Friday, March 7, 2014

Things like this can happen anywhere, right?

I had just filled up with gas at WalMart. I was driving past the Sonic when I heard a dozen gunshots and saw some folks running. I pulled over to where there were a couple of police officers chatting. It was clearly gunshots and the officers were already looking toward the scene.  The officer in the cruiser jumped in his cruiser and was there within 30 second. I was right behind him.

I was right there in the mix, but there were just people running all around. I wasn't sure what happened or where. Then, I heard someone screaming "Keep pressure on it, keep pressure on it.!" They were putting pressure on a man’s leg. He’d been shot in the leg. They were trying to stop the bleeding from the gunshot wound.

I didn't know if the shooter was still there, so I was a little hesitant to run right in there. I got some shots with my 70-200. Then, out of nowhere a plain-clothes officer was there calling for help. Everyone was pointing to where the shooter was last seen. The officer I was talking to before went screaming off after the suspect's car.

I decided to stay at the scene. But I wasn't sure it was the right decision. Nicole, the cops reporter, called and said the police had pulled over a vehicle seen at the shooting scene on the Parkway about four miles away. I knew they were the suspects and I needed to get there. After some negotiations with a police officer who wasn’t happy with me, I was on my way.

By the time I got to Martin Road, where police had the car pulled over, it was all over. Cops had the suspects, one of whom had been shot. I made a few photos of the scene and went to file my images.
All in all two people were shot during the attempted robbery. Two other women in the car were arrested, as well. This shooting happened about a mile from my house. Fifteen seconds later and I probably would have been in the middle of the shooting.  Or at least close enough to get a shot of the shooter leaving the scene. Timing is everything, they say.

It’s a little disconcerting that a shooting happened less that a mile from my house. I can’t tell you how many shootings I have covered in someone else’s neighborhood. This time, it was my neighborhood. In fact, I often have lunch in the Mexican restaurant where this happened.  Things like this can happen anywhere, even close to home, no matter where you live. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone else those words. Now I have to tell them to myself.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Enough with the whistles, already.

Orange and white-striped prisoners from the Cullman County Jail move between the early 80’s multi-colored chairs while cleaning up the trash from thousands of basketball fans. It has been four days on non-stop high school basketball. Four days of squeaky sneakers, bouncing balls, insane leaps, crazy dunks, slight-of-hand passes, screaming coaches, and ref whistles. It also included very curious music mixes involving Prince, Toby Keith, and Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ on the pa system. But I digress.  Did I mention ref whistles? Yeah, I’m done with them.

The final game of the day ended an hour ago. The last basketball fan has left the building. So here I sit with one other photojournalist from Florence, a dozen prisoners picking up basketball-fan trash, a woman sheriff deputy who likes to make off-color jokes about my 300 mm lens while I wait for  four days of basketball photos uploading to a server somewhere in New Jersey. It’s quiet. At least it seems so after twelve hours of intense high school basketball tournament noise, and the piercing refs whistles. I’m done with a week of shooting basketball.  Who knew I’d spend so much of my life courtside at basketball games?

I played basketball in middle school for the Grace Lutheran Crusaders. I was a forward. I wasn’t very good. I did however throw myself into the game and prided myself on a few fouls, which drew scrutiny from my Lutheran teacher/basketball coach. Let’s just say we lost more games than we won and leave it at that. I tried out for the Grissom basketball team. I made the first cut. I spent a summer working out in Grissom’s un-air-conditioned gym. Then, on the second cut, I was cut from the team by coach Ronnie Stapler. My basketball career was at an end.

But, every year, basketball season rolls around and I find myself on the basketball court. This year, I spent the last week covering the AHSAA Northwest Regi
onal 2014 Basketball Championships at Wallace State in Hanceville. My days were divided into eight-minute segments, the length of a basketball quarter. I would be shooting a game and not even know who was playing. They were simply the two teams who were on the court to me. I know it sounds silly, but I would have to ask the tv sports dude sitting next to me who was playing. I doubt I have uploaded more photos, written more captions, or saved my laptop from more stray basketballs than I did today.

I don’t consider myself a great sports shooter but I think I can hold my own. But after you shoot as many games as I have this week, you’re bound to get a few photos.  I hope my photos showed a little of the teams personality. Each team has it’s own personality, one girls team had a set of triplets, one girls team had the shortest player I had ever seen, and I even saw a few rare-air dunks. And then, there were a few had coaches I thought were going to end up in a cardiac care unit by the end of the game.  Add a few fans dressed as apes, spacemen, and over-sized photos of players heads screaming at the referees. (By the way, Athens fans have the most vitriolic fans.)  

Put it all together and you have a week of shooting basketball. For someone who wasn’t very good at basketball, I seem to spend a lot of time court side. Maybe I should start working on my free throws?

(Here's a link to more of my favorite photos)  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thanks, Mullet. Thanks for everything.

I didn't sleep much last night. I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about Dave Martin. Dave Martin, my friend and AP photographer, passed away New Year's Day after collapsing at the Chik-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. I thought maybe writing about this would help.

