I swear I actually had the dream I'm about to recount. In it I was trying to find Harry Coughanour, aka Topper, the late, great Post-Gazette photographer, somewhere in the afterlife. My assignment was to interview a South American dictator whose name I kept forgetting while Topper photographed him.
The air was thick with smoke and fog, making it hard to see. When I finally located my subject, Topper was nowhere to be found.
I noticed an arched gate and began walking toward it, asking people if they'd seen a photographer.
"He's over there," someone said, "wrestling an alligator."
An odd thing for a man in his 60s to be doing, but there he was, locked in a violent embrace with a gator as the two of them thrashed back and forth, Topper on his feet and the gator on his hind legs.
"Is that an alligator or a crocodile?" I asked a bystander, with my notebook at the ready.
"Who knows?" he answered.
I grabbed my iPhone, snapped a blurry picture of the action and forwarded it to ... someone ... with the caption: "Photographer wrestles giant lizard." Then I jolted awake, thinking "What the hell was THAT?"
It took two seconds for the answer to surface. Of course. It was all about Chicago, where the Sun-Times newspaper has firebombed its entire staff of full-time photojournalists with pink slips. Twenty-eight news photographers, including Pulitzer Prize-winner John H. White, learned that they were officially obsolete.
No more using skilled professionals with a trained eye who understand framing, light, perspective and composition, maneuvering through the scene to capture that one perfect moment that tells the story. Instead, the Sun-Times will focus on multimedia, relying on reporters with iPhones to point and click in between interviews, note-taking and wise-cracking. Oh, and they're supposed to make videos for the Web, too. For which jobs they will reportedly be trained for several days.
No wonder I had that dream. It was Topper turning over in his grave, causing a disturbance in the force. It was Topper standing at the gate, wrestling the green monster.
I'm not saying what the Sun-Times wants to do can't be done. I'm just wondering who'll want to look at it on a daily basis. I mean, I can put paint on a canvas, but who's going to hang it in their home? You can dance to "Swan Lake" or "We Own It," but who's going to pay to see you?
Technology can do a lot -- I've taken better pictures on my smartphone than I ever thought possible, and so-called "citizen-journalists" have been able to tell visual stories without training. But none of that can substitute for human talent, instinctive timing and artistic sensibilities that photojournalists hone over a lifetime. Especially during breaking news, when things are moving so fast it's hard to keep track.
Reporters are perfectly capable of snapping pictures, but there's a difference between the serviceable and the expert. The Sun-Times is telling readers they don't deserve the really good stuff. Anyone who saw the exhibit of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos at the Heinz History Center in 2007 or at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., will get this.
The American flag being raised by Marines at Iwo Jima (Joe Rosenthal, 1945). The tall police officer leaning over a little Chinese boy who looks up at him with pure innocence (William C. Beall, 1958). Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald (Robert H. Jackson, 1964). The teen-age girl kneeling over a body at Kent State (student journalist John Paul Filo, 1970). The naked Vietnamese girl running down the road after being burned in a napalm attack (Nick Ut, 1972). An angry rioter thrusting a flag pole at a black man during anti-busing demonstrations in Boston (Stanley J. Forman, 1976). The fireman carrying a baby away from the Oklahoma City bombing (Charles Porter, 1996). Survivors of ethnic warfare in Rwanda and Burundi (the Post-Gazette's Martha Rial, 1998) ...
Imagine any of these being shot on a smartphone by note-taking reporters. "Sorry Mr. Ruby, I was interviewing a cop, could you do that again?" "Hey refugees, my phone doesn't have a wide angle lens, would you squeeze in closer?" "Sergeant, I can't see my screen in the glare, how about turning around?"
Phil Rosenthal, formerly of the Sun-Times, learned about the mass firing and started a "Great iPhone News Photos In History" parody on Twitter, where you can see a fuzzy shot of the famous WWII victory kiss in Times Square minus the heads: https://twitter.com/phil_rosenthal/status/342338316940767232
Not every photo needs to be prize-winning. Yet great pictures can be made any time, anywhere -- but first the person with the camera has to see it and know what to do with it. And for every prize-winner, there are hundreds more that moved readers to laughter, tears or anger, transported them, made them think or spurred them to action.
Eliminating the entire photo department has to be the dumbest, most wrongheaded move any news organization has made in recent memory. Worse than when the Times-Picayune of New Orleans cut its print edition to three days a week, only to reverse course a year later due to ferocious backlash. Worse than The New York Times looking the other way while its anointed young "star" Jayson Blair falsified stories in 2002 and 2003. Worse, even, than the Chicago Daily Tribune's infamous 1948 headline handing the presidency to Thomas Dewey.
Luckily, we have the indelible image of Harry Truman's gleeful face as he waves the front-page gaffe in triumph. Guess who made that picture? It was W. Eugene Smith. He was a photographer.
Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1610).