Thursday, January 21, 2016

Poor Fred

Zestful Blog Post #142

This post is about choices and their ramifications.

Yesterday Marcia read to me a snippet from last Sunday’s New York Times (which sits around the house in increasing stages of decomposition through the week) about the editing process. Basically, the photo editors were talking about how hard it is to select images to publish, from the thousands they have access to via their own photographers and the wire services. (I cling to the cool term ‘wire services,’ even though we all know the truth.) I was like, yeah, tell me about it. I’d been there, even as a lowly reporter and photographer for a local weekly paper. Which image tells the story best? What really is the story in the first place? Moreover, which image tells the story from the angle we want to tell it? Because there’s an angle to most every story.

Then there’s the public and its appetites. Sensational always sells better. But when the public itself is being represented, their standards are quite different. Inclusion is what matters. I learned this quickly, just out of college, at the paper.

One day the community theater troupe sent me tickets to its upcoming production, some closed-room mystery play. I went to the dress rehearsal, took some pictures and interviewed the director, then attended opening night. I wrote an enthusiastic article about the play and the players, and made it into a big feature spread with two or three pictures.

I heard nothing from the troupe after that, though. I wondered if something was wrong; usually you get a note or a phone call of thanks for such nice publicity. By happenstance, I bumped into one of the actresses at the drugstore and asked her what the troupe thought of the article.

“Oh, yes,” she said sadly. “Poor Fred.”

Turns out I had mentioned every single cast member in the article except the guy who played the cop who comes in and arrests everybody at the end. He was in none of the pictures I ran. I think he had one or two lines. Fred was crushed that he’d been excluded from my coverage, AND THAT WAS ALL THAT MATTERED.

Then there was the children’s ice show. Having, believe it or not, taken a term of figure skating in college for physical education, I laced up my skates and got out on the ice with the kids during a practice. I took some closeups and zooming action shots. A cluster of parents were watching, however, with increasing displeasure.

 They cornered me and demanded that I take off my damn skates and climb up to the top of the bleachers while they got ALL the kids onto the ice at one time. They wanted one group shot of all two hundred kids, so that every kid could “have their picture in the paper.”

I obliged, thinking I might just run the good shots anyway. But I didn’t; for some perverse reason I ran the group picture. The photo, reproduced on newsprint at about four by five inches, looked like a bunch of poppy seeds clustered on a white cake. I think I wanted to say to the parents, “There’s your group shot, and none of your kids are recognizable except as poppy seeds.” But I got no complaints. Had I been the New York Times, I would have run one or two of the good shots and to hell with what the parents want.

The moral of the story is that scale matters. When readers outweigh your subjects, you make one choice. When your subjects practically outweigh your readers, you just might want to make a different choice. The public is bloodthirsty when it comes to news about other people, but as sensitive as a bouquet of orchids when it comes to themselves. You don’t have to cater to that, and sometimes you can’t. But it is a choice.

As writers, closeness to our subjects can be a blessing and a curse. One must harden oneself.

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  1. It's all about perspective. Sorry about Fred. Been there. I was the boss's admin secretary. We had the office Christmas party during the day, and we closed the office down for a while for it. My boss said we had to make sure the office reopened precisely at 1 pm. I told him I would make sure it did. Turns out no one else was done partying by then, including the boss. So I told one of my friends that I would go open the office back up and take care of the phones. Guess what, they decided to take a group picture out by the company sign of everyone, since we were all together. Did anyone notice I wasn't there? Nope. Not even my boss. Not until later when someone was showing around the pictures from the party. Oh, they photoshopped me in later, but it wasn't the same, believe me. That was about 10 years ago now. Yep, I still remember. Everyone felt bad. Never happened again.

  2. Oh gosh, thanks for sharing that story, BJ!


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