Mike Morones, director of photography for the Free Lance-Star, is our Q&A this week.
Mike talks to us about the responsibility a photojournalist has when capturing an image to complement a story, why he sees photojournalism as both an art and a trade, one of his more memorable photos and the hard lesson that came behind it and more.
We have built two galleries below to showcase some of Morones’s favorite photos he has taken over the years.
To start, please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do.
My card says Director of Photography at The Free Lance-Star but I would characterize what I actually do as a staff photographer with added administrative and editing duties. There are two of us on staff so my counterpart and I are kept pretty busy covering daily news and sports assignments for the newspaper. I’ve been here for a bit over two years though this is my second stint at the FLS. I’ve been in Virginia for almost 20 years, first working for Jay Pace at The Herald-Progress in Ashland and then the Free Lance-Star for 8 years. I left here to be a picture editor and then staff photographer for the Military Times papers in Springfield for 6 years. I got out of journalism for a year to work as a multimedia producer for the Military Officers Association of America in Alexandria. Then the position opened up here and I decided I was tired of commuting and missed being a photojournalist, so here I am. We do occasional video work but mostly focus on still images and do our best to tell the story of the Fredericksburg region.
How did you get interested in photojournalism and photography and when did you decide you wanted to try a career at it?
I was a telecommunications student at Penn State learning the ins and outs of the broadcast industry. I was looking for a part-time job and saw the student newspaper was looking for photographers. I had taken a photo class in high school and it sounded interesting. A couple weeks in I discovered that it was an unpaid gig unless you were an editor but by then the photojournalism bug bit me hard and I dove in. At this point it was too late to switch majors and it never occurred to me to look for internships so I immersed myself at the paper and joined the National Press Photographers Association. Upon graduation I got an office job and freelanced for small papers in southeastern PA until I landed a staff job at a chain of weeklies in Maryland. I learned a lot and luckily had some mentors early in my career to nudge me along in the right direction.
Some folks say photojournalism is an art, some say it’s a trade. Where do you fall at and why?
I think photojournalism is an interesting mixture of art and trade. To paraphrase Joe Elbert, a retired director of photography at the Washington Post, news photography exists on a continuum where on one end you have a strictly informational picture: It records an event and nothing more. Moving up the line you have graphically appealing photos: They look nice but don’t offer much more than that. Next up you have emotionally-appealing photos where the photographer caught a genuine moment that triggers an emotional response. And finally, there’s an intimate photo that makes the viewer feel something and connect with the subject of that image. Often those previous levels are incorporated in that kind of picture. The trick is figuring out how to marry the art side where you have to have a good understanding of the so-called rules of photography to the trade side by being technically proficient with your equipment as well as exercising good, ethical journalism.
“The trick is figuring out how to marry the art side where you have to have a good understanding of the so-called rules of photography to the trade side by being technically proficient with your equipment as well as exercising good, ethical journalism.”
This is sort of a tangent from your question but I really dislike hearing editors, designers or reporters referring to ‘art’ when looking for photos to go with a story or to stand alone in the paper. On one hand it might just be verbal shorthand but on the other hand, it suggests that news photography has less value than a written story and is merely there to dress up the page. I think the visuals and text should always work together to give something of value to the reader. Ideally my photos along with good captions and headlines drive people to read a story and stick with it. Hopefully they bring to life what a reporter is covering.
I really do believe semantics matter when it comes to talking about photography. I know to some it seems silly to focus on trying to not to use some long-standing terms like taking or shooting or capturing an image but I think how we communicate with regular people about what we do matters. How we frame what we are trying to accomplish helps produce better photography in a more collaborative and less exploitative way, especially when you think about how photojournalists often interact with people when they are at some pretty low points. I think this is particularly important these days with all the ‘fake news’ talk that is permeating the national conversation. We are not an enemy and we are not there to just take from you.
What made you really understand the importance of telling regular people about the motives behind reporting?
I feel like it’s become more necessary to explain myself over the last few years than earlier in my career. It used to be that I would introduce myself and more often than not, people were content to just let me hang around and photograph whatever was going on. These days, it seems like every other assignment I’m explaining to somebody that no, I don’t want you to pretend to do something for the camera. No, don’t recreate a situation or do it again because I missed it the first time. I think this has to do with a couple of things. First, I’d say the biggest thing is the “fake news” and the “press is the enemy of the people” nonsense that is permeating the public conversation. Some research has come out lately that illustrates how little the public understands how media companies operate. We have not done a good job educating our readers on things we take for granted such as the difference between the editorial department and the newsroom or why we may use an anonymous source for a story or why I absolutely, positively cannot Photoshop something out of an image.
Tell us about one photo you’ve taken that has stuck with you, for better or worse, over the years. What makes this photo memorable and what’s the backstory to it?
That’s a tough question – I’ve photographed plenty of memorable and even historic events that it’s difficult to pick one. It’s a good reminder that I have been very fortunate in my career.
Early in my career, though, I learned a lesson about how photojournalism can positively effect change in somebody’s life but at the same time, not necessarily be a totally accurate – yet still honest– documentation of a situation.
I had worked on a story about a Spotsylvania County family living in the sort of poverty you might see in a third-world country – five people in a two-room shack with no running water and electricity provided by an extension cord running to a nearby utility shed. After it was published donations poured into local aid organizations as well as the family itself. They were given a rent-free apartment to get back on their feet, food and clothing donations, job offers, etc. I was pretty happy with myself for effecting change on a personal level for somebody. Plus, the work won awards from the National Press Photographers Association, the Virginia News Photographers Association, Virginia Press Association and elsewhere. The Virginia Poverty Law Center recognized the photographs for having a positive effect on the community.
A few months down the line I reconnected with them to do a follow-up and discovered they were back in the same conditions where they started. In talking with them, it seemed like there was too much change too fast. There were also some underlying issues like domestic violence and substance abuse that I did not pick up on when I would visit with them, either because I was too naïve to see it or because they made it a point to downplay those issues when I was around.
So, while I accurately documented what I saw, I did not look at the situation with eyes open wide enough, if that makes sense. Part of that is inexperience and not understanding how these social issues are often intertwined and human stories are often not as simple as we would like them to be. While I am still proud of the work and the results it generated, I would probably approach that story a little differently these days.
What keeps you wanting to photograph for a newspaper?
I really do believe in the mission and value of local news organizations. And on a personal note, William Albert Allard -one of my favorite photographers of all time- talked about how everybody at some point will miss a great photo but asks, “…how lucky can you be to live a life and see so many wonderful things?