Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
In the West, do we understand what work is? Work for the impoverished of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is usually done in tropical heat with little pay. I found this dock worker in Yangon having a smoke break from carrying 100-pound sacks of fertilizer out of the cargo hold of a riverboat. The face, the homemade cigarette, and the sweat all combined to make a beautiful environmental portrait. My thoughts for pictures like this one come down to one idea, "only show what you need to." Clean backgrounds, even, flattering light and reducing the visual elements down to as few distractions as possible, and I do that with a 135mm lens. Today I photograph with a mirrorless Fuji X pro-2 and carry only a few lenses. What I have found works best for me is to take two cameras, one with a 35mm and one with a 135mm. For me, no zooms. I use my feet to zoom in or out.
Across a dry rice paddy on the outskirts of Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Sept. 3, 1997, the bodies of the dead passengers lay strewn throughout the wreckage of Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 from Ho Chi Minh City. Seconds earlier, the pilot had failed to heed a warning from airport controllers to divert his landing. I was seated in the departure lounge of Thai Airways as the Tupolev Tu-134B made its final approach. I had been in Cambodia photographing the return of King Sihanouk and was on my way back to Bangkok when the crash occurred. At first, I heard the approaching jet and then watched as a waiting passenger killing time might do. I can't say with any certainty, but remember hearing the roar of jet engines taken to full power. There was something clearly wrong. The plane veered to the left. A split second later a fireball, a massive mushroom cloud of orange, red and black, filled the sky. Stunned onlookers shouted in Thai and Cambodian. I reached for my camera bag and while looking through plate glass windows, searched the tarmac for any emergency vehicles that might be going to the crash. Unlike now, international passengers in 1997 walked through a single door to the tarmac and then up a flight of portable stairs to their planes. The door was open with no security to stop me. As quickly as I could, I went out and hopped on the back of a rescue truck. The crash was the focus of the airport police.
I was an American dressed in black Levis and a black polo shirt. My Tony Lama cowboy boots were spit-shined to a high gloss. No one that day questioned me about why I was there. They just stepped aside as I and others headed to the crash scene. In less than three minutes, I was photographing the dead and dying at the scene. I have heard other photojournalists describe airplane crashes as "flying car accidents". But this was no auto wreck. This was a full-fledged "Bad JuJu" deal.
As it turned out, of the 65 crew members and passengers aboard the plane,
there was only one survivor, a 14-month-old boy -- Chanayuth Nim-anong -- from Thailand.
I had photographed the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing two years earlier and was no stranger to seeing dead and dismembered people. I first heard about the rescue of Nim-anong as it was in progress. I first heard about the rescue of the boy while it was in progress. The noise of men screaming and quickly moving around the wreckage grabbed my attention. It was either a survivor or a suitcase full of money. I was soon racing across a paddy field to photograph the scene.
As if almost on cue, a Cambodian man reached into the tangled mess of damaged airline seats and personal luggage and pulled out what looked from a distance to be a doll. The man was yelling and holding his discovery over his head as if to say "Look at the treasure." It was then that I realized it was a baby and that a rival news photographer, a freelancer for the French AFP agency was already there photographing the unfolding drama. "SHIT, SHIT, SHIT." I needed to be there shooting the scene fast. I made it just in time to fire off three frames as the child was shoved into the hands of Cambodian paramedics. It was all too incredible. First, the crash: Second: the race to the site aboard an emergency vehicle: Third: A survivor and my competition ahead of me.
My head was spinning. My emotions were all over the map. I tried several times to light up a Marlboro Red only to have the rain snuff out the cigarette. My hands were shaking now. As I smoked, trying to calm myself, I watched villagers carry off pieces of the plane including large chunks of aluminum and wiring. In several areas, the wreckage was still burning. The villagers also were stealing watches, rings, and wallets from the dead bodies. I left the scene, my once-shiny boots covered in mud, sweat running down my back, and hailed a motorcycle taxi. In broken Cambodian and pointing the way, I hustled to Phnom Penh's only qualified photo lab. When you shoot for a news wire, speed is king. Often being the first to transmit one's photos meant success. As I walked into the shop, the freelancer was holding a processed roll of film up to the light to see what he had. He was looking for "the shot," but I could sense things were wrong. He was grumbling, muttering to himself as if he had done something stupid. The shop keeper handed a second finished roll to him. He held it to the light, too, and scanned the negatives. "SHIT!" he yelled as he turned and left the shop.
