A Travel Story in DETROIT???

Melissa has shot city stories for National Geographic Traveler on Miami and Chicago, which made sense to her… but a Traveler story on Detroit? She didn’t know how great the city actually was until she got there, met some crazy artists, hung out at a turn of the century speakeasy and basically had a great time… her story follows…

When I’m asked where I’ve just been on an assignment, people wait with a dreamy look on their faces expecting to hear some exotic location or far away foreign land that will make them envious. When I tell them I was in Detroit to shoot a travel story, there is a look of disbelief accompanied by silence as though they didn’t hear me correctly. I have to admit that I wondered when I accepted the assignment from Traveler if I would regret it.

Detroit—Rust Belt city in ruins. Unemployment—bankruptcy. Motor City—Murder City. Worst of the worst in many people’s minds. I imagined trudging around carrying my camera, looking over my shoulder with fear that I’d be the next crime victim. The weather was sure to turn cold and snow. On top of it all, the assignment fell on the week of my birthday—so I’d probably be alone.

The urban ruins reinforced my uneasiness when I arrived–large, empty blocks where buildings once stood. I got a tour from a local photographer the first night and she warned me that lots of street lights were out and to take care not to hit anyone walking in the street.

We ate and stopped at her favorite bar hangout where I got an update on the Tigers that were playing in the World Series and realized the Lions were playing in town too.  There was something in her voice—she spoke with pride. I could tell she loved the city. I connected with writer’s contacts and began to work. It’s always hard to begin, but this looked to be more than a challenge.

The first shock was walking in to a Speakeasy close to my hotel and feeling I’d stepped back in time. Talk about atmosphere—people were sitting at little tables pulled up to a beautiful mahogany bar—talking–laughing–what a fabulous place. Actually there were two Speakeasies that had great vibes—Café-D’Mongos and Cliff Bells. The music, the food, but what made the greatest impression were the people. They were so friendly. I didn’t feel like a stranger.

The next surprise was the over the top fabulous architecture. I’d seen photographer’s dramatic images of the “ruin porn” of post-industrial Detroit. But I didn’t know about the Guardian Building, Fisher Building, the Detroit Opera House—just a few treasures that still exist. Many more need to be saved like this one, but the process has started.

Places like the Eastern Market and the riverfront development felt familiar—I live in Pittsburgh and watched the city develop a friendlier interface and has kept ethnic charm. But I don’t know of another place anywhere like the Heidelberg Project. I’m not sure how to begin to describe a 25-year endeavor by a Detroit artist that transformed a dilapidated inner-city neighborhood into Detroit’s third most popular tourists’ destination. A polka dot house? Sculpture of discarded objects make a political statement? The Heidelberg Project is a creative metamorphosis from urban decay to a few city blocks that continually evolve as a whimsical, thriving outdoor art museum.

In fact I met a lot of artists that have come to Detroit. Young creative classes are attracted to places where rents are low—similar as to what happened in Brooklyn. Detroit has a history of supporting the arts. There are commioned Diego Rivera murals that cover a huge courtyard in the Detroit Art Museum but I also found many local artists painting murals on buildings that served as “blank canvases.”

Yellow flowers were a finishing touch on a playhouse in Mexicantown; but across from the now abandoned Grand Central Station, artists worked on the unconventional “Imagination Station” questioning the gentrification of their Corktown neighborhood.

Whether they were on Belle Isle planting trees or swimming on the last warm day of the year in the Detroit River–or urban pioneers pulling up weeds to take back the city to make gardens—people were open and genuinely nice.

One friendly resident that was curious about me hanging around warned, “People come here and get out of their cars and put their purses and backpacks under their front seat and expect to come back and they will still be there. Lady, you are in the ‘hood. Don’t forget that.” But nothing bad happened to me during my ten days in Detroit. Well, except for the three parking tickets I received. I earned them. I paid them, but attached a note saying I hoped they used my money wisely to help pay the city’s bills.

I’ve gotten more emails the past few days over this story than any I’ve had published in a very long time. People are surprised to learn there is another side of Detroit. Those who live there seem grateful to find a bit of recognition for the good as well as for hope in the midst of a very sad story.


