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David Leeson

The more things change...

David Leeson examines the impact of new technologies on photojournalism and video.

Discussion topic of the month

This series of essays by Project Advisory Board Members is designed to provoke debate from the backpack journalism community. Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter @bpjournalism.

This month's piece is by David Leeson. Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Leeson began his career at the Abilene Reporter-News in 1977. In 1982 he moved to New Orleans as a staff photographer for the Times-Picayune. He joined the photo staff of the Dallas Morning News in 1984 where he remained until 2008. He now owns Protege Films, a video production company specializing in documentary films, as well as still photography.  He also teaches at University of Texas at Dallas.

The more things change... - by David Leeson (Part 2) Read Part 1

A new directive

In those years (early 2000s), the Dallas Morning News’ online version, like most newspaper web sites, was a separate entity from the paper version. Department managers on the print side, keenly aware of their lack of control over how content would be displayed on the web, did their best to build cooperative relationships with web managers by using a blend of bootstrapping and glad-handing. The only thing missing from their repertoire was the time-honored “baby kiss,” although, asses were sometimes offered as a substitute.

David Leeson's Work

David's Website

"Vietnam"

"Birds"

David Leeson 1984: Prints were transmitted back to the newspaper using drum scanners like this one from UPI (United Press International).

John Davidson was about as far from an ass-kisser as a pit bull is to a kitten. He was a passionate fighter with a take-no-prisoners policy in support of photojournalism and creative freedom. His reputation for fiery outbursts, aimed at anyone who dared question or - God forbid - challenge the highest ideals and standards of photojournalism, resulted in more than a few nuclear explosions. I admired his leadership that demanded a no-excuse standard for the photo staff.

As I sat down in his office, he told me that he saw someone from the web staff shooting a video in the photo studio for use on DallasNews.com. His concern was that video, a visual medium, created by someone with no background in photojournalism, could lead to an erosion of photojournalism standards on the web. So he asked me to take a closer look at video from the viewpoint of a photojournalist. The meeting ended with a succinct order I will never forget: “Just go DO something.”

The power of passion and belief

Unfortunately, there was no budget for video equipment. I borrowed a camera from the managing editor and assigned myself to a promotional event sponsored by Oscar Meyer. The camera’s battery was dead within 15 minutes. I stopped shooting, found an outlet, plugged in and charged for five minutes. I taped for another five before it was dead again. I kept recharging and shooting for the next couple of hours. The limits of this technology were frustrating to say the least.

I also faced rejection from staff photographers and even photo editors. I had been a leader on the staff and mentored many. Now I was seen by some as a sell-out. Staffers were offended that I would “give up” my passion for the still image in favor of a gimmick like video. Because the fruits of my efforts were no longer seen daily in the beloved paper version of our publication, others believed I was simply running a scam - getting paid to do whatever I wanted and accomplishing nothing. I was told by one shooter that a photo editor expressed dismay about me during a company luncheon, saying, “I don’t know why we even pay David Leeson a salary when he doesn’t do a damn thing for photojournalism.”

The same photo editor. months later, presented images made for a special project at one of our monthly staff meetings. After spending at least 20 minutes clicking through a slide show - pausing to praise each image to a round of applause from the staff, then glanced at me and said, “Oh yeah, and David did a little video too.” What wasn’t mentioned was that I had spent 3-4 months on the story, shot more than 60 hours of footage, edited it into a short documentary that aired on a corporate-owned cable TV station and the Dallas PBS affiliate KERA. I had invested roughly 400 hours of work into my “little video.”

But that was the climate and I was already prepared for most of it. If there was anything I had learned about excellence in any career it was that the winds are most fierce at the top of the mountain. Overcoming adversity is a familiar mantra for any pioneering effort. Expect to encounter turbulence. Expect to be demeaned. Expect ridicule. Expect backstabbing and ankle-biting that speaks of ignorance and/or fear. Let it go. If it is at your back, ignore it because your future is in front of you.

