The Politics of Politics

I can’t stand talking about politics. The last time I found the subject interesting was almost exactly four years ago, when Obama was elected to the office of the U.S. president. I remember going to work the morning after the election, which like many New Yorkers I watched with a huge crowd on a big-screen TV at a bar.

My co-workers and I were ecstatic about the win. I remember seeing my friends at work who were black and white and Italian and everything else in between, and we were just out of our heads with happiness. It was like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and a day at the beach all rolled into one. We had lived to see an African-American man elected to the White House.

But we weren’t excited because we love politics. We were excited because in our hearts, we love America, and we love the fact that it can still surprise us. My friends and I don’t sit around talking about politics, and never have. But the night that Barack Obama was elected to the White House in 2008, the entire city of New York was screaming on the streets, hugging each other, honking their horns, and generally flipping out.

One day, if my son is discouraged about the problems in the U.S., I will tell him the story of Obama winning the presidential election. And then winning again in 2012. It’s proof that politics isn’t always about politics. Sometimes it is about people believing that things can change.

Getting Too Close for Comfort

Getting physically close to a story is not as easy as it seems. First of all, most people are not conditioned to think in terms of potential sources of information, getting close enough to take a good photo, or whipping out a video recorder to document something interesting and unique. It takes repetition and practice to get used to always keeping an eye out for the story.

To go from passive observer to engaged observer (by recording what is happening) also takes overcoming blocks that keep us in the passive category. Sometimes it is fear. Sometimes laziness. Sometimes timidity.

Fear covers all of the above. But why is it so powerful? I think the answer is that it’s not.

When I was in Ein Kerem, Israel on the last day of Sukkot (a major Jewish holiday) recently, I came across some orthodox Jewish men dancing and singing in the streets. I knew it was a good opportunity to take some photos and video–just for practice. I am very fearful of photographing people, so I try to do it as often as possible. Maybe in a year or two I won’t be as timid.

In this case, it is understandable that I was a bit fearful. The only time anyone has ever threatened to stone me was a couple of years ago when I was photographing a huge demonstration by orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem.

A photo from a protest of 10,000 orthodox Jewish men and boys in Jerusalem in 2010 that I covered.

But standing there in the idyllic setting of Ein Kerem, I overcame that bizarre and isolated incident and whipped out my Samsung Galaxy smartphone (basically a miniature computer) to take some photos and video.

Ein Kerem is a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that is a huge tourist attraction. The small scale of the dancing street worked to my advantage because there was no through traffic (actually they were blocking any through traffic). The tourists were also an advantage, because there were quite a few people standing around gawking at the men as they danced and sang with their holy book, the Torah. Sukkot is the end of the Jewish calendar year and marks the point when religious followers of Judaism start reading the Torah from the beginning after spending the year reading through it.

A view of the mountains from Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

While I was taking the video, I knew I wasn’t close enough. I took a few small steps forward, measuring my distance against other onlookers. I was very consciously seeking strength in numbers, but why? What did I think these singing, dancing men were going to do to me if I got a bit closer? Yell at me, tell me to get lost, or pick up the nearest rock and chuck it at my head? It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but coming clean about shortcomings as a reporter post-story can be instructive if you make a brutally honest assessment. Well, it doesn’t have to be brutal, but  it should be without permissive trimmings and excuses if you want to do better the next time. And there will be a next time, unless you plan on quitting.

While still mid-story, there are a few things at play when photographing or videoing people on the street. First of all, are you invading their privacy? Second of all, are you interfering with them in any way? Sometimes there are no answers to either question, but they should be asked. Rule number one in journalistic ethics: do no harm.

Sadly, when it comes to certain kinds of public gatherings, a large media presence can serve to embolden even the most timid reporter (and protester, for that matter!). Just take a look at this video of recent protests in Spain. It’s something akin to mob mentality. You can easily see what a large gathering of photographers looks like. It takes a strong journalist to break away from the pack in such a situation and work on the outskirts of the story, away from the mutually-generating vibe of protesters and journalists.

In 2009 I was in Jerusalem covering some tensions between Muslims and Jews outside the walls of the Old City. The situation was electrified, and the gaggle of reporters there didn’t  help.

Police horses form an equine barrier during tensions near the Old City in Jerusalem in 2009.

