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On Assignment

My wife and I just got back from an epic western US road trip, the first since the price of fuel hit its most recent all-time high.  Puzzlingly, it was less expensive for us to hit the open road and drive to Colorado than to pay for flights, hotels and rental car. We drove our cargo-van camper and camped at rest stops coming and going and drove at reasonable speeds to keep the cost and the damage to the environment to a minimum. The views between San Diego and Boulder, Colorado on Interstates 15 and 70 were breathtaking and alternately distressing. 

The region is in its 22nd year of historic drought conditions. 

Monument Valley, Arizona

Virgin River, St. George Utah, a tributary of the Colorado River

I'm sure one day I'll compare this 2022 photo documentary to one in the future in the same area, but I know it won't look the same. Driving into the greater Las Vegas metro area, it is evident the building industry is in charge, in spite of guaranteed future water supply issues. Utah looks very much like the state pictured on its license plates which proudly announce, "Life Elevated," in vibrant red hues. Its high-desert topography is so tall you'll crane your neck trying to look up and out of your bug splattered windshield. And Colorado in springtime amazes with colorful wildflowers on the banks of fast-flowing, snow-fed rivers. 

The responsibility for those colors goes to the Rocky Mountain State's largest river, the Colorado, which flows from snowy peaks through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, California, and finally trickles over the border into Mexico before drying into a desert wash dozens of miles north of the Sea of Cortez. The river begins 10,000 feet above sea level before gravity brings it 1400 miles south and west through towering canyons and the set locations for many Hollywood movies. 

Remember the first scene in the original "Planet of the Apes" when a shiny earthly spacecraft splashes down into what seems to be an ancient lake on a red planet? That crash scene was filmed at Arizona's Lake Powell, at the time a real, yet-to-be-filled reservoir which started filling in 1964 and holds back the Colorado at the Glen Canyon Dam. "Into the Wild," the real-life story of wandering soul-searcher Christopher McCandless portrayed him kayaking down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon and finally through a dam in Mexico and into the Sea of Cortez. His actual notes used for the book and the eventual movie tell a somewhat different story about how he portaged around that dam and had trouble navigating the waters at the mouth of the Colorado which flowed all the way down into Baja California in the early 1990s. 

Sadly, Mexico hasn't seen that much Rio Colorado water since then.

On previous trips my wife and I had seen and spent time on Lake Mead, so Page, Arizona and Lake Powell was the destination this time. According to the internet, we could launch our kayaks from the public launch ramp at Antelope Point Marina, except that launch point was now 60 feet below the asphalt ramp.  So, we carried the kayaks downhill in full denial about the very painful trip needed to get back up the hill later in the hot sun. A few miles later a bend in Lake Powell got us to Antelope creek, where the canyon became increasingly narrow, to a point where we abandoned our kayaks and set forth on foot through Antelope canyon, where the sights revealed themselves at every turn. From a narrow creek to a deep dry canyon, hawks and vultures ready to pick at your bones if you stayed too long in the heat, but beautiful all the same.

The Antelope Point Marina Public Launch Ramp 60 feet above Lake Powell

The canyon walls reflected in Antelope Creek's clear waters

A trip back in time through Antelope Creek, then Antelope Canyon 

Water used to go far back into the canyon and far up the side edges

A walk through the canyon is a walk through time

Sandstone Scratchiti                                          

Finally, after a few miles hike, what looks like a slot canyon 

"Bathtub" rings remain from water levels of years past       

Another couple's climb out, not as much fun as going down to the water

Glen Canyon Dam 2022, is at less than 27% of capacity, the same capacity as Lake Mead further down river in Arizona on the edge of Las Vegas. The Colorado and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people, irrigation for nearly 5.5 million acres, and traverses 22 federally recognized tribes, 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks. A report issued in mid-July 2022 says that if the Glen Canyon Dam waters fall 32 more feet, its hydroelectric plant will stop making electricity for the first time since it was installed in the 1960s 

This photo. 

It was November 2011, I had been sent to cover a Camp Pendleton memorial ceremony, on a rare, drizzly fall day, where members of the First Battalion Fifth Marines and their families reflected on an awful deployment, a six-month stay in a place called Sangin, Afghanistan where 200 men returned injured and 17 didn't make it home. Cody Elliott in his wheelchair, with a face scarred from an explosion and missing a leg, symbolized that deployment.

