I love journalism
I love great stories. And I love telling them. For over thirty-five years, I mostly told them with my cameras.
And as Marshall McLuhan once said: “We shape our tools, and then the tools shape us.” True to form, photojournalism took me in.
But in 2006, multimedia guru Regina McCombs taught me that every story has its proper medium. The flag raising on Iwo Jima needed a still picture. We remember 911 best through video. We recall the drama of the Hindenburg crash through a crackly audio. The still picture was remarkable, but the radio announcer’s weeping voice leaves me with chills. Some stories scream to be photographed. Some ideas are best expressed in words. The Gettysburg Address needs no supporting cast.
In 1991, after returning home from covering Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, I searched out a more peaceful story to tell. I set out to find the last remaining, fulltime resident of the Atchafalaya Basin. To my surprise, The grizzled, bearded Cajun trapper I imagined turned out to be a gentle, witty 91-year-old woman named Myrtle Bigler. So, to keep the experience as authentic and personal, I chose to write the story myself. The experience proved successful but painful. I needed to become a better writer, so I called on the wisdom of my prolific colleagues.
Since my first newspaper job at the Daily Iberian in New Iberia, Louisiana, I’ve worked with some remarkable people. I don’t say that glibly. The early ones included Greg Lopez, Chris Rose and Jon Eig. I watched and studied how they chose their subjects, asked probing questions and then wrote eloquent prose of scenes and emotions. Other friendships followed and I studied them all. I learned about narrative writing and story arcs. I discovered that I could pull rich details from my own photographs. Editors reprimanded me for my verbose adverbs and my passive voice. I learned to appreciate those marked-up pages.
For the ten-year anniversary of Katrina, I wanted to search out the people that I, and other staffers had photographed during the storm. My editors agreed to let me write the profiles as well. Let’s just say that every single survivor had an incredible story to tell. The words flowed. Readers responded.
About the same time, TP reporter Richard Webster and I slept overnight at the New Orleans Mission for a homeless story. Did I mention, we slept overnight? While there, I searched for my old friend, Jackie Wallace, a homeless crack addict whom I had met, photographed and followed through recovery twenty-five years earlier. He had since disappeared back to the streets for the past twelve years. His memory and our past friendship haunted me. When one at the shelter recognized his name, I decided to do something about it. I described my moment of decision like this:
“The shelter required everyone staying overnight to bathe. Some came only for a meal. About 40 percent were white. Over 90 percent were men. None of them were Jackie…I wondered where he was…
When I finally lay down (in my bunk), I wrapped my camera in a towel and tucked it under my head for a pillow to keep it secure…. As I stared across the warehouse of broken men, I suddenly felt a burden that I’d never know before. I realized that I’d passively looked for Jackie for over a decade, but my “searches” had been opportunistic and superficial at best. The mystery of Jackie’s circumstances burdened my sleep. It wasn’t that I wanted to find him. I needed to find him. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but deep inside, I believed with all my heart that he was dead.”
I realized then and there that Jackie’s amazing story deserved a critical update. The story as published in 2018 on NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune went viral. (*don’t miss my attached video clip of my Twitter feed from that weekend!) After that, I extended my effort to learn more. And so, for more than two years, I researched, traveled, interviewed, compiled timelines, photographed, fretted, fumed, lost sleep, prayed through tears, pounded keys and desktops, and finally smiled as I gave it all up to God. I thought I had started there, but…I laugh at that notion now.
I won’t continue this ramble. Just know that I feel very blessed in this opportunity. I’m humbled at how God has unlocked doors. I’m so grateful to the people who unburdened their secrets to me. I’m thrilled that Jackie’s incredible (which literally means “impossible to believe”) life will be unveiled in book form. I thank the team at HarperCollins for their amazing support. As for Jackie, he’s already worn his proof copy ragged from showing it off to his friends and family. He’s looking forward to getting his hardcover edition.
Here’s a new review from Booklist. They get it.
"From football victories to enduring injuries, valiant recovery to lost years, Jackson pieces together Wallace's story with care. Bound by faith, his biography is a painstaking portal into the human condition and how we care for one another."
Stay tuned for updates. For now, thanks for reading. Thanks for caring.