Introduction to a talk I gave at the Society of Professional Journalists' Building a Better Journalist conference. / by Beth Nakamura

This photograph floated into my mind as I thought about what I could possibly say to you, a group of wannabe young journalists, sitting in a room, earnest, open, expectant. I tend to think in pictures, which float in and out of my head. And when I’m lucky enough or open enough or in the shower or whatever it is that predisposes the mind to latch onto and capture our most important and often elusive currency, which is to say our ideas, I try and stay alert to that. So this picture came into my head.  I shot it years ago, when I was just beginning my career, when I was you. And I thought, that World War I veteran, sitting there, that’s me: ancient, a little broken, just sort of holding it together -- at first glance, at least.  And that’s you, over there, that great-grandchild, face up against the window, clamoring to get in.

My mother got cancer when I was 29. I was working at the Virginian-Pilot then, and took a leave of absence to take care of her. A few weeks turned into a few months and that eventually became six precious months together until she died, finally, from cancer, and exhaustion and more morphine than oughta be legal. When it was clear early on she was terminal and needed me with her, the Virginian-Pilot encouraged me to go and do what I had to do and don’t even think about them and Godspeed.  And they stayed true to that. They also kept me on the payroll the entire time. The entire time. That, my friends, was the gilded age of journalism.

I bring up my mother because when I think of the waves of grief I have endured in recent years, having experienced this slow motion collapse of the world of big and of institutions and of journalism as we understood it, and just, gosh, the entire revolution that is happening, and the redefinition of the craft and how we practice it; When I think of all the amazing minds that have left the industry -- whether through layoffs or just because they couldn’t stomach it and they’ve got kids to take care of and all the real and legitimate reasons, and even some of the phantom reasons, and just the cumulative effect of all of it, of these tremendous, tsunami-size waves of grief; Well, it’s not like losing your mother. But it’s close. 

If you don’t have the mettle for the atmosphere I am describing here you should walk away now and don’t look back -- while you still have plenty of chance. But if, like me, you can’t imagine a life without all the interestingness, the access and the steady stream of fascinating people and stories and of the beauty that is our everyday ordinary, our privileged experience, then by all means, welcome. Who am I to get in your way. Throw everything you have at it. Be nimble. Be open. And play those two words on repeat. Nimble, open, nimble, open.

Which brings me back to this picture. Because the best work in whatever form contains nuance and metaphor and often a little irony or paradox, and because wherever there is shadow, there will always be light, I thought, well, sure, that’s me, that old guy. That much is obvious. But I’m also that little kid, alive with the possibility and power of visual journalism, hands pressed against this window of opportunity I have with the work, and with you here now.

In ancient myth, as in life, wherever there is death, there is always rebirth. And I think that’s where we are now. I’m often pretty much baseline emotionally exhausted these days. But also – and please hold onto this if nothing else – I’m exhilarated.

 

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