Saturday, July 25, 2009

Shadowing Billy Calzada

They have to be focused on the action, while anticipating reaction or those unplanned events in the back of their head, ready at moments notice. As famous photographer William Albert Allard once said, photojournalists "seek out what is there,yet often find something finer, something closer to the center, that no amount of research or preparation could have led them to."

Photojournalists use a variety of techniques while covering their assignments, but there is one technique that I believe is the most essential and cannot be learned, only felt. It is the ability to feel compassionately towards your subject with a loving gratefulness that they are here, here to share their stories with the people around them whose perception of the community- perhaps unawaringly- is determined by what they couldn't see themselves and what only photographs can bring them. That desire to share all things truthful and real is, I believe, the greatest determinant in one's ability to work as a photojournalist, as compared to other fields of photography.

I was able to see this essential method of a photojournalist in action last Thursday evening, while observing Express-News photojournalist Billy Calzada on assignment at the home of Maria Altamira, or "Tweety." I was in the Express newsroom checking the Photo Request Form when I heard about the assignment, the summary reads:

"Everyone calls Maria Altamira "Tweety." She has scores of the stuffed cartoon bird outside her home [given by friends, family, locals], which is called the "the Tweety House" by locals. She picked up the nickname at a local bar, where a man named Sergio (i.e. "Sylvester") used to chase her around and throw water on her. Tweety has had a rough life - her son is in prison and the father of her 5-year-old daughter was deported, among other travails. The Tweety symbol reminds her to be strong and happy."

Photo-editor's notes: "Billy, looking for a multimedia piece from this. Audio slideshow or video. It should get some nice love on line. -- William ["the super pro" Luther]"

Billy Calzada is the guy photo-editors assign these stories to - he has the lovable personality that people take to, his professionalism and ability to create a multimedia piece in mere minutes unimpeded by cracking jokes, laughing, and having fun in the process (when appropriatte) - not to mention, he's bilingual! He has worked at the Express for almost ten years, and has only recently in his career taken up video/multimedia production, yet he works the medium with the same dedication for professional quality as with his stills.

It was a very good learning experience for me to observe the way Billy accomplished the assignment. He meets the family with a greeting known best by the family-of-a-hispanic-community in San Antonio- "Como Estan?!" - followed by introducing the camera to his subject and calmly asking them questions. This family was really nervous before Billy arrived, they came outside and asked me what was going to happen and I reassured them that he would "just ask a few questions and take some video." Sure, Billy did ask some questions and take video, but he did so in a way that made the shy children talk (who wouldn't speak to me), put the family at ease and be in their comfortably natural state, and he received his subjects in the way of a freind who isn't there with any lack of interest or passion to tell their stories. He was shooting photos of the family in a natural state before I could even pick up my camera, and they noticed the lens by the time I did. He was instinctive and the whole process looked completely natural to me - something I'm still working to acquire, of course.

I look forward to speaking with Billy again next week, and learning from all the professionals at the San Antonio Express-News. Thank you again Billy and all for inspiring students and reminding me why I love this "job" with all my being - it's more like a lifestyle of preserving history and sharing the stories of others and our own experiences with the community, our world that relies on the photograph not just to be informed, but to feel the curious and inspired emotion as a witness to this life and the times - the same feeling one must have to really be a photojournalist.

Billy Calzada interviews Maria Altamira, or "Grandma Tweety," outside her home at the 1700 block of San Fernando St. Thursday. Known as "the Tweety House" by locals, Altamira owns over 250 tweety birds, given to her by family, friends, and visitors.

Angelica Altamira laughs as Billy Calzada interviews her mom, Maria Altamira, or "Grandma Tweety."

A real Tweety adorns the home

Billy laughs with Amber Altamira, 4, at her "Grandma Tweety's" home.

Here is the video Billy produced. His slideshow of images can be viewed at