By Sarah Rice
November 14, 2016
When I was 16, everything I had envisioned for my future changed when my high school journalism teacher introduced me to a camera. Until then, I had been a writer; now I was a photographer. My life changed again at 18, when I met Steve Jessmore, the man who would become my mentor, teacher, friend, and role model. Jessmore was an award-winning community photojournalist in Flint, Michigan, and an alumnus of my university, where he also taught. He took a look at my portfolio and saw a technical nightmare—horrible angles, depth-of-field problems, and messy frames. It’s fair to say that I had a long way to go, but I was eager to learn and he generous with his instruction. Somehow I convinced his newspaper to hire me as an intern, and photojournalism boot camp began. My time at The Flint Journal became the foundation for everything I’ve done since. As the chief photographer and intern supervisor, Jessmore was in a position to teach me some of the most critical lessons of my early career.
Early on in my internship I was sent to photograph an elderly woman, probably in her 90s, for an ongoing series about milestone birthdays. I made a portrait, a tight shot of her head and shoulders, and brought it back to the paper. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I do remember Jessmore laying into me: he said that although the photo didn’t seem like a big news story to me, and might only run an inch wide, for that woman, it might be the only time she’s ever been in a newspaper. I had photographed her under the florescent lights of the nursing home, which cast an unflattering shadow on her face. It was the first time I understood my obligation to the people I photograph: not only to be accurate, but to make the best photo possible in every situation. From then on, I brought a black backdrop and lights to those milestone assignments so I could take photos of people in their best light. Jessmore set a high bar for photography—all of the people he shot received the same attention and care. And over the years, he’s won numerous awards with photos from assignments that other photographers would complain about, or worse, undervalue. I see him as not only a great photographer, but also a man with integrity, respect, and a hard-to-match work ethic. I know I haven’t lived up to his standards, but I’m a far better photographer for trying.
Later in my internship, he quizzed me about another photograph I made, this time of an elderly woman crying in a hotel room. It was a wide shot with her on the bed, her head in her hands. I was far away, against the wall by the door. Tragic circumstances had pushed her out of her home and into the hotel. He asked me why I hadn’t gotten closer and and put my camera right in her face. I was confused—Did I fail at the assignment? Was I supposed to do that? I told him that she was having a tough time, and I wasn’t there to make it any harder for her, just to tell her story. I had her permission to be there but didn’t want to intrude any more than was necessary. He nodded in agreement.
Of the many things I learned about good photographs while at the Flint Journal, Jessmore’s example, the sensitivity with which he approached his work and his subjects, was perhaps the most crucial. And the quality of greatest importance to him continues to be of greatest importance to me—having heart.
Photography, for me, is about the possibilities for connection—between people, place, subject, and viewer. A huge part of capturing that comes from my relationship with the people I photograph. I’ve never subscribed to the It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission adage, because I want the people I photograph to be comfortable, if not excited, to be photographed.
I must admit: While I always ask for permission before photographing, I did not ask for permission before writing this. Steve Jessmore is humble, so it’s hard to say if he would have given me the okay. In this one instance, I’m going to break my rule; I’m going to go ahead and just hope he forgives me.
Sarah Rice is a documentary and editorial photographer who focuses on marginalized or outlier populations.