One Picture …

A letter from the editor of Tallahassee Magazine

My 32-year career started in newspapers. There were forays into public relations and retail sales and now the magazine business, but my training and first jobs were as a reporter. In those jobs, I worked with plenty of photojournalists.

There was an interesting love-hate thing that went on between the two positions in the newspaper trade. Reporters pretty much thought photogs were prima donnas — always complaining and quick to take offense.

I was once foolish enough to say something like “I’ll be there at one with my photographer,” while talking on the phone, and I got a verbal spanking along the lines of “Your photographer? I don’t belong to you and you don’t tell me what to do.”

They constantly bitched about their pay and work hours and the short shrift their photographs were getting in the paper. And woe be to the page designer who cropped or ran a word of type on top of their photo.

Of course, photojournalists had their (probably legitimate) complaints about reporters, most notably that they wouldn’t even consider using a quote or a story idea generated by a lowly photog. We are the word people, reporters would say, and photographers should stick to their pictures. (And oh, how they hated photographs to be called pictures.)

I met Mark Wallheiser, whose life’s work as a photojournalist is the subject of one of our feature stories in this issue, on my first day of work at the Tallahassee Democrat in June 1998. We rode down to Alligator Point together to cover the story of three guys who went missing during a fishing trip. It was a pretty awful scenario, witnessing the pain of family members who were losing hope by the hour, but Mark and I did our thing and headed home. (Just as the story was filed that evening, rescuers found one of the missing men alive and the body of one who died. The third was never found.)

On our way off the peninsula, after spying a scenic view, Mark pulled off to the side of the road to photograph it. To get the right angle, he stood on top of a tree trunk and proceeded to fall off and hurt his shoulder, which would ultimately require surgery to fix. (The camera survived unscathed.)

At the time, I guess I didn’t realize what a toll it took — physically and mentally — to be a photojournalist. But we are all in debt to photojournalists in general, and to Wallheiser in particular, for capturing three decades’ worth of images that inform us about the world around us — even when they’re not particularly enjoyable to look at.

I was also with Mark when he took the photo (page 95) of a man grieving for his fianceé, who had been killed in Valentine’s Day tornados that hit South Georgia. I can recall that terrible day — watching a woman break down over the body of a little kitten, seeing a mattress tangled in the wires atop a light pole, talking with the subdued coworkers of a woman who had died. I might just have written a thousand words, but when people think about that day, what tells the story best is  … one picture.

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