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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jay Dickman: Far Afield

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jay Dickman has spent more than three decades on the road capturing subjects from the meager to the momentous

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For a National Geographic story on weather forecasting, Dickman mounted an underwater housing with a remote-triggered camera inside to this windsurfer’s board in order to capture the idyllic conditions beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I had a couple of very close calls, stories I prefer not to share,” Dickman continues. “But I came out of my time in Salvador with the realization that adrenalin has to be at least as addicting as heroin. After I won the Pulitzer, the Times Herald asked me if I wanted to go to Beirut to continue war coverage. I believe there are signals we receive in life, my two close calls, and having known both Hoagland and Cross [John Hoagland and Richard Cross both were killed in El Salvador], I felt my signal was loud and clear. I decided to go other directions. I started covering other types of assignments, not those with so much direct potential for peril attached. I feel that this decision was best for me and one of which I’ve never second-guessed.”

World Traveler

Dickman married his wife Becky in 1983, and they moved a few years later to Denver, where Dickman began work at The Denver Post. Tough economic times in the area soon pushed him into freelance work on the national level. He had been published once in National Geographic in 1979, covering Peter Jenkins and his “Walk Across America,” but it wasn’t until 1988 that he received his first assignment for the venerable magazine, shooting the forest fires of Yellowstone. This was followed almost immediately by his assignment to Papua New Guinea. After that, the door was opened for Dickman, who has had a relationship with the National Geographic Society ever since, with assignments published in the magazine, books, National Geographic Traveler, Adventure and special publications.

A fireworks celebration during the pre-groundhog awakening of Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania
While in Papua New Guinea, he had to be paddled for four hours in a canoe to reach the “local” hospital when he came down with what he thought was malaria. This occurred at the same time that his wife was pregnant with their daughter, during which they were only able to speak over radio once in six weeks. He used that brief communication to have his wife explain his symptoms to the Center for Disease Control. A life spent constantly on the move requires sacrifice, and though the demands have been high, Dickman wouldn’t change anything for the world.

“This has been one of the great joys of this business,” he says, “this ability to step into others’ worlds and experience something of their culture, and isn’t this why we travel? Traveling and working in third-world countries also provides a different perspective on the world; it’s hard to take bindweed seriously after you’ve come out of a place where the main concern of each day is providing food or water for your family.”

Dickman’s work also has appeared in 15 of the A Day in the Life of… series of books that use the imagery of high-profile photojournalists to portray life in a variety of foreign countries, from Japan to Canada to Africa. The challenge to Dickman and world-traveler photographers like him is to document a variety of cultures with a uniquely singular vision that can showcase his talents. The challenge, too, is not to infringe on their cultures, while gaining an intimate understanding of their ways.

A worker throws red dust atop newly poured concrete in Loreto, Mexico. Dickman was traveling as the National Geographic certified lecturer on a trip to Baja aboard the Sea Bird
“A photojournalist is an individual who’s telling the story of his or her assignment, which often means telling the story of that person on the other side of the camera,” says Dickman. “This requires knowing enough about your subject that you’re able to tell that story accurately through the image. The reader/viewer of your photos really gets a sense of who that subject is, and why they’re important. Look at a magazine, at photos that move you or make you laugh or send fear through you, and remember that there’s a person behind that camera.

“I’ve been to over 65 or 70 countries in my career,” he continues. “Some of those have been assignments where I’ll spend a longer period of time in that place; some are for a few days’ visit. I’ve always felt that most people on this globe enjoy having validated that what they do has relevance of some degree, and by showing sincere interest in that person, the photographer—and camera—can be that tool of validation. In this multitude of countries, I’ve made many, many friends and have had the fortune of being able to slip under that veneer that tourism can force upon the visitor. I rarely hesitate to approach someone, domestically or internationally, and ask if I may photograph him or her. You get turned down every now and then, but the majority of those people gladly give me permission.”

A farmer in his sunflower field in Morocco.

Film To Digital

Photojournalism is one of the markets that has struggled with the digital revolution the most, particularly in the world of print media. Dickman has seen it change from situations where commissioning photographers to go on extended travels was the norm to a market where editors pay the least possible amount for images that have been uploaded to second-tier stock sites, sometimes even from cell phones. Gone are the days of Lear jets being hired to get reporters to their assignments, instead relying on the immediacy of local photographers and even amateurs at the cost of finely crafted imagery.

Despite this sea change, Dickman is overtly positive about digital photography. “Digital has had the most impact on photography since the invention of film,” he says. “In general, it’s for the better. The ability to confirm your image is one of the most obvious benefits, allowing the photographer to check and go on. On long assignments for Geographic in the film days, we’d send in regular shipments, partly to confirm there were no technical issues. I think Joe McNally explained it best when he wrote a guest article for Perfect Digital Photography, a book written by co-author Jay Kinghorn and myself. I had asked Joe about his conversion to digital. I wondered if he shot more images on that story; there were no film costs, etc. No, he shot less, and he attributed that to ‘digital eliminated the paranoia of redundancy.’ Wish I had said that. His point is dead-on.


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