In that situation, I was extremely bold. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like anything that I believe I am capable of. I got in front of a row of police horses and snapped several shots. I stood alone in front of a huge pack of Muslim men and photographed them as they bent in prayer, not moving until they told me, “Uh, can you move? We don’t want to pray with a woman in front of us.” I also got very good close-up shots of people’s faces while they were yelling at each other, shots from the roof of a building, and several shots of armed border patrol and police.

That experience proves two things. It proves the controlling force I think fear has on me as a reporter actually doesn’t exist. But more importantly, it proves that I am capable of getting as close to the story as I want to.

The Serious Business of Writing

I have always found it fun to imagine “the life” of a writer. Poring over works-in-progress, sitting in coffee shops alone for hours on end, possibly while wearing a beret. Writers, like other artists, have a mystique about them that makes the process of their work seem romantic and viewed through a lens that makes the edges all soft and fuzzy.

It simply isn’t true.

There are two problems with being a writer if you ever intend to make a living at it. One is that there is an endless supply of people and organizations out there who want you to fit into a mold that works for them. Imagine a search for a writer by a group or individual. The search will involve a long list of required credentials, experience, and probably writing style. Ability to write is a criteria, but it usually comes after the ability to mold yourself to what others want.

Problem number two: writing is LONELY. Really working as a writer involves many, many, many hours of laborious, painstaking work, often under the threat of a deadline. You have to abandon your spouse, your kids, your friends, and anything fun you might want to do in the pursuit of completing the task at hand. Therein lies the crux of being a writer: the task at hand will always involve an exclusive relationship between you and the written word. No matter how many editors you work with, they can’t hold your hand while you do the actual work.

Even though writing is fraught with potentially depressing moments of working so hard you can’t believe this was your dream, it’s still worth it. 100 times over it’s worth it. With work, work, work comes practice. With denying yourself personal time to have fun and spend time with loved ones, comes discipline and understanding about what it takes to really make it. It takes serious, hard work. But man, is it a wondrous labor.

In Journalism, Photographers and Writers on Unequal Footing

I have often wondered about the difference between photojournalists and reporters. Aside from the obvious differences of the medium that they use to convey information, it seems that in the shifting media industry, photojournalists are more equipped to succeed professionally and financially.

While writing a recent article for Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, on how independent and emerging journalists are shaping the future of the industry, this difference became very evident. Photojournalists seem to be, in general, more aware of the resources that are available in terms of training, funding, project work, client work, and potential career pathways. Reporters (writers) seem more at the mercy at the industry, less certain about how to proactively create and exploit existing opportunities, and more naieve about available resources. In short, as freelancers and independent business people, photographers seem to be on more solid footing.

An Epiphany about Peace in the Middle East

You can tell a lot about people in a certain locale by the way they drive. In Japan, drivers are super-controlled and maintain a façade of calm almost at all times. In Central America, the general attitude of drivers is like, “Whatever….” In both cases, this parallels with the respective cultures. In LA (the worst possible example in the US that I can think of) you’d better have your last will and testament in order before you get behind the wheel. You know the second Matrix movie—the one where they get on the freeway? That’s LA. Basically, California drivers are known for being “free spirits” (a.k.a. people who disregard rules) on the road. That corresponds well with the whole vibe of California in general.

If you apply my theory to how people drive in Israel, there seems to be a general frustration and desire to be in control among the populace. A typical example was the tiny car I saw recently on the narrow highway into Jerusalem that played chicken with an enormous semi-truck full of hay. The semi tried to switch into the car’s lane, but the little car refused to budge. It was fascinating to watch, because it seemed impossible that any driver could be that outright crazy. But the really crazy part was that the itty-bitty car won.

Another time I saw a woman leave her car in the middle of the road to go yell at the driver in the vehicle behind her. Their only crime seemed to be that they had yelled some criticisms out their window. And more than once I’ve had other cars that do not have the right of way drive straight at me, honking like maniacs.

Roundabouts in Israel are a special problem. They seem to suffer from being treated merely as suggestions. Using them according to the universal rules by which they operate is optional. The option is: If you’re not in the mood to do things according to the rules, no problem.