Story behind an unpublished photo

Sometimes you go to great effort to make a photograph and it just doesn’t get published… I was asked to write out the experience of taking this photograph when NG called asking to use it in an exhibit of unpublished photographs.

Churchgate Station used to be the easiest place in India to take photographs of teaming hordes coming off the trains. There was a lunch counter balcony directly over the area where everyone got off the trains and came through the station. But then there was a bombing at Churchgate and the lunch counter balcony turned into a military observation area. After that, Anglo guys that looked like the bomber (and me), had absolutely no chance of getting into this secure area..

So my story fixer (Vinay Diddee) and I hired a runner who carried official National Geographic paperwork to all the offices of the bureaucrats that control the station and we had him plead our case for me to have access…. it took the runner two weeks and the answer was always NO… but one bureaucrat said: “If he was an Indian, then I would let him up there.”

So, Vinay was allowed to go up to the military area with my camera and tripod and I showed him a sketch of the photo I wanted. Then I waited in the van and we had the same runner that schmoozed the bureaucrats go between him and me with the camera cards Vinay was using in my camera.. When I received the cards down in the van, I put them into another camera to view them and then called Vinay on his cell phone… the first time saying…. bring the lens down a little… the second time saying it needed a slower shutter speed….. the third time I asked him to put on a darker ND filter… fourth time.. zoom in… etc… etc…

It took eight trips back and forth with cards to get the framing and everything else right… then I just told him to keep shooting whenever there were big crowds that filled the foreground of the photograph. Then for two hours I sat in the van and watched the movie GI Joe in HINDI on the DVD player hanging from the roof of the van. it didn’t matter that it wasn’t in English… it was just guys running around blowing stuff up… so I was working an Indian fixer by remote control while watching a shoot-em-up movie in a van in Mumbai in a language that sounded pretty weird coming out of American actors.

So.. I went back to the hotel and ordered a bowl of soup and a waiter in a tux with a dining room table size cart trundles into my room with one little 6 oz bowl of soup on it… I should say here that Vinay has connections with a very nice hotel chain that is actually cheaper than staying in some businessman hotel. But being in this nice hotel is complicated by the fact I am working in the biggest slums in the world… So I decided not to do the butler in the room thing again and that night I went down to the dining room and had dinner alone and the waiter brought a bowl with two big goldfish and set them across from me at the empty seat to keep me company…. I had my iPad reading the paper… I was fine.. but now I had these two huge goldfish staring at me… sucking their cheeks in and out… the waiter felt sorry for me eating alone… but how pathetic…

The next day was my birthday and I didn’t intend to repeat either of those experiences…

So.. I thought I would just let the day go… disappear…. but this morning as we were getting ready to leave at 5:30AM Vinay said “Happy Bday” and it turns out Vinay’s wife has some weird-crazy-accurate-deal with dates… and she had run my passport thru for visas a few years ago…

And then… after a sucky shooting day… I went back to hotel… the phone rang… and a woman said… Mr. Olson we understand it is your bday and I would like to celebrate it with you… The hotel also had my passport copy… so a guy in a tux AGAIN and a customer relations guy and this woman all came up with what was ACTUALLY a great cake… a HUGE thing of flowers… a brass hindu god kinda gift and took their photos with my arms around them… and sung happy bday…. and then bowed a little bit… did a bunch of Indian head wobbles… said sir a lot and asked if I wanted them to close the door on the way out…


Bill Allard Talks About the National Geographic Seminar

Bill Allard’s post about the seminar… just posted on The Photo Society website… here’s a quote:

During his presentation David La Chapelle made an interesting note of something quite unusual to him: the comradeship he witnessed among photographers who work for National Geographic.  Quite different from what he’s used to in the world of fashion, I guess.  And he’s right on the mark today because the comradeship among National Geographic photographers has never been better or stronger, not because the times are better, but very probably because they are not.  We seek common goals and it isn’t just about making more money.  It’s about getting a fair trade for what we do and what we do has always had maintaining the highest excellence of the magazine possible at the top of our priority list.  We in the newly formed Photo Society, with its dedicated and extremely hard working elected advisory board, have a presence not seen before among our type and I’ve been around National Geographic photographers for 48 years.


