Kickstarter.com came to photographer Jim Lavrakas’ attention when a friend notified him on Facebook of an original film by Inupiat filmmaker Andrew MacLean.
“His film was made, and now he needed money to distribute it. I pledged $30 and got a DVD of the movie,” Lavrakas said. “I felt really good when I saw the premier in Anchorage. I felt like I owned a piece of the movie. How cool is that?”
Now, faced with the completion of his own creative project, a memoir called “Snap Decisions: My 30 Years as an Alaska News Photographer,” Lavrakas signed up for the same kind of partnership with patrons. In the next four weeks, he hopes to raise as much as possible toward the $12,000 needed for publication. For $25, each patron can own their own book and a piece of Lavrakas’ success getting it to the bookstores.
As for the book, a daily news photographer’s task of capturing events can trip over the edge of human encounters – such as snapping a photo of serial killer Robert Hansen as he leaves the court house, or witnessing a police standoff where the perpetrator emerges in a bloody shirt.
Living with a police scanner and chasing emergency lights is just a part of the history forming Lavrakas’ 30 years with the Anchorage Daily News.
At first glance, the book’s glossy cover might be mistaken for a coffee table browser. But a plane wreck in the inlet isn’t exactly your average tourist picture, along with moose mania photos and a selection of racers in the Last Great Race – the Iditarod.
The photographic journey that took him from a raw, but talented, shooter to an award-winning photographer who shared in a Pulitzer Prize, began as an ambulance chaser. The book is divided into decades of topics by news, features, personalities, traveling the Great Land and Iditarod. Looking for a chance on the Daily News’ staff in 1981, he accepted the most onerous of assignments just to get a foot in the door. He was to keep a police scanner with him at all times and when police or firemen were called to a scene, he would go photograph the house fires, the car crashes, the crime victims. In the text accompanying photos, Lavrakas tells the stories of what he was thinking at the time, how that event fit into news or historical context and technical details of the scene shot.
In the beginning of the black and white photo segment, Lavrakas tells of a hard-learned lesson with a photo titled “Fire and Enlightenment.” The photo captures the man’s grief after losing everything in a house fire.
“I lied to this man to get his name, telling him this photo wouldn’t be in the newspaper. He called my boss the next day after it appeared in the paper, and the managing editor called me into his office,” Lavrakas said in an interview. “He told me he wasn’t going to fire me, but that I can’t lie to people to take their photos. ‘All you have is their trust, and if you lose that, you can’t do your job. And, if you can’t do your job, it hurts the newspaper,’” he said.
Lavrakas took the lesson to heart.
Though he had taken photos for his town paper when he was 14, and set his end goal as being a photojournalist, he didn’t come to the profession with hard-news experience. He had earned a bachelor of arts in English from the University of Massachusetts in 1974, and came to Alaska soon after where he worked at Alyeska and for the Alaska Railroad. In 1979, he got his chance with a part-time job, on a trial basis. But soon, his hard work proving himself on the ambulance beat paid off. Hired full-time in 1981, he went on to take stunning feature and outdoor photos, even what is considered “an original image.”
“That is a photo of an image that isn’t seen anywhere else, that is the only one of its kind,” he explained. “I had never taken one until this one.”
Lavrakas’ original image is of a pike swallowing a rainbow trout. It happened when outdoor writer Doug O’Hara was called by the Alaska Fish and Game to come witness a problem the general public just didn’t seem to get. Pike stocked in streams were killing off native trout. The biologist wanted to show O’Hara and photographer Lavrakas how it was done.
“They kept an aquarian at Fish and Game with pike, and he fed this pike a rainbow,” he said. Lavrakas was able to capture the exact scene only heard or talked about: a big fish with a smaller fish inside, both sets of eyes in the moment of realization caught by the camera.
The photo went on to win national and international awards, netting the Daily News and Lavrakas serious money. Such is the power of an original image.
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