Two years ago, Washington Post reporter Theresa Vargas and photographer Michael S. Williamson hit the road. In a summer-long series of “Half a Tank: Along Recession Road” blog posts, the two drove more than 20,000 miles and visited 30 states to see for themselves how Americans were faring in the recession.
Now, Williamson is doing it again — but as a one-man band. And this time, he’s armed with an iPhone and Intersect.
Williamson generously agreed to chat with me in the wee hours before we covered the Three Mile Island vigil in Middletown, Pa. Here are just a few of his thoughts — and audio snippets — from our 45-minute conversation.
“I’m filing rather live,” Williamson said. “‘Half a Tank’ two years ago — the earliest it ever ran was the next day. But usually it was two days later. … And the hours — it was the most brutal stretch of road travel I have ever done. We worked until midnight every night, and then we filed until six in the morning.
“It was very rewarding,” Williamson said. “But it killed us. And so when I proposed going back, I said, ‘I can’t do it like that.’”
Instead, Williamson proposed to cover the entire trip — which would be accomplished throughout the year rather than in one long stretch — with his iPhone.
Using the iPhone has completely changed the way Williamson shoots and approaches this project. After he said the iPhone photos’ quality is good enough to run five columns in print, I asked if he was concerned that there’s almost an indiscernible difference in quality between a traditional DSLR camera and a camera phone.
“It’s only indiscernible in the type of pictures I was doing,” Williamson explained. “I normally like to play with my depth of field and control my depth of field, and compact things, and widen things. [With the iPhone,] you get what you get here. And it makes you really smart, because you can’t rely on minimizing your depth of field to clean it up. You gotta shoot clean.”
Williamson also said the iPhone’s nonintrusive presence has emboldened him and, perhaps, enabled him to make pictures that would have been difficult if he were bogged down with large camera bodies and lenses.
“What I’ve really found to be amazing is how much freedom it gives me to shoot in places where, if I walked in with a camera, they would scatter,” Williamson said. “I just shot a picture of this Mexican bar where they didn’t speak English; they didn’t know what was going on. I think if I would have had a big camera, they would have thought I was immigration and scattered. But I held up a little iPhone, and they were like, ‘Hey, whatever.’”
Williamson is publishing his photos and stories directly — no editors! — to four different platforms: Facebook, Twitter, The Washington Post… and Intersect.
Intersect, Williamson said, “is kinda like Facebook, only it’s very, very photo-oriented. It’s not the boring stuff like, ‘I had a ham sandwich for lunch.’ It’s not cut-and-paste, here’s a URL of something fun, and here’s my kid’s party.’”
Williamson said using Intersect is a way for him to open up the project to others. By tagging his posts by geography, topic and more, Williamson can invite other people to respond in a way that the Washington Post‘s gallery comment system can’t enable: with pictures or with simple commentary.
“Whereas we wouldn’t have a huge amount of space on the Washington Post website to run everybody’s dog pictures or whatever they put on, Intersect says, ‘Bring it on,’” Williamson said. “[People] might not even be interested in the economy as a whole, but they’re interested in their town. And there’ll be a whole section for people from Cleveland, or people who like dogs, or people who like abandoned factories, or people who like hitchhikers. I tag everything. And you figure out what you’re interested in.”
By inviting other people to respond to the project, Williamson is also inviting tips and heads-ups.
“A lot of times, when we run a gallery [on the Washington Post website], we have comments, and comments are usually like, ‘Hey, nice pictures,’” Williamson said. “This (Intersect) is to say, ‘No, I’ve been there, and two blocks away, there was this guy you missed.’ And I might go back and do him.”
Williamson said that, despite his using the iPhone and filing his work without an editor, he still considers himself “a real, classic, traditional photographer with a real camera.”
“But there are some stories where the nature of what makes it work is the instantness, the on-the-fly,” Williamson said. “It’s not your traditional, ‘did I follow Jane for a week and get into her head?’ No. But in a way, it was just as accurate to catch her on her 10-minute break, having a bad day, saying, ‘You know what the deal is here?’
“Boom. It’s raw. Some of the best pictures and stories are raw.”