N.C.’s CEO rotated at the waist like a southern-fried robot...
I kicked off 2004 in grand style, huddling under a homeless-shelter awning on a freezing-cold January morning. That morning, the local paper led with a story on a new study examining the number of transients in North Carolina. As often happens, my managing editor read the story over breakfast and decided he’d like to see it televised. Thus, I found myself loitering outside the local urban ministries, looking for sights and sounds to go with a few cold hard facts.
It wasn’t a hard assignment, and neither was it my first trip to a homeless shelter. Any TV news photographer who’s been on the street six months has stepped foot in a shelter or soup kitchen. In fact, most shooters can tell you what the turkey smells like on Thanksgiving morning there, but that’s another story. For now, I just wanted to get in and get out without any drama. For the most part, I was successful.
Most shelters turn out their residents first thing in the morning - declaring the living quarters off-limits until five o clock or so that evening. As a result, a shifting crowd of sleepy vagrants can usually be found orbiting the premises. This day was no exception. As I popped open the tailgate of my heavily festooned Ford Explorer, two dozen men sporting varying degrees of bed-head eyed me sourly. Walking toward them, I smiled innocently, looking from one bedraggled stranger to another. Most met my gaze with indifference, some seemed uneasy, and one person broke into a dentally neglected grin. Suddenly, a fellow on the left broke and ran, perhaps to avoid my camera’s gaze, perhaps to attend an important board meeting. Whatever the destination, I knew better to look around after him too much. Without a word, a pockmarked stranger opened the door for me, and chewing on his unlit Newport as I squeezed past. When I pushed my camera and tripod through the worn doorframe, pitch-black washed over me.
Until my eyes adjusted to the low wattage lighting of the shelter’s interior. When they did, a large, familiar face met me with a smile. I didn’t know his name but instantly remembered the three hundred pound ‘floor boss’ with the low rumbling voice. I remembered interviewing him a year earlier, his on-screen image seared into my brain. With a motion to follow, he turned and waddled slowly through the maze of bunk beds and dirty laundry. I walked behind him, holding my gear up high and scanning the edges of the room for pools of natural light. Along the way, my hefty host checked the bunks. A few featured silent sleeping forms, shelter residents who worked night shifts and were allowed to be inside during the day. I use to wonder how they could sleep so soundly in a room filled with noise and daylight. Then I remembered interviewing people living under train trestles, and I kept my mouth shut.
After framing up my portly guide in a mercifully medium shot, I asked a few questions while the tally light shone. As he answered, I listened through my headphones and trained my eyes on the viewfinder. Though his bulging waistline seemed incongruent in the threadbare surroundings, I knew my interview subject’s massive bulk warehoused a heart of gold. Still, I was certain someone back at the shop would snicker at the fat man’s image and ask me how many homeless guys he ate. It never failed.
Fifteen minutes later, I was back out in the cold, interviewing those who agreed to be on camera, and keeping a casual eye on those who wouldn’t. Overall, it was pretty casual. Despite what you might see on a bad cable TV movie, homeless people are NOT addicted, delusional drifters. Not all of them anyway. Poll the members of your local bread line and you’re sure to find the formerly refined, surprisingly educated and once well cared-for. You’re also sure to be glared at, flipped off and continually asked for cigarettes - even if you show no signs of smoking.
But surfing the edges of the Great Unwashed is just part of the street-level craft some people insist on calling “Photojournalism” Whatever name you use, it’s an intensely twisted gig. My TV news camera acts as a potent passport, one that brings me in regular contact with urine-soaked vagrants and over-cologned captains of industry - often within hours of each other. That was certainly the case that cold January Day. I’d no sooner knocked the dirt from the homeless shelter off my boots than the silent but deadly pager on my hip began vibrating madly.
‘GUV @ Convention Center - NOON’
Thirty minutes later, so was I - strolling across the plush carpet of a bejeweled ballroom with trusty camera and not so trusty tripod in tow. My faded jeans and station fleece once again distinguished me from the crowd but in a far different way than at the shelter. Outside the soup kitchen, I was a dashing figure of assumed-authority and countless freedom. But once inside the Grand Hall filled with fat cats in dark blue suits, my casual apparel marked me a member of the lower class - no more noticeable to the high-dollar crowd than the army of Filipino waiters scurrying about in heavily starched tuxedo shirts.
However, I didn’t come to model the latest in photog wear. I came to cover my state’s top administrator addressing a group of bored business leaders, and doing so wouldn’t call for any costume changes or ‘wardrobe malfunctions’. What it would require is a little patience, for while the footage of the Governor glad-handing the local jet-set would only last forty-five seconds on TV- procuring said images takes a little longer. After whispering in a PR flack’s ear, I settled in a far corner and leaned on my tripod, watching idly as senior executives poked at overpriced lunches of rubber chicken and chewy salad. Manning the podium, Governor Easley droned on - mixing democratic double-speak and homespun homilies with practiced skill.
My skills weren’t getting much practice at all, however. After taping the first few minutes of the Governor’s speech, I turned the camera off and daydreamed, occasionally scribbling in the small black-and-white notebook that never leaves my person. By the time I’d filled up the first page with disjointed phrases, the distinguished speaker uttered the phrase, “Finally, I’d like to …” Years of press-conference conditioning kicked in and I put away my notebook, shouldered my gear, and began creeping toward the side stage entrance. As I did, the PR flack I chatted up earlier made eye contact with me from across the room and began strolling in my direction.
By the time we came to meet at the side door, waves of applause were washing over the podium. North Carolina’s CEO rotated at the waist and waved like a grinning southern-fried robot. When he’s made a clean sweep of the politely adoring crowd, he broke from the spotlight and began walking briskly toward me. As the din of a thousand manicured hands clapping filled the Grand Hall, I was wordlessly whisked into a backroom with the top politico, his handlers and a few bodyguard types.
As I pinned the wireless microphone to the Governor’s crisp lapel, I thought about how that very same mic had been fastened to a half-dozen unwashed transients just ninety minutes before. I chuckled to myself and the silver-haired gentleman from Raleigh raised a well-manicured eyebrow. For a brief second, I wondered if he could somehow read my thoughts. That’s when I realized I had no idea WHAT to ask the Governor. Luckily, experience kicked in, and I lobbed a softball anyone could knock out of the park.
“So tell me Sir, what message do you bring to Greensboro today?”