The Houston Landing’s website is only a month old, but it’s already brimming with compelling pictures of the Houston region and the incredibly diverse people who call it home.
This was no accident.
We made a point to hire one of the best photographers we could find. Our first photo editor is Marie D. De Jesús, an award-winning photojournalist and the first Latina president of the National Press Photographers Association. We’re hiring a second photographer soon, and we also plan to hire talented freelancers.
Born in Puerto Rico, Marie moved to Florida in 2003 as a college student. She intended to major in human behavior and psychology, but a random photography class changed her life.
Now she uses her camera to learn about people and tell their stories. Marie specializes in documentary-style projects that focus on marginalized communities, and she’s won numerous journalism awards. Marie was part of a team of journalists at the Houston Chronicle who revealed how Texas was arbitrarily denying students access to special education. The team was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.
I sat down with Marie to talk about how she grew interested in photography, how she approaches her job, and why it’s so vital. This Q&A has been lightly edited.
Q: Start from the beginning about how you got hooked on photography. It sounds like you were in college in Florida?
A: So I was in a human-behavior program, and I took an elective course in photography. Black and white, bare-bones, doing everything in the dark room.
Q: Developing film?
A: Yeah, one of the most basic forms. Analog. This was just when digital was truly starting. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is my moment. Let’s do it. Photography will give me a break from all the psychology classes.’ So I took that course, and I loved it. I had the typical experience of seeing the image come to life. And I was hooked.
Q: When you go out to a news event or an incident or something, what’s going through the mind of a professional photographer who wants to do this right? What’s entailed in telling the story?
A: In the beginning, it was a physical exercise of drawing a flow chart. I would literally put a word in the middle and say something like ‘child, hunger.’ Then I would say in my mind, what are the possibilities? So, through that exercise, I would break it down. Single mom, single parent? That’s a scene right there. What is the environment of that child? I break it down. And I break it down into scenes. It becomes faster as you do it more. You identify the moments as they blossom in front of you.
Q: I know photo departments have been under siege (in the news industry) because people think, ‘Oh, it’s just taking pictures.’ It’s more than that, right?
A: The studies are clear. Viewers can differentiate between professional work and amateur work. You don’t want to lose professional photographers. Strong photography and strong headlines will drive (web) traffic.
Photojournalism informs and it evokes emotion. It promotes understanding.
We’re not saying it has to be this or that. We’re saying it might be empathy. It might be outrage. It might be joy. It might be a new understanding of something.
Q: It seems like some of the big photo projects I’ve seen involve a photographer patiently hanging out with the subject of a story to get these true moments. Can you talk a little bit about that? Y’all are spending lots of time just hanging out.
A: Yeah, so it’s probably one of the most challenging parts of the profession — developing the patience and sensitivity to stick around and to be persistent.
People who are going through the worst days of their lives are going to sometimes react in all kinds of ways with you. You need to be sturdy and stay with it. Follow up. Commit yourself. That is the hardest part. It’s access and sticking with it.
Q: That’s hard.
A: It is so hard. And very few can do it and do it well. And (they) endure the consequences of doing that kind of work. It comes with a price.
Q: Was there a project you worked on that stands out in your mind as an example?
A: A lot of the border work has made an impression on me. The mass shootings. El Paso was very painful. Not because in itself it was devastating, but one of the victims, we had met them like six months earlier on another story. This is how small the world is. It stays with you.
At the same time, sometimes your stories make it to the House of Representatives. … That’s a once-in-a lifetime moment in which a bill is passed or at least gets talked about that can help massively. Yeah, there’s just nothing else that compares.
Q: So we’re here trying to build this new website and one of our goals is to form strong bonds with the community and reach them in different ways. How much does good photography play a role in that?
A: I mean, photographers, in my opinion, are the most experienced in the art of engaging with the public. Photographers have an incredible gift of connecting. Connecting in the real moments, in the hard moments, of witnessing, being always the first ones there.
So as we try to engage, I think photography and our photographers will be on the front lines, building meaningful connections. We want to be there to document what is important to the community.
What brings joy to your life? I want to see it. I want to document what’s important to you. What makes you proud?
It’s going to make the news source relatable and dynamic. Those are the elements that photography tends to bring to the table.