This week we had the pleasure of talking with Loudoun Now photographer and 2017 Best in Show Winner for Non-Daily Photography this year, Doug Graham. Graham talks about his 40-plus-year career as a photojournalist, his most memorable photo (involves a high-speed chase and a robber), sneaking into Cuba for a story, why he doesn’t consider photojournalism an “art” and more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do, where you do it and how long you’ve been doing it?
I’m a Virginia native, grew up on the coast and I’ve been a photojournalist coming up on forty years this year! I worked in the hyper-restrictive National Press Corps covering the national politics, White House and Capitol Hill for the better part of 17 years before taking a buyout in 2014 and returning to Virginia. I was going to walk away from journalism and then Loudoun Now started in Leesburg, so I have returned to my roots of community journalism.
I’m now trying to reestablish myself as a freelance photojournalist at the local level by working for smaller publications in the Piedmont. I’m also working on a advocacy project in an attempt to save the historic rural roads of western Loudoun. Advocacy journalism is a new thing for me but I’m enjoying it and feel its going to be a positive experience.
It seems that you like to photograph sports. Your photo that won Best in Show this year (congrats, by the way!) was a horse racing one and your books seem to focus on sports as well. What is it about sports that draws you in as a photographer?
I have been lucky during my career to have been assigned to some high-level sporting events and of course shooting athletes at the top of their game makes the job even easier. With that said, sports are not always easy but because you can plan before hand it can offer you opportunities that other news assignments do not. When that moment comes hopefully you have done your homework so that the image produces a clean background and shows the peak action from an interesting angle. Like my “Best in Show” Point to Point steeplechase photo. The location was all scouted out before the race allowing me to frame and preset the camera for the best possible background. Yes there is always luck involved but thinking ahead of an assignment never hurts.
When you saw the photo you captured that eventually won Best in Show at this year’s awards ceremony, did you know you had got something that was special? What else went into capturing the image? It’s such moving shot.
Yea of course, when you see an image like that on your cameras preview you know that you have done your job. Not much else beyond presetting the photo went into planning. Like I said, there is an element of luck involved and I would rather be lucky than good any day. Hell, I’ve based my entire career on that statement.
Ha! If you had to break news and sports photography down to a percentage of luck and skill what would it be?
Humm, that’s a hard question. Luck plays a really small roll in most photojournalist careers. Being there and being ready is the secret. As the old saying goes, “Show up early and stay late.” With that said, luck never hurts in professional photography and of course it does sometime allow you to win Best In Show.
Every photographer we have talked with seems to have the one photo that they are incredibly proud of and remember taking. What’s yours and what’s the story behind the photo?
I’ve been doing this a long time so there have been a few–a crack house bust were I got to go into the house with the cops, sneaking into Cuba for a story, working on a two-year project that sent Lyndon LaRouche and his follows to jail and the evacuation of the Capitol during President Reagan’s funeral. (That one got me into the Oval Office to shake President Bush’s hand.)
However, if had to pick one it would be the high-speed chase that ended in a horrific crash in downtown Leesburg. This would have been back in the 80s when all newspaper photographers had scanners in their cars and monitored police and fire radio traffic. A man had robbed a store in Maryland and had been chased into Virginia along route 15 north of Leesburg. Speeds were reported at over 100 mph and they were headed South and into Leesburg. It was clear they were going to come right through old town, so I got my car onto route 15/King Street facing North at the stop light dead center of Leesburg and stopped two or three cars back from the light. There was a car behind me blowing his horn and waving, clearly upset that I was blocking the intersection.
At that moment, the robbers car appeared flying South on King Street up and over the hill and into downtown and right through the intersection. He ran a red light and hit another car that was headed East on Market Street broadside sending both cars airborne and coming right at me. I had a camera in my hand but I ducked down and braced for impact! Lucky for me the East bound car went to the left of my car into the other lane and the robber’s car went up onto the sidewalk and past my car by about 20 feet.
I looked up and right next to me was the driver that had been hit, bloodied and clearly dazed. His car was smoking and by now Leesburg Police Offices were on scene and running towards the accident scene. I grabbed my cameras that were preset and jumped out to record the chaos. The first frame I took was the award-winning image of a cop pointing his gun at the robber and yelling and waving at me to get back. In the background are two more Leesburg officers pointing a shotgun and a sidearm at the suspect still in his car.
This photo is not something I’d hang on my wall, but it did win tons of awards and I was proud that I was able to maybe save lives by blocking that intersection and also do my job in the process. I was lucky to not only get that photo but also not get hurt.
“I’m a visual journalist and my job is to tell the story in images. If some of those photos turn out revealing some sort of beauty then so be it. Life in general and people are messy and often the images we bring back are heart breaking. In the end for me it’s not just reporting and taking pictures. I always ask myself do these images matter, do the photos I take to inform the public change someone’s mind enough to take action? If they do then I’ve done my job.”
I have to ask about the Cuba story. Feel free to divulge as many, or as few, details as you see fit.
The Cuba story was about the travel restrictions on Americans not being able to go into Cuba but there was a thriving black market industry that would take you from Miami to Cuba by boat. This would have been late 80s or very early 90s. It was easy and cheap and all you needed to live like a king when you were there was a small amount of cash and if you were smart old car parts for the 1950s. Those cars are everywhere on the island. We went down, got a boat and went over spending a week and played tourist. It was a lot of fun and I got to do the Hemingway trail were we saw his room, typewriter and other items they said were just like he left them. The people were warm and friendly and the American Government’s take on Cuba and the actual on the ground experience were completely different. When I left on this trip, I was a little apprehensive but after arriving I did not want to leave. Really a fun trip and a beautiful place to visit that proved to be rich in culture and great food.
Do you consider news photography an art? Opinions seem split on this issue.
I think photojournalism can be artful, but no I don’t think what I do is art. I’m a visual journalist and my job is to tell the story in images. If some of those photos turn out revealing some sort of beauty then so be it. Life in general and people are messy and often the images we bring back are heart breaking. In the end for me it’s not just reporting and taking pictures. I always ask myself do these images matter, do the photos I take to inform the public change someone’s mind enough to take action? If they do then I’ve done my job.
After all these years, what is it that makes you still want to keep taking photographs?
It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do and it’s the only thing that I’ve been good at.
Favorite photographer: Matt McClain of the Washington Post
Favorite photo: Larry Burrows photo story for Life Magazine, “Yankee Papa 13”.
One piece of advice you were given that you still use when photographing: Get close and remain invisible.