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WOSTER: Telling stories without pictures

Terry Woster

I must not be a wallflower, after all, because sometimes I see things and I don't understand.

In "Perks of Being a Wallflower,'' one of the characters says to another, "You see things. You understand. You're a wallflower.'' When I was a young man, a wallflower was a guy or girl who hung back against the wall at sock hops and mixers. I was always one of those guys, so I figured I was a wallflower.

But just the other day, I saw something, and I totally didn't understand. The puzzling information was carried in several outlets that cover news of the media world. This one, I think from a New York Times blog, was representative:

"The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire full-time photography staff Thursday, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, in a move that the newspaper's management said resulted from a need to shift toward more online video.''

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't get it. A newspaper without photographers? I've never blindly bought into the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. It depends on the picture, and it depends on the words. I do believe a good picture is compelling and can tell a story in ways that words can't. I also believe the right words can tell a story in a way no picture can. Together, words and pictures have told some pretty incredible stories over the lifetime of newspapers.

Times change, though, and so do newsrooms -- which I guess some papers call "information centers'' these days. What those things are called, newsrooms or information centers, isn't as important as who is in them, of course, but I'm not having much luck imagining a newspaper without photographers. Couldn't they keep the photographers and get rid of the editors? (Sorry, that's the old former reporter coming out, and I'm just kidding.)

I read another blog piece somewhere that said the Sun-Times is going to give reporters lessons in how to take video with smart phones. Makes sense, I guess, if the goal is to get more online video.

(Forgive another digression into my former career as a newspaper reporter. Several years ago, in the Dark Ages of the Information Age, I covered a candidate's election-night party. The newspaper's photographer with me was shooting both still photos and some video. A reporter from a television station told the photographer, "You can't just give anyone a video camera and expect them to shoot stuff.'' The photographer replied, "Why not? You guys do.'' Me? I sidled over to the corner away from the conversation.)

I spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, nearly all of it as a reporter. I did a stretch as an editor, but I came to my senses and returned to reporting. However, my first real, out-of-college, job was as staff photographer at the Argus Leader. That was in the fall of 1967. A couple of photographers had recently left the paper, including a guy named Ray Mews, whose photograph of a wounded soldier hugging his wife at the airport won a Pulitzer Prize. I wasn't of that caliber as a photographer, but I had taken press photography from Woody Wentzy, so I knew the basics of a 4-by-5 Speed Graphic camera. Imagine my surprise when I got to the Argus and discovered they were using 2-and-a-quarter Roliflex cameras.

After a refresher course in cameras and darkrooms by a wonderfully decent man named Bob Renshaw, I managed to take printable photographs. I often emerged from the darkroom with black-and-white prints in which I'd failed to consider background and ended up with an image that made it appear a distant tree -- or telephone pole, or flag pole -- was growing from the main subject's head. I once turned in a golf shot in which all three subjects had trees coming out of their heads. Sports editor John Egan said I'd hit the trifecta of photography.

Long story short, all I know is that a lot of people can use a camera to capture an image. I did that. Real photographers make pictures that tell stories. Rarely did I do that.

I will watch the Sun-Times move with interest.