Saturday, September 27, 2008

David R. Busse: Behind the Shot

AP Photo by Reed Saxon.

July, 1982, covering a flood for several weeks on the Colorado River near Parker, AZ. We're riding with La Paz County (AZ) Sheriff's River Patrol. Reporter on left is Bill Van Amburg, now out of the biz; sound guy on right is Tom Morris, now freelancing in Seattle.

It was July, 1982 and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, operator of most western US water projects, had miscalculated the snow pack in the Rocky Mountains, which meant more snow than expected melted and flowed into the Colorado River watershed. So much water flowed into Lake Powell that they had to open the gates a wee bit more at Glen Canyon Dam…then downstream at Hoover Dam, then Davis Dam, Parker Dam and so on.

It was great news for boaters on the lakes behind those dams, but it played havoc on the rivers below them. The BofR had done such a good job over the years stabilizing flow of the Colorado River that people started to assume that the Colorado would never flood again. So recreationists, commercial interests and some developers began building like crazy along certain sections of the Colorado, and specifically, the area just south of Parker Dam and it’s Lake Havasu impoundment became known as the “Parker Strip”—a sort of redneck Riviera largely settled by Californians from as far away as Orange County.

Development? Well, there never was a Ritz-Carlton planned for the area, and many of the settlers came here with big, loud boats and a “Gas-Grass-Ass/Nobody Rides For Free” attitude. Lets just say, by 1982, the Parker strip was a mish-mosh of riverfront homes, trailer parks, boat landings and bars…some of the latter including drive-up service for bikers on one side and boat-up service on the other. Again, none of it would be mistaken for a five star resort, but the development represented a sizeable investment--for somebody.

People who made “The River” their way of life never seemed to have the word “flood” in their vocabulary.

So, when this little, um, miscalculation happened, the Reclamation folks let everybody know that the gates would open just a pinch and the river might rise an inch or two.

More like 12 inches…nothing, really, for those of us who grew up along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, but when folks have built right up to a water line expecting it to NEVER change, 12 more inches of water might as well be 12 feet.

Which brings us to the subject of this photo.

Our assignment desk in Los Angeles had some vague idea of where the Colorado River was, and a nice United States Department of Interior-Bureau of Reclamation news release telling them about this leetle water problem that we might want to warn viewers about. Whether we actually did or not, I can’t recall…but we came into our Inland Empire Bureau in Riverside one Monday morning to a literal barrage of phone calls from angry river rats complaining of water in their vacation homes and businesses, ruined vacations and a tourist economy in shambles. The River was in our bureau coverage area…about 250 miles out the back door of our office…but that’s one of the challenges of bureau work covering two of the largest counties in the United States.

Our desk told us to check out this flood.

We had no microwave capability there, and satellite uplink trucks were (for us) a few years away.

So, we did what we always did when we smelled a good story out in the sticks and wanted to get it on the air the same day. We chartered airplanes, flew to the story, shot for three or four hours, flew home, and fed from the airport…sometimes breathlessly doing “this just in…” live shots next to the chartered King Air, Jet Commander, or whatever we happened to use that day.

I say “that day” because our desk in LA kept sending us out there on “one day” turns, thinking they would lose interest in the story. So we were never overnighted at the scene—we always flew home that same afternoon.

This pattern continued for three solid weeks.

One day we were in a small plane cruising along at something like 12,000 feet when the controller called the pilot and asked if we had cameras on board. “Yes, we have an ABC TV crew heading to the Colorado River flood…” pilot Clair Merryweather told LA Center.

“Tell then to get their cameras ready, and about 30 seconds from now, look out the window at your five-o-clock…”

We grabbed cameras and craned our necks in time to see the NASA 747, with Space Shuttle “Atlantis” on her back about a quarter mile off our wing, slowly climbing out of California enroute Florida.

That was fun. Most of our other memories of those trips were 115-degree heat, horse flies the size of canned hams, and interactions with increasingly irritated property owners becoming even more irritated as they drank more cold beer to slake both thirst and anger.

Local cops on the river were, of course, happy to take us for “guided tours” of the flood area for the first week or so, and those times on the water became our salvation from the hellish heat. The boat rides became so common, that we almost used them as scheduled respite from the midday heat. After a couple days of this flood duty, I dispensed with any sort of dress code and decided that cut off jeans and tee shirts were the way to go. This made me look like a local and simplified the “afternoon swim” that also became part of our flood-coverage ritual.

