Stan Grossfeld, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, has an enviable job as a photojournalist. An Associate Editor of The Boston Globe, he is free to go wherever his creative instincts lead him—and they have led him all over the world. The result has been pictures and essays, filled with compassion, that have won numerous awards, including Pulitzer prizes in 1984 and 1985 for work in Ethiopia and Lebanon and along the United States-Mexican border. There have been books, too. The latest, “Lost Futures: Our Forgotten Children,” documents the precarious living conditions of the world’s poor. At a Nieman Foundation seminar January 20, 1998, Grossfeld told of the obstacles he faces, often with editors, in producing his photo essays. Here are edited excerpts from that seminar.
Q.—Most newspapers don’t like reporters and photographers to wear both hats. If you do, you limit it to one snapshot or maybe a caption right before the photos. But you seem to be both photographer and writer.
A.—The Globe has been great in giving me that kind of support. I don’t think it’s typical. The big papers, what they’ve done, traditionally, is have the reporter take his own pictures as an afterthought and then the pictures are lousy. Photographers, a lot of times, are very good writers. They’ve just been driven down by the “word” establishment.
Photojournalists are taught from time one, they have to be there. They’re not shy, they’re not afraid to mix it up. They’re not the ones sitting in the hotel bar getting the story at the end of the day. They’re very sensitive so I think that they sometimes have a little more feeling. They don’t tend to do things by the phone. They don’t tend to call expert psychologists.
More photographers should write with their cameras. I just think that we’re discriminated against. If you look at mastheads, they’re non-visual and that’s one of the reasons why newspaper circulation is at a decline.
I don’t have any inferiority complex to any reporter or editor. A lot of photographers do. And that’s a problem.
I don’t claim to be a great writer and I don’t claim to be a great photographer. I just think that, as one person, you can really mold things. Of course, you have to follow it all the way down the line and fight it right to the printing press because if you don’t care about the product from beginning to end, what’s the point?
Q.—You work with writers, too. No more? Never again, never?
A.—I don’t say “never,” no. The thing about being a photographer and working with people like Wil Haygood and Curtis Wilke was [that it was] just better than any journalism school. And I went back for my Masters in journalism to learn how to write. When you’re doing the Haygoods and the Wilkes, you’re dealing with the masters, so I certainly learned a lot from them. But I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t ever work with a writer again. I just think it’s a lot better because I change mid-stream all the time.
That’s the nice thing about what I do. Because, as you know, you go to something and it’s not what you think it is. So I just shifted over. If I could change a story, I’d change the idea of a story.
Q.—You mentioned that when they tell a writer to cut 30 or 40 lines, it’s usually for the better; and yet, if I said to you, “We’re going to crop your photo and cut off 30 percent of it,” you’d be screaming like a Chechnyan. It’s kind of like owls and crows; they’re natural enemies in the wild. We’re all fighting for space. And owls and crows are in a lot of newsrooms. I just did a series and we were constantly arguing about, “Well, we’ve got to have this picture big.” I mean, they call it “dominant image,” and we call it, you probably know this, “BFP—big fucking picture.”
A.—I’ve cut pictures for stories if I thought it made the story better. There are certain stories that are just better pictures and there are certain stories that are better text. For example, I did a story on global warming and that was real hard to do in pictures because it’s down the road. For me, the story was better. I fought on the story because I didn’t want the story to be a science story. I wanted it to be about people too. So I get into trouble.
One year I went across America trying to do hunger in America and it was really hard to do visually. I almost had to give up on it because, visually, hungry people in America [are] poor people on bad diets eating Doritos and Coke and Pepsi cola. They’re malnourished, but they look obese and that brings up a whole other set [of questions] if you throw those pictures in. In that case, I said, “I’m not showing a poor inner city person that’s obese; I’m not going to do it.” So from there, the article just started to go all text. I wrote about some of those pictures, all text. No pictures, see you later.
But visually, I was able to find some hungry people in the hollows of West Virginia and in the South.
Q.—But if the malnourished are obese in America, why not use the pictures?
A.—Because it’s a can of worms. I write about why they’re obese; why show it? You open up the paper and the first thing you see are the pictures. And the pictures are going to get you suckered into reading the story. If I have a picture of a fat person on page one, the average reader’s going to ask the question, “Why are they fat?” Well then they start answering it and they’re not dealing with the hunger in America issue. I’d rather have the most emotionally powerful picture. And then use that as a vehicle to talk about the people in the inner city, why they’re obese, to talk about, like, the [Native Americans] and why the commodities that they get are so filled with fat that the government gives them. We know what fat people look like. I think you need to draw [readers] in first.