I'm not sure what happened, but heard later through the rumor mill that the freelancer had blown the exposures. In the following days, the competitive play check was mostly my photos. This day, this spot news event changed my life in an instant.
all photos/David Longstreath/Associated Press
Landmines, the soldier that never sleeps
Twenty years ago, I sat on the doorstep of a clinic in Battenbang, Cambodia, covering the recent surge in landmine victims. Large sections of the jungle along the Thai-Cambodian border, once controlled by the Khmer Rouge, had recently been opened to settlers. The only problem, the area was heavily mined.
"Emergency" an Italian NGO, nongovernmental organization, was a modern facility in Battenbang that was treating around ten landmine victims a week. Every day it seemed victims would arrive, usually in the back of an aging pickup truck, legs, and feet blown off by a landmine. When the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge from power in Phnom Penh back in 1979, Pol Pot's revolutionary army fled to the border areas in the west with Thailand. Here they fought a holding action against the Vietnamese and then later against Royalist Government forces. Their strategy it seemed was to mine areas along roads and footpaths that led to villages.
To make matter worse they then forgot where they put the mines. Landmines have been called "the soldier that never sleeps" and can kill for 50 years before discovered and eliminated.
I followed a young victim, Nil Sarak as he arrived for treatment. He had stepped on a landmine while clearing an area near his new home. His right foot would need to be amputated, his left leg was injured as well, but he would not lose the use of it. Cambodian surgeons operated once he had been cleaned and stabilized. Outside the operating room, his 16-year-old wife waited along with his mother.
I would later visit the homestead where Nil has stepped on the mine. It was a dry patch of ground that looked like it could never produce anything but weeds. His home, a small bamboo shack was less than three months old. Scattered around the hut were pieces of cooking utensil, pots, and pans abandoned when the family dropped what they were doing to rush him to "Emergency". That trip cost the family the last of their money.
There was no happy ending to this story, and Nil lost his right foot, mid-calf, He would spend two more weeks in the hospital before returning home to an uncertain future. I bought $100 worth of rice and canned fish for them before I left. Nil's mother cried.
Cambodia today is the third most mined nation in the world with an estimated 10 million mines still in the ground. Throughout the world, according to UNICEF, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people are killed or injured by landmines. Today in Cambodia, 50 percent of the victims are children.
all photos by David Longstreath/Associated Press
How I used the NC2000 to document a major news story.
The Associated Press' News Camera 2000 has been a much-maligned piece of equipment. I was in the first class to learn this camera, used it during the Oklahoma City bombing and was the first to use it in Southeast Asia.
It was new technology on a grand scale. The push back from die-hard film users was just noise to me. All the camera's detractors were based mostly on quality or the lack of. My job back then was to get images to the world newspapers but a fair amount of my shooting brothers and sisters were locked in the mindset that sought the best possible quality of images that would be printed on newsprint. Newsprint was then and is now only a short step from toilet paper.
I was never concerned with having a portfolio of printed images. I did, however, care about winning and the NC 2000 was the first of several cameras that allowed me to do that.
When assigned to document the funeral of Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India I was thrilled to be given the opportunity.
The streets of Calcutta around the church where Mother Theresa was being displayed was chaos being looked over by bamboo cane wielding Calcutta police. Each night they would harrass mourners to end the day's procession.
While there I also shot a photo package on Calcutta, which was mainly photos of the poor, which Mother Theresa championed. The one distractor was that the NC 2000 and the technology necessary to work the images was new and few editors with the AP had taken the time to learn it. So while an editor poured over rolls of film I sat down to a laptop and went to work.
In the end photos of the gun carriage carrying Mother Theresa's body and the India soldiers accompanying her was the front pages of many newspapers around the world. And then, there was that photo of a poor boy standing in the rain with a handful of red flowers waiting to pay his respects.
Running up the street toward the Alfred Murrah Federal Building I could see that it had been blown up. The eight-story building was now a cratered mess, debris, collapsed floors and then there was the blood.
