Well, old friend, the time has come. And what a run it has been. We threw down some serious images these past 10-plus years. I was making so much money when I bought you in 2006, or was it 2005, that I plopped down the $4,000 you cost without a second thought, as easy as spending a couple of bucks on a cup of coffee. It’s a little different now, and it took me three years to pull the trigger on purchasing your replacement. My income is about half of what it was when I bought you, but my happiness is double, so we’re doing fine. Fair trade off. In digital camera time, 10 years is probably a hundred, maybe even more, and you just grew a bit outdated. Not being able to effectively use you indoors or at night sporting events was too much of an obstacle to overcome. And that 8-megapixel CMOS sensor, so groundbreaking for its time, has grown a little long in the tooth. But you were a pioneer, and the stunning cameras we have today would not have been possible had you not come first. You are not my oldest camera, but you are the one I used the most, and by far the best. The good news is you have virtually no resale value, so it makes no sense to sell you. So you get to hang around, enjoy your retirement, and I’m sure you’ll even get a little work as a backup now and then. I’ll even let my photojournalism students feel what it is like to work with a real photo beast. So you’re not done quite yet. You were one awesome photography tool, my friend.
By the Fall of 1991, I was firmly established as The Bakersfield Californian’s “night photographer,” working the evening shift exclusively. The shift was not popular with the other photographers, almost all of them preferred the morning shifts, so there were no objections when I volunteered to work the night shift permanently, something I did for a good 20 years or so. I loved staying up late, sleeping in, and working with as few editors around as possible. A newsroom takes on a whole different feel when the daysiders head home. More relaxed, less confusion and everybody knowing what their job is and how to do it. It almost runs itself. I always believed your basic American newsroom could run smoothly and more efficiently with about 25 percent of the editors they employed. But most of all, I loved shooting sports, and sports happen in the late afternoon or at night.
My morning routine always started with me heading over to Marie Callender’s for my coffee. On November 7, 1991, a Thursday, I finished my coffee run and noticed the light blinking on my phone’s answering machine. We did not have cell phones at the time. It was a message from my photo editor, Casey Christie, asking if I could come to work early and to call him back. Getting called to work early was not very common back then. We had a decent sized photo staff – nine people – so that indicated something big was going on. Casey answered my call and I remember him saying “Can you come to work early and head down to Los Angeles with Brad Turner? The Lakers are holding a press conference this afternoon. Something about Magic Johnson, but I don’t know what.”
The Californian had not yet been swallowed by the “hyper-local” newspaper craze, and at the time operated as a regional newspaper. We routinely covered professional and major college sports in Los Angeles, and did not hesitate to pack up and head to any major news stories occurring anywhere in California. The Lakers, of course, were NBA royalty and Bakersfield was very much a Lakers town. I had just photographed the season opener a couple of days earlier. Brad Turner – who now covers the Clippers for the Los Angeles Times under his full name, Broderick Turner – was The Californian’s Lakers beat writer. Because of the distance to the Great Western Forum (about two hours) and the lack of easy means of transmitting photos under deadline, we did not shoot all of the Lakers’ games, but we shot a lot of them, and I did most of that work.
By the time I got into the office a few minutes after talking with Casey, more information had filtered in. I’ll never forget Casey’s words when I asked if he knew what was going on. They hit me like a sucker punch. “Magic Johnson might have AIDS.”
Within minutes, Brad and I were on our way to Los Angeles. But it didn’t look good. The press conference was less than two hours from starting, and I didn’t see any possibility of us getting there on time. Not with Los Angeles traffic, and the most brutal LA traffic you’re likely to encounter, the 405 through the San Fernando Valley, over the Sepulveda Pass, then through Los Angeles’ busy westside and on to Inglewood, right into the teeth of Los Angeles International Airport traffic. Nope, we weren’t going to make it, I decided. But Brad had just purchased a brand new Isuzu Trooper. Bakersfield Californian cars were equipped with devices that monitored our driving performance, forcing us to drive the speed limit, which at the time was 55 mph. So we took Brad’s Isuzu instead. Brad did not drive 55 mph. At each glance I took at the speedometer, we were going 90 mph! Seriously, we were flat out flying. I remember Brad saying something about this story being worth a speeding ticket.
We breezed into the San Fernando Valley from Bakersfield, always an easy drive, and now it was time to face the beast. I looked at my watch. Hmmm, maybe we could make it after all. Oh, but the beast. If Satan was a stretch of highway, he would be the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. It’s a relatively short stretch that joins the San Fernando Valley with the Westside, and let me tell you, folks, it is pure evil. Many a trip has been ruined by Sepulveda Pass traffic, at times so brutal that when you finally reach your destination, you’re so pissed off you don’t even want to be there. Well, the traffic gods were on our side, and we flew over the pass. No traffic! And it happened again as we cleared Westwood and headed to the Forum on Supelveda’s evil twin brother, the stretch from Santa Monica to Inglewood, which just happens to include the highways 405 and 10 interchange, the busiest freeway interchange in the United States. We were going to make it in time!
