A generation ago, television news photographers were widely viewed as assistants to TV reporters, a practice encouraged at some journalism schools. The reporters often would give on-air credit to their shooters at the end of a story.
Today, photographers at New Orleans' four television news stations are considered equal partners with reporters but seldom get on-air credit. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of area viewers often don't know the extent of the photographers' contributions. "It's one of the many injustices of television," one news director concedes.
Yet, during a brief sortie into the hectic world of TV news, we heard no complaints. For more than 60 local television photographers, it really is about the craft -- and getting the shot.
Since 1973, Willie P. Wilson Jr. has photographed many of the biggest stories in New Orleans journalism -- the Howard Johnson's sniper attacks; the bloody Algiers "incidents" of 1980; former Gov. Edwin Edwards' first of three racketeering trials; and countless fires, murders and courthouse proceedings. He has worked on investigative news stories with renowned local reporters such as Bill Elder, Norman Robinson (now an anchor for WDSU) and Andre Trevigne (now a talk radio host for WWL Radio). Wilson, the 55-year-old bearded dean of local television news photographers, also has trained photojournalists now working for competitors, such as Dominic Martin of WDSU-TV6 and Kevin Henry of WVUE-TVFox8.
Recently, Wilson says, he measured his 30-year career alongside the legendary Marion Porter, the local still news photographer who documented black New Orleans from the 1940s until he died in 1983. "I saw myself in a reflection in a window recently and I said to myself, 'Damn bro', you are old like Porter,'" Wilson smiles, smoothing the top of his gray head with his hand. "And I told that to somebody -- who said to me, 'You ARE Porter.' And that made me feel good because Porter was the man."
A first-year dropout from Southern University at New Orleans, Wilson joined WWL-TV in 1968 as a janitor and scene setter. At the time, blacks had few meaningful roles in television. But Wilson's aggressive curiosity soon caught the attention of then-news director Phil Johnson and photographer Jim Tulhurst, who trained Wilson in TV photography.
Wilson's big break came during the 1973 sniper attacks at the downtown Howard Johnson's hotel. Wilson was working as a film courier. "But when it got hot and heavy," Johnson recalls, "we gave him a camera." Assisted by two NOPD cops, Wilson scrambled to the upper floors of an adjoining building to film the chaotic firefight. Heading back downstairs, he passed a criminal sheriff's deputy, whose shotgun accidentally discharged, temporarily blinding and deafening the aspiring photographer. But Wilson got the film back to the station. The next day, his pictures were broadcast nationwide, including on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite. A month later, Johnson hired Wilson as the station's first full-time black cameraman. "Willie had the feeling that Tulhurst had for film," Johnson says.
Like reporters, photographers have their own news sources. During the 1980s, when Wilson covered the Algiers incidents, a barbershop tip from an NOPD officer led the photographer and reporter Norman Robinson to break big stories in the case. Although he says his police source is now deceased, Wilson still refuses to disclose his identity. Confidentiality is for perpetuity.
Other memorable highlights include EWE's first racketeering trial in 1986, when Wilson's exclusive photo of a juror flashing the "thumbs-down" sign outside the courthouse sparked an uproar and calls for a mistrial. And during the 1990 federal racketeering trial of District Attorney Harry Connick, Wilson spied co-defendant Walton Aucoin, an admitted bookmaker, leaving the courthouse. Walking backwards to catch Aucoin on tape, Wilson asked a print reporter to pitch questions to the gambler so he could get audio, too. The reporter asked Aucoin for odds on the acquittal of all seven defendants. The bookie complied, rattling off betting odds on the defendants, himself included, which WWL-TV aired exclusively that night. The next day, the furious trial judge slapped a gag order on the proceedings. (Aucoin gave good odds; the gamblers in the case were convicted, while Connick, a long shot, was acquitted.)
In the mid-90s, Wilson was paired with investigative reporter Bill Elder, who "ambushed" Gov. Mike Foster, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and other powerful politicos at a private meeting at a Metairie restaurant. An angry Lee told a smiling Elder: "F--k you, Bill. Put that on the five o'clock news!" (The tape ran with the expletive bleeped out.)
