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Style writer Dan Zak reflects on collaborating with photographers

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Even when the reporting and writing is a solo effort, journalism is insanely collaborative. Between editors and designers and producers and circulation staff, it probably takes at least seven to 10 people to conceive, create, produce and distribute a single simple story. My favorite part of the process, though, is working with the photographer. With a photographer by my side, I feel muscular. I feel able to grasp a story from every angle, in every dimension. Photographers see things reporters don’t, and they guide us. There’s nothing as energizing as a photographer who is as keen on a story as a reporter is. At The Post, I’ve had the privilege to work with nearly every current staff photographer, three of whom — Carol Guzy, Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti — shared a Pulitzer on Monday for their work in Haiti.

An anecdote about loving photographers: A couple of years ago, Carol and I did a weirdo, recession-y story on how some people spend 24 hours at a Chick-fil-A in order to win coupons. I was aware of her stature in the industry when she was assigned — a barge of awards, innumerable embeds in disaster and conflict zones — and I was concerned that she’d view this story as somehow “beneath” her. She didn’t. And I should’ve known that. We both prowled the scene, occasionally meeting up to trade observations and insights (“Look here,” “Look there,” “Talk to her,” and so on). Her instincts seemed steeped in extremes, in covering the best and worst of humanity, and she applied that sensibility to a Style section feature assignment — which led me to reconsider the absurdity I was witnessing (crazy people pitching tents in a parking lot and doing the chicken dance so they could get free junk food) in more emotional, visceral terms. She was very serious about the gig, and so became I.

Like me, she spent the night in a parked car in order to capture the fullness of the story, even though she could’ve banked two dozen pristine photos by nightfall and headed home to sleep (and prepare for her next “real” assignment). But in a booth opposite each other in a fast-food joint in exurban Virginia as dawn broke, she edited her photos as I wrote my story. I fed off her diligence and commitment to the assignment regardless of its whimsy. This is why I love photographers. They are generous. Their focus is both deep and wide-angle.

I talked to Carol after the prize was announced Monday, after she gave a newsroom speech about the duty to depict death and tragedy in a newspaper. “You can’t censor reality,” she told me. It occurred to me that rendering reality into words is a kind of censorship; regardless of the strength of your vocabulary or the dexterity of your sentences, you can never get it quite right. A photo must be framed, yes, but the view through that frame is otherwise raw and unedited.

I’ve tried to inch my way into basic photography over the past three years because I’ve felt like my writing/reporting ability has hit a wall — this is a somewhat deranged self-doubt that most mortal writers share — and because the adage is true: A picture really is worth 1,000 words, and why shouldn’t I try to convey a story as economically as possible? It’s rare for a written news article to embed itself in the collective consciousness. Yet many can immediately recall, among others, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day kiss in Times Square, Eddie Adams’s photo of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, and the bewildered horror of Mary Ann Vecchio’s scream during the Kent State massacre as snapped by John Filo.

So photographers were on my mind when I saw the nauseating news Wednesday from Misurata, Libya, where Getty’s Chris Hondros and “Restrepo” director Tim Hetherington were killed. By all accounts, Hondros was a man who wanted to be eyeball-to-eyeball with a story, regardless of danger. His last photos, filed hours before he died, demonstrate that extreme commitment. Through his camera, you recoil from the flames and choke on the smoke as he trails rebel fighters through a burning house. Coincidentally, or perhaps appropriately, the front page of Wednesday’s Washington Post carried an image of his, depicting a Libyan gravedigger preparing a hole in the ground for a civilian casualty.

Forty-one is too young to die, but Hondros leaves behind images that resound past his death — like the one he took in 2005 of a 5-year-old Iraqi girl screaming after American soldiers killed her parents as a precautionary measure. No image — no other medium, actually — is more powerful or succinct in communicating the collateral of war and the bequeathal of terror. One image: A thousand words. A life.

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