We pulled into the Forum’s parking lot and immediately encountered another obstacle. By now, the Los Angeles and national media were reporting the pending announcement and that Johnson had contracted HIV, and hundreds of people had descended upon the Forum. You can see from the above picture there was no way we were going to make it through that crowd. They probably had already sealed off access just to comply with fire codes.
But Brad knew the Forum and the Lakers pretty well. Like in a movie – how does “Broderick Saves the Day” sound – Brad says “follow me,” and the next thing I know, we’re racing around the side of the Forum, into a door and we’re inside a huge kitchen! Then through some hallways and finally we enter the big room where the press conference will be held. Brad knew his way around that building. We were in!
In my 28-year newspaper career, I never saw so much media assembled in one location. “Media crush” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Photographers had already taken all the floor space in front of the podium, and a huge throng – both still and video shooters – assembled in clusters wherever there was room. I nudged and squeezed my way into one of the groups at the rear of the room. It was so packed that I could barely reach down and grab the second camera hanging along my left side. This was where I was going to shoot from, and there would be no possibility of moving around. The room was hot and smelled of perspiration. It was also quiet, something you don’t usually get from journalists in large groups. I was slightly to the right of the podium, and it looked like it would be OK, just as long as security didn’t position themselves to where it blocked the podium.
It may have just been a few minutes, but it felt much longer. And then, a solemn procession filed in – I think from the same door Brad and I entered through a few minutes earlier. Magic entered first, followed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss, general manager Jerry West, NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson’s wife Cookie and his agent Lon Rosen. He smiled that big smile and putting his hand over his eyes, acknowledged the massive throng of media with a simple “whoa.” The cameras clicked and the flashes fired. And with the entire world watching on live television, Magic Johnson said the words that would play a role in changing the face of AIDS in America forever: “Because of the HIV virus that I have obtained, uh, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”
Of all the sports I photographed in my career, noting came close to the thrill of watching, and trying to shoot, Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Lakers running a fast break and taking control of a game. It seemed the Lakers would always be trailing when Magic would take over. With a 180mm or 300 mm lens pointed at him from the opposite baseline, he would grab a rebound or take a pass and head toward me. I could swear he was looking right into my camera, but of course, he wasn’t. Then he would fire the ball. I could swear he was throwing it right at me, but of course, he wasn’t. When I was convinced I was about to get nailed by a Magic Johnson pass, James Worthy or Byron Scott or A.C. Green would swoop into the frame, catch the ball and throw down a slam dunk. Switching cameras to capture both ends of the play was impossible, at least for me, it happened so damn fast. The Forum crowd would roar, the opposing team would call a time out to try and stem the tide. The Laker girls would file onto the floor as Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” would blast over the loudspeakers. The Forum was delirium, the game now in hand. I didn’t get to hear it, because I was sitting on the floor, but up above me Chick Hearn was declaring “This ball game is in the refrigerator. The door is closed, the lights are out. The eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard and the jello’s jiggling.”
And it was all over. This day, the great Western Forum was a crypt. The announcement was brief, and Magic tried to keep it positive, promising that “I’ll still being around bugging you guys.” But everybody in the room, heck, in the world, knew that Magic would soon be gone. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone candidly admitted that he thought Johnson was a “dead man walking” after the announcement.
After the announcement, most of the media and some of the Lakers staff made their way to the Forum Club, adjacent to the players, media and VIP entrance. I always loved leaving a Lakers game and passing through the media/VIP exit. I had a game I would play. Lots of celebrities attended Lakers games so lots of paparazzi assembled outside the exit, hoping to snap pix of Dyan Cannon or Jack Nicholson or Goldie Hawn or any assortment of Lakers, actors, sports stars or power players who attended the games. So I would wait for a celebrity to leave the Forum, then I would walk out beside them. The flashes would fire from all the paparazzi, and a week or two later I would check all the celebrity gossip magazines to see if I was in any of the pictures. It never worked, but I tried!
As I was leaving the Forum after the announcement, I glanced into the Forum Club and saw a moment that I simply had to capture. Lakers general manager Jerry West was sitting alone at the bar, seemingly staring into nowhere, his face more than anything I had seen telling the story of the day. I fired two shots, having to use flash because it was dark in there, and left it at that.
I don’t remember what Brad and I talked about on the ride back to Bakersfield, and with a ton of work still ahead of me, I don’t think I was really processing what had just happened and what I had just covered. Back in the newsroom, the edit was fairly easy. The two pictures you see here of Magic are the ones we ran. I was pretty excited about the Jerry West photo, but was disappointed when the picture came out of the soup. That’s what we called the processing chemicals back in the day. Something hanging from the bar had blocked the flash and thrown a large shadow across West’s forehead. At the time, we were shooting transparencies and did not have any digital software that could lighten or darken shadows. I declared the picture not publication worthy because of the shadow. But I had told Casey Christie about the photo and he wanted to see it. He overruled me, and I’m glad he did. Sometimes I get too carried away with my obsession over the technical aspects of my photos. I saw a shadow that ruined a picture. Casey saw emotion etched in the face of the man who ran the team that just lost it’s heart and soul, one of the greatest players the NBA had ever produced. He saw historical value, and he saw a picture we were pretty sure nobody else had. So the photo ran.
