Every year for the past three years, I spend a few days with my fellow photojournalists at something called The Northern Short Course in Photojournalism. Started by the National Press Photographers Association, for the last 36 years…photojournalists from all over come in for an intensive three-day workshop, and hear from industry legends like Michael Williamson, Eli Reed, Carol Guzy, as well as the new generation who are making a name for themselves, like White House photojournalists Jabin Botsford and Al Drago.
It’s also a time where college students from various journalism schools come in to have their minds blown by a few speakers, have their portfolios reviewed by people like those mentioned above (as well as unknowns such as myself) and, well…to blow off some steam. I decided that THIS year, I was going to test them a little bit.
This next part takes a little explaining. A LOT of the learning that goes on at the Northern Short happens outside of the official workshops. Sometimes it happens over lunch, but most of the time it happens at night in the hotel lobby, or the hotel bar, and in various dark corners where two ghostly faces are faintly lit by the screen of a laptop…looking at various pictures made by the younger of the two faces. Established PJs who are looking to be refreshed, and college students looking for advice. It was in knowing this that I decided to hatch a plan.
There is a comic called “What The Duck” that is produced by photographer Aaron Johnson. W.T. Duck is the main protagonist and breaks down the aggravating life of professional photographers of all shapes and sizes. I don’t remember if I bought one, or if it was gifted to me…but I have a stuffed W.T. that hangs out in our studio.
I bring Duck with me when I travel. My wife has a stuffed crab named Pinchy we picked up in Baltimore 10+ years ago…whenever we go away, we bring them with and take pictures. It’s silly and dumb for a couple of 40-somethings, but it makes us laugh…so don’t judge.
I decided heading into the 2017 NSC, I would pull him out and just plop him down next to me. I wouldn’t say anything…I’d just move on as if nothing had happened and I’d wait to see what happened. It was one part “Punk’d” and one part “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. Had I thought about it far enough in advance, I would have asked a friend to record the reactions.
I didn’t even tell any of my friends what I was doing. Some would shoot me a look like “B has finally lost what little was left of his mind,” some of the college kids would offer up a snarky “nice duck” as they walked by, some would try to casually snap a picture if they didn’t think I was watching…others just flat out ignored it.
But there were those few who took the bait.
There were those special few who asked me what the story was, and that’s exactly what I’d been hoping for.
See, a 45-year-old guy who kept pulling out a stuffed toy duck with a camera around its neck is something that would stand out to most (yes, even at a photojournalists’ conference) enough to at least say, “what the hell is that about?” I wanted them to engage me, I wanted them to ask me what the story was.
The younglins (as I call them) that did ask me, got my undivided attention. They were the ones I’d sit with throughout the three days. I’d look at their portfolios; I’d give them advice on what’s worked for me in making it as a freelancer. They then told THEIR friends who would then seek me out. I gave them the time, but not as much as the ones that asked “what’s with the duck?” because they didn’t know the password.
Somehow I became the guy to talk to and seek out. On portfolio review nights, I’d ask why they ended up with me…was it because I was the only one left whose slots weren’t full, or because they knew who I was? It was because of Duck! Not because I was a Pete Muller or Linda Epstein or Smiley Pool (well respected, well known photojournalists), but because I was the funny guy with the duck who “knew his shit!”
See, as photojournalists…it’s our job to tell the story. Sometimes it’s because it’s what our assignment is, but mostly it’s because it’s second nature to us. I stop people ALL the time when something intrigues me enough to want to find out their story and make a picture or two. I’m always wondering what makes people tick. What better lesson to try to teach the next generation?
I’d love to be a known name like a Scott Strazzante or a Harry Hamburg or a M. Scott Mahaskey…but I’m not. I’m just the "funny guy with a duck" who allegedly “knows his shit”…and I’m ok with that lot in life.