignments have taken him to countries like Russia and Japan, as a native Minnesotan, Peterson has focused his story telling on issues affecting his home state as the ones he cares about most saying, “It’s not how far you can travel, but how close you can get.”

That “closeness,” is a Peterson trademark in his work. His images draw you in and you become part of the scene….as if you were sitting with the subjects rather than observing them through a photograph. Nowhere is this more evident than his projects “Voices for the Land,” and the aforementioned AIDS story. The intimacy is palpable!

In addition to the intimacy he brings to his work, Peterson is also a true craftsman. His images are always strong in the three C’s (Content, Composition and Color).  And although he says he’s trying to “shoot a little less restricted,” he also says he is “…always trying to capture all three of those elements in every photograph.”  In the opinion of this photo editor, Peterson’s visual voice is like an aria….his pictures sing!

Jim ColtonCan you tell us a little about yourself? When did you first realize that photography was going to be your calling? What were your first inspirations in the craft? Where did you first “cut your teeth,” and what other organizations or newspapers did you work for before you landed at the Star-Tribune?

Brian Peterson: I’ve always been interested in art and purchased my first camera (Olympus OM-1) after graduating from high school in 1977. But I took the long road to Photojournalism, starting my college career as a biology major, dreaming of working for the DNR (Department of Natural Resources). After beginning to explore the camera with personal photography I took a basic photo class and became hooked on the whole process from capturing moments to developing prints in the darkroom. I began to devour every bit of information on photojournalism that I could, I joined the NPPA, changed my major to Mass Communication/Photojournalism, and started looking at and learning how the best in craft did their work. 

The Minneapolis Tribune was the shining star of Photojournalism in Minnesota with Earl Seubert, Kent Kobersteen, Richard Olsenious, Mike Zerby and so many other gifted photographers. I set my sights high and wanted to eventually land a staff position at the Tribune. After graduation from Bemidji State University in 1982 and 5 years of experience working at the Bemidji Pioneer, Park Rapids Enterprise, Faribault Daily News, Colorado Springs Sun, and St. Paul Pioneer Press, I had collected quite a stack of rejection letters from the Star Tribune (Tribune merged with Star in 1982). I must have worn them down or maybe impressed them from my position at the competition across the river (Pioneer Press), when I received a call from Earl Seubert in the spring of 1987 asking if I wanted to “talk.”  We talked, and I became a staff photographer at the Star Tribune. I had landed my dream job!

JC: What is the breakdown of the photo department at the Tribune? How many staff photographers, photo editors and support people work on visuals at the paper…both for the newspaper itself and for all its digital production? 

BP: We have had a steady number of photographers here at the Star Tribune since I started in 1987, about 18 photojournalists, two of the 18 dedicated to video full time. We have a Director of Photography (Janet Reeves), two photo editors, one assignments editor, one Director of Multimedia and two video producers. All photographers are expected to shoot, edit and produce video. About half the photo staff produces video on a regular basis. We try and keep the jobs of stills and video separate and often assign both a still photographer and video photographer to the same assignment.

JC: Could you give our readers a “day-in-the-life,” of Brian Peterson as far as your responsibilities to the newspaper in all its forms of publishing including multimedia? Has the digital version of the newspaper taken over the analog version and how do you balance your workflow between the two?

BP: Wow, I know it’s a cliché, but every day can be very different. I spent the last 10 days working on a story on the threat of Copper/Nickel mining near the BWCA Wilderness. After getting the assignment, I spent a day doing research on the issue, reading what had already been written, looking at photo coverage etc…. The reporter and I spent three days together on the ground (Ely, MN 300 miles north of Minneapolis), recording interviews with video and stills, capturing the scene, talking to locals. I spent an additional three days after the initial reporting to focus more on the visual elements of the story, visiting mine sites and with paddlers using the wilderness. I spent three days editing video and stills when I returned.  This is a good example of the time spent on a major Sunday story. Daily workload can be 2-3 assignments depending on travel time. As I mentioned, we have two photographers dedicated to video so we are not under constant pressure to produce video on most daily assignments. 

JC: I consider you to be a journeyman, that is to say, a professional photographer who has worked through some interesting times in our industry. How have you dealt with the rapid change in technology and has it been a burden or a blessing?

