Two views (or more) of VJs…

Newsreel Man (Charles Peden in front with sound equipment)

In the beginning there was the Newsreel Cameraman. Hauling around more gear than a pack mule, he (no shes back then) covered the news and view of the nine-teens and twenties, joined by an Audio Man in 1927.

That was the original VJ. Rough and tumble, but always got the story.

These NR guys held on tenaciously through the birth of television, only getting phased out in the 1960s when the majority of the public chose the boob-tube over the big screen for their daily dose of what’s happening.

In the meantime a new term sprang up on the broadcast side of news: OMB. One man band. A reinvention of the NRC, they (once again) hauled around a camera, audio gear and enough love of news and what’s happening to gather the news in their markets for a hungry audience. I’m guesstimating maybe late 1950s with film and optical audio through…hmmm, today’s digital workflow.

And now we have divergence.

Sometime in the 1990s print photographers discovered an entirely new unheard of medium. They called it multimedia. It was all new – if you could actually believe editing sound with your still photos and then playing it back. Wow.

Then these brave pioneers moved on to an even greater discovery. Something they called video. Imagine, if you can, moving images with audio embedded! Why the world had never seen the likes of it before. But what were they going to call themselves if they no longer shot stills?

Well there were a number of options. Out of the nation’s capitol came the term Backpack Journalist. Made sense because (theoretically) you could fit camera, computer…your entire office into a backpack. Visual Storyteller was another one. Multimedia Journalist or Storyteller was another choice. But most of them went for Video Journalist. And so they laid claim to this new territory as original and new and totally theirs.

Um…but what about those broadcast folks? Weren’t they shooting video too?

Not the way we are, chimed the (print) VJs. Our style of storytelling is unique. We’re not TV.

Looking at it from afar (and for a while from the middle of it) I’d say the two are pretty much doing the same thing.

1) Both use cameras
2) Both gather sound
3) Both work alone to gather and disseminate visuals stories to their audiences


1) Broadcast VJs tend to use cameras meant for “run and gun” shooting with easy to access exterior controls, professional audio connectors, and good zoom lenses.
Print VJs opt for hybrid DSLRs that shoot both stills and video. While they have more control over depth of field with a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, they must also add-on audio accessories and other gadgets.
2) BVJs generally run on a tighter schedule with more packed into a day and more expected of them. Anything from a single package to a few VOs and VOSOTS to a combination of all of the above.
PVJs may have to shoot multiple stories daily also, but often seem to use video for more long form stories or VO/VOSOTS.
3) A good BJV can turn an exquisite daily story using a variety of options from a NATS pkg to pkg complete with narration and stand-up. Day after day, week after week.
A good PVJ can turn an exquisite story in a few days (from what I hear and see on the professional boards) generally a NATS pkg using the voice of the interview subject rather than narration.

You may have guessed two things by now. I tend to favor the BVJ…but there are some equally damned good PVJs out there. The good ones have more in common than not. They live and breathe visual storytelling. They see the kernels of truth, the compelling images, and understand the flow of time and words well enough to go beyond the basics. And more importantly, they learn from everything…from each other, from their subjects…each story is an opportunity to get better.

Why this posting? Just had to get it out of my system. Don’t want history written up improperly with the lineage of VJs lost to the most vocal shooters. Those quiet guys behind behemoth hand-cranked cameras deserve their place in the books too. (And don’t forget…many of them were former still photogs.)



Before the Internet…before TV…and pretty darn near alongside silent movies and radio way back in the early decades of the 20th century there was a breed of men who braved all manner of dangers from dancing beauty queens to crashing zeppelins to bring the news to theaters around the world.

And now Amanda Emily has rounded up their tall tales into a tome of her own – From Behind the Lens: Short Stories of the News Photographers From the Pre-War Newsreel Era. A must read for all who love history, news, both.

Newsreelers were the very first VJs…but this time let’s call them Visual Journalists. Heading out alone or with an assistant (and then a soundman beginning in the late 1920s) they covered the events of their time from serious to sensational. In Amanda’s book you will read the stories behind the news as well as learn about these remarkable men, who were looked upon as heros in their day.

I encourage you to take a look…I know I’m ordering mine tomorrow.

(Transparency: Yep, she’s a bud of mine…but I wouldn’t be posting here unless I believed in her and her book. She’s an old soul in a young body.)

When life becomes history…

There are events you live through that you know will become part of history. And then there are everyday events and people whose lives suddenly come back at you, and you realize you lived through something special.

Yesterday Newell and I went to the downtown Stockton Cineplex and watched “Milk.” I knew the guy the way most news photogs know local politicians. He was the kind of person you could talk to, joke around with, pop a mike on. Very mellow, low key, friendly. He wanted and needed the news and he knew how to work the system as much as any of the others. Example: the pooper-scooper law. I saw that in the film and laughed – they caught the moment, just as it happened in real life.

Watching the film took me back decades to what may well have been the high point of my career – working at the public television station (KQED) in San Francisco from 1978 through 1980. Wow. Momentous years, momentous events…and working at a station that did news right. Not just covering events, but giving in-depth background and every day finding out what mattered to the community.

For a (fairly) young photog, this was life. KQED’s philosophy was that all journalists are equal – so as a FILMMAKER, I was treated as one of the team, not just a techie. Interviews were more conversations than a series of questions. “The Evening Edition” reached out to communities from high-brow (politics, opera, symphony) to ethnic (loved the story on the Black Panthers school) to S&M (if ya don’t know, don’t ask).

All of this was part of the fabric of late 70’s SF. My county supervisor was Dan White (and honestly, I can’t remember who I voted for). Randy Shilts, who I worked with frequently, was the first openly gay TV reporter in the country. Mayor George Moscone was one of the political-savy Moscone clan. Then-county supervisor Diane Feinstein, who tearfully made the stunning announcement of the shootings, I remember most for admitting in a giggly interview that she would have loved to be an actress.

And in watching the movie, they were all there in both archival film or portrayed in very believable acting. Sean Penn IS Milk. My god…he is Milk incarnate. It is uncanny.

Some side-tidbits. I consider Mary-Ann White and her children victims of events…her husband was a good man driven by devils to commit crimes he would never have considered had he been in his right mind. Not an evil man, but rather a man caught up in a lifestyle and circumstances he couldn’t comprehend and which he also resisted. Unable to change, he chose to end both his life and that of others. The film caught that. White was trying to survive financially…he had a franchise for a small fast food place on Pier 39. Supervisors were paid a pittance.

Milk though…was a man driven; a man unable to give up. And a most unlikely leader for the youth-obsessed gay movement. KQED was located in an industrial area near many of the gay bars. It wasn’t unusual to have guys in black leather and spikes sitting in chairs next to old socialites on pledge nights, taking phone calls and soliciting (no – not for that) for funds for public television. At one point in the movie, when the guys head out to The Stud for drinks, memories swirled as I remembered that the bar was located nearly across the street from KQED.

Enough of memory lane…my message today is that sometimes the most unlikely people and events become history. Yes, Milk was historic in that he was the first openly gay elected official in a major US city. But he never tried (or had time to try) to move beyond that…he was the Mayor of Castro Street and a committed local politician. This movie revealed more of his life and philosophy…making him bigger than he was in real life.

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