One day not long ago, I came upon backed-up traffic at a roundabout because of a police car block. The presence of the police car (which I assume contained at least one police officer) was not enough to inspire drivers to be on their best behavior. Instead, everyone got riled up and it turned into a free-for-all. The one lane for cars to merge into the circle became three. Cars managed to wedge themselves into all kinds of odd positions that were generally not facing in the direction that traffic flows. I ended up in the “middle” lane, with a militant-looking bald guy on my right yelling at me as he inched his way past with his right tires on the sidewalk. It was all of about three minutes before the cars started moving again, but it was enough to make mortal enemies out of the drivers.

Pedestrians are not innocent, either. People on foot use crosswalks when they are available, but they also freely jaywalk—with some serious attitude. Jaywalking isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s generally a good idea to look and see if there are any cars coming, and then wait. In Jerusalem, where the streets are old and many were built when horses and donkeys were the main mode of transportation, sometimes pedestrians don’t even have a sidewalk to walk on.

But the blatant, amateur jaywalking that abounds here is enough to make your blood pressure shoot up 20 points when you’re behind the wheel. Usually, you feel pretty good after you’ve swerved and just missed hitting some lady with seven kids who jumped out from behind a row of parked cars. But when you come upon the random guy walking lazily in the street, parallel to the sidewalk, pedestrians start to seem like part of the problem.

Not everything about driving in Israel is bad, though. Personally, I love the thing they do with traffic lights going from red to yellow to green. That way, you can have your foot on the gas and start moving before the light actually changes. I’m pretty sure Israeli engineers stole the concept for their traffic lights from those Japanese video games I used to play as a kid at the pizza parlor. It’s exactly the same—all that’s missing is a lady standing on the side waving a checkered flag.

So between people inventing driving rules, lights that change backwards, and pedestrians who seem to think they have more right to the roads than cars, everyone in this country who walks or drives is in danger and under pressure at every second. That brings us to my (unqualified) theory about how to achieve peace in the Middle East: have a society-wide campaign to improve road etiquette. Maybe more civil behavior on the road will lead to more civil behavior between the parties trying to achieve peace. It’s worth a try.

Just Say No to Being a Content Producer

It’s seriously tempting as a journalist these days to take the low road when it comes to finding work. But if you calculate the time and energy it takes to search for freelance work, you’re better off getting really good at being a journalist.

The trick of dressing up hack journalism with the title of “content producer” is a great example. These are the so-called jobs that want someone to crank out anywhere from 3-30 articles a week for publication online. The first clue that this is NOT journalism is the part of the job description that notes you must have SEO keyword knowledge. I don’t know what the name for this kind of writing is, but it sure isn’t journalism. In fact, I think it is at odds with journalism.

I’ve come to realize that when it comes to being a journalist, I’m a purist. I’ve had those points in my career where I was an “editor” for some “content” project that paid pretty well. At the time, it was a great way to get cash for equipment I needed–a new laptop, a DSLR camera and lens, a recorder, et cetera. But at the end of the day, wherever you put your time and energy and effort is where you are going to see results.

Instead of wasting your most precious resource–your time–on searching for freelance/telecommute jobs that are vaguely related to being a journalist, spend that time working on pitches and story ideas.

Write your ideas down, let them ruminate in the back of your head. Try writing pitches and sending them out. I guarantee you will see where the holes are and what you need to work on. And I guarantee that if you’re serious about getting your pitch perfect and are passionate about the story (why bother choosing topics that you are lukewarm about?), you will get an assignment. Just keep at it–and say “no” to being a content producer. You won’t be sorry.



Journalists Kidnapped–or Just Working?

AP Photo of Baker Atyani

It’s impossible to ignore that there is a very bizarre, inherent bias in the media world against journalists who are not western. I first noticed it when I started trying to do a story about the dangers and difficulties that Arab journalists face working in Gaza and the West Bank. Nobody was interested except for Arab publications.

In a similar vein, it’s interesting that western media haven’t yet picked up the story about a Jordanian journalist and his local crew working in the Philippines who might have been kidnapped.

Different local media have covered the story, with widely conflicting takes on what has happened to the reporter, Baker Atyani, and his crew.

Atyani works for Al-Arabiya TV.

Even if it turns out that the group was not kidnapped, and are simply off the radar because they are working on a story, it’s curious that mainstream western media hasn’t made a mention of it. It makes me suspicious there might be an inherent bias against giving too much play to stories involving the work–and plight–of Arab journalists.