10 minutes with Pearl Gabel

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

I didn’t know I wanted to be a professional photographer until relatively late – I was 26 or 27 years old, and had been on the path to be a writer but had gotten sidelined by corporate editorial jobs to pay the bills. I had studied writing – more specifically narrative nonfiction – with the goal of being a magazine writer. I was laid off from my job in November 2008, and was very traumatized. I was unemployed for months, and took classes at ICP on the business of photography, assisted a fashion photographer, and eventually worked in East Africa photographing for an NGO. When I returned to New York in June 2009, I began a new life as a freelance photographer.

I always had an interest in photography and visual arts. In high school, I made magazine photo colleges. In college, my hobby was playing with an old SX-70 Polaroid camera and I took a photography course and even included photographs in my final thesis. In graduate school, I took a photojournalism elective. I was around 25 years old when I bought my first camera. But I was always afraid to admit to myself that I wanted to pursue photography as a career – until i had nothing left to lose.

I like to think that my background and education in magazine writing informs my photography.

You’re a staff photographer at New York Daily News. How did you land that job and what does a typical day look like for you?

I am a staff photographer for the News. I was freelancing for several years, and my main clients were the Daily News and the Wall Street Journal, among others. I hustled, often working seven days a week and sometimes even pulling two client shifts a day. It was a exhausting. But when the Daily News decided to hire a few more staff photographers, I was grateful that they called me. It was a surprise. I had gotten used to the fact that staff photography jobs were a thing of the past for the most part. So when I was offered the job, I jumped!

A Daily News photography shift is an atypical version of the typical eight-hour work day. My shift is 4pm to Midnight five days a week. I will call the photo desk around 3PM to “check in,” and they will generally assign me something to start – it could be a portrait, feature, sports, courts, a food shoot, a stakeout, a concert. Then for the next eight hours I am at their disposal, like a yo-yo all over the New York region. All of the staff photographers have to drive, and many listen to police scanners when they are not on assignment. I have an app on my phone called BNN (Breaking News Network) that keeps me up to date on major scanner chatter in New York – homicides, fires, shootings, building collapses, unusual incidents. Without exception, photos are edited and sent immediately after assignments, generally edited in my car and sent via FTP with a personal WiFi device. Occasionally, they are sent from within the assignment, so I can compete with wire services and get the images online and continue shooting. I have had to learn to be extremely fast and keep my edits tight and captions accurate.

The exceptions to the typical day are either larger assignments, my own enterprise assignments, or out-of-town trips. Larger assignments are those like New York Fashion Week – my days are spent shooting shows and not on the beat. My enterprise stories need permission from multiple editors in order for me to use my work hours to do them, they are few and far between but by far my favorite thing to do. Out of Town trips are also great, but I expect to work every waking hour when on these trips. Generally I will be working at least sixteen hours a day on these trips, in conjunction with a reporter, to cover the most reporting ground in the shortest amount of time.

That sounds both riveting and exhausting! Do you have any stories that you can share of something that happened behind the scenes?

When I began shooting for the News, they pegged me into features and portraits immediately. For months I would get features assignments, but they wouldn’t assign me any hard news. This was through the summer of 2009, and in the fall I was getting restless. I purchased a police scanner and began listening. I heard a commotion that I didn’t really understand, and an intersection in Brownsville, Brooklyn. A sixteen-year-old boy had been shot and killed in front of a school as students were being let out for the afternoon. The scene was chaos, and I was afraid to get to close to it. I took photos of young children in a nearby park looking through the bars of a fence into a police scene, but like no photos of the actual scene. I was that green.

I must have been there for hours – through the time where the newspaper sent a reporter and then the reporter was pulled from the scene. I somehow got hold of the name and address of the boy – a particular building in a large public housing project in East New York. The sun was setting and the paper was done with the story. They were simply not following up with it. At the time, there were a lot of shootings, and a shooting in Brownsville was so common that only very sensational stories were followed up like that.

I felt so bad – I remember thinking it was so heinous that hundreds of children had seen this execution, and the kid was so young. So… I thought to pursue it by myself. I drove to the complex where he had lived, and lugged my bags to the top floor of that building, and began knocking on every single door in that high rise (I didn’t have a specific apartment number.) People were not happy – it was getting later at night. I wasn’t really thinking clearly, and that it’s not a good idea to door-knock an entire high-rise in Linden Houses late at night alone with all of my gear hanging off me.

I finally found them. The family was sobbing in each other’s arms, a local politician was there, the mother was cradling her son’s photo. It was heart breaking. The mother told me that I was the only person in the media that had come to speak with them – and why? I don’t know. I took some photos, and hugged her, and left. I excitedly sent the images of the deceased, and the family, to the photo desk. I thought that I was telling the story, getting to the bottom of it, doing important work.

The next day, in the paper, the story was written as a news blurb a few sentences long. No photos. My heart dropped. That was the beginning of me getting hard.

Thats incredible and heart wrenching. If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

If you’re healthy and don’t have dependents, don’t be afraid of not having money. Worry about that in your thirties. I kept taking jobs i didn’t really want just to have a job. But it would have been possible to stay afloat by being a freelancer, and I should have just gone for it. Now I want to start that now- give up everything and just go. Also, you will be rejected constantly. Use those rejections as tinder, not to bury you.

Pearl is based in Brooklyn, New York. See more of her work, here.

4 Comments

  • Pearl is an amazing human and friend. She is soft with spikes. I enjoy her conversation, her perception of the world through film and her desire to love even though the thought of it hurts..

  • I work with Pearl at the NYDN and after looking through her work, I decided I wanted HER to be the photographer at my wedding, because I knew she would be good at capturing a lot of little things that the typical wedding photographer would not.

    • Thanks for your comment, Seth! Wish I had hired Pearl for my wedding, love the idea of a journalist shooting the event and getting the not-so-typical wedding shots, especially Pearl!

  • Simioni

    Awesome work … i love your interview sessions.

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