The Image Deconstructed

Spotlight on Neil Blake

Feb 13, 2014

This is the third in a three-part series on the photo staff of the Midland Daily News, which just placed in the Editing category in the Pictures of the Year International competition.
This is an interesting and surprising image, can you please tell us the backstory on this?
Thanks for interviewing me.  I wish this resource had been available to me when I was in school!  I love learning about the photographers behind the photos.
This image was taken before a high school football rivalry game between Bay City Western and Midland.  We cover both schools at the Daily News.  Midland was expected to win, but the game was at Bay City Western.  The photo is of the Bay City Western team as they wait to take the field. I personally love football season at the newspaper.  Because football games only happen once a week there is an energy there that you don’t get at basketball or soccer games.  Midland residents, like most people across the country, love football.  And most of the local high school teams have wide followings in their communities.
When I was in school at Central Michigan University I stumbled across Scott Strazzante’s project called The Season on A Photo A Day.  He was covering the Joliet Catholic Academy varsity volleyball team at the time and was posting images from it routinely.  He focused not on the action, but the moments off the court that happen everyday in high school around the U.S.  That story (and my internships) shaped how I cover sporting events.  It gave me a completely different vision for what shooting high school sports could look like.  And I keep my eyes open for those type of documentary moments.
When you arrived on scene, what were the first thoughts in your mind? How did you proceed forward?
Bay City Western’s field is set a few hundred yards away from the school, so I started photographing the Midland team in the locker room and then followed them out to where the Bay City team was already gathered around a few pine trees on the north side of the field.  I turned my attention to them to see if I could make a feature photo before I lost the light.
Seeing the team near the trees, I knew I had a shot at an interesting photo.  I enjoy juxtaposing sports teams against nature scenes.  And what I mean by that is that in this frame they are clearly not on a football field.  I expect to see football players on a football field.  I don’t expect to see them on what looks like a lawn in an upscale neighborhood.  I worked the scene for a bit trying to make a quiet frame.
As a photo staff, we each strive to capture features from the games that go beyond the needs of the sports department.  They need the winning touchdown and the key contributors on each team.  And I shoot that.  But that’s not what I usually get excited about after a game.  I love the nights when I can walk away from a game having pushed myself to capture a moment that speaks more to “offstage” persona of the players and fans.  You expect to see the action… the “onstage” moments.  I love seeing the offstage.
This probably fits into the larger culture at your newspaper, can you speak to how this fits in with not only your approach but the staff's approach?
I started at the Midland Daily News as a freelancer during my senior year at Central Michigan University. The paper is only a half hour away from the school, and I became their main freelancer until I left Michigan to intern at The Herald in Jasper, Indiana under Chief Photographer Dave Weatherwax. Ryan Wood, the photo editor at the Daily News at the time, and the staff photographers, John Tully and Nathan Morgan, placed a high value on getting to assignments early and shooting features from sporting events. While they are all excellent sports action photographers, I think we all valued the sports feature more.  It was the same at The Herald.  I think a good sports feature photo can reveal more about a person than the action on the field.
That photo tradition continues today. Each of us on staff keep an eye out for the sports feature at every game we go to.  Those are the photos the resonate with me, and in my mind a game I’m covering isn’t complete unless I come away with some sort of sports feature.
How has the staff influenced you in daily assignments like this?
While I wouldn’t say that we are very competitive between each other on staff, it is motivating to see Sean or Nick come back with great features from games.  When I see their work I think, “I want to do that!” And I look for the next opportunity to shoot a game feature.  Looking through their takes pushes me to not settle for simply shooting the game to fill the news hole.  
While we often run our features on A1, many times they will never go anywhere except the online galleries.  And I’m alright with that.  I’ve always cared more about doing the job to the best of my ability more than the play it gets in the paper and online.  If I just shoot the action, I know that I’m not performing to my potential.
This particular photo was never published in print.  Midland dominated the game so it didn’t make sense to highlight the losing team on A1. We ran one of my feature photos from the Midland locker room to illustrate the story.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making images like this (and working on the staff)?
I’ve learned that this type of photo is much harder for me to take than a game action photo. While features are always my favorite photos, they also require me to get in people’s personal space which has always been a challenge for me a natural introvert.
