CD: You are a Florida girl through-and-through. If you were given a six-month sabbatical from your newspaper to pursue a book and multimedia project of your choice, on any subject within Florida – what would it be and how would approach it?
Olivia Scheinman, 7, is wheeled back to the family’s minivan by her mom, while her twin sister Hailey, right, and Hailey’s best friend Ainsley Walling, 7, hold hands after their soccer game, walking and talking a mile-a-minute about all the fun they’re going to have during their sleepover that night.
Melissa Lyttle: That would be a dream gig. As a native Floridian, I have a certain love/hate relationship with the state. I love what it is. I hate what it’s becoming. Only 30% of the state’s population is native, so the vast majority of people who live here have no real connection to the place. I’m fascinated by what draws people here: Sunshine. No state income tax. A certain level of anonymity. “The Happiest Place on Earth.” The idea that paradise is a place.
And on the surface all of that sounds lovely, but there’s a much deeper, darker underbelly, that I’ve started to scratch. Florida has always been a land of pirates and drug runners, of mermaids and misfits, of people running away from something or coming to “God’s waiting room” and just waiting to die. There’s a dichotomy here more than anywhere else I’ve known. Someone told me recently that in the U.S., Florida is about as close as you can get to being in another country, and because of that people think laws and social codes of decency and normalcy don’t apply to them here. I’d buy into that theory and would love to find a way to visualize it.
CD: Your “Girl in the Window” and “Your Girl in the Window Redux” projects are intense, honest and unflinching. (http://www.melissalyttle.com/girl-in-the-window) How did you find this young girl and her family?
Melissa Lyttle: Thanks. In the grand scheme of my short newspaper career, that’s probably the most important and meaningful body of work I’ve ever done. Writer Lane DeGregory and I had been unintentionally doing stories on kids in screwed up situations — from homeless kids to a pregnant 14-year-old, to foster kids in a system that doesn’t work in their favor. A source from a previous story called us one day and said “Have I got a story for you.” When you hear those words, you have to listen. Our source said the words “feral child” and told us of this little girl who’d been removed from her biological mom’s house, emaciated, covered from head-to-toe in bug bites, still wearing a diaper at age 6, and unable to speak. She said she was being adopted by a family just south of us, and if we were interested she’d introduce us to the family. We worked for 6 months getting to know Dani (The girl in the Window) and her adoptive parents and reporting on the story. Then we spent two months writing, editing, designing the print product and working on the multimedia. We’ve done multiple followups since the story first ran in August 2008.
The initial story generated an overwhelming response — more than any other story I’ve ever worked on. The story touched people. It made them angry and hopeful, grateful and more aware. It helped raise awareness about child neglect and foster care and abuse investigations, and it and raise more than $10,000 in unsolicited contributions for Dani’s long-term care. Nurses, social workers, ministers and state senators asked for extra copies of the story to share with their colleagues. Journalism institutes, college professors and newspaper business journals wrote about the story and its effect on the industry.
The Florida State Attorney’s office is changed laws about prosecuting parents charged with child neglect. Someone is in the process of creating “Dani’s law” to improve child abuse investigation procedures. Someone else lobbied the legislature to make it mandatory for convicted child abusers to serve jail time.
The most exciting effect the story had though was the way in which it helped kids. In the week after the article ran, calls to the Heart Gallery from people who wanted to adopt foster children increased by 33 percent. Hits on the adoption web site soared 400%. Child abuse hotlines reported an unprecedented spike in calls. Families who had fostered kids for years said the story made them decide to adopt.
It should also be noted that writer Lane DeGregory won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “The Girl in the Window.” And rightfully so. It was masterfully reported and beautifully written.
CD: Are there any personal projects or assignments from early in your career that you would like to revisit? If so, which project(s) and how would you shoot it now?
Melissa Lyttle: It’s funny, I think, whether intentional or not, most photojournalists revisit stories, telling them over-and-over again until we get them right. We all have underlying themes we cling to and ideas we pursue in our projects that will stay with us for our entire career. There are things you learn — technically, spatially or even about yourself… and your approach to and relationship with people — that of course you’d like to go back and have the chance to put to use and do better. But there’s also a certain beauty in the naiveté of youth, when you’re taking risks both visually and situationally that you can’t discount, because the older, wiser you might think better of now.
One example that comes to mind is the Motel Children story I did back in Fort Lauderdale in 2003. It was the first big story I ever worked on. It was the most time and energy I’d ever poured into anything. And at that point it was the closest I had gotten to a subject, where I knew I had their trust and I’d earned their respect. To this day, I’m still proud of that work. And I’m proud of the lessons I learned from it — I continue to draw on that experience almost every time I start a new story. But the problem of kids living in motels hasn’t gone away, and in fact, in Florida it’s only gotten worse. More and more families are living in motels because they can’t afford first and last months’ rent and a security deposit, or because mom or dad has a criminal record and no one will rent to them. So a few years ago, I was listening to NPR in the car and there was a story about how at that point in Florida there were more school bus stops at motels than at subdivisions and apartment complexes combined. I approached a local motel manager, near my house, one I’ve always seen teeming with kids. I explained what I wanted to do, the story I wanted to tell, and showed some of my old work from Fort Lauderdale. I think the moments were more intense the second time around, because I knew a little of what to expect.
I’ve also learned that I don’t have to spend every waking moment with a story, and that mental break sometimes does both you and the subjects some good. I’ve learned to be more direct and now I’ll often ask subjects what pictures I need to make to properly tell their story, and what moments I need to witness to do their story justice. It’s amazing when you’re working with a subject to tell a more complete, cohesive story. A lot of times they’ll offer up things you would never even dream of, and they’ll feel like a part of the process because they understand the importance of what you’re trying to do. And as cliche as it sounds, I learned to stop shooting nouns and verbs and start shooting adjectives and adverbs. Early on, everything was a process photo. I want to be there when that person is doing this thing and show it.
