‘Photography has a way of branding iconic moments in our brain like no other medium can’
Part two in a three-part series on the unique and vital role of photographers documenting the everyday and the history-making moments.
Douglas Graham was just 14 when he stumbled upon what would become his lifelong passion.
He first came face to face with it in 1974, in a laundry mat in West Point, Virginia. His eye caught the cover of LIFE magazine, and an article about a photojournalist shooting the Vietnam War.
“I didn’t even know what a photojournalist was. I went to the library and looked up what it was,” Graham says. “And the rest is history.”
From that day on, he put all of his energy into learning the art of still news photography, also known as photojournalism. The result was a 40-year, award-winning career.
He has been in the middle of some of the most important news stories of the past four decades. He’s been run into by a bank robber during a high-speed chase, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, spit on by protesters, arrested and shook the hand of U.S. presidents—while winning national and international photography awards along the way.
Yet, the 60-year-old says the most meaningful work of his career has been in the last few years in a Virginia county that’s closer to the Appalachian Trail than Capitol Hill. Graham was set on retiring in 2014, after many years of covering politics in Washington, DC, but he says he just couldn’t hang it up — his camera, that is.
He ended up shooting for one of the community newspapers in Loudoun County where he lives, called Loudoun Now. He also turned his lens toward scenes in the rural end of the county for America’s Routes, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to preserving the historic, gravel roads of Loudoun County, Virginia.
“At one point, I wanted to step away from it but that hasn’t quite worked. I just can’t put a camera down,” Graham said in an interview with Artistic Fuel. “Clearly, I’m going to have a camera in my hands until I die.”
So when COVID-19 made its way into the county he’s called home for 35 years, Graham couldn’t help but pick up his camera and shoot. Here’s the story behind his coronavirus images and his journey to tell one community’s story.
A|F: You’ve been capturing powerful coronavirus images in your community in Virginia. What prompted you to take the risk?
Graham: It’s like firefighters; if there’s a fire, they’re running toward it. Well when there’s a story, I can’t help but run toward it. When something as big as COVID-19 comes down the line, I’ve got to make sure it’s being covered.
It started out with me at Giant (grocery store). I was seeing all the panic buying. So, of course, I took the camera out of my car and started photographing…Any photographer who is a newspaper guy is going to want to make sure there is a visual record that in some form tells the story of these unprecedented times. Because this is such a big moment in everybody’s life, it needed to be covered. There is no newspaper that covers our county that has a staff photographer, so I knew if I didn’t capture these images, no one else was going to do it in this area.
A|F: Are you nervous?
Graham: I’m terrified of it. I’m getting old, and I’m not in the best shape. It’s not like going into a war zone where you put on your helmet and bulletproof vest…With this, you just don’t know what could happen. It’s invisible. I’ve covered violent stuff before, but this really made me nervous.
When we were dealing with black mold in my basement, I had bought a respirator mask, gloves and a suit. So I grabbed all that and put it in the car with Clorox wipes…I wiped everything down. And when I got home after shooting, I’d go to the back porch and strip down. Put all the clothes in the washing machine and shower before I had contact with my family.
The places where I took the most precaution was covering the hospital and the Covid-19 testing tent. With still photography, you’ve got to get very close or the photos just are not going to be good. Probably the most intense shoot was taking photos in the testing tent in the height of it. I was right up in there, and there were clearly very sick people going through the line.
A|F: Tell us about the story your images tell.
Graham: I’ve tried to photograph it in a way that just doesn’t just show the dark side of this virus. Yes, I’m capturing photos of people who have lost loved ones, and of the long waits to get tested. But I also got a couple, in masks, getting married in front of the courthouse. And the restaurants doing curbside pickup, to show just how people have really supported local restaurants. And a local attorney, Peter Burnett, who launched this pick-up meal service for anyone in need. I think those really tell the story of what people are experiencing.
A|F: You’ve said that your time working in community journalism has meant more than shooting for big publications. Why?
Graham: Covering The Hill, the big town politics, the international stuff — stuff that has really made my career — has not meant as much to me. I think because with community journalism, you’re held more accountable. When you’re part of the national press you’re in this bubble and no one has access to you. And there’s so many people covering the same thing — it’s just a big mosh pit. And they all get two dozen different angles of the president that run in two dozen different publications.
Well, yesterday I took a photo of a man who lost his wife to COVID-19. It’s probably the only the time he’ll ever get photographed for a story in the newspaper. And a lot of people emailed me with feedback on that. That type of work means more to me that anything else.
A|F: What made you run the images in black and white?
Graham: I like black and white for this because it doesn’t introduce anything into the image that isn’t necessary. Black and white is such an unusual medium nowadays, it almost stands out more. And I think it’s more stark, and this is a very stark time.
A|F: You fell in love with photojournalism 46 years ago. Why do you believe it’s so important?
Graham: If you look back on history at the iconic moments, what does your mind’s eye see. The Hindenburg, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam War, and our recent wars. Still photography has a way of branding that moment in your brain like no other medium can. Words can’t do it, video sure as hell can’t do that. And ironically, photographers have been the big victims of the demise of journalism. But when these big events happen it’s the photojournalists who are first in line to cover it.
More Artistic Fuel:
- Each week, we’re spotlighting the art of photography. Here’s why: Photography: Art for the Masses and the Maestro
- Photographer’s Shark Images Put Great Whites in a Better Light
- Documenting a Pandemic: A War Photographer’s Experience in a Coronavirus Hot Spot
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.