Have the Courage to Be Transparent and Embrace Your Personal Moments

Photo by Andrea Pritchard.

It has been said when you make a photo, you take a piece of the soul. As well, you give a part of yours. There are pieces of my soul scattered all over the earth. Indeed it’s what makes me whole.

A photograph can be a powerful witness and an eloquent voice for those who have none. Pictures inform, educate, enlighten, captivate and spur governments into action. They are historical documents and poignant reminders of our human frailties. They’re our life’s work, our legacy.

However, a “shoot the messenger” mentality toward the media is escalating. So often now journalists are targets. We are NOT the enemy and this dangerous rhetoric must stop. Somehow we need to enlighten the public to the importance of real documentary journalism. We preach to the choir at workshops, but society needs to hear us most of all. Many don’t realize what they are losing. A free press is a crucial part of the First Amendment, a watchdog of governments and a voice for the powerless.

We are challenged in our work not only to examine issues and expose problems, but also to find poetry in everyday lives. Greatness is not found in a title or awards on your wall. It’s when you treat the janitor with the same dignity as the chief. When you look past the disfigured amputee and photograph beauty – the real kind.  

Back in the day, there were frequent tales of inequality and female faces were few on photography staffs and even less on international news stories. It’s encouraging now when students view past generations as trailblazers and realize they can confront anything that would deter them.

There are still serious issues to address. But most women that have produced amazing reportage for decades were completely focused – we just did the work. And in the process, I hope it proved the point that every eye brings another piece of the puzzle to complete a story. It’s less about gender, race, ethnicity, religion – it’s our life experiences that provide perspective to view the world in all its complexity.

Diversity in journalism is fundamental. This profession is now offering more support for safety in the field. There is dialogue about equality that will hopefully enhance balance and fairness for all. It is also critical to address the “aftershocks” of emotional trauma, which many hide because they have been told it’s a sign of weakness.

Empathy – a small word with epic meaning. We’ve seen throughout history how selective compassion breeds hate. It’s the source of all the “isms”: Racism, Sexism, Terrorism, Speciesism. It begins when one group deems others unworthy of mercy. In my humble opinion, if ALL life interwoven on this planet we share is not equal to the same level of compassion we wish for ourselves, it becomes the foundation for abuse. And when we turn away from oppression, our silence becomes complicity.  

Pulitzers validate the importance of the story – they do not belong to us, we simply accept them for the people in the pictures. We’re just a link. It’s crucial to check ego at the door – it’s not about making great photos, it’s about the narrative of others.

When you look past the poverty, there is an eloquence of soul. Many times in tragic situations, people teach us it’s not what you hold in your hand that matters, it’s the qualities you hold inside.

Advice for emerging journalists: Each of us leaves behind what we’ve done on this odd and magnificent journey. Photojournalists are storytellers; we just “write” with light.

  1. Follow your heart and trust your gut.
  2. Keep the inquisitive eyes of a child.
  3. Tread lightly and with purpose.
  4. Take risks for what matters.
  5. Cherish “Wow” moments.
  6. Immerse yourself in the photo world – internships, workshops, lectures, and engaging with photographers whose work you admire.
  7. Most of all remember: it’s not about us – it’s the people in front of our cameras that matter. They need to trust us, which takes time.
  8. Content and moments are what reach viewers on a universal emotional level and make them connect. If you truly care, your pictures can speak volumes.
  9. Value yourself and embrace femininity. You don’t need to be a “hamburger woman” to produce powerful storytelling. Someone once actually used that term and admitted he expected me to fit a preconceived mold.
  10. My greatest obstacle has been a lack of self-confidence. Even now, fretting about missed moments is painful. They are gone for eternity.
  11. And an overdose of empathy has certainly helped create images that resonate with viewers but makes your own heart break more intensely. Be gentle with your own spirit.

A couple more things to remember:

1. You can’t run in high heels.

2. Have the courage to get intimate in your work. As the great photojournalist Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Close enough doesn’t always mean standing in the flames or gunfire – even more difficult can be breaking the barrier of intimacy. It’s a different kind of courage, to stay with a story even when it’s ripping your heart to shreds.

3. Relationships matter. My greatest riches are the relationships that remain long after the story is over and the camera put down. During the war, rebels in Sierra Leone had a nasty habit of cutting off the limbs of civilians, even children, to intimidate the population and control blood diamond trade. I spent four years documenting the saga of a group in the U.S. for prosthetics. It’s impossible to become that involved in people’s lives and not become friends. They assimilated into American life, lived as an extended family, then all were adopted. A charming little girl named Memuna is now with a family in DC. One of the greatest honors of my life was when they asked me to be her godmother since they said my pictures were the reason they found her.  Whenever I say I’ve lost my entire family she quickly reminds me I do indeed have a family – them.

