In my last few editor’s letters, I’ve been retracing my career path through my early days as a photojournalist for the Associated Press. I was barely out of college and had landed a job racing around Los Angeles covering news, sports, and entertainment for the largest wire service in the world; I didn’t know then that my career would take several twists and turns before I found my true path. This is #4 in my serialized saga, and you can go back to Off Camera #25 to catch up. In the last installment, I shared the pure satisfaction I got after a long day as an assignment photographer, and how the feeling of being young and making it in a big city was intoxicating in a way I will never experience again.
But ever since the beginning of my tenure at the Los Angeles bureau, I never felt like I completely fit in with the seasoned photojournalists there. As a rule, news photographers are a pretty cynical and jaded lot; and in my experience, it was rare to find a restless, artistic soul lurking under those khaki vests. I’d sometimes return to the bureau filled with excitement over a picture I had made, only to be met with bland, “tomorrow’s bird cage liner” stares. One time I shot a picture of San Diego Padres second baseman Roberto Alomar making a diving catch against the Dodgers. It was the best sports picture I had ever made, and I spent some time making a nice print before turning it into the older, experienced photographer who was manning the night desk. I was shocked and hurt when I found out he “accidentally” credited himself for the photograph before sending it out over the wire services.
Perhaps most disturbing to me were the assignments that involved stakeouts or situations where the subject clearly didn’t want to be photographed. I spent three consecutive nights in a car waiting for Christian Brando to be released from prison, and once hid in a dumpster for five hours inside a police barricade to photograph an armed hostage takeover of a McDonald’s. But those assignments were at least about people that had done something wrong, very bad, or worse, and I took a certain civic pride in making a good picture. Worst of all was when I sympathized with the subject, and thus in the position of either making a picture I didn’t want to make, or losing my job. One such moment stands out above all the rest as the beginning of the end of my tenure at the AP, and as my first realization that I should probably be doing something different with a camera than lining tomorrow’s birdcages.
On March 4, 1990, Loyola Marymount College basketball star Hank Gathers died tragically of cardiac arrest in the middle of a game. It was a shock to Los Angeles, and especially to those of us who had watched the Lions go 25-4 and earn an NCAA championship berth that season. I did not cover the game, but was assigned, along with photographer Nick Ut, to make photographs at the memorial service held at the college on March 7. As I was leaving the bureau that morning, one of the assignment editors said, “Make sure to get a picture of the mother.”
I met up with Nick on campus near the basketball pavilion, and we decided that he would cover the arrivals, and I would be inside. There were thousands of people there – students, alumni, family, and friends. It was terrifically sad, and I was swept up in the emotion coursing through the room. At one point, coach Paul Westhead approached the podium and spoke of Gathers. He told a story about hearing a Cat Stevens song on the way to a game just a week earlier, and how haunting and ironic the words became to him. He then recited this from Oh Very Young: “Oh very young what will you leave us this time? You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while. And though you want to last forever you know you never will. You know you never will. ”
I was in tears, as was most of the crowd. I forgot about being a photographer and just grieved for this young man’s family (he was only two years younger than me at the time). Not only was he a projected first-round draft pick with a huge future in the NBA ahead of him, but he also had a six-year-old son. And a mother. “Make sure you get a picture of the mother.”
Well, Lucille Gathers was overcome with tears, and surrounded by family and her son’s teammates. As the service ended and the procession began to file out, I dutifully stayed with the family and began trying to make a picture. Other photographers and videographers joined me as we stepped into the harsh California noonday sun. I was being jostled and knocked around as everyone tried to get a better angle of this poor woman in her moment of despair. Some journalists even yelled her name. I remember her putting her hand up and trying to block her crying face from the cameras, and at that moment I pulled out of the crowd and gave the woman the space she deserved. I didn’t get a picture, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be there in that moment, adding to her grief and pain.
As I drove back to the bureau I realized that I really despised this part of my job. I wasn’t cut out for it. I didn’t want to be in situations where I wasn’t wanted, and I didn’t want to capitalize on someone’s pain. This realization sparked questions about where I belonged in the scope of photography, but it also softened the blow when I was dressed down for not getting a good picture of “the mother.”
Jon Hamm lost his mother when he was 10 years old, and his father 10 years later. He maintains a stoic exterior about their passing, which may have helped convince Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner that the then-unknown actor could embody the complex, emotionally closed off Don Draper. That is not to say Hamm is guarded, or repressed. He does retain an air of mystery though, which made my conversation with him particularly intriguing. Though he won’t dwell on it, I got the sense that both his mom and his dad are constantly at the forefront of his mind. He had to grow up fast, and that necessity formed his character – his real character – as a mature, thoughtful, and hardworking actor who has made the most of his chances in life. It is admirable that Hamm found such success after such hardship, and his journey is a reminder to us all that self-reliance is something to strive for, whether or not you happen to be really, really handsome.
– Sam Jones, May 2015