In June of that year, while on patrol, fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Joshua B. McDaniels, triggered an enemy explosive device near him. Elliott instinctively ran to help and in the process stepped on a secondary device which ripped away one of his legs and a finger, and blasted his face with shrapnel. 

Five months later, at this memorial, after the obligatory reading of names and placement of flowers, I walked with the Marines and their families and came upon Elliott, who was determined to get close to all 17 battlefield crosses. He rolled his wheelchair to one in the middle and turned, and held a pair of ID tags. He had come to McDaniels' cross. 

McDaniels didn't survive his wounds that day in Sangin, and Elliott, though badly wounded, did.  I could feel the emotion from the sidelines. Something force me to spring from the safety of a discreet position and walk behind the cross, out in front of Elliott, determined to make a picture that might connect with our readers and bring the war home, ten years after 9/11. Was I there to record the event as impartially as a journalist can? yes. Was I also there to thrust the sacrifices of our young men and women in people's faces? 

Damn straight I was. 

As photographers it's a rare moment to shift narratives, or start the conversation.  Unless we can show emotion, or move people. 

After I took the picture, I kneeled to speak to Elliott, got all the facts and then guided our reporter to get a quote from him too, and she gladly included him in her story.  That photo made the front page of The San Diego Union-Tribune the next day and I received kudos from many in the newsroom.  That was also the last time I spoke to Cody Elliott. Until recently.  

The power of the photo spoke to me about a world I know nothing about and I felt the need to connect with him so long after that day.  I found him through Facebook, we chatted, he remembered the moment when I took the picture, thanked me, and then mentioned he was coming out to California from his home now in Brazil, sometime in 2022. This past week, he and many other Marines from the First Battalion Fifth Marines came back to Camp Pendleton once again to honor their fallen with a hike up what is known as "First Sgts. Hill" on base. This is an infamous hill that should have switchbacks, but doesn't, should have a water station, but doesn't and should be rated strenuous for anyone attempting it.  I asked if I could hike too, even though I was offered a ride to the top in a vehicle. The hike was being documented for a film on the unit and its deployment, and I even got interest from my old employer, the Union-Tribune, who sent a reporter who worked it into another prominent front-page story. The hike wasn't easy for someone with both legs. Cody, with two comrades on either side ready to catch him, completed the trip with his artificial leg. At the top of the hill many crosses have been erected to the fallen, including many for Cody's unit's men including McDaniels and others killed that same week.  Brigadier General Thomas Savage, who, at the time of their deployment, was a Lt. Colonel, came all the way from his post in Africa to be with his men and he did the hike as well.  The last time, I was sad for this country and its Marines. This time it was the reverse.  I was reminded me of the brotherhood they live and die for, one where sacrifice is never an afterthought. 

Cody is now happily married, living in another country, with a child and continuing to make a life for which he is very grateful. He gave me a hug and posed for a selfie and thanked me for joining him on the hike. He then paid me the biggest compliment he didn't even realize he had given. 

He called me "brother."  

Here is the story in the San Diego Union-Tribune:



Courage is wasted on the young.   

Like many of you, I was courageous with abandon in my early 20s.  There is little I wouldn't at least "try" professionally as a budding pro photographer.  I photographed buildings, weddings, headshots, accident scenes for attorneys, spot news for many of New York's daily newspapers, and then one day I decided to cold-call famed-paparazzo Ron Galella to see if he had any work.  

To many, the name Ron Galella is forever linked to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or Marlon Brando.  The former got a restraining order against Galella to prevent him from photographing her and her children, the latter couldn't restrain himself and broke Galella's jaw.  All for a picture. 

Before the internet, we used the phone book for everything.  Believe it or not, Ron Galella, "NY paparazzo to the stars," in 1988 was listed in the yellow pages, and he personally answered the phone!  I asked if there was a way I could shadow him or work with him. The conversation was pleasant and he seemed encouraging to this young shooter. But first he needed a way to check the quality of my work.  I was almost a year removed from graduating college and I had a decent portfolio, but of course, still had a lot to learn.  He assigned me to photograph a modest movie opening, probably something I could screw up.  He said celebrities would be there, in particular actor Richard Gere. Galella also let me know that Gere might arrive or leave with a 17-year-old model-turned-actress named Uma Thurman to whom he'd apparently been romantically linked, a shot I needed to make happen. 

He said he would only pay me the $75.00 fee if ALL 36 frames on the roll of film were usable.  

Yes, as improbable as that could be, he actually said that.  ALL 36 FRAMES.

