On Assignment: Muskegon, Mich. for The Wall Street Journal
In the springtime, I’d photographed subjects, places and people relating to the coronavirus. Those photos were self assigned, as I wanted to visually document what I could during that time. The benefits of self assigning myself that work was that I had the convenience of photographing in the town I live, there were no deadlines and all the photographic decisions were on me. It’s been said before, but you can find amazing photographic opportunities in your own backyard, town…anywhere!
A few weeks into June, I was contacted by a photo editor at The Wall Street Journal to document COVID-19 and how it has, and continues, to impact the city of Muskegon, Michigan. It’s always excellent working with The Wall Street Journal, primarily because of their professionalism and attention to detail. Before I could go on assignment, I was to attend an online training seminar about working safely during the pandemic and how to take necessary precautions. After the training, I felt ready to safely begin the assignment.
Due to my schedule, I was able to devote an entire day to travel, photograph, edit and submit the assignment images. Muskegon is about two hours away so I left early in the morning so I could arrive during nice light. There was a loose shot list for me which provided some details on what to look for and photograph as I navigated the city. While driving, I received some requests for additional portraits, which thankfully, I was able to fit in. Time management is absolutely essential when it comes to photography assignments of any kind. Sometimes, the writer will be present, which can be nice because then the story and visuals have a harmony to them. That wasn’t the case for this trip, which can also be a benefit because it allows a lot of flexibility and freedom.
Every assignment presents challenges and this one was no different. There was construction throughout town, the light was pretty bad (a cloudless day so straight sun), it was hot (especially with an N95 mask) and care had to be taken due to the pandemic. A big part of photojournalism is to create quality content and images despite those challenges. To solve the problem of subpar light, I simply tried to photograph with the light behind me as much as possible. For portraits, I have an off-camera strobe I employ to give me control over bad-lighting scenarios.
It was strange and difficult to make portraits from a distance rather than up close. The benefit for me though was that it forced me to think of portraits in a different way. I walked away from this assignment having a new appreciation and for full-body portraits.
It’s important to include people in photographs for interest, scale, etc. My assignment was a weekday in a town not necessarily bustling so in this case, a lot of patience is involved. Fortunately, there was a mid-week farmers market taking place. Years ago, I saw National Geographic photographer Sam Abell speak. Among his many useful tips, one that stuck with me was the importance of finding an interesting scene and waiting for a person or people. I’ve never forgotten that and I used it many times on this assignment. I take in a scene, imagine how it’d look for a person to be in the frame, gauge (this is important) the probability of a person actually being in the frame, then wait.
This was an important story to work on I’m thankful The Wall Street Journal entrusted me with the story and visuals. A takeaway for you, reader, is that if you’re hoping to do this type of work, you can! No need to wait for an assignment. Make photos, learn, keep photographing!!! You’d be surprised at how a solid body of work and reaching out to professionals in the business can help you open doors, especially in photography.