A Day in the Life Series – John Lehmann

Luiz Lopes

Back in May, the News Photographers Association of Canada awarded Lehmann Photojournalist of the Year. (Photo: BEN NELMS)

Back in May, the News Photographers Association of Canada awarded Lehmann Photojournalist of the Year. (Photo: BEN NELMS)

The assignment is to photograph a SFU film instructor.

The professor leads the way into the campus’ dark theatre and The Globe and Mail’s photojournalist John Lehmann unpacks his equipment – he is a tall man with dark curly hair greying the temple.

He says to this journalism student: “Why don’t you go run up there and take this with you?” while handing him a flashlight. “Stand in the middle of the aisle, sit down and just shoot straight ahead.”

Lehmann holds his camera with his left hand and a portable LED panel in the other. He instructs the professor to sit on the middle seat, three aisles from him.

The photographer controls the room throughout the many initial shots, asking the assistant to go over seats, tilt the flashlight, stand up, hold up the arm and sit down.

“I can put my glasses on,” the professor says. But Lehmann sees no need. “I’m just trying to impress the student,” he says.

He explains the first photos are for exposure correct. He also explains the idea is to look like a film projector on the photo. “You’ve got to point this way,” he says, aiming towards the screen.

Lehmann walks up the theatre and sets the rear flash to hang on the projector’s window frame. Now this student is needed downstairs, holding the LED light.

The job is done after a few more shots. He thanks the professor and makes sure to get the correct spelling of her name by asking for a business card.

It took about eight minutes.

Back at The Globe and Mail’s office in downtown Vancouver, the photojournalist starts working on the editing. He flags the ones he liked in red and indicates which are better for the web or print.

Essentially, the editing only required him to change the contrast, brightness and to crop the pictures.

Lehmann ends up with two photos: the first one with a Dutch-angle composition and vivid colours and the other one with a Star Trek lens flare kind of thing. He files both.

He introduces some of his well-known fellows while this journalism student took a peek at the newsroom.

“He will teach you bad and evil habits; he will teach you the dark side. It’s a great way to live, but it’s a hell of a way to work,” advises Jim Jennings, B.C.’s Globe and Mail associate publisher.

It is a grey Friday and the newsroom is immersed in a silence you could cut with a knife. Back to his cubicle workstation, Lehmann jokes with his friend journalist Wendy Stueck, saying she is the noisiest person in the quiet newsroom.

“Are you actually writing?” he asks. She replied: “YEAAAH.” She was actually putting together a piece about an education program for the next day’s paper.

Later that afternoon, columnist Gary Mason says: “You are following around one of the best.” And B.C.’s bureau chief Wendy Cox says on the other side of newsroom: “You’re lucky, he is one of the best.”

Indeed, back in May, the News Photographers Association of Canada awarded Lehmann Photojournalist of the Year.

“It is just nice to be recognized on that level by your peers,” he says.

Lehmann was born in Ottawa, but raised in Toronto. He graduated from Loyalist College and was once a summer intern at The Globe and Mail’s head office.

By the end of that summer he wanted to leave the country. “I’ve got a return ticket to Hong Kong as a graduation gift from my mom and I ended up staying and getting a job there.”

In Asia, he worked for many newspapers and covered the Hong Kong handover for the Canadian Press in 1997.

It brought him back to Toronto, where he took a job at the National Post during its first years.

However, the opportunity to relocate to Vancouver came with an offer to work as a freelance for Reuters and The Globe and Mail in Canada’s west end.

“I came out here and The Globe and Mail freelance expanded to a full-time job. Somebody took a leave of absence in Toronto and they asked me to move back there for a year, to work in a contract. I said, ‘Why don’t you do the contract here?”

Lehmann said they were reluctant, but the paper thought it over and assumed it was a good idea. Now, he has been with The Globe and Mail for 12 years.

“I am completely removed from the head office in Toronto and I have a lot of freedom, responsibility and I can make a lot of my own decisions. It is good.”

Lehmann has been interested in journalism and photography since high school. He said photojournalism combines his two passions.

“Photojournalism is a great way to express yourself as an artist to other people and also provide a story. You are doing an art form within reach of the masses. Something anybody can see, understand, respect and learn from.

“When you are picking up a camera you are composing, making decisions about what is in the frame, what is not in the frame and that is a form of art. I consider myself a journalist first and an artist second,” Lehmann said.

“A good picture must have content, must tell a story and have a good composition.”

He said photojournalism is a big privilege because you get a license to see how other people often live, or things they do. “You have a lot of access to stuff that people wouldn’t normally get access to.”

But there are certainly boring aspects to this job, “like staying outside a courthouse waiting for a judgment in something for eight hours is incredible boring and something I would rather not do.”

Lehmann said the challenge in photojournalism is constantly being creative and find good stories.

“Talking to people is a great way to find stuff. I don’t do this enough, but it is amazing. You talk to three people in the street and you can probably find a story. It takes a lot of courage.”

For Lehmann, every subject of his assignments is a stakeholder. “I am a stakeholder in the story, my subject is a stakeholder in the story and my paper is a stakeholder in the story.

“People just don’t voluntarily say ‘yeah, come invade my house for two days’

They are doing because they have a reason they want to do it and you need to find what that reason is.”

He explains that the photojournalist need to talk and explain what is going on to the people they are interacting, making them feel confortable.

“I think if you are working on a long-term project, you even need to tell them what your expectations are and you need to know what theirs are, too.

“For the first few hours they are just so conscious about you being there. And I often find them constantly asking ‘is it okay? Is it what you want?’ and I just have to keep repeating that I just want them to do what it is they do. I don’t want to influence that.”

Lehmann has travelled across the globe to work: Canada, U.S., South America, Central America, Asia (every country), Africa and Europe.

“I’ve covered the tsunami; a lot of deaths. It was very sad.”

Lehmann is married and the father of two children. “Both my wife and kids hate having their picture taken.”

He wakes up and reads The Globe and Mail, The Province, The Vancouver Sun, Twitter and Facebook feed, browses RSS then talks to his boss in Toronto to find out what is going on.

Lehmann said the Internet has obviously been good, but also bad for the profession. “I think it is easy for news organizations to cut visuals, because there is such a bountiful amount of it out there that it is free or cheap.

“But, you know, at the same time, those who survived will benefit. I think people are much more visually educated now than they used to be.”

He never experienced seeing one of his friends losing their jobs and he doesn’t consider himself a survivor. “I am certainly changing with the times and, you know, trying to get a hand on social media. I am not a survivor; I am a practicing photojournalist. I would say the newspapers, so far, are survivors. I work for a newspaper, I work at a bureau and I am in the union and maybe that’s what is keeping my job.”

Lehmann says photojournalism will maintain this course and people will always have a high value for it, but it is “very expensive to maintain and I don’t know if people are willing to pay that price for a good quality photojournalism.

“I think photojournalism became much more entrepreneurial. I don’t think there will be any more staff jobs. Everything is going to be contract in the future.”

He says he will continue to do it until he retires and advises people who are now getting to photojournalism that they need to be very diverse with what they can do visually – “and anybody who can write and take pictures will do better.

“They also have to look at other ways, not just photojournalism. Keep a starting model and look at raising money from different sources to work on a project in the hopes of maybe selling or giving it away to somebody to use.”

Featured image by Ben Nelms

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