Zach and Meegan: two friends, two notes

January 27th, 2019

Crunch Time: the Picture Editing team putting together the 120-page book at The Mountain Workshops.

I met Zach this past fall down in Kentucky at The Mountain Workshops, a week-long intensive dive into photojournalism. He was one of our students in the Picture Editing sequence that I’ve been lucky enough to help teach each fall for a large part of this millennium.

Zach made us laugh, worked really hard and helped us — with our other students — pull together a 120-page book of photos and stories in less than a week. But I think I bonded with him during our shady drug deal on the streets of a small Kentucky town.

Okay, that’s not what really happened. But it sure looked that way. After a long day, and before the ensuing long night, Zach asked if I had any Tylenol. His head was pounding after staring at a screen, running up and down the stairs to meet with the photographers he was working with and probably not eating much of anything.

Sure, I had some pills, but they were out in my car. We hurried out together and in the fading daylight. I handed him some pills and we both burst out laughing because anyone watching would just assume a drug deal went down. Not that there’s anything funny about drug deals.

Earlier we heard Zach’s story about how he ended up at the Workshop. We like to learn about the personalities and backgrounds of our participants; the former literary agent who became a photographer; the Farmer’s Pride writer who didn’t know a thing about photography; the eager photojournalism students; the guy who was once a Caribbean island photographer who then moved to small-town Indiana. That was Zach, the island photog.

I knew another island photog. He was my first intern at my favorite job ever, a small newspaper in Midland, Michigan where I was the photo director. I’d never had an intern before and when that guy left our little town for the island life, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I loved being at the newspaper, the Midland Daily News. My editor and publisher gave me all kinds of latitude to do whatever I thought was best for our readers. Boy, those were the heydays.

After my intern left for the islands, I got to hire a new intern every four months. As our reputation grew, photographers from all across the country (and a few from across the world) would send me their portfolios, looking to work in little ol’ Midland town. If I didn’t pick a photog or their photos weren’t quite ready, I’d try to gently let them down. I’d sometimes send a personalized note saying what I liked about their work. Sometimes I sent out candy with their rejection letters, to soften the blow. It was silly; you could even argue it was patronizing. But it was meant to make them feel connected and to keep trying.

I got a note just now — just today — from Meegan, my favorite intern who went on to be an award-winning photographer out West. She was devastated by the layoff of her shooting partner and staff member. He had been at their small newspaper for 37 years. It’s never easy getting laid off. I know that viscerally, having lost three journalism jobs in the space of one year. But it’s also really, really tough being kept onboard and having to fill the spaces by yourself that two used to occupy.

These were her eloquent and poignant words to me about moving out of the photo lab, the “photo cave” where they used to work together:

It’s too sad in the photo cave. Walls are filled with photos of previous photographers, some who tragically passed on well before their time while they still worked there and then those who got laid off or forced out in the past 20 years. It’s just a reminder that when I go, there will be no one in there to hang a photo of me.

Whoa. I was blown back in my chair. That’s some powerful sentiment about the state of journalism today.

Meegan’s not alone. A Washington Post story this week by Steve Cavendish was entitled Local newspapers have already been gutted. There’s nothing left to cut. It was subtitled The ugly future of corporate news. Said Cavendish of Gannett, the nation’s largest-circulation chain “It’s rare to find a year in the past decade when Gannett did not offer some sort of buyout or impose layoffs …

My dear friend Meegan will make it through all this. And hopefully she’ll receive plenty of support from friends, colleagues and people’s lives she doesn’t even realize she touched.

They may just come at her from out of the blue, decades later like Zach did.

You see, this past fall wasn’t my first encounter with Zach. Near the end of our Workshop experience — when we were all exhausted, delirious, excited and ready for the closing ceremonies — he sat me down, with the team busily finishing up around us. He proceeded to tell me about the impact I had on a “greener than green” photographer just starting out in the business a couple decades ago. He was that photographer.

Zach then told me, so that everyone around could hear, that I helped him out early on, even though I never hired him. He was referring to my rejection letter, of all things.

He said, Your note gave me something positive to focus on during a time in my life when I needed a little encouragement. I think sometimes, after we’ve been jaded by years of grinding it out, we can forget just how much a small personal gesture can mean to a young, hungry, lost but determined student.

I don’t mind telling you, mine weren’t the only misty eyes, my mouth not the only one agape when I heard that.

He wasn’t done. A week later, another magical surprise arrived from the man in the form of a group email to all of us in the Picture Editing class. I’ll let Zach take it from here.

Four years ago I purged 90% of my material belongings, but Rodney’s note made the edit.

With Warmth,

Zach

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