It would later come out that an American who had served in Gulf War 1 and others had driven a Ryder truck filled with fertilizer and accelerant into the drive-through of the building, lit a fuse and walked away. At 9:03 on the morning of April 19, 1995, the blast killed 168 including children in a second-floor daycare center.
The iconic photo from the event, taken by an amateur photographer and purchased by me was of an Oklahoma City fireman holding the body of Baylee Almon.
My life that day changed forever. Six months after the bombing I found myself in a rage while covering a workshop of mental health professionals and physiologists, who were showing photos that I had taken and others that day and discussing their negative impact on the United States.
I went straight into total meltdown mode, shouting at the panel, calling them idiots and storming out. A young doctor followed me to my car.
"I can see you're upset," she said. Then she reached out, touched my hand and looked me straight into my eyes. "You need help," she said.
They call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it affects people in different ways. If you are the strong silent type, like me, your feelings are mostly suppressed as you deal with what you have to deal with.
A few days later I was on the couch in a physiatrists office pouring out my soul. I was to spend several months with him before accepting a position as the Chief Photographer for the Associated Press in Bangkok.
The next several years of my life were mostly a mess. The only good part was that I loved working in southeast Asia and had no desire to ever leave.
Then the Asian Tsunami happened in 2003.
I was better prepared this time but I still reflect often on the amount of death I have seen and photographed as part of my job as the Associated Press.
For me, April 19 is always a sad day.
Almost no light filtered through the hallways of the Kuwait International Hotel as I made my way to a seventh-floor suite the night of Feb. 27, 1991. It was the day that Iraq surrendered.
I could see by flashlight that the door to our rooms had been kicked open, the base around the heavy frame most likely splintered by Iraqi soldiers when they burglarized the hotel.
Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbor because Kuwait had money and after 10 years of fighting a war against Iran he was broke. The story goes that he asked for help and the Kuwaitis turned him down. So he decided just to take the country. The U.S. stood by and watched as the invasion began on Aug 2, 1990.
It took only about a month of coordinated airstrikes to put the vaunted Iraqi army on its knees. And it only took General Norman Swartzcroft about four days to defeat the Iraqis in an end around through the desert that surprised everyone including Saddam.
After all of that, I made my way to Kuwait City as part of a Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information Press pool. The Americans had already filled all of theirs in an attempt to control the narrative.
Over dinner one night earlier in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, an American naval captain told me that the public affairs mission during the Vietnam War had gone wrong for the U.S. He said that that wasn't going to happen again.
Spots in the Allied press pools went to those reporters and photographers friendly to the American military. Journalists were issued credentials by the Saudi government. If you lost your credentials or had them jerked by the U.S. military or Saudis you were screwed. Those credentials gave you free movement through just about all of the military checkpoints. You also had access to all of the military press conferences and were eligible for a slot in one of the highly sought after press pools.
Since I had arrived late to the party -- I had broken my elbow six weeks earlier -- the Saudi press pool was my outlet. When the pool arrived in Kuwait City during the middle of Iraq's retreat, I saw a chance to go off on my own and took it.
After my break from the pool, I soon managed to get a car and driver. My driver, as it turned out, was a well to do Kuwaiti, who was out and about with his son when we met.
He spoke some English and immediately took me to local police headquarters. He escorted me past guards and then introduced me to whom I took to be the commander.
Being the polite host, the commander offered me thick expresso-style black coffee and sugar cookies. In the background, I could hear men screaming, the kind that comes from men being tortured.
I was allowed to photograph some of the Iraqi prisoners. The commander even offered to execute a couple of them for photos. The day was getting to be surreal.
I politely declined, returned to his office, and sat down to fill out caption bags for my film on a comfortable leather couch. I woke up hours later with drool running down my face. It was dark outside and another driver and another Buick Le Sabre were offered to take me to a hotel where there were other "Americans."
As we drove, barrels filled with burning trash marked almost every intersection and heavily armed Kuwaitis, their faces covered, stood guard. My driver stopped at each checkpoint and offered a conversation. All around were the haunting sounds of automatic weapons fire but it was unclear if the shots came during gun fights or celebrations.
When we arrived at the Kuwait International Hotel, it seemed as if there were no guards or employees on duty. Everything was dark. There was no electricity. At a toll booth for the hotel's parking garage, a Filipino pulled a set of keys from a wooden box and handed them to me.