BP: What we do as visual journalists really hasn’t changed much. Unlike reporters who can work the phones, we still need to be present to do our work. We meet strangers, quickly build rapport and trust and then try to make truthful photographs that will engage our readers and get them interested in a story. 

When we first started doing “multimedia”, mostly slide shows back in the early 90’s, I found it very exciting. With the audio recorder, we now had a tool in our bag to bring sound to our pictures and a voice to our subjects.

I still get most of my satisfaction from capturing a moment and seeing it displayed on the front page of the newspaper. It feels more permanent.  I feel our images online are so diluted, just one more picture on the pile. The home page changes every few minutes, but the newspaper is still the record of that day.

I have learned that it’s almost impossible to do both stills and video at the same time and do them both well. They are two different thought processes. With stills you are singularly looking for that moment, composition and lighting that will help tell the story. You dance with the subject, engage in conversation, and always looking for that moment.  I find video much more technical, too many equipment quirks to worry about. But like a great photograph, when you get that emotional interview or that great piece of sound, it’s hard to dispute that visual storytelling is a powerful tool whether video or stills. 

JC: Many photographers are of a belief that great pictures can only be made by covering international stories and war zones. I’ve always believed that great pictures can be made anywhere, especially in our own back yards…as is evidenced in your book “Voices for the Land.” Can you talk a little bit about that philosophy and its importance to you?

BP: I’ve never believed that you need to travel internationally or go to the hottest war zone to make great pictures. In fact I have focused my career on staying close to home, and learning as much as I can about the issues Minnesotan’s care about.  You can only make truly great photographs if you fully understand your subject.  I’m always surprised how many young photographers include superficial international photos in their portfolios. It only tells me that you are familiar with airports.  When you look at the best work being done around the globe, there is always one thing in common, a photographer’s familiarity and passion for the story, often investing years learning and getting close to their subjects. It’s not how far you can travel, but how close you can get. 

JC: As a visual story teller, do you think our industry is doing a fairly good job in getting the images and the message out to their audience? What would you change or like to see done differently?

BP: I don’t think newspapers are doing a very good job of using the talents of their photo staffs. It almost seems as if there was more excitement in the early days of web publishing. There was more creativity and experimentation and less clutter. After the recent tornados in Oklahoma I had a hard time finding galleries of images on the web that were displayed large enough to really see the devastating detail of the destruction. What happened recently at the Chicago Sun-Times is tragic and makes very little logical sense. It’s similar to what happened to Sunday Magazines, companies just continued to diminish the product until they killed them off.  Despite all the bad news, the Minneapolis Star Tribune is still the largest media company in Minnesota by far, much like most other major metro dailies around the country. If our job is to reach the public, newspapers are still the place to reach that audience. 

JC: Your images, to me, have always been strong in the three C’s…content, composition and color. What do you look for when covering events…both in singles and in stories? What kind of images make Brian Peterson’s synapses tingle?

BP: I’m kind of anal when it comes to photography, I hate distractions. Over the years I’ve tried to force myself to break away from my own style and shoot a little less restricted, but I always ask myself one question before every assignment.  What is the story?  I’m looking for those images that help tell the story. You need to engage the reader with real moments, sophisticated composition and dynamic light. I’m always trying to capture all three of those elements in every photograph. Keeping a keen eye for human body language and what it says, looking for angles that are interesting and unexpected. Our job is to bring readers along and experience what we’re experiencing.  In the editing process I ask myself, what did it feel like?

JC: Lastly, what words of advice or sage wisdom that you’ve gained through your journey could you offer to young aspiring photojournalists who are contemplating a career in our craft? Any parting thoughts that you’d like to share that we haven’t covered?

BP: Photojournalism is one-dimensional and you must avoid dedicating your entire life to it. As much as we all love the craft, it will never love you back. Keep your life in balance, faith, family, friends and fotojournalism. When times are tough on the job, you will have your faith, family and friends to keep you grounded.  When you have the time and passion to dive into a subject it will be your life experience with family and friends that will help you relate to your subjects. Nurture all three dimensions of your life; your photography will be better for it. Keep the faith.

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