I feel much better after a game knowing that I engaged and went after the photos I saw.  Sometimes on assignment I’ll “see” an image or situation, but not engage due to fear.  It’s easier in one sense to sit on the sidelines and not to work the scene.  But it’s a terrible feeling to walk away from an assignment knowing I could have done more, tried more.  For me it’s not even about if the photo was successful or not.  The question I ask myself and the question I wrestle with long after the fact is, did I try everything I could have?  Did I do the job with excellence?  
I left the game knowing I did my job well.  And that’s a daily decision.  And one that I face on almost every assignment.  I heard somewhere that you are only as good as your last photo.  And I think that’s true to a certain extent.  The thing about your photo instinct is that if you ignore it long enough, you can silence it.  You can numb yourself and get into a rut where you just shoot what your bosses expect and just turn out newspaper photos.  It’s a place I’ve been in, but I strive not to stay there long.  It’s a mental struggle, but a battle worth fighting.  I never want to kill my gut instincts.
Now, onto the moment. Can you talk about the moments leading up to the picture and also the actual moment (how did you go from coverage of the event to this?)
As I mingled with the team a coach came over and led the team in a short prayer. They all kneeled in a circle and I shot a few frames of them there.  After that they lined up and were just stuck waiting until they could take the field for the game.  That’s the moment I captured.  I think a lot of interesting things happen when “nothing” is happening.  I try to force myself to pay attention in moments like this instead of mentally checking out.
I’ve found that covering high school students is kind of hit or miss for me.  Sometimes I can walk up to a group, introduce myself and then “disappear” but other times they will mug for you and stare down the camera.  Fortunately, after a few minutes of shooting, they ignored me and let me shoot.
Can you talk more about community journalism? Any thoughts or advice from your experiences?
I’m nearing the end of my third full year at the Daily News.  And while that’s hardly a long time, I feel like I’m now in a better position to make the kind of photos I want to make than I was just starting out.  The difference isn’t that I’m a better shooter now or that I know my camera better (though hopefully I’ve grown in those areas).  The difference is that now I know people.  It’s gotten to the point where I can’t go anywhere in town without running into people from past assignments.  And I love that. I’ve covered high school sports here enough to where I know the players and coaches by name, their history, and what big games they’ve won or lost in the past year.  There is a history there.  Trust.  And inside jokes too.
I can relate to people easily here, because I’m from here, I live here, and I care about the same things.  I’m sure there is a point where a person can stay too long and run on autopilot when faced with covering the same assignments year after year.  Now in my third year, that’s a possibility, sure.  But I’m taking it as a challenge to use the familiarity I’ve built up here as a jumping off point instead of a safety net.
I think there is tremendous value to journalists knowing their communities on a deep level.  That’s one reason why I’m saddened to see so many media companies going the route of hiring interns over investing in full time photographers.  Many interns are just as skilled photographically as the staffers they shoot beside.  But an intern, through no fault of their own, can only get to know a community so well in a matter of months.  Relationships take time to develop, and I think in the long run the product suffers.
In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers?
Wow. It’s difficult to give advice as I know this blog is read by many experienced photographers. But when I was teaching photojournalism students at Central Michigan University I used the following quote.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
I love this quote because in this field (and in any artistic endeavor) there are a lot of critics.  And the loudest critics are often other photographers.  We enter contests every year and are literally judged for the work we produce.  We are constantly evaluated, and even in the quiet moments we evaluate our own strengths and weaknesses to see how we stack up against our peers.  But I really believe that the credit belongs to person out there doing it.  To the person who fails, again and again, but refuses to stop.  To the person who, through sheer force of will, never quits.  I believe that is where the breakthrough is.  And that's the person I want to be, regardless of success or failure.
I see fear paralyze a lot of college students.  I see it in myself too.  And what I want to say to them with all my heart is, "You have the talent, but you have to work. Do something. Anything."  I think for many of us our head knowledge of photojournalism far outpaces what we actually do.
Neil Blake lives in Midland, Mich. where he has been a staff photographer at the Midland Daily News since 2011. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Central Michigan University and completed internships at the Concord Monitor, in Concord, New Hampshire., and at The Herald, in Jasper, Indiana as well doing a stint in Alaska where he interned for the National Park Service in Denali National Park. His photography and editing has been recognized by Pictures of the Year International, NPPA's Best of Photojournalism and the Michigan Press Photographers Association. In 2013, he was a student at Eddie Adams Workshop XXVI.
When not working, he likes to spend time with his immediate family who are scattered all over the Mitt.  He also loves getting outside backpacking, snowboarding and playing ultimate.
You can see more of his work here:
Instragram: @neilblakephoto
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