Photographer’s Q&A – Jim Rankin
This week’s Q&A is with photographer/reporter Jim Rankin from the Toronto Star.
Quito, Ecuador, 1991 – After my first summer as a Star photo intern, I went backpacking through South America. Here’s a pic from a day I spent hanging around a Jesuit-run centre for shoeshine boys and girls and their families. I recently bought a negative scanner and have been slowly digitizing old stuff. It’s a great way to refresh fond memories. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)
What were your first steps in the industry?
I was souping my own pictures by the age of 12, thanks to my mom. She’s an artist and put a darkroom in our basement. I was hooked.
I spent my summers during my teens working at a camera store in my hometown of North Bay and got to know Paul Chivers and Mike Weaver, photogs at The Nugget, the local paper. They’d come in with their gear, and I’d drool. My job gave me first crack at any used equipment that came in. Many a paycheque never left the store.
I did the high school yearbook thing, serving as photo editor and editor-in-chief. At the University of Western Ontario, where I studied biology with the aim of becoming a doctor, the photojournalism bug grew large. I spent more time working for The Gazette, the student paper, than I did on studies.
In 1988, I came away with a science degree and the realization that I didn’t want medicine. Thanks to supportive parents and clips from the student paper, that summer I landed an internship at the London Free Press. That was my first step and I am forever grateful for that chance.
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation? Are you where you thought you would be now?
I am so fortunate. I am where I wanted to be, although I do not shoot as much as I would like. After that biology degree, I studied still photography for a couple years at Ryerson University but was itching to be out there shooting for a paper, which I did during the summers as an intern at the Freeps (1988, ’89, ’91) and the Toronto Star (1990 as a photog, ’92 as a “two-way”).
Jobs were tough to come by in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and I decided to add to my résumé a one-year journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. It was a great experience and it worked.
I had a few contracts at the Star, worked a stint at the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (1993/’94) and was hired full-time by the Star as a reporter-photographer in 1994. They called us “two-ways” and in the early days, I shot a lot, mostly general assignment news. My job morphed into long-term investigative reporting which I have been doing almost exclusively since 2002. I’m now hoping to shift away from those big ones and pick up the camera more. This summer, I did a month of straight photo shifts and loved it.
Mobile, Alabama. 09/01/08 – Firefighters come to the rescue of a motorist caught in a flash flood in the city’s downtown area. The area was hit with heavy wind and rain, and tornado warnings were issued throughout the day along the Gulf Coast, as Hurricane Gustav hit land west of New Orleans. I was was doing the two-way thing on this assignment, which proved a challenge due to power outages and, well, the weather, which I drove into. I ended up making it to New Orleans, which was spared a direct hit. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)
What’s it been like doing both visuals and words?
I would have been quite happy to have stayed a “straight” photog, but words are now so ingrained in what I do that I can’t imagine life without them. They opened more doors for me and I’ve used them to expose injustices and give a big voice to people who don’t always have one.
That said, I have made a point of educating editors on which kinds of assignments demand two heads – one dedicated to words, the other to visuals. I haven’t always convinced them, however. Big, out-of-town breaking news stories, particularly natural disasters, can be a nightmare when you are on your own. I’ve been there and it makes your head pound.
Here’s what it’s like: You’re arranging travel and accommodation and maybe a translator; you’re researching, you’re flying, you’re driving, you’re navigating; you’re shooting, you’re editing, you’re writing; you’re monitoring the wires, you’re worrying about the competition; you’re dealing sometimes with calls and e-mails from several bosses; you don’t eat when you should, and you’re exhausted. And, you don’t do either job particularly well. Then the next day, you do it all over again.
Investigations and feature work are dream jobs for a two-way and, in my opinion, the best use of someone who is able to shoot, report and write, and, these days, also do video and audio. Even with the best gear, throwing one person on breaking news, in general, seriously harms the quality of journalism we offer. We’re all being tugged, or perhaps happily diving into more mediums. The old two-way is the new four-way: pix, video, audio and words.
