WRITING AND PHOTOGRAPHING THE HUMAN INTEREST PIECE

I tend to think about Clem Schultz whenever I hear the word "tornado".  His story serves as a potent reminder to never take life for granted.  You see, Schultz filmed the 2015 tornado that took away almost everything he held dear. His house, his mementos, and especially his wife were ripped from him.

We would not have heard his story at all had he not offered the footage to a meteorology student for use in the student's doctorate studies. The video went viral, thrilling meteorologists while disheartening the average citizen.



I recall the story not from the video, but thanks to a particular human interest piece.

Suburban Chicago's Daily Herald was only one of the numerous papers that covered the story. It is the piece written by their that surpasses all else.

Ms Sarkauskas humanizes the event, lifting it from tragedy to prove the mettle of the human heart and mind.

I don't think anyone else could have done it such justice.  The writing found in human interest stories has been on the decline for years. It takes a certain panache to frame an article in such a way as to be relatable to the casual reader.  Too often, the piece is a bland, two-dimensional recounting.

Ms Sarkauskas isn't just a reporter; she is a writer who also happens to be a reporter. The difference is immediately apparent.

I'm including it here in its entirety. There isn't any intent on my part to infringe on copyright. Rather, I present it intact for review and discourse. The source is found here: https://www.dailyherald.com/article/20160403/news/160409707/.

Fairdale man's video shows tornado that took wife's life

Clem Schultz was sure the tornado weather forecasters were warning about was going to miss him, but he knew based on experience his Fairdale home would lose electricity. 

So he went to an upstairs bedroom to get camping lanterns he and his wife, Geri, would surely be using early on the evening of April 9 last year.

He looked out a window and spotted a tornado to the west. He speculated it would stay south of his community, population around 150, about 19 miles northwest of DeKalb. He decided to record its passage on his cellphone camera.

But that black monster had other intentions, hopping the railroad tracks a block away.
There was no time for the 85-year-old to hurry back downstairs to the kitchen where Geri was. There was no point in getting in the cellar, which was basically a hole barely big enough to hold their furnace.

In an instant the tornado passed right through -- literally -- his house. Schultz rode the debris from the collapsing chimney down, losing his grip on the phone, getting entangled in a bedsheet, and becoming buried.

Moments later a neighbor was digging him out of the rubble. Schultz was out and standing within four minutes. The neighbor sat him down on one of the house's beams, but told him, "Don't look down."

"Why?" Schultz asked.

"Because your wife is right under you. She's dead."

'Sow's Ear' home

The Schultzes, who previously lived in Hampshire, bought the Fairdale house in 2000 to be closer to one of Geri's daughters. They spent a year rehabilitating it, nicknaming it "The Sow's Ear."

"We were very proud of that house," Schultz says.

And Geri, 67, became fast friends with a next-door neighbor, Jacqueline Klosa, 69. The first week of every month, the two would take off on a girls-only day of shopping for groceries and more. Geri Schultz would drive Klosa on errands, including doctor appointments.
Klosa, too, died in the tornado.

At Geri's memorial celebration in June -- when Clem and Geri would have been married 25 years -- a friend asked Schultz if he thought Geri was in heaven. Yes, Schultz said.

" ... Because those two, the devil could not put up with them at the same time," he continued.

Clem Schultz survived the April 9, 2015, tornado that struck Fairdale, but his wife did not. Missy, the couple's white shepherd, went missing for two days. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
Clem Schultz survived the April 9, 2015, tornado
that struck Fairdale but his wife did not.
Missy, the couple's white shepherd, went missing
for two days. - Brian Hill | Daily Herald  Staff Photographer

Going back

Schultz will return to Fairdale for a memorial dedication April 9, but not to live. He found a place he loves late last summer, a two-house farm property northeast of Genoa. He intends to spend the rest of his days there.

He is comforted by his dog Missy, a white shepherd who went missing for two days after the tornado, refusing to let anyone get near her. She's still skittish after the experience, Schultz says, but the "critter-gitter" is happy to run after possums and raccoons at her new home.

Missy sleeps on the sofa, on an afghan Geri crocheted for her. It was one of the possessions Clem was able to salvage.

"I'll be watching TV, and something comes on that needs a comment, and she (Geri) is not there," Clem says. "But Missy's always there."

He fingers the cream-colored afghan, choking up.

"This is the last thing she crocheted. It was for Missy."

A portrait of him and Geri was found in Harvard more than 30 miles northeast and returned. His scrapbook about his service in the Navy (1948 to 1952) survived because it had been stored in a plastic tub and the tub stayed intact. There are other afghans, and old typewriters he repairs. One of his daughters lives in the bigger house on the property. He and Missy like to ride around the property on a golf cart, and Clem loves to watch the sunsets.

