Looking at ‘The Bottom Line’: Lessons from a Photo Essay

Mona Reeder, a photographer with the Dallas Morning News, has won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for domestic photography for her photo essay “The Bottom Line.” Through pictures, Reeder explored Texas’ poor rankings in a number of categories ranging from the poorest counties in the U.S. to environmental protection.

Earlier this year, the project won the Community Service Photojournalism Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It also was a Pulitzer finalist.

Kenny Irby interviewed Reeder about the project for “Best Newspaper Writing 2008-2009.” In this excerpt, Reeder discusses the value of in-depth photo essays and how she developed this one.

The full interview and a selection of photos will be published in the book, available this fall.

Kenny Irby: Photographic essay projects of this depth are not very commonplace. What value do such projects have?

Mona Reeder: To me, “The Bottom Line” project embodies what our managers have been saying the last several years as newspapers experience shrinking readership and news holes. This project represented a well-researched, in-depth piece about serious issues affecting the entire state of Texas, and it was presented in an innovative manner that even the busiest person could get through and absorb in a relatively short amount of time.

Photo essays are the bread and butter of major news magazines, and our world is increasingly focused on visual mediums. It seems to follow that newspapers would gravitate to cleaner designs utilizing compelling, in-depth photo stories to attract and keep readers.

How did this photo project originate, and how long have you done this kind of work?

Reeder: As I was wrapping up a project about homelessness in Dallas, a social worker who had helped me with contacts on the streets handed me a set of statistics issued by the state comptroller’s office ranking Texas with the other states in the U.S. in more than 15 categories such as public safety, education, health care, teen pregnancy, pollution, voter apathy and poverty.

The statistics were embarrassing to the state, in my opinion, and I was stunned at seeing how lopsided the public policies seemed and the disparity between the haves and have-nots. We had done stories on all of these issues individually, but when I saw all the numbers and issues grouped together, it sparked the idea that all of these issues painted a grim picture of Texas and they needed to be presented together for maximum impact.

For me, it was almost an immediate reaction that these statistics had to be a photo essay of vignettes that represented where Texas ranked by the numbers. [I wanted] to portray in pictures — real faces, real lives — how the priorities and disparities affected the citizens of Texas.

How do you go about gaining access and building relationships with the people that you document?

Reeder: It’s important to put at least as much of yourself into the work as you expect from your subjects. Compelling, intimate documentary photojournalism demands honesty, patience and sincerity from the photographer, and I believe you should approach it with empathy and compassion.

To gain access to a family’s most intimate situations, they need to trust you and feel comfortable with you in their lives, and that kind of relationship comes by spending time with them, sometimes a great deal of time, and allowing them to get to know you. I spend a lot of time not even taking pictures, but just listening to people.

I believe strongly that ideas are the currency of the newsroom and that photojournalists are equal reporters in the news-gathering process with their writing colleagues. What is your reaction to this statement?

Reeder: Absolutely! Too bad more newsrooms don’t get it. I graduated from California State University, Sacramento, and it didn’t have a photojournalism program, so in order to get a degree in journalism, I took every course that was required of students looking to graduate and work as reporters.

If anything, I was at a disadvantage when trying to find work as a photographer. My first job out of college was as a general assignment reporter at a small, three-times weekly newspaper in northern California, and when I did manage to find a photography job, it was only part-time. Most newspaper photographers have had to take several writing classes and other curriculum required of reporters in addition to photojournalism classes to get their degrees.

On the flip side, most reporters I know have never taken a photography or design course. Consequently, most great photo staffs know that educating the newsroom about photojournalism is a big part of their job, and one they work at constantly. Photo departments are sometimes regarded merely as “service” departments. If more newsrooms looked at photographers as journalists — photojournalists — they could be making maximum use of their resources.

How did you interact with your online staff? Was the Web presentation very different from the newspaper’s presentation?

Reeder: We have a small but very talented and hardworking online staff within our photo department that is actually separate from the overall newspaper’s online department. The three of us worked together nearly night and day to produce the multimedia presentation in time for publication. It was distinctly different from our print version of the project. We broke down the issues into separate picture stories, producing eight slideshows with audio.

What advice can you offer other photographers when it comes to being a visual reporter?

Reeder: Waiting to receive a great assignment or project from the photo desk is a mistake a lot of photographers make. Some people complain that they never get anything good from the desk, but in my opinion, you make your own luck, create your own opportunities. If more photographers took the initiative and responsibility for developing stories and photo ideas, they might be happier.

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