America did not handle the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s well. In fact, from political and religious leadership to media responsibility to public health protocol, everything about America’s handling of AIDS in the early days was a failure. President Ronald Reagan essentially refused to acknowledge the spreading epidemic or even mention the word “AIDS” for several years, and even tried to reduce AIDS funding in the federal budget as the disease was spreading. The media largely ignored the new disease because it was a so called “gay disease” affecting what was considered by Americans at the time to be an unworthy class of citizen. Vile preachers with huge followings like Jerry Falwell (one of the most awful people I ever met and photographed in my career) worked the citizenry into a frenzy, declaring the disease “God’s punishment” for the homosexual lifestyle, self-proclaimed “Men of God” spreading hatred and intolerance when they could have fostered compassion, understanding and education. And this disturbing article from the Journal of Public Health Policy details how the Centers for Disease Control, admittedly stifled by the Reagan Administration, dropped the ball in the early days of the epidemic at a time when funding, education and prevention protocols could have been invaluable.
So Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive transcends sports, and sits as one of the defining moments in the nation’s coming to grips with the disease. I’m not a health journalist, but as a photojournalist whose career started about the same time the AIDS epidemic did, I covered a lot of stories about AIDS and because of the fear and hysteria that pervaded every corner of American society, I followed this story closely. I believe there were six defining moments that helped America come to terms with the epidemic and that forced social, medical and political change. First was the death of actor Rock Hudson from the disease. It wasn’t until a friend of Reagan’s died that he finally decided to address it publicly, doing so at the request of another actor friend, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1987. Next is Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s battle with the Reagan Administration to address the epidemic, concluding with his release of an informational pamphlet in 1988 to every American household. It was the first significant step by the government to educate its citizens, and it was a brutal fight for Koop, who insisted that the pamphlet be free of moral and political statements. He even had to “sneak in” a recommendation advocating the use of condoms, for fear that the White House would not allow it.
Next up is Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who was infected by HIV from a blood transfusion. The boy found himself facing discrimination at every level, including being expelled from school for having the disease. The Ryan White case would lead to passage by Congress of the Ryan White CARE Act which mandates major federal funding for AIDS care, treatment and research. It would also signal that AIDS was not just a “gay disease” or a “druggie disease,” sending a major wake up call to America. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe announced in 1992 that he had contracted AIDS, most likely from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. He created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat AIDS which advocated the need for AIDS research and funding as well as sex education and safe sex practices. His celebrity and status as a respected athlete kept AIDS from sliding out of the public consciousness.
In 1993, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington starred in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” the first major studio film to tackle AIDS. The film was a major hit, Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar, and it probably did more to bring attention to HIV/AIDS than all the news stories and political hearings and funding battles ever could, such is the nature of celebrity.
Magic Johnson’s announcement stands with those, maybe even above them, given his stature. He was easily one of the most loved figures in American sports history. He shattered the illusion that only “other people” get HIV/AIDS and he set out to educate others and raise awareness of AIDS and how to prevent it, even serving on President George Bush’s council. (In later years he would admit what was widely suspected, that his sexual promiscuity likely led to his contracting HIV.) And of course, by living with HIV for more than 20 years now, he provides hope for others. He is by far the most famous American to have contracted the disease. The New York Daily News devoted both its front and back covers to Magic’s announcement, which should give an indication of the impact it had.When I got home that night, I finally began to digest what I had just covered. I got to know Magic Johnson a little bit over the years, and he really was, and I’m sure still is, a very nice guy. He was the guy who would come over and say “hello” when he saw me in the Forum hallway. He was the guy who was always the same, win or lose, upbeat, happy and friendly. One day, in 1988, I was covering a Raiders game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. I got up from my shooting position, turned around and found myself staring into the chest of a very large person. I looked up, and it was Magic. He was looking down at me and with a big smile said, “Hey, nice hat.” That summer, the Lakers had won the NBA title for the second year in a row and I had purchased a Lakers “Back-to-Back” championship hat, which I was wearing. I said, “Thanks, I like it, too,” and shuffled off to a new shooting position. I have a rule about autographs. Never, ever, ask for an autograph from someone you are photographing. Ditto for asking to pose for a picture with them. It’s unprofessional in my view. But I got to thinking, “Damn, I sure would like to have Magic autograph this hat.”
But a rule is a rule, right? Never before had I asked for an autograph, and never since, either. Then a thought entered my brilliant head. Earlier that summer, I had photographed “A Mid-Summer Night’s Magic,” Johnson’s fund raising all-star basketball game. During the game, the players cleared the floor and set up a one-on-one showdown, Magic Johnson against his teammate and buddy, Michael Cooper. Johnson tried to put a move on Cooper, and as he fell backward, Cooper threw out his leg, tripping Magic. I got a shot of Magic heading to the floor, a big smile on his face. I bet Magic would like to have that picture, I thought, so I walked up and made the proposition; I’ll trade Magic a copy of the photo for his autograph on the cap. He was all for it. He signed the cap (which I have kept in plastic ever since) and I mailed him the picture. I saw him at another Raiders game later in the season, and asked if he got the picture. “I did, it’s great,” he said. “I hung it up.”