I just returned this past weekend from the annual National Geographic Photographers’ Seminar at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Photographers’ Seminar is a time when one might see certain friends for the only time during the year.  They may have come from Paris, New York, Sweden, almost anywhere.  But because many of us lead a semi-nomadic life, crossing paths with others of the same ilk can be rare.  Like the sighting of some elusive species of wildlife.

It’s the one time in the year when many–although never all–of the photographers who contribute to the magazine are brought together to share their thoughts, their work, and to enjoy and contemplate the work of photographers invited to speak and show work, photographers whose photographic interests and aspirations may be greatly dissimilar to those of the Geographic photographers, but still of strong interest and visual value.

There was a time when photographers not part of the Geographic’s stable of staff and freelancers were not invited as speakers.  Fortunately, that changed years ago, notably when Rich Clarkson came in as Director of Photography. It’s not important if the speaker does work that doesn’t come close to what the Geographic might publish; that’s actually often very refreshing and stimulating.  In fact, au contraire.  What a bore it would be if all of us leaned in the same direction in our efforts.

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Ira Glass on Storytelling

I first saw this on Bob Sacha’s site.


Colber’s MeReporters Underscores Absurdity of Working for Free

From the Photo Business News and Forum:

Steven Colbert brings his satirical comedy to bear on the notion of “free reporters” who get paid nothing, like CNN’s iReport, in the wake of the layoffs of 50 CNN photojournalists and other staff.

Colbert notes CNN also launched an “Assignment Desk” where you an actually go out and report on things that CNN wants, and then goes further, saying “iReporters do not get paid, they get something even better, badges, which, I assume, are redeemable for food and rent.”

View the VIDEO HERE.

The Photo Society is LIVE

I guess I had no idea that Amoebic Dysentery could be so interesting…

The Photo Society (TPS) lists hazards (like dysentery) that NGM photographers experience in the field. TPS began as an idea in the summer of 2011 for an electronic campfire to bring together National Geographic contributing photographers. The only qualification for membership is completion of one full feature story for National Geographic Magazine.

I was tasked with this site by the PAB (Photographer’s Advisory Board), which negotiates contracts with National Geographic Magazine.

Deb Pang Davis volunteered to design the site—the look and feel is her work—and she managed it during a period of relocating and handling a cross-country move to take a teaching position at Syracuse University.

The developer of the site was absolutely critical and so talented that I am not giving his name out until he finishes our site. George Steinmetz asked me to do it and championed it all the way through. Ami Vitale was very gracious when we told her we liked her site and wanted to do a cloud with names similar to her content cloud. The name Photo Society came from kicking around options with Amy Toensing, George, and Katie Joseph just after we finished a negotiating session in Washington DC. My wife, Melissa Farlow, and I figured we would just pay for it if we had to and not worry so much if PAB membership dues actually paid us back or not.

Mike Hettwer and I had a conversation about how we weren’t really sure that everyone knew what we actually do in the field and he suggested a survey and then he put it together. That survey asked photographers what hazards—physical, financial, whatever—they were up against. After the survey was done, it languished for a few months. When I was trying to figure out what a crew of one could actually accomplish, I picked that survey apart and it became the Reality Check section on the site. Ed Kashi came up with the name for the section.

When the site soft-launched with a few Facebook posts and blog posts by members it was picked up by a number of highly visible blogs like PDN, APhotoEditor, PopPhoto and they primarily referenced the Reality Check section. So the analytics were interesting . . . people were going to the Reality Check section instead of the home page. The hook for the site was the list of hazards faced by National Geographic photographers. There was so much traffic they had to switch TPS to a bigger server—it broke the one it was on.

And I have to admit, after the launch it got a little weird. I had picked apart this massive ugly Excel spreadsheet from the hazards survey to glean the bits that made up the Reality Check section and that dissembled information got enough traffic that one person decided to REASSEMBLE and put all of that information BACK into her own Excel spreadsheet for some reason I still can’t quite figure out.

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Everyone Has a Camera Phone

This is a post from Maria Purdy Young’s site about citizen journalism. She quotes Stanley Forman WCVB-TV who, as a still photographer, won three Pulitzer prizes and now realizes as a video journalist that if he is late to a scene he needs to find someone who was there – in the moment – with a camera phone.