"We love you George Bush," she said.
I took the keys and then began looking for the room, which turned out to be a large suite on the seventh floor.
As I climbed the unlit stairs to the suite I ran into Paris AP photographer Laurent Rebours. "Holy Shit" I shouted and then we hugged each other as if we were long-lost brothers.
Laurent had a gaggle of French agency photographers tagging along with him. Once the introductions and handshakes were finished, we headed straight for the hotel's kitchen to see what we could scrounge. All we found were metal grates that we later used as grills while cooking with sterno.
We ran freely throughout Kuwait City over the next few days as we chased the story. Each day you would notice fresh bodies in the streets. Most were those of Iraqi soldiers who had failed to get out of town in time. A single bullet to the back of the head was usually the cause of death.
By our second day in Kuwait City, AP photographers Scott Applewhite and Don Mell arrived with much needed equipment. The gear included a heavy satellite dish, a portable generator and all of the stuff necessary to process film and transmit it to AP Photos in New York. Each piece of that equipment had to be lugged up seven flights of stairs to the suite we had commandeered.
NBC News was across the hall and other media outlets were nearby. It took all day to lug our stuff upstairs. The generator was our only source of electricity. Outside, oil well fires burned, the sky was black and the air smelled of sulfur.
Brian Horton became our photo editor and I ended up processing most of the film. The AP being a cooperative was keen to keep good relations with its members newspapers. Around 10 big-market newspapers had made it to Kuwait but none of them brought any film processing equipment or color negative chemicals.
Horton kept the members mostly happy thanks to our equipment but when they learned that they would only get two rolls of film each, a near mutiny ensue. They shouted and threatened to call New York to complain. Horton looked them in the eye and said: "not on our phone."
I'm positive that Brian took some angry phone calls from our editors in New York. But in the end, it was a lack of fresh water that killed our operations. Without it, washing the chemicals from the film was impossible.
Camping from hell was what Horton called our experiences in Kuwait City. Journalists and US soldiers wandered through the the halls of the hotel all day and night. It was next to impossible to keep the stragglers out of our space.
However, at least on one occasion not having a front door to our suite paid off. But that's a story for another time.
Meanwhile, across the hall wafted the unmistakable smell of fresh coffee and eggs and bacon. NBC had forgotten to bring a satellite dish but they had a cook and a buffet line for their staffers while we dined on MRE's.
Things were about to change, though. I was being sent back to Dharan. I would drive Horton out and stay in Dharan to staff our Saudi office. I had in all spent about three weeks in Kuwait and Kuwait City. Officially the war was over. It was now all about mop-up photos of a destroyed city and a war that lasted only a short while. I had always envisioned riding aboard a tank into Bagdad with US forces. It was not meant to be.
All around me the carnage of Gulf War 1 spilled out on the sands of Kuwait. There was destruction In every direction -- tanks, vehicles., too many men. The retreating Iraqis had set many of Kuwait's oil wells on fire. It looked like hell on earth.
I was 39 years old and in my eighth year as a photographer for the world's oldest and largest wire service, The Associated Press. I had served in the US Navy, ran loose with Navy Seals in training exercises. I had been shot off the flight deck of several aircraft carriers and earned expert marksmanship with both rifles and pistols. My last posting in the Navy was with the Atlantic Fleet Combat Camera Group. I had military experience, more than most of my AP brothers who had none.
I was one of the first AP photographers to arrive in Saudi Arabia prior to the first Gulf War. Sadam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and I and three other AP photographers were covering the war build-up that we thought was forever.
After three months of photographing US forces in training, I went home convinced that there was never going to be any fighting.
Then in mid January 1991 while in Tampa, Fla., to cover Super Bowl XXV, I fell one morning while jogging and fractured my elbow. It seemed my involvement in coverage of the war was over as I was in a cast from knuckles to mid right arm.
But six weeks later, the Allied air war had destroyed numerous Iraqi tanks and other armored vehicles. As it happened, the vice president of AP Photos, Vin Alabiso, called around Feb. 20 and asked if I wanted to return. I said yes and was on my way back the next day. I met up with AP photo editor Brian Horton and two others and soon we were on a Saudi Arabia Air 747 to Jeddah. It took some wrangling but we were flown into Dharan by the Saudi Air Force.