But readers are smart, they know what things look like, and there’s a plateau you eventually leap off of where you stop being so literal and you start trying to make pictures that make people feel. So I make mental lists of words that describe my subjects. Maybe in the case of the motel kids it was something like: exhaustion, humiliation, temptation, struggle, desperation, the idea of creating a family not necessarily one that’s blood-related. So when I was out there making pictures, I was looking for moments that told a bigger, better story. What does exhaustion look like on the face of a 5-year-old? How do you visualize their struggle? What is family? I think the pictures the second time around were more thoughtful, because my visual vocabulary changed.
CD: I was trying to not ask questions about APAD but it is important. You started this amazing blog devoted to single image photojournalism and it has a huge following. (http://www.aphotoaday.org) Rather than ask you the why of it all, lets talk about how it has impacted your life, career and the connections made from the site?
A dead, bloated alligator is moved out of the path of a swamp buggy in the Florida Everglades.
Melissa Lyttle: That’s alright, I’m happy to talk about it. It’s been a huge part of my life since about 2001. Photographers I’ve met through the APhotoADay listserv are among my closest friends (we like to joke that APAD is just one big happy, dysfunctional photo family). It’s opened more doors for me than I would have ever imagined (I’ve been invited to speak at conferences and judge contests, and in creating GeekFest, the annual APAD get-together, it’s allowed me to reach out to, invite, and befriend people I look up to in the photo world). And judging from the emails I get, it’s helped more people than I’ll ever know. Most importantly though, I think it’s helped reinforce for me the idea of community. There’s so much negativity and uncertainty in photojournalism right now — especially in newspaper photojournalism — and APAD’s different. It’s a place of support, growth, fostering ideas and giving tough love in critiques. It’s a place of like-minded photographers who want to make themselves and everyone around them better. If only all staffs were like that.
CD: If you were chosen to be a Director of Photography for a publication, what changes would you make and how would you lead new photographers?
Melissa Lyttle: See above.
I’d also stress ownership of ideas, images and the creative process. Too many photo departments are viewed as service departments: writers put in a request and photographers fill that request. If I were a DOP, I’d let people know that we aren’t just photographers, we’re photojournalists. That journalist part is very important. My staff would understand that their ideas are just as important as the writers’ ideas, and they’d learn how to enterprise them and make them relevant to the community we serve.
I’d stress collaboration with writers and urge people to stop thinking of the newsroom as us and them, but rather as one big, unified group of reporters (some visual, some word-based). I’d destroy the physical space known as a photo department, which only breeds isolation and ego, and put photographers in the newsroom so they’re in the mix, having conversations, and diving into the issues of the day. I’d also stress being a specialist instead of a generalist. It’s great to want to challenge people and push them out of their comfort zones, but not everyone has the desire to shoot a long-term story, or the technical skills and confidence in directing to make an incredible portrait or understand the game well enough to make an above average sports photo. I’d hopefully cultivate a staff’s interests and passions and find a way to make a better product for our readers/viewers.
And lastly, I’d stop the attitude of settling for mediocrity that’s so prevalent at newspapers. Our editing team would talk through a story or assignment on the front end with photographers, instead of on the back end, when it’s often too late. I’d have photographers plan their own schedules by having conversations with the subjects to find out when something is actually happening, and where and when the best place to be actually is. I’d stress documentary images over portraiture 99.9% of the time. I wouldn’t hesitate to send a photographer back out to make a better picture.
CD: Any advice on social media and promotion for young and/or aspiring photographers?
Melissa Lyttle: Be yourself. Be relevant. Find a voice. Start a conversation. And please, tweet more than just links to your own stuff. The fastest way to get someone to unfollow you is if it’s heavier on the promotion than it is on either the social or the media parts. Oh, and perhaps the most important rule: Never put something out there that you wouldn’t want your bosses or your mom to see.
In My Bag:
I travel light — 99% of my daily work is made with a Canon 5dmark2 and two lenses, a 35 f1.4 and a 135 f2. Occasionally, if I’m shooting personal work too, or need a second, unobtrusive body for a story, I’ll bring my Fuji x100s. All of that gets stuffed into the smallest bag possible, a Think Tank Retrospective 5. I see too many people missing moments because they’re so concerned with the latest camera or what lens they can pull out. I believe in making due with what you’ve got and knowing that gear inside and out. I use primes because they’re a tad sharper (in my opinion), lighter, and I know exactly how the perspective and framing looks when I raise the lens. I zoom with my feet. I work slowly and I watch a lot more than I shoot.
I love chasing light. Moments, both big and small, excite me. I am committed to documenting the lives of people in my community, and telling their stories in new and interesting ways.
My work has been recognized by UNICEF, the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism, POYi, the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism, the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, the Southern Short Course, the Alexia Foundation and my mom (where clipping’s proudly hang on her refrigerator).
I was a student at the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2001 and have been honored to return for the last seven years as staff, where I’ve done everything from mow the grass and rake the leaves to documenting everything in sight as workshop photographer to leading, finding stories and coaching a team of 10 students.
In 2001, I started an online community called A Photo A Day, with just myself and a friend from college, Allison Waters. Today there are over 1,650 members across the globe, and an annual get together that draws some of the most amazing speakers and attendees.
I’m a Floridian through-and-through. Born in Tampa, raised in Jacksonville, I went to the University of Florida in Gainesville before getting my first job in Fort Lauderdale at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In 2005, I was hired by the St. Petersburg Times, where I’m lucky enough to work on long-term documentary projects and occasionally fulfilling my desire to collect more stamps in my passport.