I thought Magic Johnson was going to die. Everybody did. One of the networks dedicated an hour-long special that night to Magic Johnson. I was exhausted and didn’t want to watch it. So I programmed my VCR and recorded it. I wrote “Magic Johnson -32-” on it and put it away, deciding I would watch it in a few months when Magic passed away. I’ve never watched it. I’m two years older than Magic, so maybe I’ll never watch it. Heck, maybe when our time comes, there will be no way of ever watching a VHS tape!November 7, 1991, is a day that will stay with me forever. That wild car ride with Brad, running through the Forum kitchen, being in the largest crush of media I’ve ever experienced. But mostly, realizing the incredible things we get to see as photojournalists. It was one of the most momentous moments in American sports history, and I was in the room that day. I was in the room.
There are certain words we use in journalism that sometimes we have no business using. They are “automatics,” used in a certain type of story, regardless of whether we have any idea if they are true. Granted, television news uses them much more than newspapers, but they find their way into print a little too often for my tastes, too. They’re words like “brave” and “courageous” and “valiant” and they’re automatically included in any story about a person who dies following a terminal illness. A long time ago, I promised myself that I would never use these words in a story or cutline unless I had verified proof that they are, indeed, true.
Today, my friend and former coworker Steve Swenson died following a brave, courageous and valiant 15-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Steve was a reporter at The Bakersfield Californian for more than three decades. Our careers ran concurrently, though he was there a little before I arrived in late 1980. Steve covered the toughest of beats in the toughest of American towns. Crime and the courts. But it was how he covered them that continually amazed me and has assured that he will forever be remembered as a journalism legend. Covering crime is not easy. You try picking up the phone, calling a mother or wife or husband who has just lost a loved one to some senseless act of violence or a horrendous accident, and ask if you can come over and talk to them. Oh, and by the way, can we bring a photographer and take your picture, too? Worse yet, if nobody answers the phone, just going and knocking on the door. I don’t know how he did it, but Steve did it and did it better than anyone. He did it with dignity and humility and a compassion that left his subjects feeling a little better that they spoke with him, that they told this kind stranger a thing or two about the person they were suddenly, unexpectedly mourning, and that he would not betray the trust they placed in him. And he never did. I can’t tell you how many times I was riding in a car with Steve to one of these assignments, especially the “cold calls,” and would say, “There’s no way these people are going to talk to us, Steve.” Steve would say, “We’ll see,” and 15 minutes later we’d be in that house, Steve conducting his interview, me shooting pictures as quietly as I could. We knew how to work together. I would never approach the house with cameras in hand, and would only retrieve them after getting permission to shoot, which remarkably, was almost always. I would shoot sparingly, a few frames at first, then a long interval where I would sit and listen to Steve conducting his interview, then maybe a few more near the end.
What we did sounds ghoulish, and we’ve heard all the words, “vulture” of course being everybody’s favorite. But Steve knew, and most journalists who do this unpleasant work for a living know, that more often than not, those who have suffered loss actually want to talk about their loved one. That’s why they almost always say yes. The unknown, of course, is what will that reporter do with that interview, after he says “Thank you” and heads back to the newsroom. Steve Swenson always did the right thing. He wrote with compassion and fairness, never passing judgment on the departed, some who were innocent victims, others, not so much.
When we worked the streets, especially dealing with police, Steve and I were two completely different personalities. He was a diplomat, a peacemaker, a negotiator. Me, well, let’s just say I was the opposite. We disagreed a time or two – ah, hell, let’s be honest, Steve loved honesty. I almost strangled him a time or two – me explaining that he might have the luxury of getting a comment a few minutes later, or reconstructing what he is seeing back in the office with his words, but that didn’t work for me. A picture comes and goes in an instant, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Those exchanges were rare, and for the most part, we worked seamlessly together. Then there were my all-time favorites, the jailhouse interviews where some poor fool charged with who knows what crime would happily grant an interview, figuring that once his side of the story was told to the media, everything would be OK. Steve would be doing the interview, and as I shot the photos, I’d be thinking, “As your attorney, I’d advise you not to talk to this guy,” a line frequently used by The Californian’s other awesome legal affairs reporter, Mike Trihey. As we’d leave the jail, the poor defendant convinced he would soon be heading home and some defense attorney a few hours away from choking on his breakfast, I would say to Steve, “If I ever get my ass thrown in jail, there’s no f—ing way I’m talking to you. Don’t even try.” And we would bust out laughing.
Steve faced cancer twice. In 2007, he was diagnosed with cancer in his neck. He chose to wage his fight publicly, writing a series of articles – full of humor, of course – about his cancer treatment and recovery. He had Bakersfield enthralled. Even today, I encounter a person or two who talks about those articles. Steve beat that cancer, continued working and left The Californian in I think 2011. Last summer, Steve sent out a Facebook post to his friends, advising that he likely had pancreatic cancer. I had just two words: “Holy f–k.” That’s the bad one, the one you don’t survive, even with all the strides we have made in cancer treatment and research. And Steve did what he did so well. He kept his friends informed every step of the way. Sometimes with even a little too much information. But Steve the crime reporter recounted more than a few gory details in his day. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for him. But he did something else, too. He used social media to calm and soothe his many friends, most who seemed to be having a harder time with the diagnosis than he was. And then, he made sure all of Bakersfield knew, with an October, 2014 article, again full of humor, titled “I’m ‘going to go out’ happy, grateful and comforted.” So that’s why I have no problem using the words “brave, courageous and valiant.” I can vouch for them.
