When fire took the lives of three local firefighters, the tragedy engulfed the whole city of Ft. Worth. Careful about reactions to coverage, the Star-Telegram picked Hillery Smith Garrison to be part of the photo pool covering the funerals. Though young and one of the newer members of the staff, Hillery was a natural for the assignment.
“I often get church-oriented assignments,” she says, those sensitive situations where the photographer needs to be discrete on a difficult assignment. When encountering people at intense times in their lives, Hillery tries to look for unique opportunities to pray for and minister to others.
The first part of the assignment, she says, is to get the photographs you need. But the second part of the assignment is to do “the good that you can do afterward. There is always a reason for being there. I believe that God doesn’t do anything by accident.”
At the funeral for one of the firefighters, Hillery realized that her position wasn’t ideal for the photos of the family. So she decided to move around.
“I was just milling about, praying for the family,” she recalls. Eventually she was able to get a unique photograph of the casket procession, one that ran on page one the next day.
Because of her two-pronged approach to her work, she realizes that a good day doesn’t always have to end with a great photo.
“There are days that I come away feeling very fulfilled even if I didn’t shoot the best photo,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like the real reason for me to be there is to pray, she says.
Hillery didn’t arrive at the Star-Telegram by conventional means. Her only other journalism experience was a two-year internship at The Baltimore Sun. “I have no journalism background whatsoever,” she says, “other than my job.”
She sees her relative lack of journalism experience as an advantage, allowing for a wider “filter” of what makes a good photo-graph. “I think it makes me see things pic-torially first and journalistically second.”
With a fine arts degree from Haverford College in Haverford, PA, Hillery was more used to the pace of an art show often more than 20 images than a newspaper’s typical two or three photo-graphs.
Her senior thesis, a 30-photo collection on the positive representation of black men in America, was first shown at the Haverford Gallery. Later, it was displayed for six months at the African American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, along with a retrospective of legendary photojournalist Gordon Parks.
Hillery Smith Garrison is, without apology, a photographer with an agenda.
“It’s OK to be a photographer with an agenda,” she says, at least if the agenda itself is a good one.
“You can’t make me give up an agenda that I believe was God-given.
Working in a media soaked with nega-tive images of young African-American men, she is committed to telling the quieter stories, more marked by accomplishment than adversity. Stereotypes, it seems, take a long time to die.
Since joining the Star-Telegram, she was given time to pursue some related projects. One, a series of portraits of black men and their mothers, allowed her to take a fine-arts approach to portray people from all walks of life.
Another project focused on a group of retired black cowboys from Refugio, Texas.
“They were cowboys back in days when they rode on horses and not in trucks,” she says. “They were walking history books.”
In March, Hillery also served on the faculty at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference. Because of the conference’s unique emphasis on pho-tojournalism from a Christian perspective, she was able to deal with both her work and her faith.
“Often we feel like we have to turn off the Christian channels and turn on the photojournalism channels,” she says. “It was a great opportunity to share the gospel and place it in perspective of our work.”
For Hillery, married in 1997 and recently engrossed in home buying, work may eventually require some changes to accommodate a growing home life.
That fact came home with greater clarity when she attended a baby shower recently at which the future mother was missing, having been called away to cover the shooting at Columbine High School. “I don’t need to be on the sidelines of a football game when I’m pregnant. With my luck, I’d be tackled,” says Hillery, who has already been tackled three times at football games.
Perhaps her agendas — and career – might some day be furthered in different ways, such as an AME / Graphic position.
“Photographs are what drive me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t run a newspaper.”
For now, though, there are assignments and projects abounding with opportunity for both good work and good works. With photographs and ministry both possible, what more can one ask, other than the wisdom to know how to pursue them both.
‘There are days that I come away feeling very fulfilled even if I didn’t shoot the best photo… Sometimes I feel like the real reason for me to be there is to pray.’
Occasionally — rarely — her openness in sharing her faith has led to difficulties on the job. In one case, a reporter didn’t want to drive with her to assignment because, as he said, whenever he shared his personal problems, she always gave “Christian” answers.
“When he comes to me with a personal problem, I gave him a personal answer, but a Christian one,” she recalls.
Her boss responded to the reporter with a straightforward suggestion: If you want generic answers, ask generic questions.
More typical was an assignment to cover the “commitment ceremony” of a lesbian couple fighting for laws allowing same-sex couple to adopt children. Since Hillery is a young African-American woman, the couple assumed she supported their legal position.
When pressed for her opinion on the controversy, she replied, “My opinion does nor change how I am going to pho-tograph you, but if you ask, I will give it to you.
They asked. She gave her opinion. They thanked her for her honesty.
“When people realize I’m genuinely interested in their well-being, they respond well, even if they don’t happen to agree.
Such opportunities are precious, both in the newsroom and out on assignment. After all, she says, “You may be the only piece of Jesus that someone actually sees.”