Once there AP photographer Don Mell got me a spot in a Saudi media pool. Mell was the best scrounger/fixer I had ever worked with. From his time in Lebanon, he knew the Middle East and how to make things work. Nothing happened unless Mell first checked it out.
The morning that I left with the Saudia photo pool Horton came over to say goodbye and good luck. My friend reached up and tightened the straps on my web gear and then stuffed a granola bar in one of the pouches. It turned out to be my only meal in the next 36 hours.
The pool was loaded and driven to a waiting Saudi C-130 cargo plane. It was a hell of a ride from there. We flew through some dangerous thunderstorms but arrived safely at an airstrip near the border city of Khafji.
We then rode into the ongoing liberation of Kuwait aboard an airlines shuttle van, the
kind that one hops at LAX to go from the terminal to the rental car lot.
A gaping hole in the concrete wall between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was the crossing we took into the battle zone as we followed behind an Abrahams M1A tank on our way to Kuwait City.
The reporting pool soon arrived in Kuwait City and there were still street battles between Iraqi stragglers and Kuwait resistance fighters. All around buildings had been torched or bombed. Fires burned everywhere.
We were given about 30 minutes to photograph or interview people on the scene before having to get back in the van for the return trip to Saudi Arabia. "Not me," I thought. I moved next to an open window in the van where an AP reporter was sitting. "Hey man give this to Horton," I said and then slipped him several bags of exposed film.
He looked at me and asked where I was going. "Not back", I told him. A burned-out Sheraton across the street became my rally point. A Kuwaiti handed me a warm 7-Up, hugged me and yelled: "We love George Bush".
In the time it took me to chug the drink the hotel manager had wrangled me an English-speaking driver and a late-model Buick LeSabre. Soon I was riding along in the middle of the carnage known as "the Valley of Death."
The six-lane road used as retreat by the Iraqis had been heavily bombed and strafed by US fighter jets. Dead soldiers and destroyed equipment was everywhere.
Eventually, I ended up at the Kuwait International Hotel where a Filipino maid handed me the keys to a suite. Iraqi soldiers had kicked all the doors in so the keys were really pointless. I slept that night on a very nice bed but kept my Swiss Army knife at the ready. I was joined the next morning by other journalists and we scrounged food and coffee from US ration kits that had fallen off the back of supply trucks.
Everywhere was chaos. The Kuwaitis who had not fired a shot in anger were hell bent on shooting up the sky. Burst after burst of automatic weapons fire was constantly shot off all around.
AP photographers Don Mell and Scott Applewhite arrived the next day with the equipment needed to process film and send the images back to the US. Most of the stuff was heavy, especially the generator and the maritime satellite dish.
Meanwhile, all of the reporters were running loose, chasing stories on mass executions at the Kuwait City zoo. It was all bullshit. Chaos is a difficult thing to manage. I found that just getting out to take photos was the only realistic plan.
The following morning Horton arrived in a rented Audi with FOOD. Bags of delicious pita bread, corned beef and lots of Spam. He settled into the workroom and began editing photos and coordinating with the reporters and print editors.
Each day was a new experience. Horton, myself, and the other journalists clung to the fragile belief that if we got into trouble someone somehow would help us.
In what seemed a short time, the Kuwait Hilton had generators brought in and electricity was restored. A week later there was water for showers. The chaos all but vanished as law and ordered slowly returned.
And then it was time to leave. Horton was needed back in the States and I was assigned to run the photo operations in Saudi Arabia.
The only way back was a road trip through the Valley of Death. So off Brian and I went with just a couple of bottles of water, some canned tuna and noodles and a cassette tape of Tina Turner's greatest hits.
About three hours into our drive the Kuwait border and its guards appeared. Not wishing to encounter trouble I swung in behind an Egyptian six-wheeled troop carrier. We were headed for that hole in the fence. The Egyptians easily made it through but seconds later I was stuck in high center, one half of our car in Saudi Arabia and the other in Kuwait.
Panic does not begin to describe my emotions. What now? Horton and I got out and surveyed the problem. We were stuck on what was left of a concrete barrier that tanks had knocked down. There was no way we could push it out. As we pondered our next move some other Egyptian soldiers thankfully came to our aid.