Steve did have a wicked sense of humor, as does most any journalist who saw and covered the things that he saw. He took particular delight in telling the story of what was without question the most embarrassing moment of my career. Sometime in the early 2000s, I think, we were dispatched to Wasco for an awful story. A man involved in a child custody dispute with his ex-wife broke into her apartment in a brazen daylight attack, and executed the child. Even Steve Swenson, the master at getting people to tell their stories in the most difficult circumstances, was not going to get us into that apartment to talk to the devastated mother. But he did. Don’t ask me how, I can’t begin to figure it out, but he did. We assembled in the mom’s bedroom, where she lay on her bed, comforted by family members. And she spoke. Good God, I don’t know how or why she spoke, but she did. The room was small, and I was wedged up against a wall shooting pictures. I needed just a few more inches of space, it was just so tight, and I pushed back against the wall for whatever I could get. But it wasn’t a wall. It was a closet, and in an instant I crashed backward through the closet door, knocking it off its hinges, landing on my butt with the closet’s contents falling all around me. I was mortified. Absolutely humiliated. I apologized profusely, offered to put the door back on, but to the family, it didn’t even register. Could they really care about that? Of course not. The interview continued, and of course Steve did an outstanding job, and all of Bakersfield would not only learn that a deranged father killed his son in a horrific act of revenge, but they would be able to sympathize with the mom, to get a sense of what something like that does to a human being. Call us what you will, but humanizing those stories, incorporating detail and context and pathos connects people to their communities in a way that a sterile, official statement issued by the authorities never can.
But, of course, Steve wasn’t done with me. In the following days, he would needle me relentlessly about falling through that closet door, and would tell the story for years. At my farewell party when I left The Californian, as I was thanking everybody, giving my speech, guess who pops up and shoves me aside? He had his own story to tell and he let them all know about the time I crashed through the closet door in that bedroom in Wasco, a story that I really would rather forget. Some people laughed. Others looked at him like “that’s not too funny.” But he cackled that trademark laugh of his, and then, of course, everybody laughed. That was Steve, and a crime reporter processes things a little differently than others.
I would get even with Steve by reminding him over the years that he was a lousy softball coach when he ran The Californian’s team – oooh, baby, that would get under his skin, he took his softball seriously. I would tell him that I was a much better defensive first baseman than Californian sports writer Jeff Evans. But he would always play Jeff at first base, because Jeff is 6-feet, 3-inches and I am 5-feet, 10-inches. Jeff was a great hitter, but he couldn’t catch a cold if you sneezed in his face. Yeah, that would rankle Steve pretty good. Steve would also get on me about the time Offord Rollins’ father almost attacked him outside the courthouse during his coverage of that murder trial for the ages, and I took pictures rather than come to his aid. I would explain that if he was a photographer, I would have, but he was just a dime-a-dozen reporter who could be easily replaced. And he would laugh out loud, once again, that famous Steve Swenson cackle. Of course, he cherished that picture of him nearly being attacked.
As I write this, almost undoubtedly one of his colleagues at The Californian is finishing off his obituary for tomorrow’s paper. It was probably already written, that’s another reality of the news business, and Steve knew it, but you can bet they’re really going over it to make sure it’s top-notch. Most of Steve’s colleagues will probably soon be thinking of ways to honor him. Not me, I already know. I have a classroom at Bakersfield College. I still believe in the power of journalism and that people still love stories told by good story tellers. Almost invariably, the subject of how to work on extremely sensitive stories comes up. And I’ll tell them how the great Steve E. Swenson did it.
Pete Tittl was the most feared journalist in Bakersfield. Just who is this Pete Tittl, those of you not from our town might ask? Was he a crack investigative reporter, a master at tracking how public monies are obtained, allocated, distributed and potentially abused? Nope. Was he a columnist keeping tabs on the city’s movers and shakers, ever on the lookout for the slightest hint of hypocrisy or impropriety? Nope. Pete Tittl was, and still is, The Bakersfield Californian’s restaurant reviewer. The mere thought of having Pete Tittl and his always unnamed “companion” visit a restaurant had owners quivering like a bowl of Jello and shaking like the earth under the San Andreas fault. And I had two encounters with restaurant owners regarding Pete Tittl that I have been delightfully sharing for three decades now.