I kept moving forward in what had become a new passion. I had discovered a new and powerful way to tell stories. Furthermore, I saw the writing on the wall and knew that web video for news media would soon explode, and I wanted to be on the cutting edge of that innovation. So I let negative comments roll off my back, knowing that one day they would all have to join the march toward “progress.”

Following the bombing of the Twin Towers in 2001, I was asked to put down my video camera and pick up my still cameras to cover the invasion of Iraq. I insisted on taking a video camera with me but was told no by the new director of photography. “You can’t do both, because you can only focus on one or the other and we want you to focus on stills.” Where I had managed to stay cool in the face of naysayers until now, this was the straw that wanted to break my back. I made a stand and said that I wasn’t negotiating. Get me a new video camera or I won’t go.

David Leeson 1983: Using a pay phone to call the office while covering flooding as a staff photographer at the Times-Picayune/States-Item in New Orleans.
The culmination of a career

I was 45 years old and had spent a quarter of a century working toward a place where my skills would be in top form - a time when I would be a “seasoned” photojournalist. For years I anticipated this era of my career that would lead me to the best work I had ever done and usher me into a successful end chapter into my 50s and hopefully beyond.

I had already experienced the flavor of the seasoning many times as I watched younger, less-experienced photojournalists move frenetically on assignment, betraying the confidence of self through movement alone. It is merely part of the process. I was no different in youth - shooting events with formulaic rituals and crossed fingers. I never once felt greater or lesser as I watched them work but I could taste the difference of experience and maturity as I learned to wait for “the moment” to arrive. You cannot rush a moment. It either appears or does not. The advantage of seasoning is that you can smell a moment from a distance as easily as a July 4th cookout or a turkey seasoned with rosemary and mint at Thanksgiving.

That’s the essential seasoning I had worked so hard to attain. And now I was holding some crappy video camera and trying to figure out a way to integrate it into the traditional form of the photo essay and the photojournalist’s workflow. Snatched from the streets of Dallas that I had come to know so well, I became confined like a prisoner to hundreds of hours of analysis and editing as I did my best to form an expatriate existence in a foreign medium. I borrowed a little - bits and pieces from television and indie film - but knew that the process had to be “ours.” I knew the only real option was to build upon the experience we had already gained as still photographers, if it was going to work in my industry and for my friends in photojournalism.

The business of hit counts

As circulation numbers decreased across the board for newspapers, I watched as concerned managers increasingly began supporting the business interest of newspapers, and in the process, often usurped the wisdom of journalism and their own history. The rush to video became the shining hope of for a threatened industry even as video itself was deemed a threat by it employees. At risk were the traditions of our beloved institution. Quantity ruled over quality, and unprepared and untrained shooters were thrust into a new era that was as intimidating to some as starting a new career. The demand for video clips hit our photo department like a tsunami, forcing photographers forward as they flailed and grasped to hang on to the familiar old equipment for dear life, as though it might be swept from their reach forever. And people were empowered to make decisions about video who had little or no experience with the medium.

The mandate for hit counts resulted in ridiculous demands to produce. I tried to explain the virtue of standards and the intrinsic need for a better infrastructure to meet their demands. Everything became improv and was destined to fail in the same way that slow connection speeds limited the web and print deadlines limited relevance in an era of non-stop news and information via the web.

One day I was invited to attend a meeting of top-level management. It was a first and I was as nervous as I was brashly confident in my beliefs. Eventually the meeting turned to “hit counts.” There was a heightened pulse in the room. Web metrics were like raw chickens thrown to sharks. Finally, I spoke up and said, “Look, if our business is about hit counts then let me go shoot some video porn tonight and you’ll have 50 thousands hit by tomorrow morning.” There was a great silence. Then I said, “But that isn’t what we stand for is it? No. So let’s make choices based on what is right and trust that the hits will follow.” Well, word spread fast and it wasn’t long before people were saying I was “opposed” to hit counts and, of course, I was never invited to another meeting.

