I first got a peek of the ways of the old school, professionally trained photojournalist when I traveled to Liberia with the talented Kathleen Flynn and her partner in print, Vanessa Gezari (who is currently writing what promises to be an interesting book about a US military program that sends anthropologists to Afghanistan). Vanessa and Kathleen worked together for years at the St. Petersburg Times, and during the week or so that we spent together I came to appreciate their dedication to journalism despite my usual disdain for the exclusionary self-importance of the industry.
The following year – thanks to the intrepid Michael Keating – Kathleen and I were back in Liberia; this time with fellow photojournalist Ken Harper. Kathleen and Ken organized several workshops about photojournalism and digital storytelling, and I was able to get a closer look at the way they go about their craft.
It was fun for me to photograph some of the same scenes as Ken and Kathleen and compare how we each chose to frame what was in front of us, and later, how we each processed the final image. I learned a lot from both. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the craft of photojournalism depends on what Richard Sennet calls prehension, the ability of the body to anticipate a physical act before it takes place. Just as a shortstop in baseball knows exactly when to close his glove after the crack of the baseball bat, or how the violinist slides her ring finger down the string at the precise millisecond, so too does the photographer anticipate the exact moment to click open the shutter of her camera in order to let light stream against the digital plate for just a few hundredths – or thousandths – of a second.
This ability to anticipate has nothing to do with professional or amateur. It does depend somewhat on natural ability; for example, the patience and alertness to stare through a viewfinder until the frame is just right. But, more than anything, it takes time. The oft-cited and Gladwell-popularized 10,000 hours of experience sounds about right to me. Personally, I’m still several thousand hours shy of that mark, but learning and improving, after all, is the whole point.