After three decades of working with reporters, Wilson has some clear ideas about the division of labor in TV news. "I never viewed myself as an assistant (to a reporter)," he says. "I always viewed myself as a team player. It's half my story; it's half their story."
He adds: "One thing I hate to hear a reporter say is 'Oh, I don't know anything about covering this story because I haven't been covering this story.' It's ridiculous. You are supposed to know about the story if you are a journalist."
Wilson says the high point of his career was filming Muhammad Ali training to regain his heavyweight boxing title at the Superdome from Leon Spinks, who drank from a controversial black bottle during their first match. Wilson recalls how Ali boxed at his camera: "And he said, 'You have audio on that?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And that's when he started talking and boxing: 'Oh, watch the black bottle. Oh, it's the black bottle. What was he drinking in the black bottle?' At that point, I was just hypnotized."
The low points happen far more frequently. "The low point is when you have to go knock on somebody's door when his or her loved one was killed," says Wilson, the father of five children with his third grandchild on the way. He recalls photographing a teenage boy killed in the Press Park subdivision and the haunting words of the youth's father who ran up to the scene screaming: "No, no, not my son. I just loved my son. Not my son." Says Wilson: "When I saw the daddy, it really broke me down."
Partnered this day with cub reporter April Commodore, Wilson drives to the Kenner Police Complex. A 16-year-old boy has been arrested for operating a child pornography Web site. Reporters and photographers collect at the front door to the building. It starts to rain. Kenner Police spokesman Capt. Steve Caraway, a 26-year police veteran, is obviously buoyed by the sight of Wilson. They banter about family and Little League baseball. After the press conference, Wilson walks to the parking lot to prepare for a noon live shot.
"You get some guys that don't want to be here," Caraway says, when Wilson is out of ear shot. "You see a lot of photographers who are aggravated with the reporters they are assigned to. Willie's not like that. He's always upbeat."
During his tenure as police media spokesman, Caraway says, Wilson has been without peer. "He's been the man for 12 years," the captain says.
HEDE: Cameras Without Borders
For Kevin Henry, a 45-year-old New Orleans native and a 22-year news veteran, the camera comes without borders.
"Having Kevin on the photography staff is like having an additional reporter," news director Keith Esparros says. "His contacts in the city rival any of our reporters." In fact, reporters often call Henry for contacts to enhance their stories. Henry also offers story ideas -- complete with sources -- at daily staff meetings. But Henry brings even more to the table. "If you watch Kevin's tape when he shoots something with a reporter, the interview winds up becoming a three-way conversation," Esparros says.
"Kevin doesn't see a boundary between reporter and photographer, which is great," Esparros says. "He's a journalist first."
Most recently, the photographer produced a source with access to a number of Orleans Parish Public Schools "incident reports" that allegedly showed the failure of the system to effectively discipline kids who brought weapons and drugs to school. Henry and a reporter developed the story, but only the reporter's name aired.
Esparros acknowledges that TV reporters in the past would frequently give on-air credit to their photographers, a custom generally now relegated to hurricanes and other special assignments. "It's the unfortunate part of television news that the reporter gets all the credit for it in the eyes of the public," Esparros says. "It's one of the many injustices of television."
Henry appears unfazed by any absence of recognition. Like other TV shooters, he appears to thrive more off recognition from his peers. "We're all friends in this town, but when you are out on a story it's that competitive edge that keeps you going," he says. "Nobody likes getting beat. There's always one shot that people will always remember or one story that people will always remember, and it will be the story of the day."
The single father of a 15-year-old son, Henry is a native of the Lafitte housing development; he was raised in the Seventh Ward, three blocks from the Fair Grounds. He learned how to use a camera on the yearbook staff at McDonogh 35 high school. He graduated from Louisiana State University in 1980, with a broadcast journalism degree and a minor in Russian. Henry then returned home the next year to study TV photography at WWL under Willie Wilson.
Henry joined WVUE in 1981. He and Avis Landry (now chief photographer) were the first TV news crew on the scene of the Pan Am 759 jet crash in Kenner in 1982. Henry also has covered hurricanes, fires, crime and sports. His work since has taken him from the Vatican, where he filmed a local choir that sang for the Pope, to Russia for a potential break-through in eye surgery. "I never thought I would make it to Red Square," says Henry, who was afforded a rare chance to practice his Russian on the trip. "I saw Lenin's Tomb. I saw the Bolshoi Ballet. It was 1988. Moscow had just gotten a McDonald's and there was a line around the block."
