Thoughts on a FURLOUGH Day

As a part time lecturer in Photojournalism and Visual Communication at a state university where furlough days are mandatory, here’s how I have come to think of the word (read the one word definitions as a sentence for a fuller picture)

F– Frenetically

U– Unbelievable

R– Remedial

L– Losing

O– Opportunity

U– Unless

G– Governor

H– Helps

Health Care Reality

There is no sense at this point in debating the merits of the Health Care Reform bill. It’s a done deal, thankfully. Unfortunately, like everything else, politics always plays a major role. It’s more important to many of our representatives to vote in a manner that is less controversial, therefore maintaining a likelihood of reelection, than to vote for what they know is a needed change. As many experts pointed out from the beginning, provisions that Republicans vehemently fought to keep out are the same provisions taken from the health plan that each member of congress has. Keeping politics out of major legislation is like seeing a Republican in a inner city health clinic. It’s simply not going to happen………

The crowded waiting room at the South Central Family Health Center in Los Angeles, CA as patients wait for medical care.

I’ve spent time shooting some stories on community based health centers and on overcrowded emergency rooms. I’ve been inside and seen the overflow crowds waiting patiently to see a doctor or practitioner. They come with children and aging parents, lining up before the doors open and sitting for hours. The vast majority are uninsured, I’m told. They don’t pay for the services, but the cost is passed onto the taxpayers. This system has been broken for decades, if not longer. So the HCR legislation, though not perfect by anyone’s account, is the first step in a concentrated effort to fix things. Let’s take one step at a time and accept that change will occur over time. Just like during the Civil Rights movement (which a mere 50 yrs ago was at the center of “controversial” legislation like HCR), let’s not be scared off by the right’s vitriolic attacks on reform.

Print Media Moans but Doesn’t Seem to Care

Here’s my personal tale of woes from the last year or so with regards to the print media, a industry that has been bemoaning the massive loss of readership for years now. You’d think they’d work to hang on to loyal subscribers.

Vanity Fair. Love the long form journalism. Arrives in mailbox on average about 3 weeks after it’s on newsstands.

Los Angeles Times. Been receiving this since I was old enough to read. Start every day with it, old school style with coffee. Late or missing at least 3 days a month. Mind you, I live in a typical LA neighborhood, not out in the woods somewhere.

Sports Illustrated. Received it for years. I shoot for it regularly, so I enjoy the photos and there are some great writers. They dropped my subscription multiple times. I would just stop receiving it all of a sudden. No explanation. Finally quit subscribing.

Is it time to just make the switch and read the paper on the computer with my coffee? Can’t even imagine, but I’m frustrated enough to try……………

A Mobile App for Migrants

Cemetery where undocumented migrants who have died crossing the border are buried.

I’ve spent a lot of time along the US/Mexico border, photographing in towns dotting the 2000 mile boundary from Eagle Pass, Texas to Imperial Beach, CA and places in between. Places where the desert meets the mountains, where sand and scrub brush can bake a body in hours during the summer or freeze it in hours during the winter.

In other words, the trek made each year by thousands of migrants north to the US can be insanely perilous. Just reaching the border from places in Central and South America is dangerous enough, but the final journey to Estados Unidos in the last fifteen years has been a lesson in grave risk. The idea behind the 1994 government crackdown known as Operation Gatekeeper was to shut down the border’s most porous areas. In that regard, places like Imperial Beach and San Ysidro, long hotspots for crossing illegally, were effectively shut down. But of course the problem was not solved in any way. Migrants, determined to find a better life as they have for generations, ventured into the vast, rugged terrain of eastern San Diego County where it took days to cross the mountains and desert. Deaths skyrocketed as migrants were ill prepared for the summer temperatures and frigid winter storms. But still they came.

