A sensory vacation


Day 1: Morning dew in our neighbor’s front yard

One of the keys to being a good photographer is having a never-ending curiosity.

If you lack curiosity you will perish. Obviously, this is a mantra extends far beyond the world of photography but you get my point. If you only see images as they present themselves on the surface, your work will become stale and uninteresting. You need to challenge yourself everyday to be better, look deeper and get out of your comfort zone.

You never know when a visual challenge is going to come your way. I certainly didn’t expect to have one tossed at me while I was off work for a week. So when my friend, and fellow photographer Joe Murphy, tagged me in one of those Facebook ‘Photo A Day’ challenges last week I decided to push all my cards on to the table and try hard to make really good images. The subject of the challenge was “nature.” My only problem seemed to be that I was on a “stay-cation” doing nothing but lawn work, home repairs, running my dogs to the vet and working on organizing my photo archive. I had no real plans to get out into “nature”. But since I love a challenge I had to explore the nature around me with a new set of eyes.

From the first image to the last I think I made 8 pretty decent images. The first two are probably the strongest. They also got the biggest reactions on social media for whatever that is worth.

As part of the challenge I had to nominate another person to do the challenge each day I posted a photo. I ended up picking a nice of mix of professional and amateur  photographers/nature lovers. The end result was two weeks of wonderful and relaxing images filling my Facebook feed.  For some reason I didn’t see that consequence coming, so it was a very pleasant surprise.  And now that the flow of images is starting to slow to a trickle, my feed is back to memes and  angry posts about the President.

Who knew that a  random photo-challenge on Facebook would result in a sensory vacation for my soul? Thanks Joe.


Day 2: Rainy afternoon.

Day 2: Rainy afternoon.


Day 3: Fallen blossom in morning light.


Day 4: ‘Interloper’.


Day 5: Actually this isn’t the photo I posted of my dog Ivy, but it’s from the same time period. Upon further review I like it better.


Day 6: “Take-off”


Day 7: Colorful blooms


Day 8: Even though I am off the hook for anymore Nature Photos. On Day 8 couldn’t resist the contrast this morning on our deck. Someday we will get a new deck but until then I will enjoy the aging wood below my feet while I sip my coffee.


The vision will triumph


‘The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision.” – Helen Keller.

I have been on a slow burn for a week now. I am no less angry about the Sun-Times firing their entire photo staff today than I was a week ago. This blog entry has started and stopped numerous times as I try to find a focus to my thoughts and emotions.

One of the advantages of waiting a week to write this blog is that I have had the pleasure of watching the 28 Sun-Times photographers be such great standard bearers for our profession. In my 24-years as a member of the Illinois Press Photographers Association I have never felt more a part of our organization. We are all spread out across the state and on many days we are competing for the same stories and in the same contests. But as a result of the Sun-Times actions we are a cohesive unit led by our president Rob Hart.

I am not going to pretend that I know all of the 28 photographers personally. My one close friend on the staff is Brett Roseman, a former Dispatch/Argus intern. It pains me to see this happen to Brett, not to mention another former intern and friend, Marianne Morgan, who was laid off from the Sun-Times in a prior downsizing.

Davenport native Brett Roseman recently lost his job when the Chicago Sun-Times, where he worked as a photojournalist, fired its entire 28-person photo staff. Roseman, a former Dispatch/Argus photo intern, says despite the set-back he is already making plans to more forward with his career. Photo courtesy of Matt Marton

Davenport native Brett Roseman was one of the 28 photographers who lost their jobs when  Chicago Sun-Times  fired its entire photo staff. Roseman is a former Dispatch/Argus photo intern. Photo courtesy of Matt Marton

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and some of those laid off photogs were there making amazing photos when I was in high school. One in particular, Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White, was the person who lit the fuse for my career in photojournalism. In about 1980 JHW came to speak at my high school and his passion and skill for photography were way beyond inspiring. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a photojournalist.

John H. White with one of my former interns Eric Davis of the Chicago Tribune. (Photo courtesy of Eric Davis)

John H. White with one of my former interns Eric Davis of the Chicago Tribune. (Photo courtesy of Eric Davis)

So on that fateful day when I got wind of the firings, I could not believe my eyes when I saw Rob Hart’s Instagram post http://instagram.com/p/Z8MuF-w7ff/ about being fired along-side his hero John H. White. The gravity of the situation still didn’t sink in until I spoke with Brett. Unfortunately I was the first person to inform Brett of the mass firings. He was unable to attend the staff meeting where the Sun-Times officials unceremoniously jettisoned their entire photo staff. According to Brett he had an inkling something was amiss when the meeting was called but who could have ever imagined a wholesale layoff?

