On the best days, journalism is a roller coaster of excitement and possibility – a front row seat to the entire human endeavor. Science journalism, on a good day, is especially so. You never know if you will be interviewing a Nobel laureate about the universe’s stretch marks, inspecting boxes of lethal scorpions, or strapping into an experiment in pain thresholds.
But not every day is a good day. For good journalism, you will have entire days wasted on logistics, getting lost, or just plain sitting on your butt. That’s kind of what happened a couple weeks ago.
Dominic Bracco – a photographer known for his Mexican drug war coverage – and I took a trip last week to a fishing camp on the Pacific side of Mexico, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. We were following up a potential story dealing with the fishing in this tiny Mexican village. The town’s fishermen, surly on a good day, were reeling from a number of new government regulations and a censure from the US to the entire fishing population of Mexico. Word from local non-profits was that they were not interested in talking to anyone.
I had been fretting about this trip for weeks – we had almost no contacts in this camp and it was likely to be awkward at best. And at worst potentially dangerous. It took us a day in town to track down the only guy who could take us to the remote camp 20 miles down the coast. Half a day of travel and we showed up only to find almost all the camp empty for a celebration in town.
I was frustrated and bleak about our prospects but Dominic simply said “Trust the process, man.”
When it comes to science, I’m a pretty smart guy but when it comes to real people, I am a child compared to Dominic – almost ten years my junior – who has an almost preternatural ability to read people and make friends with strangers.
So I piped down and we go to work, wandering around the village like a couple of awkward gringo tumors. Dominic strikes up conversation with father and son building lobster traps. They’re nice enough, but later we sit next to a pair fixing a net who are silent while Dom awkwardly tries to make conversation.
After a few days it was clear that I just wasn’t really helping all that much, so I planned to catch a truck out of camp. The night before I left, though, the fishermen from the first day dropped off a bag of three live lobsters. That night, we sat out on the hillside overlooking the bay, watched a glorious sunset and counted ourselves kings.
For almost two weeks, Dominic shot almost nothing, idly photographing the beach and landscapes and reading most of the "Game of Thrones" series. His last message to me said that he had been out fishing with an older fisherman, but otherwise it’s been tough to get anyone to chat.
I wrote back to him “trust the process.” After all, what else can we do?
While he was sitting, though, he was meeting people, becoming a fixture. Slowly, he got to know people and built relationships and trust. Then, on the last three days, it all came together and he was burning through five rolls a day, including the shot at the beginning of this post. For the full story, you’ll have to pick up our spread in Harper's due out some time this summer.
Beyond being a good lesson for a young journalist, our trip makes me a little sad. In the amount of time Dominic sat around, another journalist could have churned out 40, maybe 60, mindless, forgettable news hits. Good journalism takes time, it takes patience, and it takes a lot of time on your butt. And in today’s underpaid, high-speed media world, who has the time to do that kind of work?