David Leeson 1984: Photographers on road trips usually placed their enlarger on the toilet while the bathtub held the developing trays.
The video frame grab

I would be remiss if I failed to mention ‘“frame grabs.” The subject is noticeably absent from this writing because, as I see it, my reputation and respect as a photojournalist were pinned to a clever innovation. I had already concluded that still photojournalists transitioning to video should and could hold fast to their skills as still shooters. Video, I insisted, is a change of cameras and little else.

The proof I sought was found in a frame grab. The logic was fairly simple. If a high definition video camera, shooting at 24 or 30 frames per second was used in the same way digital still cameras were used, then video could provide storytelling options that could be decided after the fact by editors. Video coverage could provide 1) still images for both the print and web editions 2) audio could be extracted from video for radio or web use 3) stills and audio could be combined to create a multimedia slide show 4) it could be used as a video or 5) all of the above.

HDV video cameras can produce a 5.93 MB image at 72 DPI from a single frame. It’s more than enough for web use. But one night, my son, David Leeson II, who was working as a full-time video editor at the newspaper, found a unique approach to creating frame grabs. He came up with the idea when he was asked to create mural-sized images from low-resolution image scans. I was standing behind him that night as he was trying his innovative idea.

I was getting frustrated. I needed the frame grab and the deadline was rapidly approaching. I knew enough about Photoshop to recognize what he was trying to do and, in my opinion, he was wasting time. I said, “David, you can’t do that. It’s a waste of time.” He replied, “Hey, dad, back off. I know what I’m doing.” So I shut up and waited for the moment I could tell him, “I told you that wouldn’t work.” But, thankfully, it worked. I called it voodoo, and named it the Voodoo Tool.

My son’s innovation produced a 67.8MB frame grab at 203 DPI with no visible loss of quality. Instead, the image seemed to have gained quality, though I realized it was some sort of clever visual illusion. It was a significant breakthrough and threatened the efficacy of the 35mm DSLR for newspapers.

David Leeson 2003: I carried two Canon EOS-1D still cameras and a Sony PDX10 (standard definition) video camera with me while covering the invasion of Iraq.

The technique involves an outrageous interpolation of an image first and then scales it back to the desired size. The remnants normally created by interpolation are basically hidden or subdued by the process. It was brilliant. Word spread rapidly in the photo department. Former staff member and Pulitzer Prize winner Smiley Pool strolled into the video editing room the next day. He looked at the frame grab, shook his head and said, “It’s all over now.”

Unfortunately, Voodoo was ultimately rejected for use at The Dallas Morning News even as its popularity grew around the world and DMN staffers continued to use it secretly. My son, who was 20 at the time, withdrew support of his process, primarily because its infamous popularity created more burden than he wanted to shoulder. All further development and refinement of the process was left to me.

In many ways, I consider the Voodoo Tool as the most significant overlooked and misunderstood early development of the newspaper video era. The Voodoo Tool was the missing link that could bridge the gap between fiscal responsibility in the midst of declining revenues with the need for professional gear. The common question from publishers was why they should spend 5,000 dollars for a professional video camera when they could spend 500 dollars on a camera suitable for web video. The Voodoo Tool provided the efficacy and veracity by its ability to meet the need for web video with the print edition’s need for high-quality still images.

Unfortunately I needed more than Voodoo to extend my career in newspapers. But I knew my life as a daily newspaper photojournalist was coming to a close as early as 2006. But death is always sudden. My 30 years in newspapers came to an end during a final staff meeting in late 2008.

The end of my career in newspapers

I was sitting next to the executive editor in a hastily-called meeting. A Power Point slide show detailing demographics and statistics explained the need for another round of changes in newspaper strategy. In between the lines and stats was the unspoken whispers of more staff reductions. At some point I lowered my head and began to reminisce. My fellow photojournalists and I had waged a valiant war. I remembered the battles, the assignments and the “hills” we had charged and taken. But now it seemed hopelessly lost.

The tears welling in my eyes eventually spilled onto the conference room table. As a leader, I refused to risk demoralizing others with my sorrowful capitulation to the inevitable. So I wiped my tears from the table with the left sleeve of my sport jacket and abruptly walked out of the meeting. I was distraught. The world was spinning out of control. I could barely believe what was happening. But I knew in that moment that my career in newspapers was over. I took a buyout and said goodbye to an industry I loved, a profession for which I had risked my life many times.

