Who has a passport?

The annual photo department holiday party was over and a handful of us were standing in the front room, sipping the last of the egg nog. The television was set to CNN, showing the spooky green, night-vision goggles view of downtown Baghdad. My boss casually tossed out a question to the three of us standing there.

“Who has a valid passport?”

My up-to-date passport was sitting in my camera bag about 15 feet away, but I was hesitant to jump before I knew what was up. The breaking “opportunity,” it turned out, was a possible trip to Kuwait on a military transport. We would be accompanying a National Guard unit and it would leave the upcoming weekend and stay at least a week. There was one, possibly two, seats for media but nothing was certain.

It is now about 24 hours later and I don’t regret my decision. I told my boss that I would not refuse the assignment but that I’d rather not take it. The last I’d heard, we still didn’t know if the trip was on but Billy Calzada, one of out newer staffers, was ready to go.

The Burton kids, Christmas
(Tom Burton, 1998)

For most people, there would be no desire to spend Christmas in a desert war zone. But in photojournalism this is a difficult and important decision that all of us face. The biggest stories, and the ones that garner the most professional recognition, happen in crisis regions.

For journalists who aren’t married the decisions are easier. This profession is so demanding and consuming that many professionals never develop long-lasting relationships and instead travel around the world in search of the next big story. If you look at the names of the most awarded photographers over the last decade, each of them fit this profile.

I won’t be one of those photographers, however. Fifteen years ago I was very lucky to meet my wife Susan and we now have a wonderful family of three children. I wasn’t going to miss this Christmas with them for this story.

Now the Iraq story is big in our newspaper. The first day of bombing took the entire front page. But this story didn’t feel like a great photo opportunity. It sounded like a lot of sitting around in the middle of nowhere.

Susan was supportive. She said if I thought this story was worth going on, that I should go. Two years ago I went to Croatia just before the American occupation and about two weeks before Christmas with her support. But I had no desire to follow this story.

Maybe my professional priorities are changing. I’m becoming more and more interested in local stories that I find myself and less interested in the “disaster of the month.” That doesn’t mean I will never again jump on a plane at the last minute, but I’m going to be greedy and try to get both good assignments and time with my family.

I became a photojournalist because I wanted to explore and find interesting experiences. There is no better job in the world to do that than photojournalism. But I also now want to choose those experiences and this year, I want to be able to remember the kids, Susan and the Christmas tree. That’s the experience I want.

Tom Burton


I did spend Christmas day with my kids. The good news is that the members of the National Guard unit from Orlando heading to Kuwait had the opportunity to do the same thing with their families. Although they shipped out the weekend before Christmas, their assignment was cancelled before they left the U.S. mainland. They returned home two days later.

published originally on December 18, 1998 on digitalstoryteller.com