I have had friends laid off before but this is something completely different. What the Sun-Times did was unprecedented and a direct shot right across the bow of photojournalism. It is an insult to readers and the paper’s advertisers. There are all sorts of theories as to why they did it. But even if they have some grand Machiavellian plan it doesn’t change the fact that eliminating their award winning photo staff for any reason was a colossal mistake. I think Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune does a fantastic job of detailing “The Idiocy of Eliminating a Photo Staff”  in his Assignment Chicago blog .

PRESS RELEASE: “The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”

After that was released their plan to train reporters in the basics of iPhone photography quickly leaked out and the mocking quickly followed.

Colbert Report mocks the Sun-Times

It’s comical to think that the Sun-Times customers, especially their 20-something readers, are going to be willing to sit through an endless stream of shaky 30-second video clips. Kids love video but not boring video of the Chicago City Council droning on about whatever.  If I have learned anything in the last 5-plus years of producing multimedia/video is that quality content matters to our customers. Who produces great video? Great visual journalists – go figure.

I am not surprised when people take what we do for a living for granted. At the start of the digital revolution, when our darkrooms were replaced by Macs I had a former news editor look me in the eye with a cold dead stare and say, “You know we’re gonna replace you guys someday with reporters with cameras and no one will notice.” Strangely during our time together he seemed to understand the importance of good pictures. I guess he just didn’t understand how difficult it was to go get them.

Thankfully for me and my staff our bosses understand strong visuals. Every news meeting begins with a discussion about the photos. We are lucky and my staff and I know it.

I think deep down most people understand that the images matter because every time I have covered a story which involves someone losing their home – as long as their family is OK – the first thing they mourn are their family photos. Their visual link to the past has been severed by a fire or a tornado. They can rebuild the house but the photos are irreplaceable.

When you think of events like 9/11 it’s the images that people remember. The images of people running in horror from the collapsing buildings or the heroic firefighters raising the flag over Ground Zero are seared into our consciousness.  John H. White expressed this same idea in an interview with CNN last week while talking about the importance of photojournalism. “It’s the visual and for a lot of people 100-years from now, it’s their only connection with history. We’re visual historians.”


On the day I was hired at the D/A I was asked by an acquaintance what my new job was going to be. When I told them ‘a photographer’ the person said: “That’s all? They are going to pay you to just take photos?”

I think about that conversation when I am trying to juggle shooting stills, getting video, doing an interview and keeping my head on a swivel so I don’t miss something important. Most of those duties are visual tasks so they come fairly easily to me.

But, trying to be both a reporter and photographer at a busy news scene is sort of like knitting a sweater while scrambling eggs. Neither one is going to turn out right and you’re probably going to get burned.

Reporters and photographers think differently because they utilize different regions of their brains.  A reporter’s job is to collect as much information as possible to tell the story. The photographer’s job is to capture that split second moment in time which incapsulates the story.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism, referred to it as the decisive moment. “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”

It is impossible for me to imagine a world without the photographers brave enough to point their cameras into the face of history and hold focus. But let me be clear, all history is not confined to war-zones and conflict. Our history encompasses everything from a high school soccer game to a presidential election and beyond.

I know that to someone who has been laid off by GM this must all sound so ridiculous. I understand that photojournalists don’t cure cancer but what we do is keep focus on those who are afflicted and try to lend some valuable human insight into the disease for everyone else.

The layoffs have been a gut punch to our profession but by no means is photojournalism dead. The 28 talented photographers and all those who were laid off in the years leading up to this move will survive because by their very nature they are curious and adaptable. As John H. White said to CNN – “Those whose visions and values are different can’t extinguish the light of hope.” For we are the “lamplighters to the world.”

Here are a few excellent articles and blogs in this topic which are worth the read.

‘Assignment Chicago’ by Alex Garcia “The Idiocy of Eliminating a Photo Staff”

‘Shooting from the Hip’ by Scott Strazzante “Are you just the photographer?

‘Laid off from the Sun-Times’ Rob Hart : Laid off from the Sun-Times

Phil Greer – http://jimromenesko.com/2013/06/06/angry-chicago-photographer-blasts-sun-times-for-layoffs/

Rob Hart on WGN – http://wgnradio.com/2013/06/03/fired-photog-details-sun-times-eliminating-photojournalism-staff/

American Photo – The Sun-Times Photo Layoffs: What We’re Losing

CNN’s interview with John H. White

Daily Herald coverage of the Save the Photographers rally.