Several years ago I photographed a story for People magazine that chronicled a group of volunteers who placed water in the remote desert between Eastern San Diego and Yuma, Arizona. Large water containers were strategically placed along known migration routes in an effort to save lives. Tall flags flapped overhead to alert migrants to the water. Regardless of one’s position on the immigration debate, it’s simply humane to provide water in an area known for migrant deaths from dehydration.

John Hunter places water barrel in a remote area along the US/Mexico border to help prevent migrant deaths.

Now a group of University of California, San Diego professors have developed a cell phone application that provides GPS coordinates for the migrants to locate water on their journey. According to a LA Times opinion piece, the professors, along with a colleague from the University of Michigan, developed the mobile application and nongovernmental, Mexican organizations plan to install it on phones that will be given to migrants embarking on their trek north.

I agree with the Times position. I’ve been in the desert heat. Once migrants are on the path inside the country, it’s humane to leave water for them. But it’s a different story to provide a false sense of security before they leave. What if the migrants decide they don’t need to carry water because they will follow the route to find the caches? What if the water caches are empty, damaged or tainted? What if the caches have been removed or relocated? There are too many scenarios that could end in disaster and that’s what needs to be avoided to begin with.

More effort needs to be put toward preventing the often deadly journey through remote regions. A mobile application like this does more harm than good to the very people it intends to aid.

Looting Cultural Artifacts Gaining National Attention

Undercover Federal Agent

Undercover special agent Todd Swain is charged with protecting cultural artifacts in National Parks like Joshua Tree.

Making our way down a rutted trail after a long drive along a dusty fire road, the two men, one a undercover federal agent and the other a middle aged archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, led me to a site that left me in awe. On both sides of me were twenty foot walls of dark rock with ancient petroglyphs nearly everywhere the eye could see. Trying to decipher the meaning of the rock art is a lesson in individual interpretation I was told, but nonetheless I was shown many different drawings that depicted primitive man, animals (believed to be snakes, bighorn sheep) and markings that are believed to record time. It was fascinating.

Rock art near the Ord and Rodman mountains is often damaged and removed illegally and sold on the internet or to dealers.

Until you saw the large chunks of rock that were removed to reveal the much lighter color underneath. Further inspection showed where large chisels were placed and the slabs containing rock art were removed. The assumption, based on the expertise of Todd Swain, the undercover agent for the National Park Service and considered one of a few experts in cultural artifact theft, is that looters removed the art and either sold it on the internet or to antiquity dealers. As the Los Angeles Times noted in today’s front page story, and Preservation magazine detailed in their January/February cover story for which I was shooting, looting of Native American artifacts is particularly common in the Southwest. In Utah, several people involved in a case of dealing with allegedly looted artifacts have committed suicide.

Chunks of rock missing where Native American rock art abounds.

From Joshua Tree National Park to near Barstow, CA and places far between, looters are illegally removing cultural artifacts for their own pleasure and financial gain. While we roamed the expansive terrain of Joshua Tree near dusk, the golden hour light casting a warm glow on the rock formations,  it was explained how difficult it is to stop the illicit activity. With millions of acres containing artifacts and few NPS agents, the chance of catching someone in the act of looting is rare, Swain admits. But the evidence of looting is abundant. Large, partially filled holes dot the landscape where “twiggers”, a term referring to tweekers (meth addicts) who are diggers, have excavated an area in an effort to recover pottery shards, arrowheads, tools and other artifacts. Broken pieces of wood that likely made sifters lay nearby. Once the artifacts are taken, prosecution is admittedly difficult. So Swain works undercover posing as a buyer in hopes of gaining the trust of sellers who might admit the items were looted. Without the admission, it’s nearly impossible to prove the items were stolen.

So the next time I’m wandering through a quaint Southwest art store in towns from Palm Desert to Tucson, I’ll give some thought to purchasing anything that could have been removed from a ancient Native American colony. And I certainly won’t ever consider purchasing rock art that comes on a broken piece of slab.

What Exactly Do You Do?

I always get a laugh from the quizzical look on peoples faces when I tell them I’m a “photojournalist.”