So, a wee bit of advice, on the words part, in particular. For many photographers, I imagine, it might be the scariest of the mediums. But have no fear. Words should be part of your toolbox. Read good fiction and non-fiction whenever you find the time.
Over time, even if you are not writing regularly, some osmosis will take place. It won’t hurt a bit, promise. You will in the beginning naturally overcompensate for whatever you are weaker at, and this will come at the expense of weakening whatever it is that you do better. But things will balance out. You’ll develop a workflow that works for you.
Another thing, I think it’s preferable and easier to go into words with a photography background, and then do both at once, than it is to go the other way. Photographers are naturally attentive to the details, and this will serve you well in your writing.
Toronto, 08/11/09 – Shortly after the police tape came down, Louis Llewellyn, 36, surveys the damage done to a vehicle by a stray bullet in an incident that left his brother-in-law dead. Trevane Sean Lennon, 22, was gunned down late the night before on Sultan Pool Dr., near Martin Grove Rd. and Finch Ave. W., the street where the father of one lived. Toronto police spent most of the day combing over the street for evidence. Residents reported hearing as many as a dozen shots. At least two homes were hit by bullets, as well as two vehicles. Forensic officers worked to recover bullets and fragments. It was Toronto’s 36th homicide. I didn’t know who Llewellyn was but shot a few frames of him. Afterward, I asked him who he was and included him in the story. This picture ran on A3 as part of the Star’s Big Picture Month. The white below the hole is an evidence sticker. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
While I was inspired by the Nugget shooters, most of what I needed to know about the job was learned at the Freeps. I soaked up as much as I could from a superb photography department that included seasoned veterans George Blumson, Sam McLeod, Ed Heal, Bill Ironside, Sue Bradnam and Morris Lamont. They were always generous with their time. Although not a photographer himself, Paul Gartlan, the photo editor who hired me, was a terrific boss.
I can still hear Blumson – on deadline but sometimes for no particularly urgent reason – yelling in the darkroom, “I’m printing wet!” Heal, a gentleman and a farmer, was super to me. He’s been retired for a while, but he had a way of making people relax and his feature pictures were outstanding.
Do you have a mentor?
Not in a formal sense, but there have been shooters along the way who I have admired and tried to emulate. Dick Loek and Ken Faught are two of them, but, hey, at the Star, there has never been a shortage of excellent talent to learn from. I also get a lot out of watching the young interns who come through here. As well, I sponge off the talents of our multimedia unit, which includes Randy Risling, Chris So, Bernie Weil and Scott Simmie.
Toronto, 08/13/09 – Stephanie Johnston has a quiet moment at the spot where her son was killed. It would have been his 15th birthday today. The mothers and family of homicide victims Adrian Johnston, 14, and Jarvis St. Remy, 18, gunned down in separate incidents in May, held a press conference at a hydro field, near where Johnston was killed. They appealed for the killers to turn themselves in and for witnesses to come forward. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)
What was a pivotal point in your career?
That first summer internship at the Freeps was huge but getting to the Star was bigger still. I remember the phone call. The late Brad Henderson had interviewed me and I had serious doubts that it had gone anywhere close to well. He flipped through my portfolio like he was sitting on the can, browsing a magazine. I bought a bottle of Crown Royal on the way home and was thinking of drowning my sorrows with my housemates when the phone rang. It was Brad. I was hired. We drank to that. Later, it was Star editor Joe Hall who hired me as a two-way. I’ve been there full-time since 1994.
What are you working on now?
As I mentioned, I’m hoping to take a break from the long-term investigations which are usually data-heavy, less than interesting visually, and can take up to a year to do. I joke that when you see my byline, it’s time to flip the mattress, change the oil and replace the batteries in the smoke detector. I’m taking on a new assignment for six months that will involve regular feature writing and photography. I’m also eager to keep my fingers in the multimedia pie.
Toronto, 08/05/09 – Forty-three days, it had been. No pools. No wading ponds. No splash pads. No fun, indeed. When the 36-day municipal workers’ strike came to an end, summer returned with the re-opening the city’s outdoor pools. This image of a swimmer leaping from the 5-metre platform at the diving tank at Donald D. Summerville Pool ran on A3 as part of the Star’s Big Picture Month. I used a partially submerged aquarium to make this frame. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)
How important to you is multimedia?
