Matt Mendelsohn – The Lessons of Lindsay

- - Working

In 2007 Matt Mendelsohn heard from a friend about a recently graduated fashion student who had all 4 limbs amputated. At the time she was near death but soon turned the corner and a year later was teaching fashion at her alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University. Matt, a longtime journalist, decided he needed to go document her story on his own, he knew the story needed to be told but didn’t want to waste time lining up an assignment. He ended up photographing and writing a compelling 10,000 word piece about Lindsay that was recently published… on sportsshooter.com (here). He shopped it around to several publishers but they all turned him down. At one big national newspaper the publisher said “advertisers wanted happier stories, not ‘depressing’ ones.”

matt mendelsohn

Of course none of this is news to photographers who now regularly see important stories get trounced by the celebrity/fad of the week. In my own brief magazine career I would often get important stories handed to me with an edict to make the images “happy” so the advertisers don’t get upset. I have a little “lesson” of my own for publishers that I’d like to impart. No matter how much ass kissing you do, your advertisers are still leaving. In fact they may be leaving more quickly now because your readers no longer consider you a “must read” after you’ve taken the edge off everything (due to all that ass kissing, natch).

After the EIC of Self magazine defends their body image distorting cover retouching policy by saying “Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best.” The proper response is for a competing magazine to run Matt Mendelshon’s “the Lessons of Lindsay” and tell Danziger to go stuff it. Why won’t anyone do that anymore?

Sports Shooter Q & A: with Matt Mendelsohn.

There Are 36 Comments On This Article.

  1. It is amazing how many people I talk to in publishing that still think having a lot of eyeballs briefly view the pseudo-celebrity-porn of the week is a good plan for long term viability.

  2. Amazing…..both the gumption of the photographer and the (bad) intransigence of publishers. Being scared is just stupid.

    I say…..do what you want and let the chips fall where they may. These days, tho, that often (usually) means making your own way.

    Moving forward is where it’s at. Even if you’re moving forward by yourself.

  3. > Of course none of this is news to
    > photographers who now regularly
    > see important stories get trounced
    > by the celebrity/fad of the week.

    This same sentiment is expressed by James Nachtwey in the film “War Photographer.” Until he made that comment, I had never thought of that aspect of journalism. And now your blog commentary brings that message home again. Thanks …

  4. Right to the point, Rob. Magazines, and for that matter many newspapers have lost their audiences because if the same fluff is everywhere, why bother? When The New York Times and People magazine are both writing about Gossip Girl who cares anymore? The ideas of taking risks, of distinguishing yourself and offering information and stories that grab an audience seems to be from a quaint, long ago time. They have no one to blame but themselves.

  5. No name, please

    Rob, really nice post. Thanks for making those of us who don’t frequent SportsShooter.com aware of this coverage.

    This is powerful and compelling work, the kind we need more of today. And I would argue that in many ways this is a story of triumph over adversity, not just another story of a person dealing with physical limitations.

    Gotta admit that it seems to me that a there are a couple of additional factors, beyond the fascination with the lowest common denominator of happy celeb-based stories, that have helped make these kind of content -driven stories a rarity today.

    Those include the fact that few top editors or publishers, in an era of tight budgets and tighter pages, are willing to devote money or space to photos on any topic. At many publications time to do this kinda work, and the corresponding photo display the work demands, are the first things that get cut as space gets tighter on pages. Rare is the editor that understands that photos are as much content as words.

    And the mass layoffs in most newsrooms haven’t helped. Often the staff members who are the squeaky wheels that advocate serious work are among the first pushed out the door, since they are often viewed as obstructionists by those business type in authority who are grasping at the TMZ-style solutions in the quest for more page views.

    Clearly, as an industry we haven’t solved those issues yet. But we have to keep fostering the creation of this kind of work, even in tough times, because it is important to our communities. Powerful stories like this need to be told.

  6. Donnar Party

    My mother made her name as a PJ shooting for the Bay Guardian in the late 60’s. The story that got her to AP/UPI/NewsWeek, covering Watergate etc was a piece on the state of California’s public mental health system. The photos, to this day, are chilling, disturbing, really gothic in the medeval sense. Today that wouldn’t happen. No one would publish that story or the photos, definately not a multy page spread.

  7. I think the writing aspect of this is also a very interesting point. This is a story well worth telling, both in words and images. Bravo to Matt for doing both.

  8. It will be interesting to see how this changes (or doesn’t) in the future. Right now it looks like magazines and newspapers are having trouble getting advertising to pay their bills online, which is why the Wall Street Journal and maybe soon the New York Times are going to pay walls for readers.

    If they can survive that way (and that’s a big ‘if’), advertisers will conceivably have less sway over editorial content, and maybe the nature of content will change.

    Hopefully the mass population hasn’t been so conditioned to happy material that there will be some openings in the future for more substantial material like this.

    • @Eric,

      Yes yes, exactly. As things switched over to being nearly entirely advertiser supported (hello, internet! and you too $11 per year magazine subscriptions!) and using poor metrics like pageviews as the selling point, this inevitably leads to putting watered down titillating blurbs up front and center.