It took weeks before the tears stopped. I grieved my failure to shepherd the Dallas Morning News through the reactionary mistakes revealed by history as much as I grieved the loss of my identity as a daily newspaper photojournalist. The tears continued long after becoming a freelancer. A staffer at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans once told me as she looked down at my press tags that I wore everywhere, “You’re only as good as your next press pass.” I thought it was a delightfully strange comment at the time. But as I sat in my home office in late 2008 contemplating a new beginning at age 50, in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I could feel the loss of my press pass.

I regret that I was unable to finish what I had started. Mostly, all I wanted to say was that the need for video standards was essential. The good news is that my departure was not missed by the industry. I have never considered myself to be so important that my absence would be palpable. I was just a solder, like my peers, doing my best each day to stand at the side of justice and truth. My failures and victories are no greater or lesser than anyone who chooses to stand for something far greater than self.

David Leeson 2009: Canon 5D MKII with a simple audio set-up. The amount of video I shoot with the 5D MKII is steadily increasing as clients gain more knowledge and confidence in hybrid DSLR cameras.
Foundations for video

I believe newspaper video and multimedia, overall, is woefully lacking a singular voice - the unity created by the same high standards expected for still images. I would never suggest that I have all of the answers but I have some ideas about what I believe should be the fundamental characteristics of newspaper video today.

  1. Newspaper video should be executed with the same premise that motivates us in shooting stills: the power of the moment. The video camera is just another tool with the ability to capture two additional layers of information - motion and sound. When I use a video camera, I am the same photojournalist I was before. Moments are discovered in a millisecond of time, so video captures something I call the extended moment. It can also be imagined in reverse. Therefore, within every extended moment recorded in video, one can discover one or more decisive moments that comprise a great still image. Photojournalists must seek great moments whether they are decisive or extended.
  2. Newspaper video must be credible. Credibility is the only true commodity of a journalist. Anyone producing video for newspapers must be held to the same standards we insist upon for photojournalists shooting stills. Anything less is not only tiresome and pedantic, but will become a fetid cancer in the industry that threatens our core mission. Newspapers are like any businesses seeking profit, but like any venture, a failure to adhere to the standards of ethical and credible journalism is the abandonment of the unique core product they offer.
  3. Journalistic service to the mission of truth, justice and freedom through free speech should never be measured by “hit counts” or popular demand. When popularity becomes the decisive factor for journalism, our objective is maligned, our mission is confused, public trust is damaged and our call in defense of a free press is subjugated.
The longevity of mission

The history you’ve read here has hopefully told its own story. Great innovation is discovered in the light of yesterday’s teaching. It is the organic reinvention of lessons learned from the past. Newspapers, like the rest of the world, must evolve by forming a symbiotic relationship with technology as we constantly innovate in support of the core values of great journalism.

If video can add to that essential message, then it is our duty to use it in a way that affirms our mission. If motion and sound can make a difference in our world, then it is worthy of our best efforts. Regardless, a simple truth remains that we should never subjugate our values and purpose for the expediency of technology. Technological advancements and the innovations that follow are the constant march of humanity that seek to redefine better ways to serve the common good.

The digital age has introduced a new paradigm for news and information. The web is the new catalyst, no different from the transcontinental railroad or satellites in space that afford new opportunities to serve the common good with the immediacy of factual and fair communication. Few would argue that truth should be the holy grail of information because of the potential for change it brings to society.

How well we perform our duty as journalists is a question of standards. The standards and ethics of newspaper photographers in the US are the best in the world. Any current or future technology will not or should not usurp the standards of our high ideals. I would have rejected video years ago if I had not seen within it the power it holds via information alone. Nor would I have cast a quarter century of my life in pursuit of storytelling moments into the abyss to catch a ride on the “trend train.”

Ultimately, I discovered a constant truth in the standards of truth itself through the lessons taught me by history: the more things change, the more they stay the same.