There is a gallery at the rear of Lincoln Center where the event was to take place.  I photographed the celebrities chatting and drinking and then waited outside the venue as they went in to screen the movie.  When it was over, Gere emerged with Thurman, both saw me and instinctively, separated.   They fled northbound but  I ran ahead of them unnoticed around a large brick structure and waited to hear their footsteps.  I heard them get close, stepped out, and hit the shutter.  The flash went off and they immediately covered up and fled in different directions yelling something I can't remember.  Thinking I had my shot, I went home and dropped off the film the next day.   

I haven't seen the contents of that roll since that night.  Until a few days ago. 

I did a recent internet image search for both celebrities and up came the shoot credited to Ron Galella/contributor.  Seeing the images brought me back to that night in April 1988, a time before I was hired for my first staff job, a time when I was trying so hard to make my way in the photo world and a time when I got a brief taste of celebrity photography.  Obviously this sort of photography turned out to be not my cup of tea, but I am somewhat grateful I had this experience.  Am I happy Getty Images distributes these images under Ron Galella's name for way more than I was paid? Not gonna lie. It does pain me.  As does my brief intrusion into Richard and Uma's then-private life.  

Seeing these images once again confirms my amazement with photography's ability to preserve the past.  

We're all a little grayer, except Gere, 71, who is now white-haired. Uma Thurman, who is now 50 and still looks fabulous, had just completed her first starring role in Dangerous Liaisons and since then her career has been nothing short of stellar.  

That night I did what I was assigned to do.  Good or bad, it's part of my history. 

About thirty years ago I was working for the Stamford Advocate, a small 35,000 circulation newspaper in one of the top per-capita earning counties in America, Fairfield County, Connecticut.  It is usually runs neck and neck with Orange County CA for who has the most amazing homes and cars. 
I had been at a newspaper in then downtrodden Jersey City, NJ for two years prior, cutting my teeth on gritty black and white photography when I decided I needed to move away from the greatest spot news city on earth(what was I thinking?) to the suburbs to learn color photography.  

Color slide photography in particular.  Back then the better publications, Life, National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek, still adhered to shooting color slide film.  What is color slide film? Basically anything with the suffix chrome.  From Ektachrome, to Kodachrome, the rarely shot Agfachrome to the tried-and-true press photographer's blue and green box of Fujichrome.  Its the stuff your parents used back in the 1960s before the advent of color print film,  and it came cut up and mounted in tiny little cardboard or plastic frames that you always needed to hold up to the light. 
Chrome, slide film, or positive, whichever one you choose, was always the most challenging film to shoot.  You had to be spot on with color balance, in addition to composition, lighting, and of course, the elusive decisive moment.  

One day I was assigned to photograph a girl whom I referred to as Cookie Girl because that was the business she was starting, with the help of her parents, in between homework, chores and being a teen.  I arrived at her home figuring on shooting a typical environmental portrait when it dawned on me after seeing the number of cookies that were baked for the shoot, that we could be much more creative in terms of our photography by NOT doing the typical "girl holding tray of chocolate-chip cookies" shot, or "girl getting flour all over herself attempting to bake shot.  I'm sure I was heavily influenced by Annie Leibowitz at the time, she always had that great idea and great lighting to make images come to life.  The story was for the business section and they had a lot of space, so I said to my subject, "lets have you surrounded by cookies!!!"  Mom looked at me strangely for a second, then she got it and immediately became my best assistant.  I suggested we put her daughter face up on the dining room floor and use an unseen shoebox to hold her head up and we cut out plastic sheeting on which to place the cookies.  The cookies were positioned exactly where they needed to be and if I remember correctly we had just enough cookies to fill the frame!  I then loaded my trusty Nikon 8008 with fujichrome Velvia or Provia, placed a  soft box or two on either side, took some light meter readings, hit the shutter and voila! Cookie Girl came to life!  Im sure I did the typical shots too, but someone else saw my vision and carried the ball upfield.  The photo ran at least four columns on the front of the business section, and everyone seemed happy about it.  If I find the newspaper clip, Ill attach it.  

Hey Census guy! Hey Census man! 

I turned my head when I heard that twice in five minutes yelled by complete strangers in San Diego's North Park on a recent Friday evening.
It had to be the black and white shoulder bag with the words "US Census emblazoned across it.  
Wow! people actually thanked me for doing The Count! 

For the past seven weeks Ive been one of those men or women walking around your neighborhood, knocking on doors to see if  we can get everyone to finish up their census questionnaire in person or online. 

