Do you have any idea how many phone calls we'll get?
December 11, 2014 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Seasoned news photographer John Harte is telling stories, naming names, and even sharing unpublished pictures from his 28-year stint at The Bakersfield Californian at a new blog, You can't have my job, but I'll tell you a story: My three decades of photojournalism in one hell of a news town. Be warned that some of these photos may be disturbing. (They include images of dead children — notably the famous, award-winning, and highly controversial Hart Park drowning photo, which generated 500 calls of protest and a bomb threat against the newspaper.) Less-upsetting highlights include the stories in these individual entries: Meet the sheriff! My first arrest, We can't upset our readers!, and The greatest sports photo in history.
posted by Mothlight (25 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Really interesting blog.

“OK, I’m done. You can take me to jail now.” The guy was kind of a dick there.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:20 AM on December 11, 2014

When I wonder what good could come from such a tragic image, the answer is that it gave me a voice in a profession I care deeply about. And the thing that scares me and troubles me the most about that profession is the ease with which some will sacrifice the ethics we old timers still hold dearly. If I have a voice, and people are interested in what I have to say, I’m going to use it and be pretty damn serious about it, too.

Yes. As a journalist. HELL YES.
posted by the_royal_we at 9:24 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: the Hart Park drowning photo he is remarkably disingenuous in his self-justification:

The final one is that the family was upset about the photo being published. Eloy Romero, the boy’s father, told The Californian that he had seen the photo, but was so grief stricken by the death of his son he couldn’t care about a picture.

That doesn't mean the family wasn't upset - it just means one person in it was too upset to care about the issue. His reaction to the disapproval of his peers is also interesting.

I was young and really hoped that someday I might move on and work for one of these people. That changed everything. I had been taught in j-school to respect publishers and editors. My vision of these folks was Lou Grant, Charley Hume and Mrs. Pinchon. Katherine Graham, Otis Chandler and Ben Bradlee. I was beginning to realize that they were the exceptions, that a whole hell of a lot of people guiding this business were losers. And my attitude toward them changed. From now on, as far as I was concerned, they did not get my automatic respect. They had to earn it, not vice versa.
posted by winna at 9:27 AM on December 11, 2014

Some terrific stuff here. For the photo, I really love "Great photo! Do you have something we can publish?". For the story, this entry on shooting an Indy-car race is great (along with many of the others) for showcasing the kind of weird little detail that you'd probably never think of unless you'd done this job.
posted by RogerB at 9:33 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I have told the story about this photo so many times, in interviews, at conferences, at gatherings with friends and colleagues and at dozens of high school and college journalism programs, that I really don’t think I need to rehash it here."

But... I really want to hear that story.
posted by MrVisible at 9:36 AM on December 11, 2014

I was beginning to realize that they were the exceptions, that a whole hell of a lot of people guiding this business were losers. And my attitude toward them changed.

The drowning photo is tame compared to the startling gore that used to routinely make the front pages of American newspapers (see Larry Millet's Strange Days Dangerous Nights: Photos From the Speed Graphic Era for a core sample). While there were multiple forces at work in changing that, one of them was definitely the rise of a generation of "professional" editors that became increasingly unwilling to upset or challenge readers as newspapers lost ground to TV.

I think Harte is largely correct in his assessment of those newspaper owners and editors, and of the kind of institutions they helped to create.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:40 AM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

The comparison of the Kent State and the Hart Park photos was interesting. Nobody would disagree that the Kent State photo is straight up great journalism. In my view there's no useful comparison with that and the drowned boy photo, which is gratuitous tragedy porn and shouldn't have been published. Does the agony of a family tell a larger story? Does it expand the viewer's perception of an awful circumstance? What's the compelling reason why it should not be private?

(That view is why I got out of the newspaper business at the start of my career. I had a great photo of a family gathered around their Dad who was being indicted for embezzling public funds, and who was plainly guilty (trust me). It would have been a stunning, award-winning photo, but I walked away because I felt the family's pain and didn't want to punish them further for what their Dad did. Wrong career, whoops!)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:40 AM on December 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

"When I wonder what good could come from such a tragic image, the answer is that it gave me a voice in a profession I care deeply about."

So basically, he published this photo to gain notoriety.
posted by monospace at 9:40 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

His reaction to the disapproval of his peers is also interesting.

Not surprising, though. Most journalists at newspapers care much more about the opinions of other journalists than the editors and publishers.
posted by girlmightlive at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2014

He comes off as caring about himself, mostly.
posted by malocchio at 9:43 AM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

That was what I thought, too, malocchio. It very much appears he is a man justifying himself for posterity.

The photo of a dead child surrounded by those who knew him transfixed by grief is not something that should be seen as an opportunity to 'give someone a voice in [their] profession'.

I've always thought journalists who take photos of grieving people were vultures and his little essay certainly didn't do anything to dispel that impression.
posted by winna at 9:52 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

One of my siblings drowned when I was a kid. I would not have been happy about our family's grief being photographed and published so that other people could gawk and feel vicariously maudlin. I hope his justifications are better than what's presented here, because I'm basically reading "I took opportunistic photos of a family in crisis, but it's ok because it allowed me to give talks about a subject I'm really in to."
posted by supercrayon at 9:54 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'll also say that when I think back to the times I've had to photograph and document someone else's tragedy. Of course there were people who didn't want me to be there, but I'm still humbled by all the people who were so welcoming and patient and kind to me, when their lives had just been ripped apart forever whereas my shift was over at 6.

