April 22, 2006 / Photo Quest / Spring 2006

Photo Quest – Role Model 2

Written by Bill Hankins

On occasion this column profiles professionals in the world of photojournalism and has them share their stories and expertise. For this issue I talked to Calvin Hom, deputy director of photography for the Los Angeles Times.

How did you get into photojournalism?
Actually, it is kind of a weird story. I was a graduate student at the University of Houston. I was majoring in chemical engineering. One time I was just bored and began looking at some photo books and was amazed at the legacy that these photographers left. I decided to take a photography class. I was bad at it, but I stayed with it. My family and friends did not like my choice. They thought I was going to be a poor artist. My girlfriend left me. Later, I got an internship with UPI (United Press International) in Houston.

What photos or photographers grabbed your attention in those photo books?
Robert Capa and David Hume Kennerly were two. What struck me with Capa and Kennerly was that here were guys who travelled the world and covered the biggest events. They were the eyes and ears for the world. And I thought what a life to live. I remember Capa’s D-Day photos, his Hollywood pictures, and then in Vietnam. Also, when I was in college, I was impressed by the sports photographers who had great access to the games. Mainly, I thought that photography would be fun. It was not the money. I just fell in love with the idea of being a photographer.

Has your career provided the fun you thought it would?
Absolutely. I have traveled extensively, saw incredible things and met tons of interesting people. I have done what I wanted to do. I’ve covered eight World Series, five Super Bowls. I’ve covered wars and been to Paris and Cairo.

Now you are a photo editor. What is the difference between being a photographer and a photo editor?
There is a myth that just because you were once a shooter, you would be a natural photo editor. I have found that not to be true. A shooter can have a great eye, compose well and in general, make great photos but may not be able to have the skills it takes to be a photo editor. Just because a photographer can make great photos, he may not necessarily be a journalist. A photo editor’s skill set is the same for any journalist- the ability to communicate, write and interview. Photographers often get caught up in how tough it was to get their photo and can’t see that it might not be the best picture to go with the story. I did not have the photo editor’s skills innately. I had edited groups of photographers before, like at the NBA finals, and I had fought for photos while at Orange County and Long Beach, but a lot of what I learned was trial and error.

What did you discover a photographer had to learn to be a good photo editor?
One of the most important things is an editor must have good people skills. He has to be able to coach and motivate the staff. Also, again, he has to have the basic skills of a journalist – the ability to write, interview, create rapport.

What is the biggest obstacle in working with and convincing nonphotographers about the virtues of a particular photograph?
The biggest problem is word editors who do not understand that photos can also intelligently communicate. Photographs are visual reporting and not just illustrative.

What is the makeup of your staff?
There are 38 photographers and 20 photo editors. I manage 12 of the photo editors.

Often on high school staffs, there can be staff management problems. How do you handle photographers and other photo editors to get the most out of their talents?
The key is to give constructive criticisms. Editors must give lots of feedback and encourage students to take chances. Also, editors must give the students different assignments and challenge them. Finally, encourage the students to come up with story ideas that they are interested in and can go back on.

You had said that photographers can be blind sometimes to their own work? Can you explain?
Photographers will be caught up with all the sights and sounds of shooting a photo. They will give a photo too much credit just because it was really hard to get that image. The photo editor only sees the image and is more concerned about the photo being a message to the reader than how hard it was to get. Also, some photographers are enamored by their own style. Sometimes that style is difficult to understand. Maybe the photo would communicate if it were eight columns, but it is going to run three columns. Sometimes a photo is difficult to understand. You fight that all the time. Sometimes photographers get set in their ways. They don’t evolve. What they were doing three years ago might not work the same today. That’s a pretty big problem.