Q.—I’m not going to belabor my point, but I don’t know why you can’t visually illustrate that story.
A.—It is visually illustrated. You want a picture of a fat person on page one, and I say that it’s going to do more harm than good.
Q.— I wonder if it isn’t because you seem to have a sense of what you want to convey, and you’re afraid that the [article] won’t convey it the way you want it conveyed. I believe you wonder then whether you’re crossing the journalistic line there.
A.—The bottom line is that we’ve got one crack at the reader. You’ve got to give it your best punch. Hunger exists in America—I mean, this is true. You’ve got to put something in to get people interested and not just sort of fool themselves. People are just so busy. You’ve got one shot at somebody like this—one second and then they’re turning. A fat person is not a best shot. What happens if you have a fat person and it turns out they have a thyroid problem?
Bill Kovach, Nieman Foundation Curator—The interesting thing about Stan, I think, in the context of journalism, is that we’re talking very often about the issue of a point of view versus this phenomenon, whatever it is, of objectivity. I think that it’s worth noting that precisely whether you like or don’t like what he does, he’s creative about it in the context of American journalism.
A.—What I find with editors [is] that they want everything to be black or white, white half, black half. I’m always fighting this. I’m always getting pressure to make things this or that. Editors do this all the time, and I hate it. Nothing is black or white. There’s all this stuff in there. Good writers know that.
We’re pressured to do that. I was pressured to do that with this global warming story. On the one hand you’ve got 5,000 scientists saying this thing is real. On the other hand, you’ve got the oil lobby spending $10 million to say this is bull. I wound up on Smith Island in Chesapeake Bay. The sea level is rising more in the mid-Atlantic, but the land is also sinking for a whole bunch of reasons. There you could see the difference. I put it in paragraph two or three that this is happening. The sea is rising, but the land is sinking. I had a lot of pressure not to put that land sinking in, because it didn’t fit the mold. We want to show global warming. It’s always a wrestling thing.
Q.— Stan, you had this situation, which we now know to be exaggerated, regarding the paparazzi, particularly having to do with Princess Diana’s death. Do you find yourself professionally affected in terms of people’s perceptions and the expectations?
A.—Yes, it’s terrible. The Perpignan, France, photojournalism festival [took place] the day after Princess Di was killed and we were treated, badly as photographers going through airports. People were saying little snide comments. The hypocritical TV people were so quick to come down on us. The things that they do on every story they work on. almost, is just so unethical. But nothing is said about that because we don’t have the voice. I was surprised at how little defense there was of photojournalists. [Of the] 2,000 photographers [at the festival] there’s maybe 10 or 15 that were really paparazzi. There was no coverage. No word person was smart enough to delve in this issue. CNN did a 10-second snippet.
The public and the press is so willing to just scapegoat photographers. [My wife and I] rented this cottage [on Nantucket]. It was right on the beach. I was taking out the garbage. It’s pitch black, and there’s a guy out there. He startles me. He says, “Hey, I’m locked out of my house and I live next door. Can I use your phone?” And I looked at him, it’s Michael Kennedy. This guy’s got no luck, right? He’s hiding out and who does he come and see?
I said, “Sure.” Just to double check, I said, “Hi, I’m Stan.” He said, “I’m Michael.” I looked to see who was in his car and it was Victoria. He came in, [made a call] and left. He returned (he still couldn’t get into his house.) I go back out there and he’s on the roof and he’s trying to break into this house. He’s got a pitchfork. It’s a hell of a picture. I know I could sell it. But I didn’t do it. I figured this poor bastard’s trying to work something out with his wife and he’s got no luck.
The next morning I got up and he’s strolling down the beach. It’s foggy as hell and he’s with his wife and the dogs and it’s so scary, because he looks so much like Bobby. You know that famous picture of Bobby walking on the beach with the dog. And there it is. It was like the hair on my neck going up. I had a video camera in my hand and I shot it through the window. After this ski [accident in which Michael Kennedy was killed] I knew that was salable. But I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to do that. And I think 99 percent of other photographers aren’t going to do that either. It’s just a bad rap.