On Assignment for The Wall Street Journal: “How ‘eDNA’ Might Transform the Search for Missing Service Members”
In the span of only a few days, I went from receiving a photo assignment from The Wall Street Journal, to feeling Lake Huron spray hit my face as we sped toward shipwreck Pewabic, trying to beat inclement weather.
As a freelance photographer, when I’m commissioned by someone to make pictures for them, I take every inquiry seriously.
This rings especially true when the assignment comes from The Wall Street Journal. I’ve been fortunate to work with them on a number of assignments, and they’ve all been not only fascinating, but they’ve also held potential for interesting visuals as well.
Last August, my assignment was to meet and travel with a group of researchers and divers as they traveled to the site of a shipwreck. The objective of their excursion, and what I was to document, was their gathering of environmental DNA (eDNA) at the site.
The eDNA is gathered when collection tubes are placed near the shipwreck—it could also be a plane, or any other area of underwater interest—and sediment is collected at the site. Once the sediment is collected, it is transported to a laboratory for analyzing.
After working at some of the shipwrecks in Lake Huron, in Michigan’s northeast, many of the researchers were going to travel to Italy to explore and research a World War II plane that was underwater. It was interesting to hear about how this talented group of researchers was collaborating on a world-wide level.
This was a challenging, but extremely fulfilling assignment. Weather was the ultimate dictator of when, if and how long, anyone was going to travel to the shipwreck site. Since the weather changes so quickly, especially on the Great Lakes, it wasn’t decided whether or not the trip would take place until a couple of hours before the scheduled time.
Fortunately, there was a window of time when we could go.
Typically, there would be a group of divers that setup the equipment and supplies needed for the sediment collection. Then, there would be another group of divers that followed, and they would gather the sediment at the chosen site.
Since the weather was turning windy and wavy, only the first group of divers—they’re the ones who setup the sediment collection tubes at the underwater site—went down.
From a photojournalist’s standpoint, I was mostly thankful that any divers at all were able to go down.
Photographing this was really enjoyable. Everyone was extremely informative, helpful, professional and kind. One of the most difficult aspects of photojournalism, for a photojournalist, is gathering caption information.
If people are in a photo, it’s of utmost importance that their names are not only included in the captions, but spelled correctly.
My habit that has worked the best for me regarding this has been to listen to someone spell their name, and then I show them my notepad after I’ve written it down, so they can correct me if need be. It works really well.
Since most of my photo subjects were in diving gear, I had to make sure to write down who was wearing what, so that I’d have an idea of who was who when I would look at the photos later. A quick description like: ‘diver with red shoes and blue goggles’, can make all the difference.
After returning to shore, the task of toning and captioning photos begins. Fortunately, I was able to have enough time to drive three hours home to do this. Sometimes, the turnaround time is so quick, the photo toning and captioning has to be completed as soon as possible.
I was pleased with how the photos turned out. My attention to what was going on is always really high in the moment and I could walk away from this assignment knowing I had done my best. A technique that I’ve adopted ever since I’ve started with photojournalism, though, is to critique my work and look for areas of improvement.
The final online layout, visible here, was exceptional and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how it came together as a narrative and visually interesting package.
A self-critiquing of my work has always given me pause and helped me find areas that I could do better during future assignments.
To me, photojournalism is the most fulfilling occupation and craft in the world. It allows a person to be creative while still gathering information. This assignment checked all the boxes and I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to photograph it.
If you’re interested in photographing assignments of some kind, find out what interests you and look for outlets or publications that use images like the ones you’re keen on. Keep photographing and building a body of work, then reach out to a photo editor and tell them you’d like to take photos for them.
Don’t be discouraged if your call isn’t well received or even received at all; photo editors and directors of photography are extremely busy. If you’re lucky you may receive a healthy dose of critiquing. I’ve always listened to criticism that came my way and tried to adjust accordingly.
Keep photographing things that are important to you and have fun.
2 thoughts on “On Assignment for The Wall Street Journal: “How ‘eDNA’ Might Transform the Search for Missing Service Members””
A great story Keith, and great images that really tell the story! I have a small assignment for the church this evening, as the new Vicar is officially installed into the parish. Always satisfying when asked to take photographs of a significant event, I always approach it with a mix of excitement and fear that the images will not be my best. First time using my new Panasonic S5 camera as well!
Thanks Steve! And, how wonderful that you’ll be photographing a wonderful assignment this evening. That mixture of excitement and fear means you care, and that’s where it all comes from. You’ll do great!