News photography can require patience, perseverance and luck. Keeping a fresh perspective as the story develops is key, says John Dooley. As a photojournalist he has faced dramatic situations that require a keen eye and creative interpretation.
As I watch wildfires ravage Southern California, I think back to my time spent covering similar fires in that part of the world, including the notorious Station Fire in 2009 (the tenth largest fire in modern California history, which destroyed 160,557 acres).
Capturing the scale and drama of these fires for the purpose of news photography requires patience, perseverance and luck. Just getting to the frontline can be an arduous and dangerous task. Suited up in a fire-retardant yellow Nomex jacket, goggles and smoke mask while keeping a wary eye on an escape path can be exciting, terrifying and exhausting in equal measure. Complying with firefighters’ advice and instructions is also paramount.
So, we’ve established that these are difficult situations for photojournalists. A constant state of alertness is required and taking pictures is physically challenging in tough terrain and uncomfortably hot temperatures. When covering the story over a number of days the repetition of visually similar images can be problematic and keeping a fresh perspective as the story develops is key.
In a bid to produce an alternative view of the effects of wildfires on the land and the inhabitants, I am galvanised into revisiting my own wildfire images with the intention of recreating an edit of images that differ to my original vision.
Bear in mind that my wildfire images were shot as digital colour Jpeg files. Until just a couple of years ago, most news photographs were Jpeg files. Nowadays, with faster in-camera processing and much improved buffer times (not to mention cheaper and larger memory storage), Raw files have become more common, providing the photographer with the full digital negative.
Breaking news photographers need to file their images as quickly as possible while covering a story, as the images that reach the newspapers first often have the best chance of being published, particularly when it comes to fast approaching deadlines.
When converting colour images to black & white for the first time, I am still surprised at the results — how monochrome images change the mood of the scene. However, it’s not as straightforward as you might imagine — fiery orange flames are lost in muddling shades of grey and lack the visual punch they possess in colour. This in turn leads me to think more laterally about the subject and reconsidering the message they now convey in monochrome.
Many photojournalists I admire still shoot predominantly in black & white — Marcus Bleasdale, Josef Koudelka, Paolo Pellegrin and Alex Majoli consistently produce powerful and emotive black & white images. There is a unique quality to their work; an iconic value and introspection that is imbued in the monochrome photograph, which elevates the work above the ubiquitous colour photograph that is all too often, distracting. There is also an intimacy about monochrome that encourages thoughtful and thought-provoking images. It is simply a different way of seeing.
Of the many wildfires I covered as a photojournalist in Southern California, one in particular springs to mind. While shooting the Morris Fire in 2009, I was standing in an orderly line on the lookout with the other gathered press photographers. Only one photographer had the presence of mind and visual acuity to step back from the situation and capture a memorable image of the throng of press photographers before him, telephoto lenses firmly trained on the ace helicopter pilots doing battle with the apocalyptic fire in the valley below.
His alternative coverage of the wildfire earned him the front page of the Los Angeles Times the following day. That particular photographer’s search for a different viewpoint taught me throng of press photographers before him, telephoto lenses firmly trained on the ace helicopter pilots doing battle with the apocalyptic fire in the valley below.
His alternative coverage of the wildfire earned him the front page of the Los Angeles Times the following day. That particular photographer’s search for a different viewpoint taught me a valuable visual lesson that has stayed with me ever since — the importance of seeing differently.
On further reflection of my original photographs, the monochrome charred landscapes of the aftermath are to my eye the more intriguing and beguiling scenes — quieter images that possess a poignancy missing in the urgency of the action images.
In essence, monochrome offers a more contemplative response, leading me to deliberate on other questions — such as the harsh price nature exacts for happiness in Southern California.