Hard Better Faster Stronger
In the process of procrastinating on a story that I never got around to putting together about an urban farm for refugees (awesome right?), I got scooped by the LA Times and Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Don Bartletti. Granted, the story had already been told by San Diego Citybeat, voiceofsandiego.org, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. I choose to see this as a blessing in disguise – one that reminded me I ought to be finding the more intensive, personal stories that need to be told, and that maybe my story idea needed a bit more work anyway. In other words, if I ended up doing this story I’d have to find a way to do it better than everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong. The story has been worth every article, and the articles tell the story well: New Roots Community Farm, organized by the International Rescue Committee, is an urban farm in San Diego that offers small plots, cultivated predominantly by Cambodian and Somali Bantu refugees. The farm has risen in the middle of a city, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, uniting disparate refugee communities and ultimately prospering. In fact, I got an especially firm kick out of seeing Bartletti’s images, as he is truly a master of the craft (see his amazing Pulitzer-winning essay Enrique’s Journey, which comes strongly recommended).
Even with Bartletti’s eminent work, however, the images so far have only been to illustrate the farm and offer only a passing glance at the people who break its soil. A photographer covering a story for just one afternoon can only hope to nail the basic story, no matter how talented. To avoid redundancy, the next worthwhile story on the farm would have to put in more effort and not just take photos of farmers bent over, pulling weeds, because that’s already been done, and done well. If another photographer were to approach this story, they could jump right in with a focused essay on just a single farmer, or perhaps follow the progress of one refugee family. Like any story, the more time building a relationship with the subject, the better. Access leads to better, more original photos.
Short-term stories can be a great starting point for leads, but if you’re going for the long-term project, make sure to go above and beyond what’s already been done. Decide what part of a story needs to be told, and stay focused on contributing something new.
I’m reminded of the mantra originating from the gospel according to Jeff Jarvis that I’ve heard echoed numerous times elsewhere. I even saw it on Twitter this morning, in the feed of Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org, who said, “…We do what we do best & link to rest. Stories aren’t owned, they just each tell part of the big picture.”