Saturday, April 05, 2008

A Sense of Being Lucky

I don’t think we have really started to understand much of what the new paradym is throwing at us. I happen to be spending this week in that Fantasy Land of America, the place where nothing happens on its own, but everything happens with intent: Las Vegas. I’m here shooting pictures for a few days, and believe me. It’s not like being assigned to Kansas City or St. Paul. Vegas does it better than anyone else, with the possible exception of Orlando. Sitting at dinner last night I was reading one of those “To Do” Magazines you find in your hotel room, trying to make mental lists of things which might be interesting enough for some kind of follow up. You never really know where you can make a good picture, and as I always remind young photographers, good pictures lurk everywhere. Sure, it’s great to have some exotic location in front of you, full of exotic people, exotic looking stuff and surroundings, as a potential visual target. But good pictures are everywhere, and you have to keep reminding yourself that the important thing is less exoticism than keeping your eye sharp and on the look out for compositions as life unfolds before you. When students complain that the reason their pictures aren’t good enough is that either they had the wrong lens, or something was quite ‘exotic’ enough… I remind them that looking at the work of Cartier-Bresson from the 30s and 40s would break that argument down. Like Seinfield, the show about ‘nothing’, good images can happen in the plainest of circumstances, as long as you don’t get lazy with your eye, your camera, and your trigger finger.

As the aphorism reminds us (was it Eddie Adams or did Eddie borrow it from someone?), when asked about how a good picture was made, the answer is usually “f/8, and be there.” And of course “be there” is really the key. Being at the place where something ‘big’ happens is a knack, a trait that some photographers just seem to carry with them, like an extra roll of film (or memory card), or a pack of chewing gum. Henri Bureau, the former Gamma (he was one of the founders in 1967) and Sygma (he was one of the founders in 1973) photographer was absolutely one of those people around whom events seemed to happen. In the days before digital, before FTP, before even being able to look at the back of your camera and see if you got the image, he was the master of the ‘coup.’ When news would break out, whether it be an earthquake in Turkey, or a coup d’etat in Portugal, Henri would be on the first charter plane out of Paris, usually the first guy ‘in’, and always, the one whose film would make it back to Paris the quickest. You may not know his name, but you know his pictures. A smoky stream of oil fires during the Iran-Iraq war, an Iraqi with an AK47 rifle slung over a shoulder, in the foreground. A picture of a former Lisbon government ‘collaborator’ being surrounded by soldiers as power changed from the old regime to a new one. One editor I knew once said of Henri, “he’s not a very good photographer, he’s just lucky.” I totally disagreed. If, as we sometimes say, we’d rather be lucky than good, Henri brought a whole new meaning to “lucky.” He was the master of the “be there” part of Eddie’s phrase. He just kept bungling into one amazing situaton after another. He just lucked out time after time after time. Luck? No, something more. That amazing fifth sense of what it means to be a photographer. In the good humor that always followed him, even into horrible places, he once joked that when government leaders see him arrive at their airports, they tremble. SOMETHING was about to happen, and not always for the best. I was with Henri in Poland when Martial Law was declared in 1981. He had been in Gdansk, and of course had made the very last pictures of Lech Walensa before his arrest and detention. They were hot pictures. And they were good pictures. And we spent the better part of an hour trying to figure out how to smuggle those films (and mine) out of Poland to the west. (They were stuffed into the bottoms of his fluffy winter boots, and they made it unmolested to Paris.) Just one more time that a “not very good” photographer accidentally bungled his way into a few great photographs.