I thought about the first time I really met Dave. I had met Dave earlier, but the first time I really got to work with him was the deadly tornado which slammed into Airport Road in November 1989. It the first time I'd ever worked any news event like the tornado which killed dozens. I had been working the scene since the tornado hit a few hours before. By the time I got back to the newsroom it was packed with journalists from all over. I remember I was running around like crazy talking to reporters, editors and other photographers, trying to make a deadline. There, in the middle of all the chaos, was Dave Martin.

I remember I felt like I was drowning. I had only been working a few months and this was an overwhelming experience. Some of my friends had been in the path of the tornado and I hadn't heard from them. I was trying to keep up but I felt like the world was coming down all around me. Dave looked at me and asked what I was doing. I must have babbled some incoherent nonsense. he looked at me and told me to calm down, breathe, and prioritize my assignments. He also said 'Now, go out there and get me some photos.' He seemed to have a plan, he seemed in control, and he worked for the Associated Press.  But he told me in a way, I don't know how to explain it, that I knew I would be ok if I listened to him. I did and it was ok. That year my photo of the tornado won first place in spot news. It was one of the photos I shot after my chat with Dave. I feel like I owe Dave Martin for that one.

I think everyone in Alabama worked with Dave at one time or another, either at a football game, in Selma, at a tornado. If you knew anything about shooting in the South, you knew Dave Martin. Mullet would always encourage you to make better photos…and then send them to the wire.

My rule when shooting with Dave? Stay close to Dave. Over the years of seeing Dave make fantastic photos over and over I decided that was the way I was going to make good photos. One game I shadowed him the whole game, trying to see what he saw. He knew the habits of the players, he knew the personality of the coaches, he kept up with the situation, and he always got the photo. Even when I tried to keep with with Dave, I found myself struggling to keep up. He had an energy I can't explain. Over the years I became convinced Dave had the ability to time travel and teleport. How else could anyone be in all the places and make the images he made?

But Dave was more than just an AP photographer. He was a friend to everyone, he was a mentor to everyone, he was a comedian to everyone. Dave had a gift for connecting with people, photographers as well as his subjects. Dave was, without a doubt, one of the best photographers I have ever met. His photos stand on their merit. More importantly, Mullet was one of the best journalists I know. In anyone else, all these gifts might cause someone's head to swell or build their ego. Not with Dave. Dave was the most humble, helpful, and approachable people I have ever met.

For those of you who were able to work with him everyday, I envy you. Working with Dave was always a pleasure. I got to see him during his occasional visits to the Rocket City and at major news or sporting events. Even though I only saw him occasionally he made me feel like I was his closest friend. Everyone found a way to bond with Mullet. I think that was his gift, he made everyone feel like they were important to him. I think, somehow, everyone was important to Dave.

From all the messages, texts, and tweets, it is clear how much Dave's contemporaries thought of him. I wish I could find the words to bring comfort to his family and friends. I had the privilege to get to know Jamie. I pray peace and comfort find Jamie in these hard days. I saw Skip recently when he stopped by my studio during a visit to Huntsville. Hard to imagine I threw Skip and Emily around in the pool at Orange Beach all those years ago. I will keep them in my prayers.

I'll always think of Dave when I reach for my wide angle lens. I'll think of Dave when I pass a Mexican restaurant. I'll always think of Dave in a stadium work room. I'll always think of Dave when I grab a nice frame and wonder if I should work harder to get a better frame.

I'll never delete his last text to me - 'Thanks Vern'.

Thanks, Mullet. Thanks for everything.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Nutcracker Has Obviously Cracked

The dancers were laughing stage left at the Von Braun Center concert hall.  

They could not help themselves. 

No one knew what was unfolding on the stage, not even the dancers of Nutcracker Gone Wild.  All of the dancers had been performing The Nutcracker for days.  Today, after the one final performance of the popular Christmas classic, the dancers were allowed to be free.

During Nutcracker Gone Wild, the dancers of the Nutcracker are allowed to improvise, but to the score of the original Nutcracker.  

It includes everything, but not limited to: a cowboy proposing to a cowgirl, a pregnant dancer, drinks being swerved, and in the middle of the performance Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning pronounced a character dead after a shooting on the stage. All of this was reported by Erin Dacy live on television and there was also in impromptu weather report from Gary Dobbs after which he was escorted off stage by security. Needless to say, there was almost constant laughter from the audience and the actors were having fun doing improv after a number of Nutcracker performances.

The audience, which filled about a third of the concert hall, laughed as much as the dancers.  The unexpected turns, including an impromptu magic act in the middle of the show, kept the audience wondering just what might happen next.  

The dancers even played on the sports fans in the audience with the mice wearing Auburn logos and the toy soldiers wearing Alabama’s signature red A.  The audience responded appropriately. 

In the end, everyone laughed.  