Sometimes it’s like announcing you are a neonatal geophysicist. The long, drawn out “Ohhhhh” is the first clue they have no clue.

Once the standard, “I take photos for various magazines and publications” is explained, I’m invariably met with the quintessential “Ohhhhhhhh, so do you just take photos or do you write also?” (As if just taking photos was so damn easy). From that point it’s just a short breath til I sputter “No, I don’t write cuz I can barely read.” More “Ohhhhhhhhh” follows, because they think I’m serious.

Anyway, my point is that is not always easy explaining what it is we photojournalists do. Luckily for me, it varies. A couple weeks ago I was in Pebble Beach shooting the PGA Tour for Sports Illustrated and then home before heading back out  to a small farming town to photograph migrant women working in the fields. From the manicured greens and pampered personalities of the PGA  to the calloused hands and muddy fields of a migrant’s life, those two weeks reminded me a lot about photojournalism.

Covering the PGA Tour is fun, no doubt. But you have to find success in the quieter moments of sports. Photographing a golf event isn’t as action packed as shooting football, hockey or the NBA, so the challenge is to make interesting images from a sport where being low-keyed is considered appropriate. Let’s put it this way: There’s not a lot of chest banging, trash talking, nose to nose competition inside the ropes of the PGA Tour. With collisions a rarity outside the clubhouse bar and few instances of body checks or posting-up, it becomes a lesson in shooting a humble sport. Put another way, anyone wearing a TapOut shirt is going to stand out like a Democrat on the tour. Olympic Curlers are more animated than tour players, but I think you get the idea……..

Dustin Johnson, winner of 2009 & 2010 AT&T National Pro Am at Pebble Beach

Dustin Johnson, winner of 2009 & 2010 AT&T National Pro Am at Pebble Beach

Truth be told, though, the photojournalist in me loves to shoot images that delve into societies’ issues. And spending time with the women who trudged through the rows of vineyards and orchards snipping, clipping and tying branches and fruit was a great shoot. I was energized and felt rejuvenated as I made my way back to LA. The long drive made me think a lot about the details, about the conditions the women work and live in. I thought as I climbed the Grapevine on I-5 how I never heard anyone complain like I surely would if I was making $50 for a full days work clipping dead branches in a muddy field. I reflected on how I was shooting images in a cockroach infested migrant housing complex when one of the women insisted I have a couple homemade tacos before leaving.

Like a lot of photographers, one of the pleasures we draw from our lifestyle is the ability to reflect on our work when we process the images. Only a decade ago I would wait at a cafe near my favorite lab, Chrome N’ R, usually with a friend or two, for the chromes to be processed and mounted. I could never wait to get home to view the slides so I would hold them up to the windshield while driving home for a quick glance. It was exciting! Now, it’s just as exciting and a LOT faster since I ingest them into my computer, process and upload to my Photoshelter archive within a hour or two. Long gone are the days of marking slides with dots, preparing FedEx slips and waiting days for the editors in NY or Washington to view them. Once the images are on my Photoshelter site, I create a very loosely edited gallery and send the password protected link with download privileges to the assigning editor. Done! What’s nice about the archive is the ability to keep the images unsearchable and private to just my client until they publish the work. Once the images run,  I can select the photos I want to FTP and send them directly to my agency, Aurora, from my archive. From there it’s a simple keyboard command and the photos become searchable to the public.

Campesina tying grape vines in fields of California

Campesina tying grape vines in fields of California

I guess that’s a good explanation for what a photojournalist does………..Except, that kind of leaves out the whole part about audio, video, and editing in Final Cut Pro. Oh yeah, that also fails to mention the need to post your images on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. Oh, I forgot the part about maintaining a photo blog! Don’t forget that. Wait, wait, wait, one more thing! I forgot to mention that you need to understand and implement Search Engine Optimization (SEO!) by keywording, filenaming and including descriptive text on your site. And you definitely need to set up Google Analytics to evaluate your site so that you can……………