On Being a Contendah

I have been a Joe McNally fan for … well, as for as long as I’ve known who he was. Which is a long, long time. And it’s not just because our sheepskins are stamped with the same bit of Latin (“Suos Cultores Scientia Coronat” – look it up). So the question then is, why?

Well, he’s a heck of a shooter–Life, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated. He’s a generalist, a visionary. But, more importantly, he’s a problem solver–something every one of us should aspire to. He’s also a photo geek of the highest level–he can out watt second ratio anyone I know over the cheese dip.

But he never lets that stuff get in the way of the photo–it’s always about the photo, even as he’s stringing up 10 or 20 or 30 Speedlights. So this blog post really speaks to who he is, and I love this little vignette:

Met a pretty confident, aggressive guy recently, while shooting this Geographic job that is currently turning me into an angst ridden pretzel. He went the equipment route immediately. No wonder. He had lots of turbocharged stuff, like, I don’t know, the Canon 3D Mark4S with the Eddie Bauer camo coating and the fast glass with the low rider flame decals. I was, you know, respectful, saying intelligent, pithy things, like “Whoah.” And, “Cool.” Maybe the occasional, “Yeah!”

It was an extensive recitation, to be sure. He flat out said he really had the gear down, knew how to work all of that stuff and that he could be a photog. Lock solid. Done deal. Shoots lots of pictures.  Then, he got thoughtful and said, “My big problem is content.”

You know how you’re smiling at someone and there’s that moment where your face just kinda gets fixed and slightly immobile, cause it doesn’t know what to do next? You keep smiling, but it feels like somebody just slapped on a quick facial mask, one of those gooey, crusty, pomagranate, blue green algae seaweed paste numbers? A glazing, if you will.

What do you say? In my head I’m screaming, like, “That’s a pretty big problem, dude!” But I think I mumbled something about just hanging in and working it.

Been there many times over the years. How many parents came up to me on the sidelines of some high school game and said they could send the paper photos if I couldn’t be at the next game … or wanting to know what kind of film I was shooting, because they thought that was their problem … or how they could have spent $5,000 on that big lens but, really, this blue-light-special, off brand lens is just as sharp … or, my favorite, that it’s nice I’m trying to break into the business, but I should really buy cameras that aren’t all brassed out, they don’t look very professional.

One of the things I’m most proud of here at the University of Georgia is our ability to supply every one of our students with gear. All of the intro students are issued a Canon Digital Rebel and Tamron 28-75 mm f/2.8 lens that they use for the entire semester. The upper level students get a kit built around a Canon 30D and three lenses. We also have a pretty decent pool of specialty gear they can tap into. We do this through a lot of begging and support from Canon.

But we do it because it eliminates both an economic and psychological barrier to taking–and succeeding–in the class. Any student who is eligible to take the class has the same ability to succeed as every other student. Same instruction, same gear.

So what separated out the A students from the C students? Passion. Desire. Commitment. An understanding that photojournalism isn’t about photography, it’s about content.

And that, as McNally says, is a pretty big problem.

Mark E. Johnson

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