Spotlight On Jay Janner

TID Jay Janner 01

TID:

Thanks for taking the time to share your work. 
Please tell us about the background of this image.

JAY:

In June, I began thinking about shooting a photo essay about the 
extreme drought in Texas. It was exceptionally hot, even by Texas 
standards, and we hadn’t had any rain in months. The weather was 
on everybody’s minds, and I thought the drought would be a good 
project to keep me busy during the slow summer months.

We went through a bad drought in 2009 so I knew there was potential 
for some good photos. All indications were that the 2011 drought was 
going to be even worse, and I wanted to photograph this one more 
thoroughly.

Drought has been called a “creeping disaster” because it happens in 
slow motion, unlike a hurricane or earthquake. Month after month of 
no rain slowly causes changes in your surroundings. At first you don’t 
even notice. But if you look around now you can’t miss the depressing 
signs of the drought everywhere. The 2011 drought in Texas has caused 
at least $5 billion in agriculture losses so far, and that’s not including 
the recent devastating wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes.

My goal for this photo essay was simply to document the changing 
landscape, and to show how the drought is affecting people, plants and 
animals. 

TID Jay Janner 04

TID:

If I understand you correctly, this project was from your own initiative.

JAY:

Yes. It was a self-assigned project. I have been a newspaper staff 
photographer for 20 years, and I learned a long time ago that if you 
don’t like the assignments you’re getting from your editors then 
make your own assignments. It’s my way to stay positive and keep 
being creative and productive. Besides, my editors want my good ideas. 
They don’t like giving me bad assignments any more than I like getting 
them. This drought project was a good example, but I try to follow 
that principle in little ways almost every day.

TID:

In an environment with shrinking resources, how do you work around 
this and still create pathways of success in the newsroom to get stories 
like this published?

TID Jay Janner 05

JAY:

The problem of shrinking resources is a major concern for all of us in 
the newspaper business. For photographers, it means there is very little 
space in the newspaper for our work, especially projects with multiple 
photos. And due to staff reductions and increasing workloads there is 
not as much time to work on long-term projects. I give credit to my 
editors, Director of Photography Jay Godwin and Assistant DOP Nell 
Carroll, as well as other editors who gave my drought project the go-ahead 
and gave me time to work on it.

In this case, I wrote a project proposal that identified a newsworthy story 
and clearly explained my plans and goals. It was an easy sell. I began 
working on the project and soon a publication date was set for late August 
in our Insight & Books section that focuses on in-depth analysis.

I try not to worry about things I can’t control, like where my project is 
published or how much space it gets. I was determined to do the best 
photo essay I could. I hoped it got published in the newspaper in a 
meaningful way, but regardless I intended to produce a good online 
photo gallery.

I only had a few weeks to produce a photo essay on a very broad 
subject that required lots of driving around, exploring and making 
my own contacts. Keep in mind I had to shoot my regular assignments 
too. It’s not as if I was let loose to concentrate full-time on this one 
particular subject. I worked on the project for only a few days spread 
out over six weeks. On many of those days I also shot other assignments. 

The photo essay was published on a double truck, but it shared the 
space with some other stories. There was also a secondary photo on 
Page 1 to refer to the project inside. The design by Scott Ladd was great. 
Reporter Brenda Bell wrote a thoughtful introduction. Of course I wish I 
had more time to work on the project and I wish it got more space in the 
newspaper. But I could say that about every one of my projects. It was, 
however, published online exactly the way I wanted.

1

http://photoblog.statesman.com/dry-season-the-texas-drought-of-2011/

TID:

You're an accomplished photojournalist with a lot of experience
working in a variety of situations. When you go into this type of 
project, can you tell us what goes through your mind at the beginning?

JAY:

My first thought was this could be a really good project - don’t screw it up. 

The Texas drought was a very broad subject. I needed to do some research. 
I did an internet search to see what had been written recently about the 
drought. I set up a Google alert and a Twitter search to get daily feeds of 
new information about the drought. I brainstormed ideas and compiled 
everything into my “shot list” - a list of photos I wanted to take.

I started photographing the project by simply driving around the 
countryside and exploring. I met my first contact, a rancher, by 
chance on the side of a small country road. I met a farmer just by 
walking up to him in his corn field.

Once I got started it was just a matter of being persistent and trying 
to get everything done on my shot list.

TID Jay Janner 02

TID:

Now onto the image. Please tell us in the moments/days leading 
up to it, as well as what is going on in the image itself.

JAY:

I photographed a lot of cattle for this project. The huge economic 
loss in the ranching industry was one of the main stories of the drought. 
One of the first photos I took was of an underweight longhorn cow 
standing in a pasture with its ribs visible. The longhorn, a Texas icon, 
looking so weak and sickly was quite striking and kind of symbolic. It 
was a decent start, but that photo didn’t make the final cut. 