4.Your personal moment’s matters. After the fourth Pulitzer announcement I called and asked the nurses to yell in my mom’s ear in her end stage of Alzheimer’s.  Later I had the opportunity to tell her myself and she said, “Wow, get out!” It registered and that little lucid moment meant the world; readers or students taking the time to message, or even write letters about photos that moved them; my aunt saying my dad would have been so proud of me. He died when I was six. Friends that stayed by my side during the dark times. It’s easy to be there for parties when you are on top of your profession, and much harder to continue to hold a heart that is breaking. It’s the personal moments, not awards or recognition that are most meaningful.

I had the opportunity to do a vignette about a104-year-old dynamo named Miss Classie Morant who spent years caring for her sister Rozzie, bedridden with Alzheimer’s, believing family devotion is a priority. She was one of those everyday heroes who quietly lived her values in our own backyards. She taught lessons about living with principle and dying with grace. She emphasized the importance of family and those moments are fleeting that each goodbye can be the last.


We spend so much time photographing other people’s lives, sometimes we forget to live our own.

Classie greatly influenced my decision to take leave and care for my own mother and sister, both fading away with Alzheimer’s. There are always more stories to do, but you only have one family.

Others will surely deal with complicated grief and caregiver fatigue as our elderly live longer. Or endure other emotional trials – even residual damage from this career. Society and workplaces need to bring grief out of the closet and provide acceptance and support. High profile photojournalists have told me they feel the need to appear strong and mask their sorrow, depression, PTSD (which many compassionate journalists possibly have to some degree – it’s nothing to feel ashamed about, though there is still stigma. It simply means you have a beating heart). But suffering is increased by our culture’s lack of true understanding. People don’t need to be “fixed” or told to move on – or especially abandoned by friends or the workplace. I’m now editing a book so we can perhaps open a dialogue on these issues that others may feel less alone and know it’s OK to cry.

I spent most of my life roaming the world and wasn’t there for loved ones. I gave 500% heart and soul to every story, to the newspaper – to every assignment no matter how mundane to me. It meant a lot to the people who would have their picture in the paper, especially someone’s child on the Metro front, and they deserve nothing less than our best. There were unexpected, devastating professional consequences later, but there are no regrets finally making my own family priority, giving them that 500%. Most advise to keep personal issues hidden, but raw honesty is my MO. At least I was so fortunate to work for the Graham Post for 3 decades. It was a family with integrity and loyalty, and I was previously at the Miami Herald in the wild 80s.

I feel so very strongly that we spend our lives expecting people to open up their most intimate moments to our cameras. The least we can do is offer the same courage of transparency to promote a better understanding of the universal emotions we all share.

It is sad that so many talented, seasoned photographers lost positions, sometimes entire staffs were let go as corporate mentality devalues true long-form documentary photojournalism. There is even a Plan B website now. But perseverance usually prevails. Hopefully, the pendulum of quick-hit photojournalism will swing back to the depth of quality instead of the quantity of web hits.   Young journalists are indeed the future. Along with the passion for storytelling, hold tight to the values that first and foremost make you an ethical human being.

I embraced my mom as she slipped away. Hers was the first hand I held, mine the last she grasped. Within the year, my sister also died from early-onset Alzheimer’s. I did the only thing I knew to hold onto them – I documented. The eve of my sister’s funeral, my friend and coworker (my “brother” really) Michel du Cille died covering Ebola in Liberia. He was a man of great integrity and decency more impressive than even his talent – a rare breed in today’s work ethics that can be cold at times.

With our words and our deeds, we honor the brave journalists who passed before us and by never wavering from telling stories that must be told and rising up just a little bit higher in human decency. Especially in these difficult years for this profession, we need to hang onto the idealistic notion that what we do is vital, especially now, and at times offer those who feel invisible in the darkest shadows of despair – that intangible and invaluable essence – hope.  

A passage from Plato I read for Michel’s eulogy: “The souls of people, on their way to Earth-life, pass through a room full of lights; each takes a taper – often only a spark – to guide it in the dim country of this world. But some souls, by rare fortune, are detained longer – have time to grasp a handful of tapers, which they weave into a torch. These are the torch-bearers of humanity – its poets, seers, and saints, who lead and lift the race out of the darkness, toward the light. They are the law-givers, the light-bringers, way-showers, and truth-tellers, and without them, humanity would lose its way in the dark.”

Be the light. Carry that torch.

Carol Guzy is is a photojournalist that has received her fourth Pulitzer for coverage of the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Previously she was honored twice with the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for her coverage of the military intervention in Haiti and the devastating mudslide in Armero, Colombia.  She has received a third Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for her work in Kosovo. She specializes in long-term documentary human interest projects, spot news and feature stories, both domestic and international as well as local daily assignments and currently editing for book projects. She currently freelances for ZUMA and has previously worked as staff photographer for The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. You can follow her work on Facebook and Instagram.

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