His sore back also serves as a reminder of the tornado. Schultz suffered a compressed broken vertebra. His back was contorted like a question mark, he said, until he underwent surgery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hospital, courtesy of his VA health coverage. He marvels at it, saying doctors essentially mud-jacked the vertebra, injecting bone cement.

About that video

One thing that has helped his spirits is his video of the tornado bearing down.

"I did not know if I wanted to see that video," Schultz says. His daughter showed it to his doctor, and a few days later, Schultz got up the nerve.

He then shared it with a meteorology student who had been chasing the storm. That student included it in his doctorate studies about the internal structure of tornadoes. The rare look from inside has been shared worldwide, and it is due to be shown soon at an international atmospheric science convention in California.

"I'm proud of it," Schultz says. "My video is saving lives."


I suppose many human interested stories have gone the same route as movie scripts: Many writers today proffer a two-dimensional protagonist. We can't invest any interest in him within the first paragraph or two. When tragedy strikes, we really couldn't muster up more than, "oh, that's a shame", if even that. This is one way that writers also fail to "pull" us into their story.

If we don't have reason to invest, we tend to judge the protagonist by our own definitions. After all, we're just reading nonsense pasted under a headline. This human reaction is reflected in commentary left behind by readers (and why I hunted around for a video that did NOT contain YouTubers' trollish prattle).

The commentary left on other articles ranges from "he was selfish and didn't have his wife go to the basement!" to "stupid old man takes pictures and lets his wife die".

Not so with Ms Sarkauskas' work. Though only nine comments follow her piece, each one expresses some form of sympathetic compassion for the man.

Ms Sarkauskas does what many writers fail to do - she frames her piece to speak to the human heart. She places us at the scene, though it is past, and allows us to briefly journey through Schultz's efforts to recover. She leaves only some room for judgement, but perhaps that judgement comes not from what we think of some old man, but upon what we might do or not do after we have lived through such an event.

And, above all else, she has followed through. The piece doesn't end with tragedy. Instead, we see how far he has recovered, and how dearly he still loves and misses his wife. The reader finishes their reading and feels a bittersweet pang.


You'll notice that I've included a photograph by staff photographer Brian Hill. This, too, plays into the story's framework.

How often do we see accompanying photos seemly pulled from a photography session? Mr Hill could have gone this route, perhaps coaxing the man to pull his dog closer and then asking for him to look directly at the camera.

Take a closer look at the piece.   The choice to use this photograph carries us farther into the meat of this story. In this case, the implied idiom is true: a picture is really worth a thousand words. It does not, however, overpower the article itself. Each flawlessly supports the other.

Schultz's old and broken frame leans towards the couch where the afghan - the last thing crocheted by his beloved Geri - rests in the filtered sunlight. His weathered hand disappears behind Missy's neck.

Mr Hill allows us to come to our own conclusions rather than force us to accept his personal perspective. The combined effect of this synergy in the photo is powerful.  At first glance, the man appears to calm Missy. Study it a bit longer after you've read the article and allow yourself to fall into the depth.

For me, it captures a moment of this man's struggle.

Geri's tangible love remains in the form of the afghan. Though undoubtedly precious to Schultz, he hasn't tucked it into a box for safekeeping. Rather, he embraces the memory. With so few things left in life, the afghan becomes his daily link to his pasty life.

Schultz's left shoulder almost seems to press itself against her memory. His head tilts rather than turns towards the dog. It is as if his mind clings to old habits, deferring slightly for his view in order to not block her view. It's a curious habit displayed frequently by long-term couples - a sense of inclusiveness even after a loss.

The photographer has denied us the man's expression. Schultz's brow furrows, but we can't truly determine if he is smiling or if he's expressing sorrow or grim acceptance of his fate. It is as though the images is snapped immediately after Schultz's sigh.

Missy's coat appears smoothed by constant petting. However, look closely at her hindquarters. It rests in shadow, the fur disheveled as though still ruffled from the winds. The angle and trick of the light could lead us to believe mud has permanently stained the hair shafts. The tucked tail fetches a sense of uncertainty.

It is the dog's front half that conveys the most. Everything in the photo is passive but Missy's shoulder, front legs, and head are silent action. Here the dog shines more brightly than the sunlight, almost seeming to banish the shadows surrounding them. The erect ears and eyes capture us. We have intruded into our world. She knows it.

As readers, we tend to project our own emotions into animals, thus anthropomorphism lends a poignant feel. Missy thus can convey strength to one reader while simultaneously conveying a sense of sorrow to another.  You have no idea what I've seen or the depth of my grief.  One thing is certain - Missy is protecting Schultz. 

