There is a particular thrill that comes with a good story. The lazy way to get this thrill is by way of soap opera or movie. A slightly more involved way to achieve a good-story-high is to read a novel. However, nothing comes close to the adrenaline rush of finding a good story and telling it yourself.
I have known for most of my life that I wanted to be a photographer. When I found out that a storytelling photographer was a real profession, I knew that was the path for me. I envisioned my perfect career as never setting a camera down, always having a writer with me to attach words to my pictures. I had no idea how hard the journalism bug could bite me until my reporting professor (hi Don!) made me go out and do the damn thing.
Initially I was struggling with the whole idea of approaching strangers. Strangers have a notoriously bad track record in my book. I often hoped that if I looked interesting enough at the right places someone with an excellent story would just walk up to me. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work.
After some floundering, I finally spent a whole day observing a park in my reporting district. I told myself I was determined to walk up to a stranger and hear their story. I saw a man wake up from a mid-afternoon nap and decided that if he had the time to take a nap in a public place, he had the time to talk to me. Literally my first attempt at digging and I struck gold.
Courtney Smith started off rather reserved with his conversation. He didn’t offer up much unless directly asked. I assumed that was going to be the classic response to a stranger asking personal questions. I decided to sit and listen for as long as he would let me. He miraculously kept talking and kept answering my questions. Courtney revealed that he was previously employed by the SFPD and only left after feeling he was extremely discriminated against. Sure, I could personally tackle systemic racism inside one of the largest police departments in the U.S., no doubt. Courtney gave me a first hand, harrowing account of how racism tore down the life he was building for his young son. The New Yorker would love it.
I left the conversation leaping out of my skin to tell the story. Student journalists are often bursting with stories and no place to put them. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to write the story, either. There was no way I would be able to do it justice. I was buzzing with a manic energy that I had to let out. I called my rather estranged dad and verbal vomited the account I had just heard from Courtney. Being the supportive father he is, he asked “How much of that do you really believe?”
Just like that, I stopped buzzing. I did give a stranger a potential platform to broadcast whatever grievances he wanted. People use the media to spread their agendas all the time. What proof did I have other than my belief in a man who napped in a park?
In his story, Courtney said that the Daly City police arrested him for having his off-duty weapon in his car. Arrests get recorded. I wrote down his badge number that he casually dropped in reference to a conversation. Do badge numbers have a record? I needed something to prove my dad wrong, and more importantly, something that would prove that I was capable of finding stories that felt like they could make an impact. Armed with my two bits of researchable information about this guy, I found the report of his arrest in Daly City and police documents that listed his badge number next to his name, proving his prior employment at the SFPD. His arrest was as he described, but he did not mention the brass knuckles they also found in his car. Regardless, I felt in my bones that he was telling me his truth. My stomach made its way through my chest and into my throat as I craved to know more. Not just about him, but about every stranger at that park that day. Who knows what else is out there?