First I should point out that Pete Tittl caused me many an aggravating photo shoot. You see, the restaurant owners never knew when Tittl was in their establishment, but every now and then, The Californian would want some pictures of the place, and the food, for the upcoming review. They would call the restaurant, tell the owner it was the subject of a review and arrange a photo shoot, and while Pete and his companion happily ate somewhere else, I would have to deal with the nervous restaurant owner, asking me, sometimes begging me, to tell him or her what was in the review. I never knew, and told them so, but that didn’t help matters any. So many times I would tell these owners that it really didn’t matter what the review said, it was going to be good for business. If Tittl gave a good review, people would flock to the restaurant to see if they agreed. If Tittl gave an unfavorable review, people would flock to the restaurant to see if they agreed. It did little to comfort the owners. I bring this up only because Pete Tittl reads this blog, just in case he wants to feel sorry for all the angst he has caused me over the years.
Now, back to my stories. In the early 1980s, just after I joined The Californian staff, we had a company-sponsored softball team. One day, after a game, we went to a popular local bar and grill for some food and drink. We were wearing uniforms with the company’s name on them, and I had my camera and was taking pictures, so it was no secret to the owner who we were. He came up and began talking about Pete Tittl and how he really wanted to know what he looked like in case he ever came to visit his restaurant, a place on California Avenue. Then he made me an offer: he would pay $300 for a photo of Pete Tittl. What the poor fool didn’t know was that Pete Tittl was on The Californian’s softball team and was sitting right there, right under his nose. At the time, I found nothing funny about the offer, and immediately reported it to the editors. I was young, right out of journalism school and full of that youthful journalistic righteousness and exuberance. I saw the offer as an attempt to subvert the journalistic process. I was a defender of truth, a believer of the importance of independent reporting and its role in keeping its citizenry informed. I was a regular freaking Jimmy Olsen, a guardian of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken the guy’s $300 and given him a picture of my dad, then told my dad about this great restaurant he and my mom needed to go try.
In the fall of that year, or maybe the next, I would have an even more bizarre Pete Tittl experience. Californian sports writer Mike Griffith and I were sent to Tehachapi, a small mountain town east of Bakersfield, to cover a high school football game. We had heard about a pretty good steak house in the town, so we headed there early to try it out before the game. After placing our order and as we waited for our food, Mike pulled his notebook out of his pocket and began flipping through it. Mike was not a prep football reporter. His primary beats were auto racing and hunting and fishing, and his duties included producing the newspaper’s wildly popular weekly racing and outdoors pages. As he’s flipping through his notes, a woman shrieks, “Oh my God, you’re Pete Tittl!” I look up, stupidly expecting to see Pete standing inside the restaurant’s entrance. But she is staring right at Mike. Now she’s at the table, and she’s repeating herself. “Oh my God, you’re Pete Tittl. You’re here to review my restaurant.” No, we’re not, Mike explains. We’re here to cover the high school football game. I’m a sports reporter, he’s the photographer. We’re just having something to eat before the game. But she’s not buying it. She’s on to us. That’s obviously our cover story, in case we’re found out. Mike is Pete Tittl, and I’m his companion. And don’t you try to fool me. Again, we tell her we are in Tehachapi to cover a football game, and this time we show her our Bakersfield Californian IDs. But that too, she’s convinced, is part of the ruse, all an elaborate cover story to protect the mysterious Pete Tittl from discovery.
And then the food starts coming. And coming. And coming. Here, I want you to try this. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Now I want you to try this. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. She’s at the table constantly, fussing, moving utensils as we eat. Try this steak. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try this chicken. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try these potatoes. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try this pork. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. More bread? OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. And so it goes for the entire meal.
Now Mike and I have a little bit of a dilemma. The Californian, like all newspapers, has strict guidelines regarding the acceptance of gratuities, and we take our ethics policy seriously. Freebies are absolutely forbidden, a crucial component to responsible journalism. Your reporting cannot be trusted if you take anything from the people you are covering. Cash, food, alcohol, gifts. It’s all forbidden. So we had to figure out what to do about this very weird encounter. We were not in this woman’s restaurant to do a review. We were not in her restaurant in any capacity related to The Bakersfield Californian. We told her repeatedly that we were not Pete Tittl and offered her proof. Yet she unloaded on us a volume of food far beyond what our bill totaled. We decided we were not in violation of the newspaper’s ethics policy. We paid our bill, and just to be safe, we left a very sizable tip for our server. I did not have a particularly good shoot that night. I was lethargic and did not feel like moving around to get into position for my shots. I think I may have eaten a little too much.
Nowadays, more than 30 years later, people still ask me about Pete Tittl. Is he a real person? Yes. Is that his real name? Yes. Who is his “companion.” I really don’t know, but I assume it alternates between friends, coworkers, his wife and his now-grown children. What I haven’t been asked again is if I would be willing to provide a picture of Pete Tittl for $300. If it happens, this time I’ll be ready. Hey, Dad, smile for the camera!
