Storyboard recently talked about visual storytelling and intimacy with two very different journalists: a 30-year veteran photojournalist and a newsroom staff photographer just two years out of graduate school. Tomorrow, we’ll learn what it was like for a seasoned pro to turn a camera on his own family in the midst of crisis. Today, we hear from Sonya Hebert of The Dallas Morning News.

choosing-thomasHebert’s two large-scale efforts to date include a look into adult palliative care at Baylor University and a portrait of a family whose baby lived only five days as a result of a genetic defect. Her video of the baby and his parents pairs beautifully with the print story in “Choosing Thomas,” a multimedia project selected earlier this year as a Notable Narrative.

When did you come to The Dallas Morning News?

This is my first job at a newspaper as a photographer. I started here in the summer of 2007 as an intern and then was hired full time in the fall. Before that I was in graduate school at Ohio University in the School of Visual Communication.

What did you do before?

I hadn’t worked as a photographer; I was working in politics in Washington, DC. I’d had a few darkroom classes, and I did an internship after work at a friend’s agency. I’d show my work to professionals, and people were like, “No, you’re not ready.” I was timid about taking pictures of people. I would stand too far back. I was worried about making people uncomfortable.

I think that sensitivity helps me now. There are some photographers who don’t respect the person they’re photographing and their free will, their privacy. The photographer might be more interested in the story and not considering the person as a person. They’ll take the photos instead of asking if the person is okay with it. I’ve kind of always had that playing in the back of my mind.

I’ve had to learn to get over that sometimes—like spot news, taking pictures when people are really upset. You have to go and cover that, but I try to do it as respectfully as I can.

How was it to work as a team on such intimate subjects as palliative care and dying?

Lee [Hancock] had done so much initial reporting on the topic of palliative care. She’s good at finding out everything you need to know. I’m more in the moment. I hear something is going on, and I go shoot. My work is so visual, I don’t need to read every book to be able to work.

We were in the hospital at Baylor [University] for a three-week period, where we shadowed the palliative care team. That was May and June 2008. We were there as much as the PR people would let us be, sometimes way into the night, because there’s always staff there and always people dying. It’s not like the story stops when you go home.

If we’d had our way, we would have been there around the clock. But they required public relations staff to accompany us. Lee and I were connected at the hip, because we had one PR person between us.

We had to balance that. I just went with it. I didn’t know where the story was going to go or which patients we were going to include in the final story. We just took in as many stories as we could in that three week period. I took almost 6,000 pictures.

When it comes to subjects in medical crisis, how do you get access to vulnerablethe moments when they’re vulnerable?

It was incredibly hard. I think most documentary photographers love to work by themselves. And they love real moments, real things happening. When a doctor comes into a room, that changes things a little bit, though there were plenty of great moments we saw between doctors and patients.

It taught me to be patient and to be really more aware, to try to hone in on the in-between moments. My senses were really heightened, looking for anything, because I often felt like nothing was going on. What we saw over and over again was a patient in a bed in a hospital room. Visually it looked all the same, so it required tuning out what I was hearing, and really looking. Thinking, “How can I tell this story visually?”

Sometimes it was getting tight in on someone and waiting for them to look up in a certain way in a dark room—being ready for something to happen. And really trying to work every angle.

I feel like for me, it takes a while. I like to feel connected with subjects and have a conversation about what my intentions are, and sometimes we couldn’t do that. At Baylor, the PR person would explain what we were doing, then there would be a signing of forms, and then there would be a discussion between Lee and the family or the patient. I felt uncomfortable in a way, because I wanted to be able to say, “I’m so sorry you’re here, and here is why I’m coming to you.” I wanted to connect on a human level. I wanted to offer my respect and my gratitude for them allowing us to be present.

Was it different when you worked with Thomas Laux’s family, in the days before he died?

It was so different. My colleague at work, he’s the one who first got excited about a trisomy story. He said, “I wanted to do this story for a long time, but I don’t think I’m up to it.” I asked Kathy Rose, a hospice coordinator, if she had any trisomy patients.

She gave me a name, and I called up [parents] Deidrea and TK and went over to their house. We talked for about an hour. I basically told them who I am and what I wanted to do and really explained what it would require—that I would be there in difficult times.

I can’t remember if we agreed to it right then, but they agreed to it then or soon after. And they were just wonderful. That’s what I enjoy doing—building some trust and not jumping in when the shit is hitting the fan.

Deidrea and TK say to this day that they feel I helped them through the process. It was a really different kind of work.

