The only way to prepare for the chaos of photojournalism is to practice for it
By Clarion News staff
LINCOLN UNIVERSITY – A man using a chainsaw suffers fatal injuries. Police arrive with a white sheet to shield him from public view. Soon after, media attempt to capture the horrific scene for the afternoon news, websites, and social media sites. For the journalists, time is of the essence – the police will likely close the scene at any time.
“Go! Go! Go! Go!,” yells assistant professor of journalism Will Sites to his JOU 475 photojournalism students. “There’s been a worker fatally injured by a chainsaw – we need photos and we need them now!” The surprised students are told to go outside.
Near the Elliff Hall parking lot, Lincoln University Police Chief Gary Hill and two of his officers stand near a body covered with a bloody white sheet. Nearby lies a chainsaw, the all-too-obvious tool of the victim’s demise. Yellow police tape frames a perimeter of no trespass, guarded by the three officers. Students are handed Canon DSLR 35mm cameras, the obvious assignment to capture the scene as quickly as possible. The police, by design, are less than forthcoming with answers to questions.
“I’m a firm believer that news photography is best learned on the streets, not in the classrooms,” says Sites, an assistant professor of journalism in his sixth year at Lincoln. “We can’t always take students to breaking news events, but we can simulate them with realistic mock accidents and crime scenes.” Sites says that the campus police department has always been great at making the scenes real and treating the students in the manner that they will experience in the field.
At the mock accident scene, journalism students were instructed to take five photographs. Sites says that the imposed limitation forces the photographer to focus on each photo, instead of zipping-off dozens of digital images. “I was a photojournalist in the days of film,” Sites says. “I might have one roll of 36 exposures for several events – I had to make my shots count.”
Sites says that this is the first photojournalism course taught at LU since he arrived in 2014. He notes that although everyone takes a lot of phone photos, the art of photography is being lost in the digital age. News photography, he says, requires an understanding of lighting, composition, and the limits of equipment.
“Today’s newsrooms need multimedia journalists,” Sites says. “Being a good photojournalist is one of the skills they often demand.”