Later I spent some time with ranchers and made many more photos of cattle. 
I made two or three photos of cattle that I really liked, including a series of 
photos of a cow stuck in the mud at the bottom of an empty stock tank. 

I knew I was already in pretty good shape with cow photos, but on this day 
I decided to check out a cattle auction in Fredericksburg. Cattle auctions 
all over Texas were packed because ranchers were being forced to sell their 
herds. There just wasn’t anything to feed them and the stock ponds had 
gone dry.

At the auction barn, I positioned myself on a catwalk where I had a good 
view of the whole yard. Cowboys were busy gathering the cattle for the 
start of the auction. The corrals were quickly filling up. It wasn’t long before 
I began focusing on one particular pen. The light was good there and it had 
some very skinny cattle. I spent at least half an hour photographing just 
those cattle - waiting for the composition and light to get just right.

TID Jay Janner 07

TID:

What do you tell people when you want to take pictures like this?

JAY:

You just need to be honest, and tell them about the project and let them 
know what kind of photos you’re interested in taking and why. This project 
didn’t present any special difficulties with gaining access. The people I 
photographed were glad that someone in the media cared about their plight. 
They believed the national media was ignoring the drought in Texas.

TID Jay Janner 09

TID:

What was the reaction to the publication of this image?

JAY:

The online photo gallery went viral on the internet. It got several thousand 
views per day for about a month. Comments have been pouring in from 
all over, even outside the U.S. 

There were many different reactions. A lot of people said they were shocked 
to discover how bad the drought was. Many expressed sadness for a state 
they loved dearly. Animal lovers were distressed over the dead and dying 
animals in the photo essay. There were a lot of comments about the 
environment and global warming. Many just wanted to pray for rain.

TID Jay Janner 12

TID:

What struggles did you face during the making of this picture and the story, 
and how did you overcome them?

JAY:

The main struggle was just that the subject was so broad that I didn’t 
have enough time to photograph everything I wanted. For example, I really 
wanted to make a good wildfire photo. Wildfires were happening almost 
everyday, but for various reasons I never seemed to be at the right place 
at the right time. Eventually, I did take a good fire photo just a few days 
before my deadline. The main photo in the print version of the photo 
essay, a picture of a farmer in his field, also was made right before the 
deadline.

Eventually, I just ran out of time and had to be resigned to the fact 
that this was as good as it was going to get. 

TID:

What surprised you during this process?

JAY:

At the start, I was genuinely surprised at the severity of the drought. 
Living in the city, I didn’t know how bad the drought really was. 
I learned a lot about ranching. I didn’t realize how big a disaster it 
is for ranchers to be forced to sell their entire herds. Some ranchers 
spend their whole life building up their herds. It will take years to 
recover, and some ranchers are just going to call it quits.

TID:

What do you know now that you wish you knew before?

JAY:

In the past, I used to be overly concerned about how my photos 
were being used in the newspaper – which photos were used 
(or not used), how big they were used and how they were cropped. 
It took a long time, but I learned to let that go. I have no control 
over that stuff. Now I just focus on trying to do good work. It has 
made me happier and more positive.

TID:

What advice do you have for photographers wanting to photograph in 
similar situations?

TID Jay Janner 10

JAY:

You just have to get out of the office, hit the road and not be afraid 
or too shy to walk up to strangers in any situation. You make contacts, 
which can lead to other contacts and it kind of snowballs. You have 
to get organized and be focused on your goals. And finally, you have 
to be persistent and work hard. I believe hard work trumps talent. At 
least that’s how I’ve survived this long in the newspaper business.

TID:

In conclusion, where do you draw inspiration from?

JAY:

I get inspiration from a wide variety of places on the internet - 
everything from photo students on A Photo A Day to well-known 
photojournalists on The New York Times Lens photo blog, for 
example. I love reading photo blogs and checking out social media 
links to various photo projects. It may be an obvious reference, but 
National Geographic has been my greatest source of inspiration over 
the years.

Last and certainly not least, I am blessed to work with a great staff 
of photojournalists at the Austin American-Statesman who inspire 
me and keep me motivated.

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Jay Janner has been a staff photographer at the Austin American-Statesman since 2003. A photojournalist for more than 20 years, Janner has covered everything from hurricanes to Super Bowls. He has won numerous national awards and was NPPA Regional Photographer of the Year. Previously Janner was a staff photographer at the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University.

You can view his work here:

http://jayjanner.com/

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Next week we'll take a look at this touching image by 
WIlliam DeShazer of the Chicago Tribune:

williamtease

As always, if you have a suggestion of someone, or an image you 
want to know more about, contact Ross Taylor or Logan Mock-Bunting:

ross@imagedeconstructed.com 
logan@imagedeconstructed.com 

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