It’s been 18 months since I took the buyout. I scribbled my signature at the bottom of the page and erased a job that I had loved for 15 years. Then I stood at the crossroads and asked myself “What the heck am I going to do now?”
I was among the lucky ones. I wanted to leave, so when word got out that a buyout was being offered, I raced to The Miami Herald. I wanted to be the first in line to take it. Nine months of sampling life as a single parent while my husband, Kelly, worked on his PhD in Texas was enough for me. It was time for us to be a family again.
With newspapers laying off journalists and freelance prospects slim, I knew my 30-year career as a photojournalist was threatened. During my last two years at the Herald, I’d watched my colleagues slowly being trained to shoot and edit video. By the time I left, my turn for training had not come up; this meant I was starting fresh with limited multimedia skills and many questions.
Should I invest in video and audio equipment with few newspapers hiring? And who would I find to teach me how to shoot? I’ve never been one of those you-can’t-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks kind of employee, but I am a slow learner. Acquiring new technological skills required a lot of patience. Kelly joked that I was “technologically impaired.” How was I going to learn video without the help of the multimedia gurus at my former mother ship? The answer was closer to me than I could have imagined.
Children Lead the Way
A few months later my 12-year-old son, Vicente, picked up my point-and-shoot digital camera. He borrowed it so often that I finally surrendered it to him. Soon he was darting in and out of our apartment and snatching first my tripod and then my Macbook Pro. “I’m shooting video, mom!” he yelled at me one day as he raced out the door.
My camera shot video? I never knew that. I’d hated that camera and was only too happy to let him have it.
It wasn’t long before I noticed Vicente was not only shooting videos but editing them, too. He and his pal Changhun would hover for hours over my Mac, and then presto—there would be a video with music, graphics and, at times, Flash animation. The boys formed a production company that they named The Daring Cheese Productions. Sometimes they composed musical scores for their epics using Garage Band, a computer program I never knew I owned. They were little tycoons making mini-movies and posting them on YouTube.
“Where did you learn how to do all of this?” I asked him.
“YouTube,” he said. You can learn just about anything by watching a YouTube video—“How to knit left handed,” “How to build a potato cannon,” and “How to swing a golf club like Tiger Woods.”
The mom in me was impressed and proud. At the same time, the photojournalist inside of me was feeling pretty depressed. With all the years I’d spent in visual media, how was it that 12-year-old children mastered new technology by just looking at it, while we adults struggled with it for months before we kind of, sort of, got it.
I felt like a staggering brontosaurus in an approaching Ice Age. As I shared my feelings with Kelly, he volunteered to help. “I’ll teach you how to shoot and edit,” he said. During Kelly’s TV news days, he’d occasionally shot and edited video.
“Later,” I’d say half-enthused. “Another day.”
I’m not sure why I resisted his generous offer, but a part of me was thinking “For what? Nobody’s hiring!” Besides, I feared that if I invested time and energy into learning video, I would feel obligated to pursue it. I wanted to do something different. But what? Maybe I should consult YouTube.
Figuring Out Where I’m Going
After all those years as a photojournalist, I began to realize that it wasn’t the photography I now missed the most. It was the reporting. Even though video is a great way to tell a story, it’s not the tool I want to use now. There is another factor in play: You can’t shoot video from your desk or living room and I no longer want to be pulled away from my kids.
Becoming a multimedia journalist isn’t going to work for me, as a parent, or even as a photojournalist. I hear my 52-year-old knees creak and groan every time I crouch down to get a better angle for a shot. I don’t have the same stamina I once had and adrenaline will only carry me so far on the big story. I’ve seen the future and it doesn’t involve me lugging around heavy gear.
So I’m trying to reinvent myself while not pulling up my journalistic roots. I am still not sure what I’ll end up doing in my second career but I’m grateful that all this technology provides me with new opportunities that enable me to report and still meet the school bus.
After I took the Herald’s buyout, we moved to Texas to join Kelly. On a weekend getaway to Galveston, Kelly had a front-row seat to the mom-and-technology show that Vicente had watched (with some measure of humor) in Florida. As seals leaped out of the water, my daughter, Katchelle, asked me to shoot video with my new camera. I looked at it and squinted, trying to find the video icon. She reached over and turned the dial to the proper setting. “Hurry mom,” she said.
I turned the camera vertically to better frame the seal that was leaping high in the air. Kelly immediately burst out laughing. “Uh, Nuri, you can’t shoot verticals in video. Video doesn’t do vertical.” I hastily rotated the camera and kept shooting.
Maybe it’s better that I’ve abandoned that ambition.
Recently when I was driving home from Dallas, I saw flashing lights ahead. Accident! The next exit was a quarter of a mile ahead but brake lights came first and soon all three lanes of I-35 came to a dead stop. After 10 minutes I got out of my car, walked up to an 18-wheeler, stood on my tiptoes, and called out “Hey, mister truck driver!” I needed answers.
“Car fire,” he said.
Traveling without an iPhone or any other way of getting online, I called home and asked Kelly to check out Web sites for any news. Nada.
“Try Twitter,” I suggested. He found a tweet asking if anyone knew what was tying up southbound I-35.
Just then the left lane started moving and I caught a glimpse of the smoldering car. I called Kelly and asked him if he would post a tweet. “I-35 shut down in Williamson north of Austin. Southbound Walburg exit blocked. Car fire, get in the left lane.”
I drove on with a sense of satisfaction that comes with delivering a scoop to the public. Oh, the possibilities.
Nuri Vallbona, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, was a staff photographer at The Miami Herald. She was one of 35 Hispanic photographers commissioned by actor Edward James Olmos to work on “Americanos,” a book that celebrates Hispanic life in America. Her photo essays have appeared in the Winter 2000, Summer 2004, Winter 2005, and Fall 2006 issues of Nieman Reports.