Every project I have worked on since 2002 has involved team efforts to produce multimedia and web-exclusive content. There have been searchable databases, Flash graphics, undercover video, games and mini documentaries, all thanks to talented colleagues.
I think it’s extremely important to continually experiment and explore new ways to tell stories and share information online. It does take time and resources and there will be failures but I think you must stay with it. You don’t want to be the one without a seat when the music stops.
News organizations that don’t keep money in multimedia may have to do some serious catching up should a viable model be developed for rich, multimedia storytelling. The web delivers all things in all ways. We should exploit all of it but quality and flexibility are paramount.
There have been personal frustrations along the way, the biggest of which are the shortcomings of thestar.com and its inability to properly showcase web-exclusive content. We’re building it, but too few are finding it. A redesign that addresses some of the gaps is in the works.
Here are a few links to the most recent long-term stuff I’ve worked on:
Crime & Punishment:
Cool jail-cost maps:
Toronto, 08/12/09 – Bonny Rose Clyde, five months, left, and Daisy May, 7, right, lounge in a bicycle basket in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Pinky, a Toronto artist and singer, had taken her two pugs out for an afternoon ride. This didn’t make the cut, but I got a kick out of it. Hope you do, too. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)
How do you ensure you are progressing as a visual journalist?
I try to stay up-to-date with advancements in technology and multimedia toys. If you’re out of touch with that stuff, you’re starting with a serious handicap. I also take advantage of free online software webinars, like the ones offered by Apple. There’s a lot to learn.
I also had the privilege this past May of teaching a class of Rwandan journalism students a crash course in photojournalism, through Carleton University professor Allan Thompson’s Rwanda Initiative.
Teaching, I found, forces you to brush up on a few things. Watching students grasp the basics and shoot amazing images is priceless. Press freedom is an issue there. Yet, journalism is progressing, thanks to this program, and you’d hope that the students will move on and push for better storytelling and investigative reports, and that the government will allow that to happen.
As well, I have enjoyed volunteering my time on a few PhotoSensitive projects over the years. During my word-intensive, desk-bound days, these assignments have been a breath of fresh air.
Toronto, 07/28/09 – Patricia Hung hugs son Ian Rengel after he read a statement on behalf of his family and dead sister. Convicted of killing Stefanie Rengel, Melissa Todorovic, who until today could be identified by her initials only, has now been handed an adult sentence. Todorovic was 15 when she plotted to kill Rengel, who was 14. With a bank of TV cameras behind me, I crouched up to make this one, and happened to be in the right spot. The pic ran A1. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)
What are some of the must-see websites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).
For inspiration, I look at what my peers are doing. Steal from the best, forget the rest, the saying goes. Love some of the work being done at The Globe and The New York Times. I think we should all steal The New York Times’One in 8 Million and put a local twist on it.
MediaStorm is another must. I have its web app on my iPod Touch and look forward to each new addition. Speaking of which, the web site where I spend the most time (and money) is the iTunes Store. It feeds me music and video and the apps that give me news and information I use on a daily basis. I happily pay for this. Hmmm, iNews Store, Mr. Jobs?
What is your favorite way to unwind?
A cigar and a cocktail in the backyard, and interior camping in Algonquin Park. The moment the paddle goes in the water, everything else drips away. My better half, Toronto Star journalist Michelle Shephard, and I have also fallen in love with the west coast of Costa Rica. We go every winter. A cold cerveza, warm breeze, hammock and monkeys overhead: a magical combination.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
Experiment, yes, but be damn sure to come back with something useable. Brad Henderson, who could be gruff, told me that after I came back from a job during my first summer at the Star – with nothing useable.
Toronto, 07/21/09 – A jogger on a morning run exits a shady tunnel of trees in Taylor Creek Park. This went with a piece on summer rituals by Star reporter John Spears, which for him include morning runs along this little-known spot. (Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)