Spotlight: Jim Gehrz

I was out cruising for features in Milwaukee on morning, when suddenly, 8-10 police squad cars raced past. A man had taken two hostages and this was the scene when I arrived. Today I could have transmitted this spot news photo back quickly and had it online in minutes. In 1996, I had to drive back to the office and wait to see if I had actually captured what had transpired on film- before previews you know.

July’s Visual MN Member Spotlight is Star Tribune staffer Jim Gehrz.  Below are his words and images; Visual MN questions are in bold.

The scene took my breath away.

 Never before had I witnessed anything as remarkable as the visual memories of a friend’s family camping trip emerge in a swirling soup of Dektol developer. I was hooked. Bathed in the eerie, orange glow of a photo-safelight, I watched my future unfold, at that instant, knowing exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That was almost 50 years ago, yet I still get the same thrill every time I watch a photograph magically pop up on the back of a digital camera screen (of course, I now have to use a pair of tiny tongs!).

How has the industry changed over your career for the better? For the worse?

Fundamentally our mission in photojournalism remains the same as it has always been. We are and will always be visual storytellers, regardless of the format- stills, video with and/or without stills, with audio- the characters, emotion, narrative (with audio track as well) and visual eloquence still drive the story. And a still photograph that successfully communicates a story is still driven by the moment. Whether taken with a professional DSLR or an iPhone, the decisive moment remains the key. When you add in the other variables of strong composition, lens choice, depth-of-field, lighting, body language, expression, shutter speed, angle, mood and more…., that’s when a photograph can start to transcend the mere mechanical recording of time, and begin to touch a reader’s soul.

We do have more tools at our disposal now that allow us to tell our stories with additional impact, and we have options that enable us to share them more quickly and with more readers than ever before. We live in perhaps the most exciting era that visual journalists have ever known. With the vast improvement of software and hardware in recent years, a still photojournalist can easily add a subject’s voice, the natural sound that immerses a story, even the motion of video to add remarkable dimensions to stories that bring them to life. The ability to share more storytelling images through audio slideshows, videos and galleries allows us to tell stories in even more depth than ever before. No longer are we solely bound by the economics of print newspaper space, as the Internet allows us basically whatever space we need to tell the story in its entirety. We are bound only by the time it takes to produce a story and perhaps by bandwidth.

The proliferation of the Internet and social media has been liberating as well. On the positive side, it has empowered not only journalists, but every citizen who has access to a computer, tablet or smartphone (and there are many organizations that strive to provide computers to people around the world, such as the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative). News travels faster than ever before, and people are connected in ways not imaginable when most of us started in the newspaper business. These are great advantages that journalists can benefit from. Today we can share news from the field almost instantly via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. With that technology however comes the added responsibility to be even more diligent about verifying information on the spot, as the normal channels of vetting- the checks and balances afforded by editors- are sometimes completely circumvented for the sake of immediacy. One of the things that separates professional news sources from blogs, gossip and other online chatter is accountability through the potential for libel.  In addition to the importance of building circulation, there are many practical reasons that newspapers have spent years to earn the trust of their readers . This sounds obvious, but under the intense pressure of trying to beat the competition, it’s something to always consider before you “Tweet.”

Other advantages I enjoy in the digital age include the increased time it can give you on an assignment and the ability to learn techniques even more quickly. In the past, a photojournalist had to factor travel, film and print processing time into the overall amount of time it would take to hit deadline. Today, I can use that extra half hour to find an even stronger, storytelling photograph. And if time is really tight, I can use, say an Eye-Fi card, to transmit the photograph from my camera to my iPhone and then on to the picture desk within a few minutes, while still standing in the middle of a news situation.

As for my own learning curve, I feel that I can learn various technical and aesthetic camera and lighting techniques more quickly than before. With film, I would shoot a photograph and then have to wait for the processed result before I could determine success or failure, and thereby internalize the cause and effect of what I had done. Sometimes, if say on an out-of-town project, the time between taking a photograph and seeing the result could be several days or weeks. Today I can see the result of my efforts as I work, and make adjustments immediately.

What are the top qualities a Visual Storyteller needs in today’s world based on your experience?

Regarding the qualities required of a strong, visual storyteller- as well as those required by all journalists- they remain what they have always been: in addition to the requisites of being well read and informed, innate curiosity, perseverance, passion and unique vision are all characteristics of those I work with now or have worked with in the past, whose stories consistently connect with readers. It is important to embrace technology, to keep learning new things in order to continue advancing the skills required for improvement. As they say, knowledge is power, and that holds even truer in our area of storytelling. As you begin to learn and embrace a broader understanding about the technology available to visual storytellers, more “dots” begin to connect, which in turn, allow you to tell stories in even more sophisticated ways.

 Describe a challenging situation you have faced in your career. What did you learn from it?

We tell the stories of others for a living. We have empathy and compassion for our subjects, and most of the time we are able to maintain a safe distance from the heartache that often accompanies them. Our objectivity and professionalism can usually protect us from the raw emotion that unfolds in front of our cameras. But sometimes the lines become blurred, and the normally tenable confluence of professional and personal life collide.

When I first began to freelance, the tail end of every bulk-loaded roll of Tri-X film was finished off with pictures of my infant son, Michael. If I flip through my old proof sheets, I can watch him grow up before my eyes. My career and his life were always intimately interconnected. When I was working in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment, I first saw him stand in his crib as I processed film in a bathroom nearby. He used to be my assistant, carried in a backpack during assignments for the Highland Villager. He waved goodbye from the big window in our apartment one snowy, December evening as I left for my first, fulltime job in Worthington (I commuted weekly between St. Paul and Worthington for eight months, while his mother finished a nursing degree and we also prepared to welcome our second child into the world). I photographed him as he uneasily held a yellow rose during his high school graduation ceremony. And like any other fearful father, I took pictures at the airport when my boy left for a second deployment to Iraq.

 I was on an assignment for the Star Tribune on the afternoon when my caller I.D. ominously lit up, not with the name of my son, but with that of his wife. A neighbor on the other end of the phone told me that he was gone. The outpouring of love and support from friends in the journalism community has been incredibly helpful and appreciated, and I can’t thank them enough.

We tell the stories of others for a living, but I’m afraid life takes on a very different meaning when the story becomes your own. Just a year before my son’s passing I had worked on a major series dealing with suicide in the military. From hearing and sharing those stories, I thought I understood the issue and the emotions of family members who had experienced the loss of their loved ones. I now know I was wrong.

I appreciate now that I must dig even deeper on stories that need to be told in order to afford a more comprehensive understanding. As storytellers, ours is more than a job. It’s a calling. Journalism has always been a great profession for idealists. Despite the struggles of the newspaper industry, the mission to inform and enlighten through shedding light on important stories remains the cornerstone of why we are drawn to this work. My recent challenge did not teach me this, it just reinforced something I have always known.