The Robert N. Stewart Bridge in Columbus, Ind., Wednesday, August 13, 2014. NASCAR celebrity Tony Stewart, who grew up in Columbus and still resides there, was involved in a fatal accident at a Sprint car race Saturday in New York. Driver Kevin Ward was killed when Stewart’s car hit the young driver while confronting Stewart on the track.
Here’s a contradictory thought that I’d you to ponder for a few moments: “As a photographer, I thrive on lack of direction.” On the surface, this phrase doesn’t make much sense. After all, how can once excel at anything without direction? How can one come away with anything worthwhile without a plan?
For me, being forced to come up with my own direction or plan when one isn’t provided to me up front (or is very loosely in place) is actually quite creatively freeing. It means that I’m free to adapt a plan I create on the fly as a shoot evolves, molding it to best fit my subject and the story. I had just such a loosely planned shoot recently, and it was for a national newspaper. No pressure, right?
The courthouse square in downtown Columbus, Indiana.
Earlier this week, I traveled three hours south to Columbus, Indiana, to shoot a story for USA Today on the home town of NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. Stewart, who was raised in Columbus and still resides there, has been in the news quite a bit after being involved in an incident at a small race last weekend which claimed the life of a fellow driver. The angle of the story was to gather thoughts (and photos, of course, on my end) on the situation from folks in town who know Stewart personally.
Writer Josh Peter, who I’d be working with on the story, forwarded me a list of addresses for possible photo locations from his scouting in town prior to my arrival. Other than these addresses (and my knowledge of the Stewart story), I didn’t have much else to go by. As I said, however, I’m completely fine with these types of assignments. It meant that I could arrive in town and just vibe off of the surroundings, capturing whatever felt pertinent to the story.
I arrived in Columbus around noon and immediately shot a very neat-looking bridge I drove over while heading into the city’s downtown area. Columbus has a history of being very progressive architecturally, something that continues today with new construction. Columbus is also quintessentially “small-town Indiana,” so I wanted to show that as well.
After my architectural gems were in the can, I headed to the first official location on my list, Dairy Queen. 74-year-old Bob Franke, who’s owned the Dairy Queen for 46 years, was one of Tony Stewart’s first racing sponsors in the late 1970′s. Bob still works behind the counter daily, and was tending to a bevy of lunchtime regulars when I walked through the door. I’ve never seen a Dairy Queen more packed with people, much less for lunch!
Columbus, Ind., Dairy Queen owner Bob Franke (right) walks with regular customer Dwight Groons of Columbus after lunch.
I spent the next two hours following Bob around as he held court with a steady flow of hungry customers. Bob also reflected upon watching Tony Stewart grow from a small, go-kart racing kid to a multimillionaire racing superstar, proudly showing off a vintage ad on display in the restaurant featuring he and Tony.
Columbus, Ind., Dairy Queen employee Norma Strain shows a photo she took with NASCAR driver Tony Stewart when he visited the restaurant last March.
Diners have lunch near an autographed Tony Stewart NASCAR mural at the Columbus, Ind., Dairy Queen. Stewart, who was raised in Columbus and still resides there, was first sponsored by the restaurant in the late 1970′s.
Columbus, Ind., Dairy Queen employee Julie Comer holds a photo from the late 1970′s depicting future NASCAR driver Tony Stewart (right) and her father, Dairy Queen owner Bob Franke. Stewart, who was raised in Columbus and still resides there, was first sponsored by the restaurant in the late 1970′s.
Columbus, Ind., Dairy Queen owner Bob Franke poses in front of a mural at his restaurant depicting NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. Stewart, who was raised in Columbus and still resides there, was first sponsored by the restaurant in the late 1970′s.
After sitting down for a chicken finger basket (yes, ethics squad, I paid for it), I drove across town to the next location on my list, a racing-themed playground funded largely by the Tony Stewart Foundation. While the park was clean and the light was nice, there was no one there. I decided to move on to location three (Tony Stewart’s mansion on the west side of town), and to return to the park later to see if anyone would be around then.
Why did it matter if people were at the park or not? Part of my job when working as a photojournalist is to tell stories that viewers can connect with on a personal level. I find that photos tend to have more impact (shot on assignment or otherwise) if there’s a person in them, and I’ll often wait for a long time for people to show up to make a photo better!
For example, the vertical shot above of the Crump Theatre marquee location from downtown Columbus was one I waited at for about five minutes in order to get someone walking down the street in front of it. The person shows that there were people out and about in the city, and also, gives you a sense of scale for the buildings.
The gates to Tony Stewart’s home on the west side of Columbus.
Speaking of scale, the gates in front of Tony Stewart’s mansion are quite massive. They certainly read as “rich person’s house” if you were to production design a set of gates! I felt like a creep for being out there shooting, but that part of the assignment was not to wait around in the event that Stewart were to show up, it was simply to show where he lives. The gates and a frame of a smaller house on the property were all I was able to come away with, as the real deal (a 15,000 square foot custom log cabin) is completely obscured by trees, far from the front gates. Well-played, site planner, well-played!
Before heading back to the DQ to edit and file my take, I swung by the playground again where I found a mother and her two kids enjoying the afternoon. Luckily, they were fine with being photographed, and I was able to get that human connection I needed for the location.
You can check out the final story as it ran online here.
(From left) Natalie Donner of Columbus, Ind., plays with her son Garrett Donner, 2, and daughter Brooklyn Donner, 5, at a racing-themed playground at Mead Village Park in Columbus, which was funded in part by the Tony Stewart Foundation.
Brooklyn Donner, 5, of Columbus, Ind., plays on a swing at a racing-themed playground at Mead Village Park in Columbus, which was funded in part by the Tony Stewart Foundation. Stewart, who was raised in Columbus and still resides there, was involved in a fatal accident at a Sprint car race Saturday in New York where driver Kevin Ward was killed.