Reviewed by John Camp
TOP looks at quite a few books over the course of a year; this is a review of an unusual one called A Photojournalist's Field Guide, with the subtitle, "In the trenches with combat photographer Stacy Pearsall."
Most how-to books—this is one—cover stuff that, frankly, most of us at TOP already know how to do, or at least, know how to find out about. If somebody asked one of us, "How do you blur the background in a photo, while you keep the main subject sharp?" we might ask, "You mean by panning, like with race cars? Or using shallow depth-of-field, like in portraits? Or using a slow shutter speed? Or using the blur filter in Photoshop? What?"
This how-to book does a bit of that, but the real interest is in how a hard-traveling, hard-shooting photographer might operate. For example, if you’re a young female shooter, and you’re all armored up for a day of following the Delta Company guys through an al-Queda-infected village...how do you deal with the onset of your menstrual period? Got you covered, Page 60.
Also, did you know that athlete's foot cream and yeast infection cream both contain Miconazole as the active ingredient, so if you're a female shooter a single tube of Monistat should handle the problem? No, you don’t have to carry two separate medications....
Stacy Pearsall spent years as a top military (Air Force) photographer, shooting a lot of different subjects in a lot of different countries—some as routine and comfortable as military PR shots, and some as uncomfortable as serious combat situations. In all, she covered various forms of combat for six years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is the first woman to have twice won the Military Photographer of the year award. Eventually, she was wounded seriously enough that she left the military, and set up as a freelancer.
I mention all that not so much because I'm impressed by her bravery, as because the extreme variety of her shooting situations means that this book covers topics you don’t often encounter in photo how-to books, and that are directly applicable to people who travel in tough, dirty, remote and sometimes dangerous places, with expensive, delicate equipment...and come back not only alive, but with good photography.
The books covers such topics as:
- Closing down your home before you travel;
- Staying fit for photography, with six pages of exercises;
- Staying sane;
- How to dress;
- Ancillary equipment to carry (in addition to photo gear), like flashlights, plug adapters, multi-tools, knee-pads, and so on;
- How to pack your gear;
- Basic medications and sanitation stuff that you should carry;
- If you’re covering combat, an extensive section on how to choose your armor. (Including female-specific armor fitted around breasts.)
- What kinds of insurance you should have;
- How to keep yourself entertained during downtime;
- How to wash your clothes in an aLOKSAK,
And so on.
She reviews camera and lens choices, using video gear and voice recorders, and a variety of techniques, as well as suggestions about how to get along with the people you're photographing. The information is presented in a casual, readable, low-toned way, even when the subject matter isn't all that low-toned.
In some cases, when I wasn't wearing body armor, particularly in Iraq, it became hard for local nationals to ignore my gender. I experienced my share of wandering hands while in crowds. Some were looking to steal my camera gear, and others just wanted to cop a feel. I've had vile hand gestures of various sexual acts mimed to me....
I used to be a spastic shooter who'd shoot a picture, and move, shoot another picture, and move again. It wasn't until one of my mentors suggested I slow down, stay in the moment, and follow through that I self-implemented the 10 Frame Methodology. It is my guideline for solving nearly all photographic problems while on assignment. The concept is simple. Slow down and become more deliberate in your photography. Spend more time looking and less time shooting. Once you've found the ideal composition, sit and wait for the right moment. Let the action come to you. Make 10 frames without moving your composition....
At the end of the book, she discusses issues like developing relationships with your photo subjects, and her post-military life, with some suggestions about how to set up a freelancing business.
One thing about the book was somewhat irritating, not that it in any way involved the validity of the information that she presents—Pearsall has lots of terrific experience, and there are any number of things that seem to suggest that she has a very high opinion of herself and her experience. That’s true of many people who write these kinds of books, because, objectively, they are extremely good at what they do. The usual way to handle that is to have another person write an introduction in which they would say, "Pearsall is brave (and here's what she did) and smart (and here's the proof) and has won many awards (and here's what they are) and so on. Then, the author comes on and modestly gives you her information and views. In this book—and I fault the editors as much as anyone—she’s left to describe her own credentials, which can come off as pretty self-important: "I was awarded one of the military’s highest honors, the Bronze Star, for saving the life [sic] of several soldiers during an enemy ambush in Iraq." There were quite a few instances of this kind of thing. I believe her on all of it...but somebody else should have said it.
Other than that—and as I said, that was just an irritant—it’s a pretty damn interesting book for anyone who does serious on-the-road photography, or would like to. The book is $28.79 in paperback from Amazon, or $14.40 on the Kindle.
Friend of TOP John Camp, who writes thrillers under the pen name John Sandford (with some 30 New York Times bestsellers to his credit), is an avid appreciator and practitioner of both photography and painting. Formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he has photographed in combat zones himself.
©2013 by John Camp, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Dogman: "Photojournalists and nature photographers almost always have the most practical and useful advice. I'm not interested in either of these fields of photography these days but the information from these shooters can benefit the generalist photographer tremendously."
Ian: "'Spastic shooter'— is that appropriate!?! Or possibly a typo?"
John Camp replies: Not a typo, and I would be interested if you (Ian) are by any chance British, as Ian is much more common in Britain than the U.S. The reason I ask is that there is a whole essay on Wikipedia about how the word evolved very differently in the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.K. it is regarded as terribly incorrect, second only to retard. In the U.S., retard is terribly incorrect, but spastic has evolved to mean something close to "clumsy" and has been used to refer to a number of comic characters in U.S. TV shows. One of those shows, according to Wikipedia, when exported to the U.K., was given a severe downgrading in its rating because of the use of the word in the skit.
The word did not particularly ring with me when I quoted the above section, but when you brought up this topic, I remember when I was a child that the meaning was closer to that in the U.K., and referred to people with muscular diseases. There was even a fashion for deliberately incorrect "spastic jokes." In the U.K. (again, according to Wikipedia) the early society to investigate Parkinson's disease was called "The Spastic Society." We did not have that in the U.S., and so the word was not tied so tightly to a disability.
As you may judge from the above, I'm interested in usage. Some day I will give a lecture on the usage of "pistol," "automatic," "revolver," "handgun," and "sidearm."