“There’s a bit of an exploitative relationship between citizen journalists and news organizations. You have to know enough to ask before you can get paid.” — Steve Myers, Managing Editor,
“It certainly has swung too far in one direction. Whether it’ll ever swing back or not, I don’t know.” –Stanley Forman, Photojournalist
When an amateur photographer stumbled onto an accident scene in 1953 and snapped a photo of a man being rescued from the side of a bridge, she was considered a witness. She was awarded $10 for winning The Sacramento Bee’s photo competition that week, and later won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography. Today, Virginia Schau would be called a citizen journalist, and she would have thousands of eager, unpaid colleagues in the United States, perhaps millions around the world. She would be a source of frustration for professional photographers, and a source of revenue relief for news organizations. She would also be part of an evolving media business model that may soon reach its peak.

“I notice 15 cameras pointed at the cop-only ONE is a professional photographer,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute, in an email exchange.
“This speaks loudly to what is happening in our world,” he said. “As newsrooms downsize, more people who are not traditional journalists capture and document the world around us.”

You can read more about it here.

One Photographer’s Answer to Requests for Free Photography

This was posted by Tony Wu on the photoprofessionals website:

Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free

Dear potential photo buyer,

If you have been directed to this page, it is likely that you have requested the use of an image or images for free or minimal compensation.

As professional photographers, we receive requests for free images on a regular basis. In a perfect world, each of us would love to be able to respond in a positive manner and assist, especially with projects or efforts related to areas such as education, social issues, and conservation of natural resources. It is fair to say that in many cases, we wish we had the time and resources to do more to assist than just send photographs. [Read more…]

Story Behind a Photo in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley

This photograph of a woman licking the last drops of beer off her lip-plate was the culmination of about 2 months of work to make a different photograph in this area. There will be more and more journalists here as it approaches 2013 when these culturally distinct groups will have their food supply cut off by a dam. They depend on flood-recession agriculture and without floods, there is no agriculture. The arms trade between the warlords in Sudan and the warlords in Somalia goes directly across their turf. So in 2013 these people who have the last of the lip-plates and other culturally-distinct traditions will be heavily armed and starving to death.

Almost all of the photographs you see from this area are people posing for the camera. There is a reason for this. Women see a camera and they cover their lip-plate with their clothing until they are paid to pose for a picture. There have been some famous photographers in here that brought along their stylists to make the body paint look ever-more perfect. In short… it is a mess. I did a survey across the entire region on my first trip and I ended up in “survival mode” to make photographs… used every trick I know… not pleasant. But my second trip I concentrated in a village with one tribe where my buddy Lale was the strong man of the village… it was still tough… but at least it was possible to photograph people actually leading their lives…

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Farlow Heinz Endowment Photos on Display at Carnegie Museum

For seven years I felt like a taxi driver winding on the back routes–up and down hills, over bridges and through tunnels. I knew the ethnic neighborhoods and quirky nature of the terrain that divided communities all over the county. But when I was downtown, I walked. The Pittsburgh Press offices were near the Point and the territory between there and Grant Street – what’s known as the Golden Triangle—was where I looked for photographs between assignments.
I remember the Mayor of Pittsburgh making a proclamation that during his administration, the city was going to work to get at least half of the downtown street to have signs up to identify them

I came to Pittsburgh in 1986 to work for the afternoon newspaper. After the Press died, I began freelancing. Most of my assignments after that began by getting on an airplane to go somewhere else to work.

The assignment for the Heinz Endowments—Pittsburgh Downtown Now—brought me back to connect with people and places. After 20 years, it was interesting to see Pittsburgh with fresh eyes. The city is handsome—a mixture of old architectural marvels and new ones cropping up on the skyline. Spaces in between are undergoing a metamorphosis. The whole notion of Pittsburgh as a Green City was entirely new to me. Market Square, the Mon Wharf and the Point—iconic, familiar haunts are being revamped to make them friendlier places, but with a mind on preservation that has maintained their integrity. For two years on this project, I discovered a new city and it was cool because I understood it’s past.

PPG Fountain
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