The New Platypus

The official hoodie from the 1999 Platypus Workshop

In 1999, Dirck Halstead and PF Bentley hosted the first Playtpus Workshop, a program designed to train still photographers in the techniques of video production. It was primarily a group of experienced photojournalists, including several Pulitzer winners. I was very lucky to be a student in that class and later a teaching assistant in 2008.

The workshops have been popular and the latest will be in Las Vegas April 2-11. Dirck is very generous to credit me with naming the workshops years ago. In fact, the credit should probably reside more with Dirck than me since it was his vision that created the workshops.

The gem of the platypus came from a message board discussion in 1997, in the days of AOL and dial-up modems. I posted a note about the platypus and how when it was discovered, the scientific community thought it was a hoax because it didn’t fit their definitions of how animals were classified.

When that post was written, photojournalists were fairly narrowly “classified” by the media establishment. Photojournalists were the ones who understood the mechanics and chemistry of photography and that was enough to occupy their day. For the most part, they were told what to photograph to accompany stories reported and created by others.

The original platypus post was a search for photographers who did more. Maybe they were also writers or video producers. Were there people who had a mix of skills that would confound the establishment, much like the platypus baffled the scientific community 200 years earlier.

The platypus critter was discovered in 1799 and was scientifically named a few years later. The European scientific community, however, argued about it for decades, in part because they didn’t live anywhere near the strange animal. They just couldn’t understand it.

More than 10 years after that first photographer workshop, I wonder if the established media community is any quicker to understand a new species. There have been significant exceptions, including some at my own newspaper, but for the most part news organizations have repeatedly “committed” to new media initiatives only to pull back when they didn’t see the expected results. And to honest, there are more than a few top executives who don’t “live” close enough to new media to understand it.

However, we may be the time when real change will happen. In 1999, my editor at the time was saying maybe we wouldn’t be buying any more still cameras because we would use frame grabs from video instead. What he didn’t understand was how far away the technology was. But now with cameras like the Canon 7D (the camera of choice for the Vegas Platypus Workshop), the tools are becoming really transformative.

The new media tools will change the media culture because of this – an individual or a small team can conceptualize, plan, report and produce stories without the support of a large media organization. And the web is agile enough now that distribution can be independent too.

The ability to be self-sufficient isn’t limited to freelancers and independent producers. Journalists who still get paychecks from large media companies, like myself, need this too. With smaller staffs, there often isn’t somebody else to handle the production needs of your story. A photo gallery online, for instance, might not get built unless you do it yourself.

If you are a photojournalist – aspiring or experienced – this mindset is important. At the Platypus Workshop in 2008, I saw a lot of people trying to learn the intricacies of Final Cut but I also saw photographers and photo editors taking total control of every aspect of their stories. That is the secondary aspect of this kind of learning. It may not be apparent during the workshop when you are sleep deprived from trying to clean up audio. But later – sometimes even years later – it will come to you. You can learn to skills to give you the leverage to control your own stories.