Remember those pesky letters in the mail that were sent to you, that you were asked to fill out so we can make sure everyone is counted and the count goes toward proper representation in congress and in terms of funding things? Well, if you didn't, we came to your door to asked politely if you would.  We are the army that plied you with little pieces of paper known as NOVs(notice of visitation)tucked into your sometimes-drafty doorframe, to remind you. 
If you were lucky, we actually got to interview you using our smartphones and its menu of choices to determine the count of US residents and where they were living on April 1st or as will be in the case when the data comes out, to which state you moved from/have moved to. 

Working as an enumerator is a lot like working as a journalist in newspapers, or retail sales.  Its about making contact with people. And the push and pull of getting them to do something for you, well, actually the Federal Government, in particular the Department of Commerce. 

It isn't always easy and it requires quick thinking.  In some ways, it gives you a small taste of what door-to-door salespeople once experienced, back in the day.  Journalists not only make good census workers, they love the interesting data that comes from it.  When I worked in newspapers there was one reporter at my last paper who lived for the US Census data.  She knew it provided an eyeball-catching way to a story she had no difficulty writing, especially in the first year after Census date is gathered.   In this case, next year.   Its easy pickings.  

I got my start in early August as I was among dozens of enumerators trained, outfitted and sworn in during a ceremony in Balboa Park that looked like something out of a corporate field trip with tables and chairs and the passing out of shoulder bags, cell phones and paperwork.        Lots of paperwork. 

In the process I learned big acronyms like NRFU, NOV, CFS, ACO, RI, and words like" in-movers," proxies" and "census day." 

The idea to work for the Census came from another former newspaper coworker who thought it might dovetail well with the qualities most good journalists possess, driving to strange locations, knocking on strange doors and talking to strange people(some of them).  If you don't like people or talking to people, this might not be a "good fit" as they say.  If on the other hand, you don't mind walking up and down steps, through sometimes grungy alleys, trying back doors, using your outside voice to gain access when there isnt any and overall, being persuasive, then you might thrive.  When assigned a difficult case, where previous attempts to find residents had failed,  I made it my mission to change that.  Sometimes it worked. 

I used my Spanish to eliminate the case notes that said "language barrier," even figuring out how to enumerate cases in Haitian Creole and Mandarin, because in the end, most people know enough English combined with hand gestures to communicate good answers. 
We are without a doubt, a global village. 

After a knocked door is opened, an enumerator has mere seconds to establish rapport, "Hi, (smiling)I'm John with the US Census," I usually announced, to which I normally got one of five responses, "I don't have time," "I filled it out already," "I just moved in," "I dont speak English," "I dont trust the government,(only got that one once)and "one of you was here already last week."  At which point my tried-and-true follow up of, "this will only take five minutes" sometimes convinced even the hardest of souls to at least work with me, even when I was fumbling with the not-ready-for-prime-time-software program within each phone. 
Most people were friendly enough to let me know whether to proceed or not.  Some days I did a good number of interviews and on others I didnt talk to anyone but neighbors. I made friendly with the postman or Amazon delivery person, or anyone else I could convince to allow me access.  The black and white Census Bag has that cache that says official business, and most respond by letting us pass.  Sometimes you just get lucky and if you wait around long enough doors will open.  Or someone will have the code.  And for that I am grateful. 

Over the weeks, I've heard stories through the grapevine about other enumerators who had doors slammed in their faces, had to hear profanity and worse.  Thankfully I was not exposed to that.  The worst incident I experienced  involved a drunk guy in a building hallway telling me I had no right to be there.  There was another time a resident answered his door dripping wet from the shower in just a towel, and the time I did an interview with a woman who insisted we not use her real name but told me to put down Pinky Panther.   True story. 

And because its way above my pay grade to make determinations, I entered Pinky Panther and her information into the system. 
I'm sure back at Census command they are still laughing about that one. 
The things I came away with are that people are people.  They are good and bad, and maybe that's why the census sent us back so many times to the same place.  They figured at some point, someone might have the right time and patience to go through the process.  And help us close out another case. 

Today I turned in my badge, my shoulder bag, reams of paperwork  and the hand sanitizer I never used.  I am no longer a census man.  But I look forward to the information I helped provide.  And maybe to 2030.  Maybe.  