Part of the excitement of television news, insiders say, comes from not knowing where you will be next. At 2:15 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the FOX8 newsroom is nearly empty. Kevin Henry has gone to a hardware store to buy cork for the sports department, a staffer says. Anchor John Snell paces, waiting for another photographer.
Across the newsroom, sports anchor Darrell Green takes half-swings with a baseball bat. He is localizing a story about Sammy Sosa by showing viewers how much farther -- or not -- players can hit a ball with a corked bat. A drill press and a minor league baseball player from the Zephyrs have been secured for the experiment. Now, Green is just waiting for Henry.
But so is reporter John Huffman. He is standing in the pounding sun outside the station garage. Huffman needs Henry for a cross-town crime story, which must air in less than three hours. "Photographers are usually the institutional memories around here," Huffman says. "When you have a reporter who just hit town, they tell him what the heck's going on. ... And Kevin knows everybody. He has more than once found the lead or the interview I needed to make a story."
Henry suddenly pulls up. Huffman advises him of his cork-to-crime assignment change, takes the bag of cork from Henry, races it back inside, then hurries back to the Fox8 car. "We are lead story at five," the reporter says. "We have to jam it."
It's now after 2:30 p.m. Henry wheels easily through a maze of gritty neighborhoods. Suddenly, the team is at the residence of an alleged armed robbery victim who says NOPD blew off his report after he recovered his possessions with no loss of income. (NOPD says the victim withdrew his complaint.) Henry unpacks his camera gear and mics the man for sound. Huffman fires off questions. Henry then films the man walking toward a corner store -- near where someone stuck a gun in his back.
At 3:15 p.m. the news team packs up. Huffman writes the script to the video. Henry heads to an editing bay.
On Fox8 at 5 p.m., the alleged robbery victim appears in front of the corner store and talks about his ordeal. The man's sound bite comes from his interaction with Henry. (At the time, Huffman was down the block starting the outline of his script.) Huffman gets the on-air credit -- and any criticism -- for the story. The viewers don't know the difference, but Esparros does.
HEDE: Into the Fire
Standing in the lobby of the World Trade Center, they make for an odd couple. Anchor/reporter Tom Bagwill is immaculate in a dark blue suit that cools against his fiery red hair. David Sussman, the station's newly promoted, awards-loaded chief photographer, is clean-shaven and dressed in a sports shirt, shorts and sneakers. Facing summer heat, Bagwill looks his partner up and down, with contemptuous envy.
"I brought your sunscreen," Sussman says, cheerfully.
The ABC/26 news car is packed with enough clothing, accessories and water for three days. "Hurricane season," Sussman explains. He also keeps a pair of khakis and a dress shirt, in case he's suddenly assigned to shoot a funeral.
By 9:35 a.m., they're en route to the Murphy Oil refinery at Meraux in St. Bernard Parish. About seven hours earlier, an explosion at the plant sent flames roaring into the sky. Area residents were evacuated. Meanwhile, a separate fire erupted at the Chalmette refinery. No one is seriously hurt at either fire, and both blazes are all but suppressed. Investigations are underway.
Bagwill was awakened at home at 3 a.m. One hour later, he was on the air, anchoring the breaking news. Now, he and Sussman are working a follow-up story. "The easy way to cruise through this story is to load up the story with a bunch of video from last night of the big fire," Sussman says. "But what we will more than likely try to do is find the people that were affected by this. Another crew will do the 'What happened?' angle. Our story will be 'How did it affect you?'"
Specifically, the desk wants to gauge public angst over whether terrorism played a role in either fire. The team plans to head to a trailer park next to Murphy for neighbors' reactions, then to Rocky & Carlos restaurant for more responses and to film the friendlier fires of the kitchen grill for contrast. "We'll know at the end of the day whether our story -- as David likes to say -- rocked," Bagwill says.
