It was a couple years ago, when they took my desk away, that all the downsizing in journalism really started to piss me off. Someone had decided that our department needed to move, and the spot we were given was a smaller space with fewer desks than we had people. It made no sense. The newsroom was riddled with empty desks, and one open space that would have fit all fourteen of us was given instead to the six summer interns. I would have to share a desk from now on.
But I refused to share a desk. No way. I would rather go without one than share, I thought. After all the depravations brought on by the decline of the journalism business, I deserved, at least, a damned desk.
Despite my feelings, the decision to move us was final. I tried to put the best mental spin on it, telling myself it wouldn’t really matter and saying feel-happy things like, “Well, I’ve never taken a great photograph while sitting at my desk!” I pictured myself spending all my time out in the field, doing great things.
It didn’t help.
It was too hard to push away the doubt and concern, the insult really, that I would no longer have a desk of my own in the office.
My frustration boiled over and I decided that if they were taking my desk away, I’d just box up all of my personal belongings and move out of the office. As I was pulling down the photographs hanging above my desk, the executive who was taking my desk away approached.
“Hey,” he said, as I pulled another 13×19 inch print from the wall. “Now that you’re going to be sitting over by my office, does that mean I’ll be privileged to see your work displayed on the wall in our corner of the building?”
And here is where you as the reader, not knowing the executive or the various things that happened between us, might find my response somewhat cold.
“No,” I answered. “I don’t have a desk anymore.”
About a month ago the remaining employees were called into a mandatory meeting and told that, within the hour, several of us would no longer be employed. We shambled lifelessly back to our respective departments to wait it out, to see who would be terminated, killed, eviscerated. By this point our department had been moved again and I had a new desk of my own. It was more fort than desk; we salvaged unused office furniture from all of the recent staff reductions and stacked it high around our workspace like some fortress of solitude. Or a place to hide if there was an office shooting.
We gathered together in the fort, telling stories and jokes and trying to not to attract the attention of the man in the red shoes. He was making his way around the newsroom like the grim reaper, tapping the shoulders of those who were being laid off. Those tapped walked dead, right through our department on their way to their final separation meeting before leaving for good. We tried to keep a list of who was tapped. That happens at every layoff. Lists of names. People always want to know who.
We were huddled together at my desk, as if there was some bit of safety from the circling predators here in the center of the herd. One co-worker walked out of the building and drove off, saying they would have to make him come back if they wanted to lay him off. I felt like a coward for not doing the same. But as miserable as it was awaiting possible career death in the office, I didn’t know if it would feel any better to be alone. Our group just stood around trying to ignore the dread and dismay all around us.
A shoulder was tapped twenty feet away, and a good friend was let go. That’s as close as they got to our group. I was not laid off.
If you’re ever in a situation like that, a slaughter, don’t stand around in the crowd hoping that you won’t be the next one killed. Don’t hide in the fort. Run for your life.
Twenty-five years ago I attended a workshop about the imminent death of newspapers. It’s been a long time coming. Recently I photographed a local pastor. He asked me about some specific troubles affecting my newspaper (that everyone in town seemed to know all about) and I brought out a glib line I had used repeatedly to end such queries:
“Despite all the bad stuff happening in the office, I find that my job is still great if I just focus on my work and keep the office drama out of my head.”
Usually that was enough to bring any conversation back to happy talk. But this was a wise pastor. He asked:
“Are you able to do that? Ignore all the office drama?”
The question ripped me open. Because, as I told him, “No.”
I said I could have the new niche photo website built in two weeks. At the time, they loved that word: niche. But I made sure they understood that it would only be done in two weeks if their plugin code worked.
And their code didn’t work, more than likely because of the company’s server configuration which was beyond my control. Six weeks later, I was ripping my hair out, still trying to get it to work, and at the same time continuing to be a full-time photographer.
Finally I decided to trash their code and rebuild the entire website from scratch.
After just two hours, the site was up and running flawlessly.
Throughout the six weeks and two hours I’d spent developing, others had tried to have the project killed. Every few days I’d get a new update: The site was approved. The site was canceled. The site is approved again. This happened multiple times as various department heads battled for territory. I kept working on it regardless of each day’s news.
When the site finally went live, traffic to it grew quickly. I waited to hear anything from upper management about the work I’d put into the successful launch. One day a single photo on our site got the most hits of anything else on the company’s daily web report. Still, it was three weeks before anyone said a word to me about my work on the site. A lite compliment was offered up, the only one I ever got. It felt like too little and too late.
Once the site was doing well, one of the people who had tried to kill it off reversed his position. He posted comments on the website saying it was a great idea, as if he had never opposed it behind the scenes. Even more surreal, he was nominated as an Innovator of the Year for the project.
But this whole walk still had one more step of silly. One day our niche photo website simply vanished. The server stopped responding and the site refused to come up in our browsers. No one said or did anything about it. To this day I don’t know what happened.
It was 3am a couple weeks back when inspiration struck. I woke up and the solution to a major problem came to me. For three years we had been unable to merge our assignment and calendaring systems. Now I had the solution figured out.
While everyone slept I got up and started coding. By the time my shift was about to start, seven hours later, I had programmed a system that would save us a lot of time and hassle. It felt good to help out. Our assistant photo editor had just been laid off, and I knew that losing him would make things difficult for the in-house photo staff.
I put the computer away, took a shower and then started my shooting shift for the day.
Over lunch that week I told a friend about what I’d done. He was a wise friend. He asked:
“What did you get out of that?”
And all I could come up with was, “They let me go home early that day.”
I was reading a book about a pair of Navy SEALs who were falsely accused of abusing a prisoner, then acquitted only after a drawn-out public spectacle. Of the ordeal, one wrote:
“Firstly, something dies. With me it was the will to strive to be the best, as I’d always done before. My motivation was way down. On training trips I was dragging my feet. I’d simply lost that SEAL ethos, that sense of feeling unstoppable. And I could not get it back.”
In those words I recognized my greatest fear. What if I lost my drive for excellence? What if I lost the pride that I took in working hard and doing my best? What if it went away, all because of events completely unrelated to photography?
My colleagues and I seemed so close to losing it. And who could blame us, considering the many body blows that we had taken as a profession? I had built a wall in my mind to stay strong by blocking out memories of the indignities, but leaks were constantly developing and bad memories would flood in like this:
Remember when we were all forced to prove that we were the parents of our very own children, at the risk of losing our health insurance?
During the interview that got me hired nearly twenty years ago, a salty editor asked me something like, “What if you get tired of this and burn out on the job?”
“That’s not going to happen,” I said. “But if it did happen, I’d be gone long before you ever noticed. I’m not going to stick around and half-ass this job.”
What happens next? Who knows.
I haven’t burned out on photojournalism. I still love every day on the job. Every assignment adds to my understanding of this world and my fellow human beings. I’m not stopping until I, like so many good people before me, get tapped on the shoulder.