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A rural reporter’s reflection on photography

by Nick Sambides Jr.

BDN photo editor Scott Haskell told me once that the best pictures are the easiest to choose. Instantly, you say, “that’s the one,” because it captures the essence of the story or what you were trying to shoot.

I didn’t know what he meant until it happened to me. Now I take news and feature pictures every chance I get, and I shoot video, too.

The reality is that the news business has changed enormously in the last several years, and the more functions of it that you can perform well, the better chance you have of flourishing within it.

Plus, I really like the challenge of shooting pictures, recording video and writing stories. The combination essentially forces me to take three kinds of looks at a given story and, if I have time enough, to tell the same tale three ways. Big divides separate the three. Words best convey ideas. Pictures best capture a moment, and video best highlights motion and emotion. The three traits are not mutually exclusive, but I look to do my best by utilizing theirs, so when I have to do all three on a given assignment, I try to cut the work into thirds. When the Nikon is up, the notepad and video cam are down, and I’m thinking visually, scanning for a composition that tells the story in one shot or seeking a human moment. Each storytelling form should be as true to itself as possible.

I didn’t want to take pictures when I first came to BDN. I dreaded photography. It gives the least help. Video moves from shot to shot even when the shots stink. Reporting can be a matter of good words, or just more of them, but photography? It doesn’t move easily, in a physical or emotional sense, and pictures don’t usually explain themselves without a fair amount of thought from the guy behind the camera.

I knew just enough about photography to see how bad I could be at it. But as with writing, photography has its rules, and when you follow them, you can come away with something decent. I always try to make pictures that dig as deeply into a scene as possible.

Thus a picture of a charity basketball game organized by young high school alumni has mothers and babies in the foreground and the game in the background, or a car crash shot doesn’t consist solely of crumpled vehicles. Depth of field is a news photographer’s dearest friend. I have also tried to study the work of the excellent lens people who have worked at the BDN through the years ­­ Kevin Bennett, Bridget Brown, Ashley Conti, Gabor Degre, Brian Feulner, Haskell, John Clarke Russ ­­ and leaned on them as much as possible for advice, encouragement. Free equipment, too, sometimes.

Each has an individual style, like handwriting. From them, you can learn all kinds of lessons. Don’t automatically center your subject. Treat the frame like a canvas. Fill every bit of it with layers of information. Always think foreground, middle ground and background. Try to juxtapose size with shape, shape with color, darkness with light. When people are moving quickly, don’t focus on where they are; focus on a spot where they are going to be. Use empty space to draw the eye toward a picture’s subject. How do I know when an assignment hasn’t worked? When I need more than three pictures to tell a story. I should only need one.

Pictures are important to my coverage area. Put a face next to a name and the story is more human. A good picture takes it much further, and can so easily supplant the words. It shrinks down to nothing the lonely distance between the Katahdin and Lincoln Lakes regions and the rest of the world. Capture humanity and you find something much deeper than the day’s news. And in today’s internet ­driven world, you simply cannot do without good pictures. Lots of them.

Good pictures are a thrill to look forward to and to get, like Christmas morning. Nothing, ­­ not a good story or video ­­ lights people up like a good picture. I think people intuitively grasp the fleeting nature of things and see a picture as a grappling hook against the pull of time, something more real and permanent than words or flickering images. Perhaps that’s the virtue of a picture’s very stillness, that it allows the viewer more chance for study, reflection, or connection.

Pictures are first gifts I give to myself ­­ “Hey, I got that! Not bad!” ­­ and then to others. And when you’ve got a really good one, you know it. Like Scott once told me, you say, “that’s the one.”

Nick Sambides Jr. is a multimedia journalist that covers northern Penobscot County for the Bangor Daily News.