Keep in mind that another ritual of this coverage was my daily battle with the air sick bag on the flight home. Dawn flights into the desert are no problem, but mid-day flights across the Mojave are buffeted by thermals generated from the superheated air churning off the parched ground below, and the effect on a small twin-engine airplane or jet is profound. I had been taught at a young age to drink (or at least abscond with) all the liquor in the cabinet of any chartered aircraft, but most of the flights I didn’t even dare enquire of the brands of beer or quality of Scotch offered. It was enough to buckle up, keep firm eye on the horizon, maintain stiff upper lip and have supply of white sick bags at the ready. No, I never had to use one of those bags, but as they often say on the ferry trip to Catalina Island, the only thing worse than throwing up for a few minutes is feeling like you’re about to throw up for two hours.

You’ll note the camera in this picture is my good old Ikegami HL79A, with my ever-present wide-angle lens and trusty pistol-grip. Sound man Tom Morris is using one of those old Sony BVU-110s, better known as a “One-Ton.” We had this setup in the for almost seven more years, when we switched to Betacam tape format. Shortly before I left the bureau in December, 1989, we switched to one-man Betacams.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Best of Viewfinder BLUES

Through a Lens, Darkly Some shots never fade.

A Photog Turns 40 Roll your eyes as I wax pathetic

Jasmine at the Tragic Factory
Her real name was Ariel.

She Were Soldiers Cookies and tea with a Saint .

Hurricane Stew
Whadaya know? Fancy-cams don't float!

Journey of Hope When a feel-good kicker goes bad.

Bovine Castaways God thins the herd.

Dr. Tom and the Chili Peppers More than a record review.

Tears for Fears War IS Hell for some families.

Why I Ditched the LogoWear It's itchy?


Birth of a Photog Animal Lives!

The Roy Park School of Broadcasting Where I earned my Doctorate.

Adventures in Radio Over cologned and mostly sober.

The AppleBee's Incident The stand-off that started it all.

Baptized by Glass The First White-Balance.

Of Floaters and Feelings My initial victims.

Confessions of a Commercial Hack Life as a nimrod.

Early TV: The Stupid Years In all its ugliness.

Making the MarVan I see it in my dreams.

Seven Feet of Hell The cheesiest contest of alL.

The Legend of Vance Speight Williams is a pansy.

New Car Smell And the flashback it triggers.


Operation: Idol Clay Aiken? WHO'S Clay Aiken?

Fear & Loathing at Fantasia-Land Run for you lives!

Supplicants to Fame Bring on the Body Glitter.

Introducing Chris Daughtry This bald dude can wail.

Caged Birds, Singing AI audition up close

So Nice, that Bo Bice And polite, too!

The Final 24 American Idol hopefuls in L.A.

Last Day at the Cheese Factory I think Paula likes me.

Life After Idol Hangin' with our pal Bucky Covington

Remnants of Hipness Chris Daughtry comes home.


Fire on Vine Captain Lynch is lookin' for ya.

Once More Up the Widow's Porch A Trip I Know Well.

Hillbilly HoeDown Morning Jam Starts light, ends dark.

The Scrum and The Numb Doing Time at Va. Tech.

Up the River with Ed I can still smell it.

Looking for Lost Boys And then finding them.

The One Word That can make me vanish.

Confessions of a Video Vulture Yeah I got feelings...somewhere.

Bruised Fruit of the Pursuit
Hey, that rhymes!


Ten Things I'd Teach TV Reporters
IF I thought they'd listen.

Thrift Store Reconnaissance Ewing and I go deep.

Shotgun with the Man WhatchaGonnaDoWhenTheyComeForYou?

Granny Crackpipe and Cousin Spit Back and to the left.

Anatomy of a Live Shot Breaking down the Set-up

Things Isabel Taught Me In a Convenient List.

Furniture Inferno Is there ever a good time for spot news?

Headset Perry The Peter Principle in Action.

The Lost VoSot Patrol Never leave a man behind.

Lords of the Underpass And the women who love them.

A Day in the Strife Life as I know it.


Skate-Ray and Tall Dad Go on vacation, already.

O Brother Where Art Thou? Big Ups to Richard.