A friend remembered

Trish Sept 2012This blog entry is written with a heavy heart. On Feb. 7th one of my favorite people, Trish Snowdon Heelan, passed away after succumbing to the ravages of pancreatic cancer.

I received the email about Trish’s passing during our afternoon editor’s meeting. I was sitting in the same room, having a similar meeting in 2009 when my brother Jeff called to tell me that our mother had died. Instead of getting up to leave, this time I just sat silently staring at the email and the photo of her waving goodbye. The meeting kept moving forward but I was stuck in neutral. It sort of felt like I was standing perfectly still in the middle of a train station at rush hour.

My first thought was that she was going to get to see my Mom & Dad in heaven. Then I flashed back to the phone call back in 2009 from Jeff and how surreal it was to have to tell a room full of people that I needed to leave because my mom was dead. I guess I just sat there numb contemplating what Trish had meant to me and my family. When I got home my wife Lisa gave me a big hug. We spent most of our evening walk chatting about what a wonderful person Trish was.

It wasn’t until he next morning that her passing hit me. As a stood in the shower, the song ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers started to play and all of my emotions just started to pour out. I remembered how much we leaned on her for the 10-months it took to clean out my parent’s house and I cried. I thought about how much Mom leaned on her in the years following our Dad’s death and I cried. I thought about her husband Will, who she leaned on during her battle with cancer, being all alone in their wonderful house and I cried. I thought about all the nights they hosted me and Jeff so we could decompress in their care and I cried.

I know that Trish forever changed me. She was the kind of person who made you want to be a better, kinder and gentler person. Her kindness had no equal and we would have been lost without her help and guidance in the days and months following my mother’s passing. Why did she help us? God only knows but when I think about a world without Trish I cry.

Trish at home - Feb. 2013

It seems like I knew her my entire life but that isn’t true. Knowing someone is different than being aware of someone. I guess it wasn’t until my dad died in 2005 that I really learned how special Trish was.

Trish and her husband Will were ‘the hippies’ living next door to my very Republican parents. They always seemed nice but I knew my mom didn’t really understand them. They were the kind of people who had a VW Van and God forbid a McGovern sticker on the bumper. Mom and Trish shared a common cause as members of the neighborhood garden club but I think you could best describe their relationship as reserved, with a gentle political tense undertow.

But little did I know, on the other side of that old picket fence, Trish and Will were quietly waiting for just the right moment build a real friendship. That day came when my father passed away in 2005. Trish & Will tossed my mother a lifeline. Janet grabbed it and held on for dear life.

Up until the day she died in Dec. of 2009 Trish and Will kept a watchful eye over my mom. They helped her with all the little chores that are gigantic hurdles to a woman in her 80‘s and they never asked for anything in return. I was glad to find out later that mom showed them her appreciation with thoughtful little gifts now and again. It was their dedication to my Mom’s daily routine that alerted us to her passing. They quickly noticed that her light pattern in the house had changed.

My parent’s house was packed from the attic rafters, to the basement drain, with a unique brand of treasures and trash. It took us 10-months to clean out the house and sell it. Since neither of us live in the Chicago area Trish and Will acted as our eyes and ears. They also volunteered countless hours of their time to helping us pack and haul things out of every crevasse of the two-story house. Trish even found a home for mom’s raggedy old cat. I could go on and on listing every little thing they helped us with but my fingers would go numb typing.

The most important thing they did for us during those 10-months was to offer us sanctuary in the evening. We were only 25-feet from the chaos but their kitchen might as well been in another state. Those many dinners were full of insightful conversation, a ton of laughs and not to mention a lot of great food and wine. I wouldn’t trade those nights for the world, they made the unbearable bearable.


I took tons of photos over those 10-months and after I learned Trish had died I poured over them again. I was disappointed by how few photos I had of Trish. Then I realized that she probably wanted it that way. Maybe it was because she was camera shy but I think it speaks more to her amazing ability to know just when to offer us a life line and when to step back and let us work, grieve and bond. As hard as those 10-months were I can’t imagine going through that experience without Trish and Will.

On Saturday March 23 Trish’s family and friends will gather to celebrate her life and say goodbye. I plan to say thank you.