They will work all day to fill about a minute and 40 seconds of airtime. On the way to Chalmette, they talk about what makes good television journalism. A 20-year veteran of local television news, Bagwill says he looks for a photographer with "a good eye, a good feel for the story, good communications skills, and good chemistry [with a reporter]."
More than 20 years ago, Bagwill studied broadcast journalism locally at Loyola University under CBS legend Peter Kalischer. "The reporter runs the story," Bagwill recalls Kalischer saying. Those days are gone, Bagwill says. Reporters and photographers at WGNO are equals in the field.
In the perfect relationship, he says, the photographer knows what the reporter wants, and the reporter knows what shots the photographer is getting. "If we're doing a story on kids being afraid," Bagwill says. "I know David is getting the picture of that bike, that basketball goal ...."
A local native who also graduated from Loyola, the 36-year-old Sussman worked for TV news stations in Mobile, Ala., and Nashville, Tenn., before returning home to help launch WGNO's news team in 1996. He has won numerous local and regional awards for his work. Since April 7, he has been chief photographer of WGNO's 11-member photo staff. He estimates he works up to 50 hours a week -- more if there's a hurricane or an Edwin Edwards trial. "Overtime from the third trial financed the renovation of my den," he says.
Sussman says he works best with reporters who don't suffer from oversized egos. "I want to do stories about people," he says. "I don't want to do stories about reporters doing stories about people. Tom has no ego about being on television or being recognized out in the field. He does this only because he likes telling stories ... and it just so happens he's doing it on television."
Inside the trailer park, Sussman and Bagwill approach a WDSU-TV news team. "If we run them down now, we won't have to compete with them," Bagwill jokes. Instead, everybody gets out, quickly shakes hands, then returns to their own story lines. Sussman and Bagwill find two men, both trailer park residents, who are still obviously shaken by their ordeal. They interview them separately. In the background, flames roar up from controlled flare pipes.
By 11:30 a.m., the team is inside the live truck, dubbing sound bites from emergency officials. Bagwill transcribes the quotes for the station's captioned news for the hearing impaired. Shortly after noon, they enter Rocky & Carlos. Bagwill seeks out the manager for permission to film. Sussman waits up front with his camera and tripod. Fear of media exposure and tabloid television has made people wary, Sussman says.
Bagwill returns: "We're in luck."
Sussman: "I can shoot anything I want?"
Bagwill: "No, you can shoot a flame on a grill. And we can try and interview some people."
Minutes later, they emerge from the kitchen and talk separately with a man who suspected terrorism the moment he heard about the fires and a woman who says the thought of terrorists attacking St. Bernard Parish never crossed her mind. Then the news team eats lunch.
"A photographer has just as much influence over a story as a reporter," Sussman says. Lighting, editing and camera angles all are key. "A meeting hall can be shot so it looks packed or empty, depending on the lens used and the position of the camera. I try not to skew it. I try and really represent what I saw. ... And if I don't light people right, I can make them look lousy."
That night, their story airs with pictures of the flaming restaurant grill, followed by the plant fires. Bagwill's lead-in: "There's always a fire at Rocky and Carlos, but folks didn't expect to see two in one night down the road." Preliminary investigations show the fires were caused by mechanical failures. The story did not quite "rock," Sussman says, later. Only a few stories do each year. "But it hummed -- which is more than we expected."
HEDE: When Reality Hits
Dolly Narhi recalls the day in 1988 when she suddenly teamed up with investigative reporter Richard Angelico. It was Narhi's third day at WDSU, then located at 520 Royal St. in the French Quarter. Angelico stepped out onto the patio to light a cigar. He suddenly smelled something else burning. Looking up, he saw black smoke roiling across a blue sky.
"I was in the garage digging in my trunk," Narhi recalls. "And Richie says, 'Hey, Dolly! Grab the camera.' Then I hear fire engines roll by."
The historic Cabildo was on fire. Angelico and Narhi raced on foot to nearby Jackson Square. They went live in minutes.
Narhi, a 42-year-old native of Ishpeming, Mich., is one of only three women out of more than 60 television photographers at the four stations citywide. A 23-year news veteran, Narhi showed she could handle the tough assignments long before coming here. "Probably one of the biggest stories of my career was the Oakdale prison riot," she says. In 1987, several hundred inmates seized the federal facility in Allen Parish, took hostages, burned buildings, and then demanded to air their grievances on television. At the time, Narhi was working as a shooter for KPLC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Lake Charles.