The afternoon of July 28, 1985 would change my career. I was 27. I have told the story about this photo so many times, in interviews, at conferences, at gatherings with friends and colleagues and at dozens of high school and college journalism programs, that I really don’t think I need to rehash it here. Rather, I’d like to share with you a story about one of the great honors I would receive and how the voice I was given in my profession has helped me make sense of this terrible tragedy in which the Romero family lost a son and brother. I never should have become the story, but that’s unfortunately what happened. First, however, I should clear up the misconceptions that have accompanied this photo for the past 29 years. One is that Edward Romero drowned in the Kern River. Not true. Edward drowned in Hart Park Lake. The river runs through the park, but this happened in the lake. Next is that the woman is Edward’s mother. She is his aunt. The story that I was ordered by the officer in charge, then Lt. Carl Sparks (he’s on the left of the photo), not to take the photo and that I ignored him is true. The final one is that the family was upset about the photo being published. Eloy Romero, the boy’s father, told The Californian that he had seen the photo, but was so grief stricken by the death of his son he couldn’t care about a picture. Now, my story:
In 2008, I received what I consider the greatest honor of my career. No, it wasn’t an award. I’m not big on awards, though I gladly accepted them if they came my way. It was an invitation to speak at a conference on media ethics at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. I was invited by renowned ethicists Deni Elliott, who holds the Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida, and Paul Martin Lester, professor of journalism at Cal State Fullerton and the author of numerous books on photojournalism and photojournalism ethics. In 1985, I shot a picture at the scene of a drowning in Hart Park in Bakersfield. The picture became one of the most controversial of the decade, and at age 27 and just four years into my career, I was thrust into the national media spotlight. Somehow, some way, the picture and the fallout resulted in the media industry turning me into an authority on media ethics. Of course, I wasn’t, I was a newspaper staff photographer wearing a Bruce Springsteen “Born in the USA Tour” t-shirt and a Los Angeles Raiders cap working a Sunday afternoon who took a picture, just like thousands of others would have. But the calls and invitations and interview requests kept on coming, still do. For two weeks, I came to work and did media interviews and pretty much nothing else. So I took my new role seriously. When I wonder what good could come from such a tragic image, the answer is that it gave me a voice in a profession I care deeply about. And the thing that scares me and troubles me the most about that profession is the ease with which some will sacrifice the ethics we old timers still hold dearly. If I have a voice, and people are interested in what I have to say, I’m going to use it and be pretty damn serious about it, too. Talking to journalism students is my truest joy, whether it’s in my own classes at Bakersfield College or at universities and conferences.
What made this one different was that it was the University of South Florida. The home of media ethics studies, closely aligned with the prestigious Poynter Institute, also in St. Petersburg. I was one of three photographers invited to speak at the conference. The others were the legendary Jay Maisel, considered in some photo circles as the greatest color photographer in the world; and John Filo, who in my opinion, shot the greatest news photo ever taken on American soil, the tragic Kent State massacre photo. My brain still is not able to grasp how I got invited to speak with those two guys. What the hell was I doing there? I don’t know, but damn, was I thrilled. So thrilled and excited, if fact, that I took my mom to Florida with me. I wanted her to be part of this. I did, however, get a lecture from her about using profanity in my talk. I’m not the type of guy who uses profanity, especially around students, and asked mom what I said. Apparently I said “shit” and “damn” at least one time. I explained to mom that those really aren’t curse words anymore, but mom’s old school, and a curse word is a curse word. The Californian thought the invitation was pretty cool, too, especially my executive editor Mike Jenner, and they even paid my salary so I did not have to use vacation days!
When I was a journalism student at Cal State Northridge, I remembered the excitement of having professional journalists come to talk to us. I remember hanging on their every word, taking in every story, every experience. As these students spoke to me, took my picture, interviewed me for their projects and student newspaper, I wondered, “Do they have any idea how excited I am right now?” I was trying to come across as the cool and polished professional, the guy who’d been doing this for 27 years, but inside I was that Cal State Northridge kid, more excited, I think, than they were.
John and I presented separately, talking about our picture, how it changed us, how it impacted our careers. I think the treat for the students and conference attendees was they got to see our outtakes, the entire shoots, not just the picture the world would see. I know I was fascinated by John’s Kent State take. Dr. Lester, the Cal State Fullerton professor, was struck by the similarities of how John and I approached and shot our assignments. We were two photographers who didn’t know the other, who shot our pictures 14 years apart, yet our takes were strikingly similar. Lester asked John and I to author a study for his Visual Communication Quarterly, a publication that studies and explores these things. While John and I are credited as the authors, Paul is the one who put it together. This is the piece, and as it shows, it is eerie in how our pictures and our approach were so similar. Here is the project: Here is the original Associated Press photo transmission – long discolored and faded – of the Hart Park drowning photo. This is what came out of a machine and landed on the desk of every newspaper in the United States and the world that subscribed to the AP. The back story is I had a long argument with an assistant managing editor over moving this photo. He did not want it moved. He eventually gave up, threw up his hands and said (I swear), “Go ahead and move it (to the Associated Press), but I’m telling you, nobody is going to be interested in this photo.” The aftermath of the picture’s publication would also contribute mightily to my career-long disdain of newspaper publishers and executives, thanks to what happened the following spring at the California-Nevada Associated Press News Executives annual