Human Connection, Common Ground

A picture is worth a thousand words.  That statement never meant as much to me until Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice came to the Institute for Writing and Mass Media.  Not only did we, as students, get the opportunity to marvel at her beautiful photography, but we learned incredibly valuable advice that they don’t teach at journalism school.  In fact, much of what Deanne spoke about was contrary to what she learned in college about journalism, and she shared her advice on getting personal stories from people.

For me, the interactive workshops and the forum that she held strongly focused on making and building relationships with people to gain their trust and, in turn, get the stories that no one else can get.  Jeff and Deanne started our first workshop by telling the story about how they met.  Jeff was working on a story about Kitam Hamm, a young man from Compton, California who chose to focus on football and schoolwork instead of gangs. As Jeff was nearing the end of writing his story, Deanne was assigned to go to Compton to shoot the story.  Most times, the writers and the photographers never cross paths, but Jeff wanted to make sure that his story was being told the way he wanted it to be, so he contacted Deanne and they started talking.  Jeff was able to give Deanne an idea of what he wanted for the story, and Deanne was able to go in and capture that vision.  After building this connection with each other, they continued to work together on stories every once in a while, and they eventually landed a cover story with Sports Illustrated.  They told this story because they wanted to show the benefits of speaking and developing relationships with the people you are working with in order to bring about creative visions.

Deanne went on to speak about how when she first got to the Hamm home, she didn’t just go in and immediately start taking pictures of the family.  She put down her camera, made connections, and asked questions to get to know the family before starting her work.  Jeff did something similar to that, except he met Kitam’s mom at a football game, so he got down on his knees so he could look her in the eyes and speak with her on a personal level. Both Jeff and Deanne have the idea that people have to like you before you can get anywhere.  Their strategy of building relationships with those they write about is different than the way most journalists go about their work, because journalists are meant to give an unbiased view of a story, and in making connections with your subjects it may become harder to be unbiased.  About this, Jeff said, “It doesn’t have to be the way that everybody says it has to be,” and the works that Jeff and Deanne produce seem more personal than typical journalistic work.

One of the stories that inspired me most from Deanne was the story she told about Barry Bonds.  She spoke of how he always seemed guarded, and one day she went to photograph him on the field and she noticed that he appeared to be glaring at her.  This concerned her, so she decided to approach him and ask his permission to take his picture.  He could have said no and that would have made real trouble for Deanne because then she wouldn’t have been able to get the pictures she needed for the assignment she was on.  Luckily, he said it was alright for her to shoot, and from that day on, Barry and Deanne connected on a personal level.  Eventually, Deanne was able to get Barry to agree to photograph him off the field which was something that had never been done before.  She learned how to turn a “no” into a “yes,” and she was able to capture stories that journalists who hadn’t attempted to make connections with their subjects never would have gotten.  From this story, I learned that it is usually more beneficial to attempt to build relationships with others, even with a potential of being shut down, because most people will say yes if they can.

At the end of the workshops on Thursday, Jeff and Deanne concluded by telling us how important it is to work hard.  Jeff said, “Hard, hard, hard work compensates for a lot of other deficiencies… It’s amazing where you can go if you work really hard.”  By working hard to build relationships and capture true, genuine stories that other people are afraid to get, you set yourself apart from the other journalists and your work has more of a tendency to be noticed.  Concerning hard work, Deanne said, “If you find the thing that you love so much it won’t feel like [hard work].”

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