The prison's televisions could pick up KPLC and another station in Alexandria. "So that's who the prisoners wanted," Narhi says.
Narhi shouldered her camera and entered the prison with a KPLC reporter. "I had the prisoners in front of me, and behind me I had the cops with the big guns," she recalls. "The inmates wanted to get their message out. They read a statement and then I left. ... It seemed like it took an hour, but it only lasted five minutes." Her Oakdale videos were broadcast nationwide. The inmates surrendered eight days after the riot began.
While attending McNeese State University at Lake Charles and working as a photojournalist for KPLC, she also covered numerous deadly plant accidents in the petrochemical corridor at Westlake. "I once shot an orange plume from the Olin plant, which manufactured chlorine for swimming pools," she says. In New Orleans, she was teamed with reporter Tina Evans in the 1990s when a firefighter died inside a burning Mid-City music store.
"That was a bad story," she says. "I climbed up on a fence and saw other firefighters bringing him out. Firefighters started removing their hats as they carried him out on a stretcher. That is when we knew he was dead."
Narhi and Evans returned to the studio. They played the tape -- and wept. "Sometimes that is when reality hits, when you get back to the editing bay," Narhi says.
Like many photojournalists, Narhi distinguishes between the big stories that make headlines and those that are more emotive and visual. There's the "heart-wrenching story" of a dog saved from a sweltering car. "Then there's always the big headliners like the video poker trial with [state Sen.] 'Sixty' Rayburn, where you're at federal court for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks." Narhi feigns a trance.
"But I love what I do," she says. "Every day I have a finished product that hits the air and I'm satisfied with it. There's not very many people who can say that."
So, why are there so few women photographers? "It's a physical job," says Narhi, a diminutive woman with muscle-packed shoulders, who toted a 55-pound camera for her first job in 1980. (Her camera today weighs half as much.) "There's several women that will start out in photography, then they will branch into the production side or directing. It's more common for women to be in stills."
WDSU has an active intern program, but few set out to be shooters. "I have an intern with me right now," she says. "She's going to stick with me through the day, and she's getting a better idea of what it takes ... but they have to decide for themselves."
Television reporters are more competitive among each other than are TV photographers, she says, confirming accounts from rival stations. Tedious courthouse stakeouts build camaraderie among the shooters. They watch each other's cameras and equipment during breaks. They'll jockey fiercely for the best angle once a major figure walks to or from the court, but won't take advantage of a colleague's bad luck. For example, Narhi recalls that when covering a New Orleans Saints football game on the road, her camera battery ran low during locker-room interviews. A photographer from competitor WWL-TV loaned her a battery.
Narhi says the best reporters are the ones who pay attention to what the shooters are doing. "They are a photographer's second eyes," she says. Once a shooter is looking in the viewfinder, she is blinded on the right side. "There could be someone being arrested or maybe just someone crying," she says. "I need a reporter to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Pan to your right.'"
Photographers have to think about the news vehicle, equipment and getting to and from a location, she says. "You don't want to worry about the reporter. We are the blood that keeps the body going."
As for being one of only three women in her field locally, she shrugs: "I can't prove myself any other way than just by doing my job."
- The dean of local television news photographers, WWL-TV's Willie P. Wilson Jr., got his start when a camera was put in his hand during the 1973 sniper attacks at the downtown Howard Johnson's hotel.
- News/Marion Porter Collection
- Among local journalists, the still photographer Marion Porter is a legend for his portrayals of black New Orleans from the 1940s through the early 1980s. "Porter was the man," says Willie Wilson.
- "When you are out on a story it's that competitive edge that keeps you going," says Kevin Henry of WVUE-TVFox8. "Nobody likes getting beat."
- "A photographer has just as much influence over a story as a reporter," says David Sussman, WGNO- TV/ABC26. "I try and really represent what I saw."
- "I love what I do. Every day I have a finished product that hits the air and I'm satisfied with it. There's not very many people who can say that." -- Dolly Narhi, WDSU-TV