In 1982, I had my first newspaper internship, in Lawton, Oklahoma. A friend of my mom’s was friends with the publisher, and got me an interview for a news writing position. But I had just spent the entire semester focusing my energy on being a photographer, and spent all my allowance money on a Nikon FM, a 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor, a 28mm Nikon Series E, and the legendary 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor. In my interview, I kept circling back to how much I wanted to be taking pictures, and I guess my mom’s friend had enough clout that I got my way, because the next Monday I reported to long-time news photographer Bill Dixon.
My first assignment was on my first morning: ride with Bill out to the nearby Fort Sill Army base and photograph minor storm damage. That was on a Monday. As I recall, Lawton’s three high schools, Lawton High, Eisenhower High, and MacArthur High, (military town?), all graduated on that Friday night. I lobbied to be allowed to shoot my alma mater, Eisenhower, but was overridden by another photographer, and went to McArthur. I had no experience shooting graduations of any kind, so I made a couple of assumptions… 1) That I needed to shoot direct flash, which we almost always did when I was on yearbook staff in high schoolm (more about this later), and 2) that I needed to shoot pictures of actual graduations, which to me meant kids being handed their diplomas. The second assumption was based on my own graduation a year earlier, the only photo from which was of me being handed my diploma, shot by a commercial photographer who did only that.
Predictably, my images from MacArthur were weak. The other photographer’s stuff was really good, and included a mom straightening her son’s cap and tassel. For me and my bloated ego, him outshooting me was a hard lesson, but one I did learn. To this day, my graduation feature photos (three of which are on the front page of The Ada News as I write this) are influenced by that first experience. (That’s what potential employers mean when they ask about your experience.)
What all my graduation coverage photos now have in common is that my cameras and I remain a distant, even invisible observer. That point of view sets my images apart from the maelstrom of grip-and-grin photos a million parents shoot at graduations. There are moments at every graduation – happy ones, sad ones, funny ones – that are interrupted by someone wanted to make a photo. They stop what’s going on and order the subject to smile or “say cheese.” My goal is to stay in the background enough that I don’t interrupt the moment and don’t make anyone, “say cheese.”
It’s not always easy. Everyone in my community knows who I am and what I am doing, so I sometimes need to play a little hide-and-seek with my cameras and my intentions. But it’s worth it to capture real, telling moments.