This video snippet is from one of our many dinners. I love being able to hear her voice again. Cheers my friend, we miss you.

A proud Marine says goodbye to his grandfather

Today I had the great honor to be able to deliver a eulogy for a friend.

If you read my recent post you already know about my relationship with Joe Colmer and his wonderful family. The Colmers were kind enough to ask me to speak today and I was humbled and honored to help them to celebrate Joe’s life.

Unfortunately I am no stranger to eulogies having delivered them for each of my parents and my beloved aunt Marilyn but today was different. My seat was in the third row. I was merely a supporting player, someone to help lend a unique perspective to the prism of Joe’s life.

I was the last of the four people to speak and the only non-family member. As I sat in my aisle seat, with my speech in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, I was blown away by the eulogies delivered by each of the three family members – Glen, Adam and little Sabrina.

I know how hard it is to muster up the courage and composure to speak eloquently about someone you have loved your entire life. It is for that reason why I am so proud of Joe’s grandson Adam. The young Marine rose from his seat in the front row walked to the podium with a stiff spine and a gentle quiver in his lip. He unfurled the folded piece of paper containing his hand written prose and then proceeded to give one of the best eulogies I have ever had the honor to witness.

What made it even more impressive was that he only referred to the words, that he had probably crafted  very carefully in blue ink on a sheet of notebook paper, only a few times during the 4 to 5 minutes speech. Dressed in his Marine dress blue uniform he stood next to the flag draped casket of his war hero grandfather and took gentle aim at the hearts of everyone in the room. Adam’s eulogy was part history lesson, sermon and love letter. When Adam finished his proud father stood and hugged him. Their embrace reminded me of all the hugs I have photographed over the years when young soldiers return home safe from far off conflicts like Afghanistan or Iraq.

When the service was over I stood in line to say one final goodbye to Joe and standing proudly at the foot of his grandfather’s casket was Adam. Never has a young Marine worn the U.S. Marine Corp dress blue uniform with such distinction and pride. I shook his hand, gave him a hug and told him that he made his grandfather very proud today.

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that a hero like Joe Colmer would have a grandson like Adam.

Joe Colmer and my debt of gratitude

My friend Joe Colmer.

My friend Joe Colmer.

“Just wanted to let you know my dad passed away today,” Sheri

When the Facebook alert popped up on the screen of my iPhone I could only read “Just wanted to let you know my…..” Deep down I knew what the rest of the message said and my heart just sank. I turned to my wife Lisa and said “I don’t think I want to read the whole message.” The message was from Sheri Colmer-Williams, the daughter of Joe Colmer.

Fate brought me together with Joe and his wonderful family back in 2008. I met Joe and Sheri at the pre-flight dinner for the Inaugural Quad-Cities Honor Flight. I had picked Joe’s name off the long list of veterans going on the trip because he was traveling with two of his three children, Bruce and Sheri. My dad, Blair Mizener, and Joe were both members of the Greatest Generation. Blair had passed away a few years prior to Honor Flight robbing him of what, in retrospect, might have been a healing trip for him. So as a bit of an homage to Dad I thought my story should revolve around the bonding experience of a soldier and his child on Honor Flight.


Bruce Colmer and Sheri Colmer-Williams with their dad, Joe Colmer, at the WWII Memorial in Washington DC on November 1, 2008.

Who knows what brings people together. In my case with Joe something just clicked. Not only did he remind me a little of my dad but his life story was so compelling I could talk to him all day. During that first interview, conducted in a little room at the Knights of Columbus Hall following the dinner, it was clear that Joe was skating around some of the traumatic details of his service during WWII. The longer we talked the more I understood there were obviously some things he just wasn’t going to talk about.


Every time I asked Joe what he though of the Honor Flight experience he smiled and said “It’s great. I just can’t believe it.”

It has been my experience that members of the greatest generation don’t like to talk about their service. As far as they are concerned they did their job and came home. Talking about it wasn’t part of the deal they made when they signed up. Personally, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the WWII vets. My dad, who served stateside because of medical a condition, always called them the “real heroes”. They were his classmates and friends. Those who came back were cherished and those who did not were revered.


Bruce Colmer and his father, WWII veteran Joe Colmer, at the WWII Memorial in Washington DC on November 1, 2008.

Joe and Bruce.

Joe and Bruce embrace after Joe finished an emotional interview with me at the WWII Memorial during the inaugural Honor Flight of the Quad Cities.