These are creative people. How do you critique their work without damaging egos?
You create a climate where they feel like they can take risks and chances. You give them the confidence to not just go with the safe shot, but try something else, take a chance. Highlight the student’s strengths along with their weaknesses. I have them look at what other photographers are doing or push them to use differentlenses or to look at the light. In fact, the key advice I give them is pretty simple: Look for the right light, check the foreground and the background – that’s layering- and to find the right moment. They can either be the kind of photographer that just records a photo or they can be the kind that creates a photo. For example, we had one photographer here who was struggling. We shoot a lot of portraits of actors and actresses here at the Four Seasons hotel. They all began to look the same. So I told this photographer, no more use of lights. Use window light or whatever. Just create a mood. She did it, and her photos really sparkled. The quality of light just made the picture.

Are there types of photos that are clichés and should be avoided? Many high school photographers will mimic good shots that they have seen in their past yearbooks. How do you avoid them?
Everything has been done before. The successful photographer takes a new twist on a cliché by looking at a scene in a different way, capturing a better moment,framing, and light.

What experiences in your career have been most helpful?
As a photographer it seems that I made my biggest growth spurt when I was working with someone I really admired. In Kansas City when I was working with Tom Gralish at UPI, I had that experience. Tom later won a Pulitzer Prize. Working with someone like that really helped me to grow. I would tell young photographers to find a mentor, someone who will take you under his wing. That happened in editing too. I learned a lot from other editors.

So how do you learn and grow?
The best way for me to grow, I have to make tons of mistakes and get them out of my system. I have to take creative risks.

So, to be able to take risks, you had to have a safe place to do that. Is that why you try to nurture a safe place for your own photographers today?
Absolutely. It sounds simple, but too often it is just about beating the other guy. You have to feel comfortable to take the chances needed to grow.

Is having fun a part of that?
Yes. At UPI we had a lot of camaraderie. We became a tightknit group. We were competing against the bigger organizations and that brought us together.

What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in your career?
The biggest by far is going from film to digital cards. Also, in the way we print images. Now we have interns who have never used enlargers. Digital has also affected how people shoot.There is too much reliance on autofocus. I don’t want our photographers using autofocus. Anyone can do autofocus. We have changed the way we gather images from events now as well. We make deadlines easier.

So your photographers all use laptops to send images?
Yes, laptops or cell phones or they send from a Starbuck’s. How we communicate and transmit photos is way beyond the dark ages. At elections or sporting events, we can push the envelope to the very end.

Ethics are a concern in the digital age. How do you handle that at the Times?
We have an ethics guideline that we make sure every photographer and editor abides by. If there are any potential ethical concerns, we make sure we talk it out before publishing it.

Any advice for the budding photographers out there?
The best thing they can do is go to a journalism school and then get an internship. Then network and sell yourself. Develop a style. I’ve seen thousands of student portfolios, and they all look the same.

How can a young photographer make his or her work stand out?
What I talked about earlier. Their portfolios should contain work that shows use of available light, that has layering, something in the foreground and background, and has captured a moment. They should have a photo story in their portfolio. A photo story tells me how somebody thinks. Anybody can get lucky and have some great action shots, but what tells me a lot about a photographer is what he does with what he can control. Like a portrait. How did he control the light and the composition?

Is there one of your photos you are most proud of?
Not mine so much as some from people I have worked closely with. Clarence Williams (at the Times) won the Pulitzer a few years ago for his photos on a family on drugs. That had a lot of impact. Also, I am proud of a story on the homeless in Los Angeles. That story has been done a lot, but this one had a big impact. It got the attention of the (Los Angeles) City Council.

What is the importance of photojournalism today?
It is even more so. I think society, the world has gotten more visually literate and the power of photojournalism is stronger than before.

So all in all, you don’t miss that chemical engineering degree or having your hands in those trays of chemicals either?
No, this (being a photo editor)is a good fit. I am older now and slower (to be a photographer). As an editor, I have better ideas of networking in the newsroom. I am effective as a communicator. As I was telling someone recently I have traded in my chemicalstained jeans for a suit, but I miss those days of being in the darkroom and the magical experience of an image appearing in a tray of developer. That was magic, a mystical experience.

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Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.