What kind of limits do you put on yourself in shooting or editing? Is there anything you won’t film, or that you film but on principle don’t use?

When she was giving birth, she was having so much pain, and they were having a hard time getting the IV line in. She couldn’t get her epidural until she had the IV, and TK had stepped outside to talk to the family for a moment. She was in so much pain.

I was like, “Deidrea, what do you need?” She said, “Stop shooting, give me a hair band, and hold my hand.” I’m thinking I want to get the pictures, but of course I stopped shooting. We have a friendship also. It’s a special kind of friendship. It’s not like any that I’ve ever had.

I’ve never used that word “friend” to describe it before. In the beginning, when they first got involved with us, they would invite me over. They wanted me to sit down with them and eat, but I didn’t. They’d say, “Let’s hang out. Let’s go out and get dinner.” Social things. I said, “No.”

I couldn’t cross that line. And personally for me, especially while I was working on all the adult palliative care stuff at the same time, I wanted to spend my free time with my friends and get away from all the dying. It was too much emotionally.

But at the hospital, I knew I already had pictures, and she needed someone right then. I wasn’t going to say no to Deidrea. She had given me so much already.

Was there anything too intimate to film or use?

When she was having the baby, obviously, I did not shoot from the front. I just knew that would be too intimate for her or me. Other than that, she said at one point, “We don’t want anyone in here right now.” That was at their house right as they were having the last moments with Thomas before they brought him out. But this had been going on for five days.

Of course, I was thinking “I need to be in there.” But that was okay, because I had so much already. She had already said, “I let you in, and I won’t let my family, in.” I slept at the house.

It’s a friendship, but it’s not a normal friendship. It was a comfort to them—it was comforting for them that they could talk to me.

Do you think that you could continue to cover them?

I’ve never been presented with that. Hypothetically, if there were some kind of negative story, it would hard to do, but it’s my job. That has to come first.

The patients at Baylor would also call me and want to talk. It was bizarre to me, but I was a link to their loved one. That was the bond we created being together in that life-changing moment.

But I felt uncomfortable in that role. Once the stories were over, it was hard to be that for them. It was a lot all at once—so many patients at Baylor. Way too many people who died.

Can you talk about video versus still photos? You use both in “Choosing Thomas.”

My background is photography, but I just got out of grad school, where I took a video class. Video is moving still photography, and that’s how a lot of photographers shoot video. They look for extended moments instead of still moments. That’s the power of video for storytelling.

There’s really no rhyme or reason to which I chose. It was a gut thing—“Okay, this is more powerful here.” Because a lot of times, I’ve got both. I’ve got a still image where TK picks up Thomas, Deidrea is laying in bed, and Thomas is limp. The camera is tracking Thomas, and Deidrea wipes her eyes in exhaustion. And TK says, “My poor boy.”

I have that scene as a still image, or something really similar to it. But that video clip was so much more powerful, because there’s the movement of her wiping her eyes and him saying “My poor boy” as they transfer him. Sometimes the video wasn’t as effective as the still. I went with whatever was the most powerful.

I had 40 hours of footage. I think I met them in March or April, months before Thomas was born. I documented and photographed and videotaped so much that wasn’t included. That’s why we built up this trust. That’s why I was able to be there at the end, because I was there at the beginning.

As a videographer, you don’t want to shoot that much. But how could I not shoot as the baby’s dying? You have no idea when something is going to happen.

How do you think about storytelling?

I worked with Ahna Hubnik at The Dallas Morning News. I basically cut everything to 2 or 3 hours of video, then we sat and talked about what story we wanted to tell and the arc. Then I just kind of turned it over to her and said, “I cannot get this down any more. I’m too close to it.”

That’s sometimes the way with still photography. Sometimes photographs need an editor. I was in love with these clips; I couldn’t cut them. Ahna came back after a week or two with about 20 minutes. I was blown away by how she had decided to do it.

After we sat down and talked about it, she was able to take my vision and figure out what would be meaningful to an outside viewer. So that’s how we ended up finalizing it.

I was really concerned about—in the middle of editing, I didn’t feel like the reader could fall in love with Thomas. I was worried about doing a story about a baby to begin with, and he was tougher, because he didn’t do a lot. There were just a few moments where he was like a normal little baby and you could see how cute he was. There’s a clip where he’s sneezing, and TK is saying, “Oh, that was my eye!” It was something to bring a lighter side to the story before we got into the heavy dying part.

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