On the day of the Honor Flight, as Bruce and his dad worked their way around the WWII Memorial in Washington DC, I think Joe finally got to say goodbye to some of the ghosts that had been quietly haunting him for years. So as he sat in his wheelchair, with Bruce steadying him with one hand and holding my mic in the other, Joe finally told the story. For the first time in his life he told the story of the young private who was shot in the head by a German sniper and died in Joe’s arms. His voice trailing off he asked to stop the interview. Bruce hugged him and I did my best to capture the moment, which of course is my job, but still be respectful of their moment.

Later in the day, as the old warriors were loading up on the bus to go to the airport, Bruce pulled me aside and thanked me. He told me that Joe had never told that story before and he was grateful to have been there to share in the moment. I don’t think I will ever get a thank you more meaningful than that one.


World War II veteran Joe Colmer of East Moline leaves his wheelchair behind as he takes a moment to be by himself while visiting the World War II Memorial. Colmer, a veteran of D-Day and other major battles during the war, was among 96 local veterans who traveled to the nation’s capital in November of 2008 to visit the World War II Memorial as part of Inaugural Honor Flight of the Quad Cities.

Soon after the interview, Joe asked for a moment alone and he stood up from his wheel chair. With his cane to steady him he walked away leaving the chair behind. His walking away is the moment captured in my photo. The remarkable thing about that photo is how alone Joe is in the frame. The memorial was packed with people and yet not one other person wandered into the frame. I believe my Dad in heaven was the angel on my shoulder as I lined up the image though my viewfinder.


Joe gets a big hug from his wife Alberta upon his return to the Quad Cities International Airport in Moline, Ill.

Following Honor Flight I felt like Joe and his family had given me such a huge gift letting me tell their story I couldn’t help but want to do something to thank them. I had some prints made from the trip, burned a few DVDs and delivered them during my one and only trip to the Colmers’ home in East Moline. It was amazing how welcome Joe and his wife Alberta made me feel as we sat and chatted in their kitchen.

Before I left their house they surprised me with a gift certificate to Appleby’s which I tried to gracefully refuse but Alberta was not taking ‘no’ for an answer.

I left the house with every intention of stopping back on occasion. I thought about it every time I glanced up at Joe’s photo which hangs over my desk. They said the door was always open to come by anytime and I believed them. Now I saw Joe a few times at various events around town but I never made to back to their house. In the heat of the work day you are focused on the tasks at hand but in the quiet of the night you start thinking about all the things you have left undone, the letters you need to write, the places you need to visit, the stories you want to tell and the people you need to hug.


World War II veteran Joe Colmer is greeted at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., after he and 93 other Quad-Cities veterans arrived at the nation’s capital as part of Quad Cities Honor Flight.

Maybe I didn’t stop by because I didn’t want to have to run in and run out. Joe deserved better than that. But to never stop by, that was just wrong. My guilt is lessened a bit by the messages I have received from his daughters in the last few days. Following the passing of Alberta, his wife of 58 years, in early November Patti and Sheri read him a note I had posted on Sheri’s Facebook page and Patti responded “I just read this to Dad, Todd…..he continues to talk of you so often and said he cannot believe you would have his picture above your desk!!!!! Thank you for always thinking of us”


Joe, Bruce, Alberta and Sheri at the Quad Cities International Airport just before the veterans and their guardians boarded their charter flight to Washington D.C.

And after Joe’s passing Sheri sent the following –  “Thank you. He thought a lot about you too. He truly enjoyed being on the Honor Flight with you and talking with you. He was always asking me if I had talked with you. Thank you again for everything you did for our family.”

I probably spent a total of 48 hours in the presence of Joe Colmer, but he changed my life forever. So as far as I am concerned I owe Joe, and his family, a debt that can never be repaid.

Thanks to Joe, I got to have my own father and son moment at the memorial.

WWII veteran Joe Colmer of East Moline, Ill., visits the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.  as part of Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, Saturday November 01, 2008.

WWII veteran Joe Colmer of East Moline, Ill., visits the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. as part of Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, Saturday November 01, 2008.


Here are the some of the videos I produced as part of my coverage of the inaugural Honor Flight of the Quad Cities. I can’t help but watch these videos with the critical eye of time and experience. When I went on Honor Flight I was just getting started as a video storyteller after 20-plus years of only shooting still pictures. But then again I need to remember hindsight is 20-20.

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: WWII veteran Joe Colmer

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: A solider’s story

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: The Guardians

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: Video Montage