Thursday this past week, at the newly finished Newseum in downtown DC (it had been in Arlington, VA for the past two decades) there was a ceremony to honor a small group of photographers, who also could be described as something more than lucky. In 1971, there was a major operation, a giant, helicopter supported invasion of southern Laos, by South Vietnamese forces (with U.S. air support) to try and sever the Ho Chi Minh trail supply lines. The idea was to pinch off supplies to North Vietnamese fighters in the South, and strategically help slow the war down. I had been in Vietnam about 3 months, and was as green as they come. I’d been on a few maneuvers in the South with U.S. forces, but this was the first major operation I would see. Dozens and dozens of helicopters, thousands of troops. And because the military was trying to keep it quiet (let me just say, the people who were under attack had absolutely no sense of surprise – they saw it coming) no journalists were permitted to ride in with the ground troops, though many of us had made it on Route 9 to the Laos border. Two days later, when it was clear that we would have a better chance by helicopter, we again gathered at a jump-off base, hoping for a ride. I arrived at few minutes after the others, and the seats for the one allotted press helicopter had already been given to the representatives of LIFE, AP, UPI, and Newsweek. They were some of the best: Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto. As the TIME photographer, I saw myself being left out of the action, and began to berate the Vietnamese Major with the clip board who was in charge of the chopper. He didn’t really care who I was, nor who I worked for, but I kept grating him, demanding to be allowed to go. Jon Larsen, the TIME bureau chief, came up to me and said “if you ever want to make it to Laos, you should just walk away from here, and cool off….” Which I did, looking back to see the press chopper start to churn up its rotors for take off.

An hour later, while walking by the operations center, an officer came out and with that sense of unease that is sometimes interpreted as ill-timed laughter, the Vietnamese Major said to me “I think maybe your friends shoot down Laos…” then turned around and went back inside. I didn’t know what to think or what to do. But moments later met John Saar, a reporter friend from LIFE who worked with Larry Burrows. I shared the startling news with John, and then was relieved, minutes later to see Hal Ellithorpe walking our way. Hal, a LIFE stringer, had also been on the chopper with Larry, and seeing him seemed to prove that it wasn’t THAT helicopter.

John Saar and guest blobber Dick Swanson (LIFE Magazine)
“Boy, am I glad to see you,” I said. “They just told us a press helicopter was maybe shot down, but as you are here… “

“Oh, I didn’t go. The helicopter was too heavy, and someone had to get off. Larry said ‘Hal, it’s a picture magazine, you’re off.’” And with that, we realized that it was our friends, indeed, whose bird had gone down. The shock of that moment, that day, and knowing that fate might have dealt another hand, has never left me. With a kind of unspoken sense of remembrance, those there that day share the moment of recognition, of loss, even today, 37 years later. Mike Putzel, the AP reporter who was on the scene, and who might have been a whole year or two older than I was, put his arm around me at just the right moment when I started to break down at the Quang Tri press center. Like everyone else there who was shocked at the loss of our four colleagues, there was just no way to make any real sense of it. But when I saw Mike this Thursday at the memorial service, it was like those 37 years had barely passed. And there is a sense that for each of us, having been spared, and allowed to carry on, there is an obligation to stay on the ‘story.’

After literally decades of attempting to reach the crash site, AP writer Dick Pyle and photographer Horst Faas, finally made it there in the early 90s. With help from the U.S. specialist recovery teams in Hawaii, they were able to comb the crash site, and actually found a few remnants which, including a piece of a Leica camera which Larry had bought the previous year, proved it was the site. Pyle and Faas brought back a few of the bits recovered, and this week, with dozens of former Vietnam reporters present, placed those momentos in a small time-capsule like box in the Memorial wing to Journalists killed in conflict around the world.

It was a touching moment, all those once young and vibrant journalists and photographers now sporting grey locks, if any, but most still clear of eye, and purpose. For myself, it was another reminder that everyday you have is one to be treasured and not taken for granted.

A gathering of Reporters (photo: Tom Herman)
In a sense, everyday of our lives we try and get on that helicopter, we try to get to the story, we try to get a little closer to what’s going on and tell that story to the world. There are no guarantees, though we place so much of our confidence in the hands of others. But the commitment to telling the story, with words or pictures is what drives all of us. And whether you’re damned good, super talented or, like most of us, just lucky now and then, the story is what keeps us coming back for more. We’re just sayin…David


Anonymous said...

Isn't that David Hume Kennerly in the very back?

What's he doing in the back?

He's usually always in the front promoting himself!

Perhaps he's more humble now. Grin.


Anonymous said...

For everything there is a reason;we may not know it at the time. Glad you're here--photojournalism wouldn't be the same..We're 'lucky' to have you produced some of the finest images in our history..with 'more to come' as they say in show biz.


Unknown said...

A beautiful story, David.

steve wick said...

I am looking for John Saar. Can anyone help me with that?
Steve Wick
631 843 4173