The dancers reveled in the joy of improvisation in a show many of them have been doing for years.  The audience was at the edge of their seats trying to figure out what might happen next, because the Nutcracker had obviously cracked.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Remember Those Left Alone in the Darkness

She just kept crying.  Sitting there with a baby in her arms, crying so quietly. She was a young girl from Mississippi with a four-month-old baby in her arms, in a homeless shelter. She picked at the generous portions of turkey and dressing offered her by the loving volunteers helping serve the homeless at the shelter.  Many were from church groups, but quite a few of them came to help just because they thought it was the right thing to do.

But she sat there, with sunbeam lighting her like a spotlight in the old high school gymnasium, holding her little, tiny baby and crying. One of the young volunteers talked with her for a while, I could not hear what they were saying as the girl from Mississippi just stared into nothingness, glancing occasionally at the volunteers face.  Then they held hands and prayed. The young mother from Mississippi cried as the volunteer whispered a prayer into her ear.

There were hundreds of people around them. But in spite of the clamor of dishes, the bellowing laughs, and a band playing some hopeful Christian song on a makeshift stage, these two women shared an intimate moment of prayer.  I don't know what was said, I was too far away and the din of the Thanksgiving dinner masked any whisper. I can only imagine what prayers a young woman with a four month old baby in a homeless shelter offers to God.

Recently, in the New York Times obituaries, I ran across a poem.  I know, what are the odds of reading a poem on the New York Times obit page?  I thought there must be a reason this poem is sticking in my head, so I kept the newspaper. After talking to a friend about the young mother at the homeless shelter, I was reminded about the poem by Jack Gilbert and thought of in the moment I took her photo as she cried and prayed.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered caf├ęs and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Most days I can stand back and make my images, using my camera to be my emotional force field for my soul.  But today, something went wrong with my usual defenses.  This young mother from Mississippi with her your-month-old baby is walking around in my mind and she will just not leave.  But maybe that's a good thing in the end?  Maybe we should all carry the image of a young mother from Mississippi holding her baby and crying as we eat our 10,000 calorie Thanksgiving dinner and watch hyper-paid athletes play football in a dome?  Maybe, like Jack Gilbert, 'we are all helpless romantics who love the world and its pleasures so much - and our failures and our loneliness.'  Maybe it's not those differences, but how we bridge those differences, that make us who we are.  At Thanksgiving, where we give thanks for the blessings we have all been given, it is important to remember those left alone in the darkness.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Burlesque In A Red State

Boobs. Boobs in every shape, size, and color you can imagine. There were feathered boobs, boobs in beekeepers outfits, there were even boobs in flames.  I was at the Alabama Burlesque Festival.  I had gone with friends to see a burlesque show. I had seen burlesque acts before but never one with so many acts. 

There were the acts you'd expect; the slow strip tease a man's suit outfit down to just pasties and a g-string.  There was the the woman with huge feather fans who danced behind them slowly teasing your as the feather waved in the air.  There was, I think it's required to be in a burlesque show, the man-dressed-as-a-woman-but-you-don't-know-until-the-last-minute-it's-a man act. (Hint: always look for the Adam's Apple.)  But then there were acts you didn't expect; The clever girl who stripped to the sound of a typewriter. (She scooted back across the stage at the ding of the carriage return.) The girl who walked out in a beekeepers outfit and was chased by a cut-out bee on a stick. (A bee gets under her outfit. You take it from there.) Then there was the girl swallowed fire. Oh, and then she BURNED HER OUTFIT OFF! (Except for the required covering of pasties and a thong. They must have been made from asbestos.) There was the very athletic young woman who stripped while hanging upside down from the ceiling.  One of my favorites was the former MTV VJ who stripped out of a wedding dress after she'd been left on her wedding day. 

Now, this show went on for over two hours.  Not all the acts were great.  Most were quite clever.  The host, a large-busted and large-afro'ed very brash former burlesque dancer from Minneapolis, Minnesota who liked to swear introduced all the acts like they were family. She was like the naughty aunt a family might not ever acknowledge but was loved by anyone who ever met her.  The night went on and the acts went on. And on. And on. By the end of the show I think I had seen 43…no, 44 boobs.  They were all blurring together. 

The last act, an older woman wrapped in bullets and holding fake guns dancing to Pat Benatar's 'Love is a Battlefield', brought in the senior element to the show.  While I appreciate the fact that you shouldn't discriminate based on age,  burlesque may be an exception to that rule.  She was gasping for breath while walking back and forth on the stage and I was worried she might need oxygen before the end of the act. I think the guns and ammo were a little heavy for her. That part of the show might go over well in the retirement home right after the early-bird dinner in the activity room, but at Lowe Mill?  I was looking around the room for the portable defibrillator, just in case she didn't make it through the show.

But, back to the boobs. By the end of the show you've seen a lot of them. The women are every shape and size and so are the boobs. It's what is the hook that draws men (and women) to the show.  But the acts are what keeps you interested.  Burlesque is a unique kind of live performance that is just fun to watch.  It's racy, yes.  Is it dirty? No. Is it pornography? No. Is it erotic? Sometimes.  It's an act you might see in New Orleans, or Paris.  A little 'willing suspension of disbelief' and you won't even think you are in a Red State.