Faro's Broken Arrow The disaster that almost was.

Remembering Richard Pryor I was born a poor black child.

My Life With Motley Crue Shout at the devil.

Crazy on a Ship of Tools Haze Gray Underway.

Rebel in the Wind Killing my very first car.

Rocks in His Pocket A geezer kicks it.

Flirtin' With Disaster On the road in The Rebel.

Room to Write A peek at my inner sanctum.

The Pot Shack You're in the jungle, baby.


MoonRock Madness Dumber than Fiction

Snowblind on the Overpass Don't try this at home.

The Stupid and the Doomed They're often interchangeable.

Into the Wild Spot News Urination Epic.

County Commission Theater Morons in Motion.

The Coolest Thing I can think of right now.

The Reno Epiphany The day my junkie died.

Prison Yard Litmus Test I hate wardens.

Running Down Dubya Look-alike, Schmook-alike.


Tomorrow Doesn't Exist Or does it?

Birth of the Personal Journalist The Gurus loved this one.

And the Winner Ain't... The print guys with the lens cap on..

Perils of E.N.G. Eulogy for fallen comrades.

The Social Fabric of Firefighting Got smoke?

Pixelator's Twitch I didn't sleep at all last night.

Ribbon Cuttings, Ride-Alongs and Rage Three of my favorite things.

The Impending Schism Thoughts on the Horizon.

The Media and the Miner's Plight
Thoughts on Sago.


Inside Ophelia Multi-Part Saga of marquee'd rainmaker.

PayBack on the Interstate Some things take awhile.

Dr.UnDead's Fright Fest Behind the scenes of a no-budget slasher.

Vistas of Demolition
Can I keep the hardhat?

Food Court Theatrics Excuse me, miss...

The Art of of the Grab Crashing a live shot.

Crew-Call at Camp Ophelia Me and the boys slum by the shore.

Fumes at Eleven Low, low, low on petrol.

Walkdowns, Round Ups, Ride-Alongs
Three roads to exhaustion.

Fear and Loathing at Final Approach Alert 2! Alert 2!

The Amazing Pace Minus the million.


It's What I Do Drudgery in 3 easy steps.

Mad Skills of a Master Photog Do you have what it takes?

Careful What You Wish For
You just might get it.

Ways to Improve Hurricane Remotes Funny before Katrina.

Stressing the Edit It's why my hair's so thin.

Chances Are You're a Photog... A safe and easy test.

Truisms of Newsgathering This I know.

Signs Your Presser Isn't Going Well You're all alone.

No Business Being a Photog Doing Foxworthy proud.

Trust Your Gut Look where it got me.

The Right to Play Dumb And when to exercise it..


One March Morning A toy gun changed my life.

Sometimes They Die Early morning death spectacle.

My Favorite Mistake There's alot more where this came from.

When Soundbites Echo Earworms from the ghetto.

The Handcuffed Hippie
A robber goes down.

Have Mullet, Will Travel
Check out the wrestler hair.

My Time on the Dark Side How it almost robbed my soul.

Bad Boys, Bad Boys Life in the age of COPS.

Logos in the Wind
Whadaya mean I can't speed, occifer?


G. Lee Goes to Court And lives to tell about it.

The Body and the Beauty Queen
Take your prick.

Perfecting the Improbable Seen from afar.

This Ain't Baseball G. Lee works a nightshift.


Asleep at the Wheel Dreaming of C-Span glory

Doppelgangers in Motion Is that me comin' through the door?

Mojo Denied It was right here in my fannypack.

Photog Feng Shui That doesn't go there.

More Than Caddies My crew gets props.

Rethinking Jesse Jackson Still an asshole.

Bones of Calamity School bus wreck epistle.

From Crisis to Commodity In less than twenty minutes.

Street Corner Specter Spooky interlude in the 'hood

Pavlov's Cell Phone Is that my spleen ringing?

Fishing for Sound And getting pulled in.

"I'll Log in the Car..."
You drive like a fireman.

Dull Day Dissected More exciting than it sounds.

Strung Out on the Access But burned out by the rub.

The Places I've Been Eat your heart out, Johnny Cash.

Life on the Risers Wiggle this platform at your own peril.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Taking the Tower

“Listen up ya’ll”, the training sergeant growled at his men as he eyeballed me and my partner.