convention in Orange County, California. I was invited to speak at the conference, and the picture was a nominee for best news photo and the Associated Press Mark Twain Award for photo of the year. The talk did not go well. The controversy over the photo’s publication clearly split opinion in the industry, with most editors siding with my editor, Bob Bentley, that it was a mistake to have run the photo, and most photographers believing the photo should have been published. The debate reached a fever pitch months earlier when Bob Greene, a Chicago Tribune columnist, called the photo “pornography” and made some comment like “it would be too much to ask a photographer to think.” (Slight paraphrase, or maybe an exact quote, I don’t remember, I’m not going to waste time looking up his drivel.) That column lit up the photojournalism industry. During my talk, the editors pressed me to admit that it was wrong to publish the photo. I refused, and it got contentious to say the least. That night, the photo would win the best news photo award. The awards were a big deal. Big enough that the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court was the guest speaker. Then it happened. It won the Mark Twain Award for Associated Press Photo of the Year. And as I walked up to receive it, the audience of editors and publishers booed. And booed loudly. Right to my face and right in front of the chief justice. The award also included a prize of $1,000. As I walked back to my table, one of the executives shouted “give the money back!” I’ll admit it shook me up. I was young and really hoped that someday I might move on and work for one of these people. That changed everything. I had been taught in j-school to respect publishers and editors. My vision of these folks was Lou Grant, Charley Hume and Mrs. Pinchon. Katherine Graham, Otis Chandler and Ben Bradlee. I was beginning to realize that they were the exceptions, that a whole hell of a lot of people guiding this business were losers. And my attitude toward them changed. From now on, as far as I was concerned, they did not get my automatic respect. They had to earn it, not vice versa. Interestingly, my editor Bob Bentley, was very upset with his colleagues at the conference and let me know he did not appreciate what happened. As for me, my career would progress just fine, but oh, baby, what I would give to face off with that room full of assholes today!
The day after I shot the boat flip sequence, I was arrested on the job for the first time by the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. It was June 14, 1981, I was 23 and it was my first-ever encounter with the KCSO. Boat drags at Lake Ming were a popular event that drew in the tens of thousands. A prior race months before resulted in a large portion of the crowd getting unruly, drunk and out of hand, and the sheriffs made lots of arrests. So the sheriffs were out in force for this boat race, and made a big deal about announcing a zero tolerance policy for any public drunkenness or unruly behavior. I was in the secured area – not open to the public – for workers near the control tower when I noticed three deputies approach a man who was walking in the same workers’ area and grab him. He immediately tried to pull away, and a struggle ensued. I started taking pictures. One of the deputies saw me and ordered me to stop taking pictures. I ignored her and continued shooting. She told me if I didn’t stop shooting, she was going to take the camera away. I told her to do what she though she had to do. In retrospect, I should have said nothing at all. After they cuffed the man, all three came after me. The female deputy, Jodi Marlett, was first, and ordered me to give her the camera. Instead, I shot a picture of her in my face. She grabbed the camera, and I wouldn’t let go. The male deputy, his name was Fred Skidmore, came up grabbed my thumb and said “Let go of the camera or I’ll break your fucking thumb.” I wouldn’t let it go, and he pulled my thumb back until the grip released. They cuffed me and put me in a patrol car. Mike Griffith saw what was happening and almost got arrested when he tried to intervene. Felix Adamo was watching, and shooting the whole thing, from a distance with a telephoto lens. If they had seen him, he would have been arrested, too. The third deputy was Cheryl Ruggles. It didn’t end there, however. The most disturbing part of the ordeal was yet to come. Marlett drove me to jail. When she pulled into the sheriff’s underground garage, she stopped the car. Without a word, she reached over and picked up my camera in the front seat. She reached for the film rewind knob and pulled it. She was trying to expose the film! The camera did not open. She began twisting and pulling various knobs trying to open the camera. Nothing. I had shot the pictures with an old, original Nikon F camera from the 1960s era. That camera did not open like most 35mm film cameras. To open that camera, you had to release a lever on the bottom of the camera, then slide the camera back completely off the camera. She was not able to figure it out, gave up and that’s how the film survived. I was released from jail about 2 hours later. My managing editor, W.J. McCance came and got me, and he made quite a show of making sure the KCSO knew that arresting one of his people would not be tolerated. I was charged with interfering with an officer in the course of his duty, which in the journalism world we call “contempt of cop,” the standard charge they use when they have no real crime to charge you with. Two days later, Kern County District Attorney Al Leddy dropped the charges, declaring that “being an aggressive photographer is not a crime.” The Californian demanded a public apology for the arrest, and about a week later, Sheriff Al Loustalot issued what is said to have been the only public apology ever issued by the department for an arrest.
As for the man who was arrested, his name was Daniel Dixon. He was not drunk. He was a worker at the event. Years earlier, he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident that left him walking with a gait and slightly impaired. The cops just assumed he was drunk. Why they would go after an official working the race in an employee area is a question that was never answered. Dixon sued the KCSO for false arrest and won. He settled for five figures, though I don’t know what the amount was. My picture survived and was published in The Californian and moved on the AP wire. My arrest received more media exposure than Dixon’s did, and I wish that was not the case. I would go on to have a rather stormy and confrontational relationship with the KCSO for most of the next three decades. The Lake Ming arrest did not foster any sort of understanding of the difficulties of both of our jobs. Instead, it did just the opposite, and the conflicts and confrontations never abated.