I remember a family whose college-aged son drowned. The writer and I went to their house. Of course it's so hard to take photos in that circumstance, I was worried about upsetting them but I will never forget their openness. They let us stay for a long time and offered us a meal. So many people really just want to tell their story, even if it's a sad one.

Another woman I met whose son had gone missing. He's been missing for years. Even months after first meeting her, I would run into her around town and she'd always give me a hug. My heart really ached for her, she knew I only met her initially because it was my job, but we were always able to share moments of humanity together.

Really, though, I'd be in so many houses and think, "I can't believe these people are willing to talk to us right now." Many weren't. I'm still, however, surprised at the number who were. They were so strong and understanding, and though I could never fully understand their grief, I could show my appreciation to them willingly letting me, a stranger, into their lives by being honest and respectful in my profession. It's one of the most important lesson I've learned.
posted by girlmightlive at 10:01 AM on December 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

Holy crap this is awesome and the stories are awesome.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:02 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Potomac Avenue. I'm looking forward to reading through the archives.
posted by bendy at 11:02 AM on December 11, 2014

The drowning photo was a good thing. I don't know how many of you have experienced small town "people die and drown in lakes" culture but there is a certain callousness in those deaths and it's not the photographer. People are often extremely indifferent to those sorts of deaths even in small communities. It's one thing for a parent to warn their kid. It's another for that parent to have viscerally experienced the gut wrenching nature of a "whoops my kid died in a lake" experience. I dunno, as a parent who used to swim in a lake in Wisconsin named after a drowning victim that was carelessly joked about, who was allowed to roam free and boat and whatnot with no safety, and having read the 1985 article linked, I feel the photog here. It's not porn. Calling it porn is more disrespectful IMO than dissemination of reality.
posted by aydeejones at 11:13 AM on December 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

And yes stupidsexyflanders was in the wrong career, IMO. And the rationale that it would bolster the photog's career doesn't appear in the 1985 article but even if it had, I think we need far, far more self-righteous journalists who think they are hot shit and a gift to the world. It's what they should do. If they push a career ending photo, let that case be dissected in isolation. As a whole I see nothing wrong with the full explanation. "People don't give enough of a shit about casual drowning deaths because they tend to value certain deaths more than others on a tragedy continuum" and "I have a gift to give the world and it's precisely about being this guy right here."
posted by aydeejones at 11:18 AM on December 11, 2014

And I've always thought that people who ascribe movies like "being a vulture" to journalists shows a sad lack of understanding of the profession. Yes they are motivated to make money and be notorious. But it's not some fast track wealth building career for crying out loud. There is danger and sadness and constant battle to make a living. I am not an amateur or pro in any sense of the words by the way, I use my galaxy note 3 as my point and shoot.

But here's the thing. Someone who chooses this career is better off trying out for professional sports if they are in it for the fame, being a household name (how many laypeople can name 3 photog journalists?). Yes they want to get paid. And promoted. And recognized. And win prizes. But the motivation that drives someone into this career path should not be casually derided.

we need aggressive photographers just as much as we need conscientious editors and publishers to reign them in. Where the system actually breaks down is when journalism becomes a process of gaining circulation and readership to the exclusion of all else. Trust me, it ain't photographers driving that horrid death spiral.
posted by aydeejones at 11:25 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

The bikini photo! Yes! Look at the hand shadows on the stage!
posted by Oyéah at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nice to know the police have always been complete dicks. Like there was any doubt. Why no pictures? Like every cop I've ever encountered says, "If you're not doing anything wrong, what you got to hide?"
posted by umberto at 12:53 PM on December 11, 2014

Welcome to the end of the 1980s.
posted by Katemonkey at 1:06 PM on December 11, 2014

The drowning photo was a good thing. I don't know how many of you have experienced small town "people die and drown in lakes" culture but there is a certain callousness in those deaths and it's not the photographer.

Yeah, I had the same visceral reaction to the photo, too. Off the top of my head I can think of two people just in my middle and high school class (not school, just my year) who died of drowning. That's two out of maybe 300 students. It does not seem gratuitous or pornographic to me at all - it was a fact of life to us then, and seeing it laid out in newsprint is arresting.
posted by muddgirl at 3:00 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a very interesting blog. Unbelievable:
Tyack was not happy that two gay men had moved near his home in the Kern County mountain community of Glennville. He had, according to trial testimony, openly stated that if given a chance to kill the two men, he would do it. And he did just that, one day on a mountain road near Glennville when he encountered the two men. One of the men was fatally shot point blank in the chest; the other was fatally shot several times in the back, presumably as he fled. In a trial that drew national attention, Tyack was found not guilty of first degree murder. He was acquitted on one count (the point blank shooting) where the jury ruled self defense, and convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the case of the man shot in the back. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
posted by unliteral at 3:01 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the end of the 1980s.

This photo just screams "Boat Show, 1989" to me (that's John Harte getting arrested, BTW). I'm pretty sure my dad had that exact same outfit, hairdo, and mustache.
posted by muddgirl at 3:07 PM on December 11, 2014

Well that has to be the best he ever had, if he's into that kind of thing...
posted by Oyéah at 5:41 PM on December 11, 2014

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