It's okay, Clem. You draw from the strength of your memories with Geri. Let me do the worrying.


I wonder if the Daily Herald  is aware of just how talented the author and photographer are? Probably not. 

I've skimmed more of Ms Sarkauskas' work. She lends the same professional approach to other articles, such as coverage of citizens protesting home-rule authority.  However, we can see other journalists' interference in joint pieces.

For example, a piece titled "Teen Prisoners Can Grow Veggies, Skills in Kane County" reveals her hand yet the article seems tempered by the other journalist's input.  Sans that which draws a reader in deeply - coupled by action photographs which appear like stock images and thus fail to tell a deeper story - the article falls flat.

This had the potential to be potent human interest story. The moments which draw us in are altogether too brief to affect the reader. People are quoted, but we can't really empathize with them. The world is not fleshed out. Sans that which draws a reader in deeply - coupled by action photographs which appear like stock images and thus fail to tell a deeper story - the article is just a typical news piece.

That is not to say that all news pieces should be written like novels. What I am stating is that "just the facts" need not be "dry".  Writers like Ms Sarkauskas have the talent necessary to convey the moment without inflicting us with her own personal option.  That is, in part, the difference between a mediocre news piece and a Pulitzer Prize-entrant by a talented journalist.

As for Brian Hill?  Here, too, is a photographer that thinks outside the box. He's able to draw us in. At times, as in the piece above, his work demands we dig deeper into the captured moment. I urge people to explore his techniques for their own work. Don't focus on just his stills; live through the action as well.



Clem Schultz survived the April 9, 2015, tornado that struck Fairdale, but his wife did not. Missy, the couple's white shepherd, went missing for two days. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
"Students from Metea Valley, East Aurora and West Chicago high schools
gather around the bison at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia
as Michael Pfaff, site section group leader, discusses the animals during the
final day of an introductory program at the lab called Accelerators." 
- Brian Hill |
Daily Herald  Staff Photographer

How tempting it would be to have the subjects gather around the gate to peer at us.  Instead, Mr Hill puts us as part of the crowd, thus we become part of the story. The photograph for this news piece isn't especially good. Rather, it demonstrates how perspective enhances a story.

To better understand, take a moment to look through the Daily Herald's staff photographers' work.  While many photographers capture the event, Mr Hill (and a few others) tend to capture the moment.

You can not be afraid to capture that moment. Some of the best photojournalists I know will adopt the weirdest body positions or place themselves in the most awkward spot just to get that perfect shot.  They don't shoot once and then back away. They remain, shooting a series of images as the moment unfolds into a deeper story.

At times, one must step off the curb to insert the viewer into a parade.

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
- Brian Hill | Daily Herald Staff Photographer



There's nothing wrong with getting a little water on us, though the chances are small if we remember that zoom is our friend.

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
- Brian Hill | Daily Herald  Staff Photographer


Or that action photographs should also convey a sense of movement which helps to tell the story (as seen by Joe Lewnard's excellent work).


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
- Joe Lewnard | Daily Herald  Staff Photographer


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
- Joe Lewnard | Daily Herald  Staff Photographer



Hopefully this gives my readers a better perspective of how approach and framing impact our work. Done properly, the stories and images remain with us, even years later, to be summoned up by the mind when we find ourselves reading or viewing a similar topic.

Keep things short and to the point, but draw upon your vocabulary to enrich an otherwise bland statement. Temper the need to be verbose - step away from your completed work and review it later, before submitting, to trim out what detracts from the story itself.  Find a unique angle in your human interest pieces and frame it from that perspective, then stick to that perspective.

______________________
All materials and content from Paddock Publications and otherwise available through its Service are protected by copyright under U.S. copyright and other laws and are the property of Paddock Publications or the party credited as the provider of the content. 

All copyrights to the above reprints of Susan Sarkauskas's article and photographs by Brian Hill and Joe Lewnard thus remain with those persons and the Daily Herald

The use of this material herein falls Fair Use: copyrighted materials can be used without permission in certain educational circumstances under copyright law or as a fair use. “Fair use” is the right to use portions of copyrighted materials without permission for purposes of education, commentary, or parody. Gruffchick Productions does not claim to own the copyright and thus attributes all work to the original writers and provides links to said works. Such work is designated by a 60px indentation to separate it from the author's own work. As such, Gruffchick Productions will not pay a "special fee" to Paddock Publications just to use this material in an educational and commentary piece on a non-monetized blog, nor will Gruffchick Productions accept any form of monetary provision from those that choose to read it.




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