“If you see THE MAY-DIA during the exercise - do NOT engage them! Repeat - the MAY-DIA are NOT ENGAGED!”

The SWAT Team didn’t seem too concerned. They barely even looked up as they finished pulling on those awkward yellow chemical suits. Ignoring my lens, they checked their weapons and pulled on air tanks. Through my viewfinder I recorded two of them hunched over a checklist. “Shoot local camera crew” wasn’t on their agenda.

“I think they like us”, I said to my colleague. Erik smiled vacantly as he listened to the cell phone pressed to his well-groomed head. He was trying to book airline tickets to Jersey and the reporter in him was certain he could find cheaper fare.

Just then a heavy metal click sounded overhead as the training compound’s loudspeaker hummed to life.

“YA‘LL GO TO HAY-ELL! I’M A KILL ’EM ALL - I SWAR! A hint of sarcasm bled through the heavy Southern accent . Whoever was keying the microphone up there seemed to be enjoying his new role as hostage taker.


With that the five man Emergency Response Team formed a single file line and began shuffling toward the four story training tower at the rear of the county compound. But my eyes fell on the building beside it - a red squat structure with a no nonsense sign that read “RESTROOM”. Wow - I thought, an actual brick shithouse…

But it was no time to gawk. It was time to punch in.


It’s become cliché to say 9/11 changed the world. But it did, and nowhere more cataclysmically than in law enforcement. Now even deputy dawgs in the middle of the sticks have to sweat terrorism. Using funds from the Department of Homeland Security, men and women who used to spend their time setting up speed traps are now learning to deal with chemical weapons. Occasionally they want publicity doing so, and that’s how I found myself huddling in a ground floor stair well and taking on paint ball fire.

To be honest, I’d been warned. In our earlier interview, the training officer with the bushy moustache told my lens how the opposing agents would take pot shots at the SWAT team assigned to take the tower.

“We got some other surprises for ‘em too”,” he grinned behind a wad of chewing tobacco.

Now, as I loitered in the stairwell and waited for the team I swore I heard giggling from four flights up.


The heavy steel door before me almost ripped from its hinges as the SWAT team poured into the small room, pistols drawn, eyes darting behind steamed up goggles. Instinctively, I leveled my own weapon - a SONY XD CAM with freshly charged Dionic battery. They weren’t impressed. In fact, they barely issued a law enforcer's grunt as they swept past my lens and loud shirt.

I turned to follow the team. The pudgy deputy beringing up ther rear wore a growing sweat stain on the back on his chem suit. With every step he pulled hard on the air tank's regulator, making him sound like Darth Vader - IF the Dark Lord was a two-pack-a-day smoker, that is.

Bracing against the wall, I steadied up a canted shot of the already fatigued team trudging up the staircase. A wide shaft of sunlight swathed the stairwell from above, casting their forms in silhouette and lighting up a thousand dust motes so well I could count them through the viewfinder. This is what I’d come for.

“Come on, you can do better that! How about Laguardia? You got nothing for me there?”

Erik's New Jersey accent pouring out of my headphones confused me at first. Then I took a step up and peered out of the second story window. Down below, I saw the well-coiffed top of my partner’s head. With the air of a young banker, he paced around the entrance to the training tower, yammering on his ever-present cell phone and one still-activated lapel microphone.

I considered hurling a 9 volt battery at him, but I was running low.



The SWAT team leader barked orders to his men, but his gas mask muffled the words. The team seemed to understand tough, for their heads moved in different directions all at once - each member surveying a different quadrant of the heavy metal stairwell. I trailed behind, lens up and riding the iris as we all shuffled up the stairs. Trying to ignore the pain in my shoulder, I dropped the camera low and got a shot of the their chemical suit booties taking a grunt-filled step at a time.

Is this any way for a grown man to make a living? - I thought for not the first time. This crap was a blast when I was twenty two, but at thirty-seven, I’m beginning to feel a little silly. I got friends ascending corporate ladders, and I’m here chasing these goons up a tower. Country boys playin’ Cops and Robbers, and me still playin’ Tee Vee. Wonder if that little hillbilly diner down the road has chicken pastry today?