Twenty-seven years ago I was living on the East Coast and working for the Advocate newspaper in Stamford, Connecticut, 45 minutes from New York City.  It was a small daily and after several years I was getting bored and wanted to chase bigger stories.  Suburbia can do that to a newspaper photographer, but especially one raised in Lower Manhattan.  Then one day I heard a report from the late CBS Radio reporter and colleague Fran Schneidau about the umpteenth trespassing action of a lady named Margaret Ray.  You'd remember her as the lady who in the late 1980s and early 1990s was profoundly obsessed with late night talk show host David Letterman.  She'd make her way up to his home in New Canaan, CT and trespass on his property.  All the New Canaan cab drivers got to know her and would phone the police after they dropped her at his house from the train station.  She always claimed to be Letterman's wife, was arrested eight times and eventually got sent to psychiatric hospitals and served time in jail.  One of the last times she was arrested(it could have been her last time in CT), I decided to get a photo of her.  Maybe it would be worth something, I thought.  Not for the Stamford Advocate, your typical "family newspaper," but maybe for a magazine or photo agency.  

I drove the ten miles to New Canaan police station and waited for her release on my lunch hour.  I remember it being a warm spring day and I thank the bailiffs who woke me up from my brief catnap under a tree.  I ran over to the sally port, stood over the rail, and waited for her.  When she came out, she noticed me, and I thought, smiled.  Now when I look at the photo, I see a broken smile.  She looks troubled.  One hand is clutching a tissue in her shackled hand, and in the other, an unsmoked cigarette.  To this day this photo has never been published, social media, print, or TV.  

I put the image in my files and concentrated on getting to a bigger newspaper.  Five years later, she was released from prison for stalking NASA astronaut Story Musgrave in Florida and moved back to her beloved Colorado.   She had been prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Haldol for her schizophrenia but eventually stopped taking it. "I'm all traveled out. I chose a painless and instantaneous way to end my life in the valley I loved," she wrote in a last letter to her mother.  Then Margaret Mary Ray, aged 46, knelt in front of an oncoming coal train.  After her death, Ray's daughter, Anna-Lisa Johanson, completed the picture of a woman who too often found her way into late-night comedy.  She said that her mother was "destroyed by a mental illness just as deadly and just as painful as cancer." "And unfortunately we are not at the point in our society…where we understand this disease and treat those who have it with the compassion they deserve."  This is a reminder that today is May 1st, spring is here, but it's also the first day of Mental Health Awareness Month.  

Here we are, seven weeks into the abyss that is the Coronavirus Shelter in Place and I thank my lucky stars that my family continues to enjoy good health. I hope you and yours are feeling similarly.  We remember those who've succumbed to this disease, think of their families and say a prayer. At some point we'll get back to a routine, even if wearing a mask is part of the process, a small price to pay. 

Events requiring my photography have all been cancelled, from celebrations and fundraisers, galas, runs, walks, races and chasing real news. Organizations are using what they have and rethinking spending ANY money at all this year, just to survive. We normally complain about a lack of time.  Everybody does.  "Not enough hours in the day," we say. Can't do that anymore.  

Time, work, and money. It's hard to complain when you have so much of one of the three.  Even at the expense of the other two.  What to do with all that time? Do things for free for at least for yourself and hopefully someone else.   For someone who creates art, it should be a no-brainer. Van Gogh, Picasso, O'Keefe, nor Kahlo never created art just to make money.   

Their compulsion was their propulsion.  

We all have talents.  For me, it's photography.  For you it could be any number of things. My cameras compel me to pick them up and create.  

Others' work also compels me. Many days of the year I get out and cover events or scenes purely for enjoyment. 

I make it my business to mark those events on my calendar.      

Thanks to social media, that work finds a home and sometimes helps me to target opportunities for paying gigs.   
Some weeks ago, I passed my neighbors in the hallway and asked them if they would be up for it a free photoshoot.  I hadn't done a studio shoot in weeks, but for some reason needed to create something.   Artists know what I'm talking about.  There's just so much "other" art you can watch before deciding to do your own.   The impetus can be envy, boredom, or the motivation to do something because you've never done it before.  For me, it was a combination. So, I "popped up" the studio in some free space and created what you see.   
Before we lose this special time, I encourage you to do your "thing," whatever that may be.   Paint, sculpt, burnish, varnish, videograph, photograph, read, write a song, learn a song, write a short story, the great American novel, a blogpost, etc.  Oh yeah and maybe clean the house and shine your shoes.  Because before you know it, we'll be back to routine and wonder what happened to that precious time during those crazy months in 2020/2021.  

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