Long ago, photojournalism was where I thought I belonged. I had a fair amount of success out of the gate, but found that after covering my 68th bridal shower in my small-town East Tennessee town, I was starting to doubt myself.
As a teenager, with my sense of immortality fully intact, combined with the pseudo-threat of the destitute, but saber-rattling Soviet Union, I fancied a career as a War Correspondent. Looking back, I blush with embarrassment. Deep down, I not only lack the courage and tenacity of a War Correspondent, but I now find my spirit taking shrapnel every time I hear a report from the areas of the globe that are enduring this trauma.
That's where I learned about Stealing Thunder.
Mike Hughes was what I call a Light Person.
Light People see everything. They are not contained by boundaries or guidelines. On the surface, they seem like everyone else, but as you get to know them, you find that they absorb everything around them- discontent with the status quo in nearly everything they do. Flying under the radar, they make their own rules while pretending to follow established ones. They look you in the eye when they speak to you, and make you feel like you're the only person in the room. Although they appear to be exhausted, their internal batteries recharge quickly; drained daily by heavy use. If you look carefully, you can see the rapturous illumination leaking out of them. They are very special.
Mike Hughes was also a professional Thunder Stealer.
Mike was my first real mentor. Wet behind the ears, I leaned on Mike for guidance and reassurance. Although I seemed to have a natural talent with a camera and a darkroom, it was my first foray into the adult world- without parental back-up. I was lucky enough to have been raised in a safe, affluent home and town. I hadn't seen the underbelly of society yet.
As a brand-new Photojournalist, I would come dragging back from shooting a fire or an accident and Mike would boost my karma. Even worse than the "on call" or emergency shoots, however, was the Human Interest stories. Although it seems a Human Interest assignment might be a chance to meet interesting people doing thought-provoking and engaging things, an HI assignment was usually a toe-curler. I would be given an address and a contact name, and then show up to shoot a baby shower, bridal shower or engagement party. The standard operating procedure was that the Matriarch would intercept me as soon as I approached the venue, and begin issuing machine-gun instructions. My own mother raised me to respect my elders, so I would simply smile and bow to their wishes. Their wish was usually a criminal line-up of the principal players in the particular event, with everyone backed against whatever wall or flat surface was available. As an Art student, I had examined countless classical paintings in which people (usually saints or religious figures) were arranged in interesting formations where they interacted with each other and their surroundings. I tried to get my Human Interest subjects to follow this pattern, since to me it was vastly more interesting to look at.
Defeated, I would head back to the newspaper with my boring shots, and dig into the darkroom work, completely uninspired. After a year of mostly dull Human Interest stories, I was ready to quit. Mike Hughes, however, would have none of it.
"Leigh." He said, "You are meant to do this kind of work. Your photographs are wonderful. The Editor loves everything you do."
"I love the photography work, Mike," I wailed, "but these Human Interest stories are killing me! They are duller than dishwater! And the people aren't just dull, they're bossy! I want to turn in interesting pictures of what amounts to painfully tedious events, and all they want is a police line-up! Anyone can do that!!"
"Leigh, you've just got to steal their thunder. There's no other way." He said. "Go in there and tell 'em how it's going to be. They're not paying for that coverage, the paper is. You're the boss- you tell them what you want! Smile, laugh, and be light-hearted! Dance around them, and don't take no for an answer!"
It was life-changing advice. I'll never forget it. It was so simple, but so profound. It amounted to permission to make life my own, from someone I admired. I haven't seen or heard from Mike Hughes since 1989. I don't even know if he is still alive. But he's woven into the fabric of my life.
Steal Thunder. Make life your own. Follow your own vision and make others happy along the way.
Thank you, Mike.