The needles on my camera’s audio meter danced crazily and jarred me out of my daydream haze. The clang of the oxygen tanks punctuated the cadence of the men's mechanized breathing and my on-board microphone recorded it all. Watching the needles dance, I judged the nat sound’s quality.

“What about Newark? Say I come back on Monday?” -- Erik’s voice crackled on the other channel, a distant conversation about a distant place. Shaking off the sound, I pulled out to a wide shot. As the men rounded the corner and out of sight, I stopped a moment in the stairwell, flipping switches on my camera and trying to think sequentially.

That’s important when you’re gathering news images. Uncle Jesse may wear out his camcorder’s zoom button every Thanksgiving, but the TV News photog opts for rock steady shots that will fit into tightly-edited sequences. Wide. Medium. Tight. It’s like storyboarding comic book panels in your head, blocking action scenes as they happen, mentally editing the footage as you shoot it -- a tricky feat when you’re chasing a SWAT Team up a winding stairwell and your back hurts.

Up on the second floor, the SWAT team fanned out, leaving the bright sunshine of the stairwell for the dusty shadows of the cavernous space. Through the viewfinder I spotted a mannequin on the floor, strapped to a stretcher that looked broken. A jumble of cardboard boxes took up one wall, but it was hard to see. With all the dust in the air, I started to worry about vulnerable electronics of my brand new camera. But there was nothing I could do now, so I checked the battery strength indicator in my viewfinder’s reassuring haze.

In front of me, the SWAT team medic advanced cautiously on the department store dummy on the stretcher. Through my viewfinder , I tracked him as he squatted over the mannequin and checked for the unlikeliest of pulses. Once he determined the victim would never again model fine fall fashions at JC Penney’s, he moved on.


The voice from the PA speaker before now rang down from two flights up. It sounded even closer. I even flinched a little at the sound, though I knew it was only an out of town deputy holding a room full of mannequins hostage. The SWAT team shared my feelings, and picked up their surveillance sweep of the dusty space. As the dust cleared, the room grew bigger and I noticed the training sergeant standing in the far corner, a no-nonsense toothpick jutting from his bushy moustache. A look that told me not to point my camera his way.

Turning back to the SWAT team I readjusted my shot. A team member was poking through the wall of boxes while the others took a moment to check each other’s oxygen tank. I put one knee to the ground and my camera on the other. I was trying to decide which shot to go for next when I heard what sounded like a spoon bouncing on the cement floor.

That’s when all the air, sound and color left the room.



Every muscle in my body flexed as the white hot blast consumed everything around me. In the sliver of a second that it took the concussion grenade to detonate, sound eclipsed sight, dust motes became projectiles and I just about dropped a very expensive camera. As the echos of the blast bounced from wall to ceiling to floor and back again, I remained very still, trying to wrap my brain around what had just happened.

Flash Bang. A SWAT team's favorite tool of diversion. I'd seen (and felt) them used before in training but never so unexpectedly, and never inside such a small enclosure. The very volume of the explosion was painful. Though only a fraction of a wartime ordinance, the flash bang rendered everything instantly irrelevant when it erupted from the corner of the room. The force blew the helmet off the SWAT team member closest to it, the unmistakable sound of it's thin plastic shell skittering across the concrete floor providing a delicate filligree against the blasts painfully bass echo.

When my vision DID return, I froze like a statue, absorbing the sound and wind and light as it slowly evaporated into shadowy daylight, my eyes darting around the room for signs of injury and finding none. The SWAT team were milling about and looking at the floor, already piecing together how they'd set off the booby trap. Everyone looked pretty casual but the rapid breathing sounds coming from behind their face masks told me even they weren't expecting a concussion grenade to be stashed amid all those cardboard boxes.

Only then did I think to look at my camera. As I turned my head toward the viewfinder, the red 'Record' light stared back, a beacon in the dark that told me I'd be able to relive the proceeding moments ad infinitum.

Through the ringing in my ears, I heard the sounds of Erik's voice coming through the headphones around my neck.

"Hey Stew - you need to come outside and change pants?"

My drawers were fine, but I stumbled down the stairwell anyway. Nothing else I captured on camera would top what I'd just recorded and I was anxious to watch the footage. Over lunch. In a hillbilly diner down the road. As I stumbled out of the training tower, still a bit punch drunk from absorbing the blast, I realized that, for better or worse, I still liked my job - deadlines, flash bangs and all.