They lined up their troop carrier and the bumper of our Honda and then "BANG" rammed us through the border hole. Horton cheered as I stopped just long enough to get him back in the car.
Tuna and noodles never tasted so good and Tina Turner never sounded so good as we safely headed to Dharan.
As a wire service photographer for more than 30 years, I have seen my share of death and misery. It started back in 1984 when I was assigned to help AP Photographer Lenny Ignelzi cover the funerals of the victims of the San Ysidro massacre where a lone gunman shot and killed 21 people in a McDonalds.
Watching people grieve over the loss of a loved one and then attempt to photograph that without being disrespectful to the family of the victim is done with either empathy for the people or you can just be a jerk and blast away figuring you will never see these people again so WTF.
During the funerals of the Edmond, Oklahoma post office massacre I realized immediately the victims were almost family to me. Suddenly a fine line between doing my job and just walking away was drawn for me.
For a long time when I had to photograph a funeral, I chose a telephoto lens and just stood back. No need to get close, just frame it up and shoot.
Fast forward a couple of years, I had taken the post as the southeast Asia photo editor for the Associated Press responsible for covering such things as the independence vote in East Timor.
Now I bet money that the average American can't spell East Timor much less find it on a map.
But for the past 25 years (back in 1998), it has been a part of Indonesia and is not far from the island where the famous Komodo dragons live. Indonesian President B. J. Habibie had brokered a deal with the United Nations by where they would monitor the independence referendum making sure it was fair and square.
Leading up to the vote there had clashes between pro-independence factions and paramilitary thugs loyal to Jakarta.
Almost the entire population of East Timor came out to vote, seventy-five percent approved the measure to leave control of Indonesia who had invaded some 25 years earlier. The violence began almost immediately following the vote. I had arrived a couple of days before the vote and in my posting on East Timor 1998, I detail that.
What I want to share here is a moment. It is not a pretty one though.
This is the moment when this family realizes their worst nightmare has come true. Their son killed the day before in a clash between East Timor Pro Independence factions and paramilitary thugs has been placed in a makeshift morgue in Dili.
This photograph haunts me to this day some 20 years later. I can not look at it and not feel sad for this family and their loss. I can not look at it and not feel anger for those that killed him. I feel certain no police came, no report was taken and then just a funeral for this young man that afternoon.
I photographed that funeral as part of the ongoing news coverage of the East Timorese story. Many times I have been welcomed into a home where tragedy has struck and so, in this case, it was similar to others I had photographed. A very poor family dealing with the loss of their oldest son while outside in the capital of Dili the situation was going from bad to worse.
When I started as a wire service photographer way back in the day most shooters only used Tri-X black and white film with an ASA of 400. For those of you who never have had to carry a light meter or wrestle with a manual camera, Tri-X was the best possible choice. I mention this only because unlike now photojournalism and photography back then generally required a thought process.
In the early days I spent countless hours in numerous print and film processing darkrooms honing my craft. I was constantly on the lookout for new processing methods and developer combinations.
For most of the wire service guys, photography was all about speed. The trick was high processing temperatures, drying negatives as quickly as possible, and getting the shot on the wire.
Unlike today, it only became a point and shoot environment when you were chasing criminals appearing at the local courthouse or trying to photograph a subject without asking permission. “From the hip at f/8” became my mantra in my early days.
However, as time passed, it wasn’t long before the managers of most American newspapers demanded an all-color look. The papers then generally only had the ability to put color photos on their front pages but in order to better meet the calls of our AP clients, out went the tried-and-true Tri-X and in came Kodacolor 400.
Kodacolor 400 was an incredibly grainy film and I don’t recall seeing a sharp image for several years after. Photography was changing and all film was on life support. Still, I continued to slop color negative chemicals through a bunch of Motel 6 bathrooms while chasing a deadline. I didn't know for sure but something revolutionary was just around the corner and it would change my career forever.
I first saw a digital camera in early 1995 while at the first-ever class for wire service photographers concerning the News Camera 2000. The AP was moving into the digital age and I and 14 others had been chosen to take the first steps.
We gathered at Princeton University for a round-table introduction. It was a brave new world.
