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There’s Something About Robin

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I’ve always liked mornings. There’s something about the light and the freshness of opportunity with every sunrise.

I have fond memories of my years on a metro newspaper in Indiana.  There were three hardened and experienced reporters working in a small bureau where I had been assigned, guys who smoked a lot and enjoyed their whisky. The bureau had a few women who wrote mostly feature articles. And there was me with my Nikons, jeans and boots, never really fitting in anywhere, but always happy to be out in the county making pictures.  

My focus was along the rural roads and in small towns, searching out the unusual for a story or pictures that could make the newspaper reader laugh, cry or yell. My goal was to get people to care,  because apathy is a horrible way to live and I wanted my readers to see what I did and feel what I felt. 

Sometimes my pictures and stories made a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes it was just a nice ‘Kodak Moment’ that was likely stuck on some mom’s refrigerator door. The crusty guys on the photo staff were constantly kidding me about my artistic ‘color outside the lines’ ways and my obsession for that perfect print in the darkroom.  ‘Today’s Pulitzer lines tomorrow bird cage,” they often joked.  I was different  in so many ways. I didn’t fit anyone’s box or categories and  I’ve never liked labels, but I think they secretly respected my unconventional style. 

We all shared that passion for making provocative, compelling pictures that told stories. It’s a solitary thing, creating pictures — it’s your vision, your perspective, your decisive moment. No design by committee. Just you and your subject and the pictures you bring back to the newspaper. I was perfectly suited to the job. I never earned that much money, but I’ve heard it said that ‘an artist is never poor.’

It was the best job in the world for a free-spirited J-school kid with a camera and a desire to make a difference.  I  documented  life in the rural towns around me and was paid to do it.  My technology was Tri-X film usually pushed to the limits. I cared nothing for fashion. My clothing usually smelled of darkroom chemicals.  When my Saturday night shifts were over I’d visit the pressroom  as the crew pulled the early edition off the line rather than head to the discos where the other 20-somethings usually  gathered. The smell of ink and newsprint was pretty overpowering. I didn’t care. It was the scent of journalism and I was in love. 

Every morning was a fresh start to that day’s edition. There was a lot going on in the gritty urban areas to the north. Gary, Indiana had become the drug murder capital of the nation. The guys in the main office took care of most of those hard news assignments. I’d get some of the overflow work now and then as well as any breaking news in my area, but my primary job was to find those offbeat picture stories — real people, with their challenges, victories and tragedies that the other photographers weren’t all that interested in doing.

I  often got the space above the fold on Sunday morning for the deeper feature stories. I guess it helped that my friend Joe worked the Saturday night slot. Joe liked me a lot and made room on A-1 for my ‘enterprise’ pictures whenever he could. 

Those curmudgeonly guys are gone now, along with the teletype machines, paste pots, darkrooms and wirephoto transmitters. I owe them a lot because they helped me become the journalist I am today.

I didn’t think of myself as a writer back then. I still don’t. ‘Reporting with pictures’ was a better description. For me writing is painful. My bureau chief Guy Slaughter often lamented, “Hate to write, love to have written.” He’d stare at the blank paper in the IBM Selectric for a few minutes as he collected his thoughts. Then he’d start typing furiously as he smoked those horrid cigarettes. Guy was a reporter, a real one, from another time.

My dearest friend in the bureau was Alan Doyle. We even lived together for a while. We often rode in his van to a murder or something equally grim with his 8-track EmmyLou Harris or Eagles tapes blaring and the two-way radio and police monitors squawking in the background.  Alan was the ‘tough guy crime reporter,’ complete with stained trench coat and cigarettes. I made the pictures that touched hearts. We were an odd couple, but we made a good team when the stories were so awful and filled with tragedy or brimming with political corruption.

What I learned in Indiana has stayed with me for more than thirty yearsEveryone has a story if you dig deep enough.

I left newspapers and regular paychecks in 1984 to launch my career as a freelance photojournalist. Since then I’ve photographed hundreds of stories on assignment for Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Forbes, Christianity Today, Christian Living, Focus and Der Spiegel, to name a few. I’ve worked with several news photo agencies over the years. Two of them are now just faded memories but they were good times. These days I’m blessed to still work with agents, well-respected in the news industry, who are also dear friends.

I returned to my native Georgia 30 years ago, now married and raising a special-needs son. I exchanged the black soil of the midwest farm fields for red Georgia clay, the kind that never really comes out of your clothes.  Midwestern accents had been replaced with Southern speak. It is a  language and a way of life I was much more at ease with, because Atlanta was my birthplace.

But people are people, with struggles and victories, beauty and warts, no matter where you go.  Often it’s the simple stories that make the biggest impact. Give me a salt-of-the-earth family to photograph instead of a high-rolling guy in a suit or celebrity any day. Folks I can share an iced-tea or a ‘Co-Cola,’ with and visit with their dog. Riches and status don’t impress me much. It’s character that counts. Real people and real life. 

I still find mornings exhilarating.  A perfect day would find me in the car with my coffee and cameras close. And maybe a cinnamon doughnut.  Seamus, my Wheaten Terrier, might be along for the ride. We’d be headed somewhere to make pictures for an editor who allows me the freedom to be who I am and do what I do best. If I were flying a desk somewhere I think I’d sink into a deep hole of depression. 

Along the way we’d enjoy the drive, always staying aware of  picture and story possibilities. I always took time to explore what was over the next hill and make mental notes for another day’s adventure.

That’s why I love what I do. There’s always another story to tell and an opportunity to use the skills God gave me.

That newspaper job was in another time. Technology has evolved into something unimaginable back then. It has made telling stories much easier and to a much wide audience, but the art of storytelling remains in demand.

As journalists and as individuals, we become the sum total of our life experiences. Our perspectives on life and society we are a part of mirror those experiences. They shape how we relate to others and how we tell stories.

I’ve evolved quite a bit since those first days in this business.   I still color outside the lines. I may have even erased the lines.  I don’t care for trends or what may be in style.  I’m not a group joiner. I don’t fit neatly into boxes or categories, genres or genders.

I am passionate about telling stories that explore social justice, human rights, disability rights and transgender rights. 

I believe everyone should be who they are. Authentic. No façades, no pretense. No fabricated personality.  I’m sure I confuse people sometimes. It is the price I pay for being me.  I don’t know how to be anyone else.

My daily quest is much the same as it was decades ago — find someone with an interesting story and share it, in words, pictures, or both.  I haven’t really changed all that much. In my heart I’m still that young j-school grad, ready to explore the world, make friends and create pictures that will remain long after I’m gone.

© 2017 Robin Rayne Nelson/All Rights Reserved

 


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg Crawford permalink
    October 5, 2010 9:43 pm

    So what ever happed to Alan Doyle? If he didn’t write a book about about ‘da region, he sure missed an opportunity. He and the crime reporter that preceded him at the paper would have had a lot of stories. I know barely a few. Great photos, but nothing beats the seamy side of the city. Like in 1974 when 12 cops were indicted. Nothing like Gary in the 70s. Drop me a note.

  2. LyNell Franssen permalink
    July 24, 2011 7:32 pm

    I’d be very interested in hearing more about your Doyle adventures.

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