Like the shy, quiet child who surprises you with an over-the-top performance in a school play, some photographs can surprise you with their moment in the spotlight. A recent photograph of mine did just that, going viral within 24 hours.
It started last Sunday morning when I left the comfort of my warm couch to pursue a cold-weather photograph. I wound up in front of a man clearing a sidewalk with a snowblower.
I composed loose vertical shots of him and the snowblower approaching me. If you recall, there was 3 inches of snow on the ground, temperatures in the single digits and wind gusting 15-20 mph. As the man got closer, I remained in position, framing tighter and tighter with my telephoto lens. Through my cold, teared-up eyes and a lens struggling to autofocus, my last visual memory was of a close-up of the man’s frozen face. When I reviewed my photos, I discarded the wider scenes and chose one of just the face. In my mind it looked colder and had more impact. I transmitted it to the newspaper and then, at the last moment, remembered to send it to The Associated Press and post it on my Facebook page.
When an image is uploaded to The Associated Press, it eventually reaches the photo desk in New York and then gets forwarded to all AP member newspapers around the world for possible print use. The editor in N.Y. also got the Journal-World’s permission to distribute the image to online sites.
By Sunday evening, people on my Facebook page were commenting that they had seen the photo on CNN.com, WashingtonPost.com and the CBS Evening News. In social media jargon, my photo was trending. Monday morning, I was told it had made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, so I surveyed the Newseum’s Today’s Front Pages gallery. This site displays each day’s front pages of more than 800 worldwide newspapers, including the Journal-World. It didn’t take me long to realize that several papers had selected the photo to represent the nation’s “Polar Vortex.” The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Miami Herald and even the Brussels, Belgium, daily paper, were a few who picked it up.
I contacted Kellen Henry, the mobile/digital producer for Associated Press, who helped start the snowball rolling, so-to-speak, by using the image as the lead photo on the AP mobile app.
“By my count, we’d moved close to 500 cold-weather photos over that 36-hour period. Many of them were icy landscapes or bundled-up pedestrians, faces covered by scarves and hoods. I think what set this photo apart for me was the full view of the gentleman’s face,” Henry said. “To the reader, he could be a commuter, a construction worker, a homeless person, or just a guy out shoveling show, but his expression really captures everything you need to know: It’s so cold out there it hurts.”
What amazes me the most is that, without knowledge of what other publications were using, other editors in addition to Henry made the same decision. I’m glad I had the sense to pick that particular frame. A week later I can tell you two things that I’ve learned from this experience: My name is spelled the same in Belgium as it is here and the spotlight on any single image dims quickly, demanding new work to take its place. In the words of my editor at the Journal-World, “What have you got for me today?”