One of the amazing things about this job is the range of subject matter that you cover as a journalist. Personally I prefer the ones that are positive and show the strength of our species but not in a saccharine way. I don’t like "tear jerker" stories as they always seem contrived and pandering. Give me the ones where there is hope but still struggle because life is like that: a journey where there is happiness with an undercurrent of turmoil. See my prior posting for more about my love of the dramatic.
The other day I was to cover a about a local 10 year old named Avery with a rare, genetic disorder that stunts cell growth, robs a person of energy, and ultimately leads to their death. He is not expected to live another year and his older sister died of the same disorder. The assistant Scout Master of his local Boy Scout troop decided to give Avery his Eagle Scout badge, thus making Avery an Eagle Scout, and held a rather big ceremony to that end. The Eagle Scout is the highest rank that a Scout can attain and they have to do a lot to get it. Most don’t get it until they are 17 or so. Since Avery is only 10, only a Cub Scout and is wheelchair bound he is quite a ways away from getting the requirements for an Eagle.
Ok, it’s awful that Avery is going to die so young. It’s awful that he will never live to fulfill the great dreams in his head. It’s great that so many people care for him. But to me this is not a happy, uplifting, hopeful or positive story. Headlines about this read like "Boy sees dream of becoming Eagle Scout fulfilled". Nope, sorry. An honorary Eagle Scout is like being an honorary anything: not real but kinda cool. I’d like a certificate that says that I’m an "Honorary Ninja Master" but I don’t think that will help me out in a bar fight. Ya know? (Grump-grump-grump)
I kept thinking through the whole event: How many times have they put this kid in front of cameras because he’s dying? (Lights, cue the talking head gal with the big hair, roll cameras one and two … bring out the dying boy … action!) There has been a fair amount or press about him but all the headlines were of the "Local Firefighters rally around dying boy" variety showing the kid in his wheelchair surrounded by burly dudes in front of a firetruck. I couldn’t handle that kind of publicity.
I also thought that if he wasn’t cute, Caucasian and living in the suburbs the whole thing wouldn’t have been a story. If he were a dying poor minority kid living in the hood who wanted to be a Boy Scout we’d never hear about him. Just as we hear about missing white rich kids but never the missing poor black/brown/tan kids. Regardless my job is not to directly comment on it all, that’s why I have this here blog-dealy-bob. (Quiet numb sculls … I’m broadcasting!) My job is to tell what happened in a way that transforms the often painfully boring into something moderately interesting. This is where professionalism is key: even if I think that the ceremony was more like a funeral for a still living kid than a glorious celebration of his grand accomplishment, I can’t let that get in the way of my coverage. The people there were very into it and in the process of making photos I should not let my internal grumping make me focus on things unrelated to what is happening or worse – skew the coverage to match not what is happening but what I think of it.
This professionalism thing enables me/us to photograph people we love and people we despise, things that make us happy and things that horrify us. All with an even hand. Even if I didn’t "get it" that night, when they pinned that medal on Avery’s uniform the tears throughout the room were real enough. In the end I don’t make pictures for me. I make photos for them.