This evening the Press Club of New Orleans gave Ted Jackson its Lifetime Achievement Award, and Ted honored me by asking me to introduce him. The audience was heavily represented by public relations professionals and some television journalists. I got the distinct impression that many did not know Ted, so it gave me great pleasure to explain to them meaning of his career. This is what I told them: I’ve known Ted since 1984, since his first day at the Times-Picayune, when he reported to work at the West Bank Bureau, where I was bureau chief. So apart from Nancy and Jeremy, I’m going to claim to be the person in this room who’s admired him and his work the longest. And I consider it a privilege to tell you a little something about him. I’m thinking now about a day about 10 pr 12 years ago when I introduced Ted to another group of people. They were members of an interracial New Orleans Gospel choir, Shades of Praise. Ted and I were going to accompany them on a tour of Northern Ireland, split by Catholic/Protestant discord. The idea was to explore whether these black and white New Orleanians had anything to say, or even might themselves learn something, by traveling through a country soaked in another kind of fraternal animosity. I had been hanging around the choir; they knew me. But before we left I brought Ted and introduced him for the first time. And this is what I said: I said you don’t know it yet, but you soon will. This man sees things you don’t see, even though they’re right in front of you. And when, after this tour, he shows you what he saw, you will be thunderstruck. And I promise you, when they saw his pictures, they were. I am always a little humbled by the work of great news photographers. I told stories with words, but I got to use my own words, my own way. And sometimes I had a little time to think about it. They tell stories strictly limited by what’s flashing past in fractions of a second. How do they consistently capture that critical moment? How do they see what I saw, yet in some way, more than I saw? This a mystery. Around the time of that Northern Ireland business, and for a few years before and after – right up to the Times-Picayune’s bloody self-lobotomy of 2012 -- I think the TP photo staff was like the 1927 Yankees. For those of you not sports fans, that means: legendary. Deep, top to bottom. And I do not diminish my admiration for any of the men and women on that staff -- and I can see their faces before me now – I do not diminish them at all to say that Ted was the Babe Ruth of that great lineup. Many decades ago on the Times Picayune staff there was a legendary photographer named G.E. Arnold, and his specialty was police photography. And his sub-specialty was getting wrenching pictures of grief at the scene of traffic accidents. A great G.E. Arnold picture would be a ground-level shot child’s grotesquely twisted tricycle dominating the foreground, and in the deep, out-of-focus background, a small shape covered by a ghastly sheet. Maybe with a priest kneeling over the sheet, giving the last rites. And G.E. got these pictures with such regularity we used to kid him that he kept a twisted tricycle and an inflatable priest in his trunk.
Ted has the same ability, to make pictures that make other photographers shake their heads in wonder. And over the years they’ve come to suspect this: Ted can summon lighting out of the sky, at will. You may see this tonight, in Ted’s famous picture of Katrina survivor Robert Green, standing on the steps of his ruined house in the Lower Ninth Ward, an American flag draped over his shoulders. As Ted lifted his camera, he asked God for a favor, and God obliged with a bolt of lightning in the background. They talk, you know.
But as someone once said, luck is the residue of design. Which is another way of saying luck comes most often to those who have worked hardest. I’ve told you about Ted’s gift for image-making. But that’s only part of the reason we’re here tonight. The rest – and I think, really, the greater part -- is character: I mean courage, tenacity, aggressiveness and humanity.
Ted believes that in every story he tells there must be one, maybe two, killer photos - images that torpedo right through the cool, rational, careful part of your brain and detonate much deeper. Ted is ruthless about getting those killer photos. He must have them.
Ted’s work during Katrina, much of it in isolation, with Ted relying only on his own inner resources, has become legendary. That wasn’t just talent; that was character. His struggle to balance his duty as a compassionate human being with the demands of a dispassionate photographer – his personal conduct in those circumstances has become a case study for young photographers around the country. During those days in 2005, Ted was a hero in a company of heroes.
Ted’s not only an artist, not only a passionate truth-teller, he’s also by universal consent a helluva human being – a Christian, he will say, and I would add, a particular kind of Christian that Christianity could use more of.
So I’m tickled to death to be here. Tickled to death to bring Ted up and enjoy the praise he’s due. This is like Drew Brees making the Hall of Fame while he’s still playing.
And I think that’s about right.