The old guard immediately poo-pooed the camera and technology. “This will never work” I heard most of them say. Vin Alabiso, the AP's vice president for photos, and AP president Lou Boccardi saw things differently. Not only was digital photography going to flourish, we would be the ones to make it happen. Soon there would be no more darkrooms and none of the messy chemicals that went with them. I could not have been happier.
That's because I had discovered that the world of wire service photojournalism was at times not about quality. Don’t misunderstand. Everyone was trying their best but quality disappeared with use of Kodacolor 400 and 1600 to take Page 1 color shots.
For a while, we were told to carry one camera with black and white film and another with color. That, of course, did not work out so well and and I was never able to shoot with two cameras at the same time.
But back to film photography. Oklahoma City was my first posting as a wire service photographer. The photo staff consisted of just one person, me. The entire state was my responsibility. That meant if a tornado wiped out a town 150 miles away, it was my job to get there, shoot the scene, find a motel and put together a darkroom, and process some film and then make a print.
No more than two photos were transmitted as soon as possible, usually taking about 10 minutes per shot. All the gear necessary to do that filled the trunk of a compact car. The transmitter alone weighed 70 pounds.
Fortunately there were some improvements to that routine prior to the advent of the digital camera. A transmitter that could send images without making a print was used for a few years making the darkroom unnecessary. For example, all of the images that I shot during the first Gulf War were sent to New York using that technology.
The iPhone you carry in your pocket has more power than any of those early digital cameras. When I photographed the deceased Cambodian despot Pol Pot in the jungle with an early digital camera in 1998 I had no idea how radically things were about to change.
The shot of the young Khmer Rouge soldier looking lost while standing in the hut with Pol Pot's body was a 1.7 megabyte file. It looked great in color on the front page of the New York Times the next day. But that camera was entirely manual.
Now everything is automatic.
In a very few short years it seems, technology has made huge leaps in improving the quality and speed of the image. It felt like we were swapping out cameras every 18 months. New and better was the rage.
My iPhone camera shoots photos that have been used on the wire and for better or worse, everyone thinks he's a photojournalist.
World famous Magnum Photographer Phillip Jones Griffiths use to visit my office in Bangkok regularly. He was this larger than life Welsh man who had what I considered the driest sense of humor I had ever known. He caught me often with that fish hook in my mouth look and then he would give a faint little smile and say something that let me know he was not serious.
He arrived at my office in that late '90s wearing a Cambodia neck scarf and what we often referred to as a "Boonie" a floppy hat that soldiers in the jungle wore.
The digital photography revolution had arrived in Bangkok, my photos of Pol Pot dead in the jungle, taken with an AP 2000 news camera, had changed things. The quality back then was horrible. The file size was 1.7 megs and required quite a bit of working in an editing program before transmitting. Looking back on it now I can see why Phillip was skeptical. Phillip carried 40 rolls of Tri X black and white film and a smidgen of color slide film in his bags every time he arrived in Bangkok.
I never paid much attention to the cameras Phillip was carrying, so many people showed up in the Associated Press' office wanting something back when I was running things. Phillip was not one of them, other than to say hello and company for lunch. He did, however, inquire at great length about the digital revolution. At the time he was shuttling back and forth to Vietnam working on one of his books, "Vietnam Inc."
We would spend hours talking about black and white photography, my first love. Just listening to his stories made me think. I began my career with the Associated Press, and it was only black and white. A few short years later we had moved to all color, it was awful. I don't think I saw a sharp image for years.
At the time the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was on the run from Royalist forces. Key leaders had either been captured or killed, and the average soldier and their families were fleeing to Thailand.
We had traveled together to the border area near Surin, Thailand. Just about everywhere you looked Khmer Rouge soldiers in their baggy green Chinese made uniforms were on the move. Refugee camps were filling fast.
At one point I shot this Izusu truck loaded to the roof with refugees. When I started to file the image, Phillip, looking over my shoulder spoke to me as I worked. "For fuck's sake David it's not an Isuzu add." I had made the image vertical showing the full truck on the road. It was clear suddenly that none of that truck was important, what was the photo was the mass of people on top of it fleeing the fighting. "Oh, and get rid of that color," he said, "It complicates things."
The next day it ran on the front page of the New York Times in black and white.
Tales from the Trail
David Lee Longstreath is a retired wire service photographer with more than 40 years experience on assignments around the world. He currently lives in upcountry Thailand.