There comes a day in every journalism student’s life when they get in over their heads.
Mine came last week.
As part of my graduate program, I’ve spent the last four months working on one, huge story about women on the border. I’ve studied the issues, talked to every lawyer, advocate, professor, official and agent involved in the issue. I’ve read every report and article about it. I even analyzed a database of coroner’s reports. But it wasn’t until I met one woman — a girl, really — on the border last week that I really got it. It was the day I realized I was in over my head.
But there also comes a day in the course of every story when you realize that you’ve nailed it. For me, it came at the same moment when I realized I was in over my head. There’s this kind of sniff-it-out, animalistic sense that they try to cultivate in you as part of your j-school education. It goes something like this: You’re sitting in a shelter in Nogales talking to someone and they say something off-the-cuff about their sister and an alarm goes off in your head — “that’s a story!”
Problem is, it’s usually something rather morbid — exposing hypocrisy or uncovering an injustice or the dirty underbelly of…well, anything. Maybe this is why the general public respects journalists about as much as car salesmen or lawyers. Maybe it’s also why we have the amazing opportunity to make a difference.
When you sniff it out for the first time, it’s something like biting into a plum that looks ripe but is still sour. It’s hard to swallow, until you remember that there’s a big picture — until you remember that people need to hear this story. It will make a difference.
This is the difference between journalists and everyone else.
I majored in Visual Arts at Fordham. I spent two years in a dark room learning about photographic composition and form. My professor was a successful photographer in the New York art gallery world.He told us once that on 9-11, he walked outside of his apartment but couldn’t bring himself to shoot that day. He just had to take it in, he said, without his camera.
When I told this to my mother, a lifelong journalist, she was incredulous. “How could you not shoot on 9-11?” she asked. At the time, I agreed with my professor.
Last week, though, when a volunteer was stitching up that girl’s hand where she cut it from falling in the desert, I took the shot.