Keys to an exceptional story: photography and trust

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Although it is widely known that the journalism world is finding more and more new ways to deliver news, Stephen Thornton still sees photography as an irreplaceable outlet for telling stories. Thornton is a two-time SNPA Photo/Video Contest Grand Prize winner and a former photographer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock.

Enter the SNPA Photo/Video Contest.
Deadline for entries is June 24.

"I still think the still image is the most powerful tool to convey emotions and a pure moment in time," Thornton says. His winning photo in SNPA's 2015 contest was a feature photo of family and friends gathered around the widow of U.S. Army Cpl. C.G. Bolden, beside a casket with his recovered remains before the start of a memorial service for the Korean War soldier. In this photo, Thornton said the body language of the people embracing the widow is what made this a strong photo. 

The 2016 winning photo showed a Little Rock fire captain and an unidentified woman stumbling and falling into the water as he rescued her from her flooding car. With video, he said, "your brain doesn't have time to process the look on her face." Still photos "linger more on your mind's eye and you have more time to take them in and consume the moment. So stills are always where my heart will be," Thornton said.

Thornton's winning photo in 2015 was part of an even bigger project in which the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette covered Arkansas soldiers in Iraq.  Thornton spent two months in Iraq taking photos. This gave him the chance to build relationships with the Arkansas National Guard soldiers, and one of those relationships was with the military officer in charge of the funeral pictured in Thornton's winning picture.

He said that "miraculous photo" could only have been made because of connections built over time. He said his luck in getting to know that military officer gave him better access to the family.  A trip to interview the family weeks before the funeral, during which he built a relationship with them, allowed him to ask the family: "Can I climb a catwalk on a high school stage and hover above you to shoot pictures down onto the casket?" Thornton said.

That enabled Thornton to take a different approach to the funeral photos by taking them from an almost skyline perspective, rather than a guest's perspective – giving the photograph a unique quality. But Thornton recognizes that it was not just the relationship alone that allowed him to take the photo from the catwalk, but rather the foundation of the relationship: trust.

"People have to trust that you'll use their images appropriately, trust that you'll always tell the truth with your images, trust that you'll always act in a professional manner. Every member of my former staff, we built trust in the community that allows us to cover things more thoroughly and allows us to maybe step a little closer and cross a few lines and to provide better coverage. We have to build that trust with our readers," Thornton said.

While Thornton's winning photo in 2015 was the result of a long-term project, Thornton's winning photo the next year was a rather spontaneous and unexpected moment for the camera. Thornton had spent all day at the Arkansas State Capitol, and just as he was about to leave he received an alert on his phone about a water rescue taking place just a few miles away. Thornton made his way to the scene. 

"There were no other photographers around. I just happened to be the closest. That photo took zero investment in time, in getting to know people, in getting them to instill their trust in me. That kind of just struck me as a contrast between those two photos. The Korean Veteran photos are going to be much harder for any staff photographer to invest the time in, to gain those kind of photographs," Thornton said.

Thornton has just recently been employed at the Arkansas Department of Human Services where he now is focusing on telling the deeper stories of how DHS employees' touch lives around the community.

NEXT WEEK: The qualities needed – beyond technical skills – to be a newspaper photojournalist, and what Thornton tries to capture most in his photos.

Enter the SNPA Photo/Video Contest.  Deadline for entries is June 24.

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