      And then it means online content is viewed as cheap and disposable by everyone from readers to advertisers. Poor foresight is what led things here.

  9. Thanks for this post – really powerful work that by its very nature will rise to the top. And Matt taking the initiative to do the story, that speaks to his motivation as an artist and a human being. Those things transcend whatever medium is used to tell the story.

  10. I had a chance to meet Matt last year at a photo conference. He’s a genuinely nice guy and you can tell he has a passion for photography and storytelling.

  11. This country now celebrates and revels in its own ignorance, to the point that it’s citizenry can no longer discern what is best even in their own self interest (eg- health care anyone?)- let alone what’s right or wrong, in good taste or bad. The Nazi’s may have burned books, but we have succeeded in rendering them either prohibitively expensive (ask any college student), or intellectually vacant.

    The attack on education in this country is unprecedented. Up until the mid seventies, you could get a higher education tuition free- when those in power realized all too well that too many people were beginning to understand how the dots were connected. Our military budget now overwhelms every other expenditure combined- and student loans are the most abusively unregulated by design.

    Happy, celebrity “news” is but a wee small symptom of a very compliant, thoroughly abused and purposely ignorant work force.

  12. Strong shooters create images that the eye is drawn to. If the writing is as strong as the imagery there is no reason to shy away from the sad stories.

    People want to be educated about reality, they are drawn to the celebrity photos because as crappy as the story is; at least it is someone’s real life.

    Survival of the fittest means that the weak and afraid will die. Magazines and newspapers that are afraid to pull away from the pack will follow the stampede over the cliff.

    Thanks for the post.

  13. Compelling story and strong photos to go along with it…

    The only thing depressing (and disheartening) about it is hearing about how no one wanted to PUBLISH it.

  14. Thanks to all of you for the nice messages and thanks to Rob for posting this item today.

    We hear a lot about the death spiral of journalism these days. Not sure it’s spiral exactly but it’s definitely a panic, like someone at the controls of a wayward ship whose only answer is to, in desparation, push every button there is. That never ends well. Hyper local news, celebrity news, Gen X and Y news, happy news, 1A stories about what happened on American Idol last night. Papers are trying everything but the kitchen sink and none of it is working.

    Good stories, on the other hand, will always work, but they take time, money and space, something that most newspapers don’t have a lot of. So as one of the commenters said earlier, it’s up to us as journalists to keep doing those stories and getting them out by whatever means necessary. E ven if it means on our own damn blogs.

    Again, thanks for the kind words.

    Matt Mendelsohn

  15. I keep hoping a Web publishing model will emerge that will make it profitable for real journalists to band together and work on real news with real integrity.

    If you didn’t have the overhead costs associated with starting a print publication; it might be possible to build a small, dedicated news operation without 15 layers of management destroying creativity and siphoning off revenue to overblown salaries. Then you wouldn’t have to sell your soul to advertisers.

    Nice job, Matt. And thanks, Rob, for making us aware of the story. This is one of those stories no one will touch until some network reporter finds it, does a piece (forgetting to mention Matt of course) and is hailed as a brilliant “journalist” when all they did was steal work done by someone else. If that happens, we’ll at least know the real source of the story.

    Tom

  16. To a lot of you this is an important story….on that I agree….to me this is about two important friends.
    One of them giving what so few give anymore…their time.
    Matt gave time, thoughtfulness, and heartfelt feelings.
    Yes the story of Lindsay is one that will hit you right in the face when you read it.
    To me it is about Lindsay a beautiful person whom I love…. who’s life has been changed in more ways than most of us can imagine….it is about her strength and the love of a Mother who’s heart has been broken but remains in the shadows….the strength behind Lindsay through all of this.

    It has helped me regain faith in m friendship. So many people told me that they couldn’t hear this story when it first happend …I will ask them just to pray for her…but it was just to hard to hear about…..that broke my heart….

    I asked Matt 2 years ago to pray for my friend….he didn’t just say words….he he did so much more.
    So yes Matt is the great photographer and the great journalist….but to me he is a great friend.

    Thank you friend…

  17. this story is galvanizing. i am so grateful that it has been published. thank you, rob, for linking to it and writing about it.
    matt is as fine a writer as he is a photographer. his story building technique reminds me a little bit of the style of the excellent journalist marie brenner.
    again, thank you.

  18. There are too many damned photographers on here giving their 2 cents worth about how to solve the crisis in the publishing industry. Go out and shoot something!

    Then publish it!

    Great job Matt.

  19. I’ve got to wonder, though, is part of the reason we’re in this position because people didn’t want to “waste time lining up an assignment?” Sometimes we’re told what to do, but dialogue never hurt anyone to try and explain a point, a philosophy, a purpose, an approach, a reason. Although, after having countless dialogues dealing with the same thing, it gets a little tiring.

    I am right there with you on the lesson to the publisher. Everyone knows it, but the problem these days is that newspapers are trying too hard to appeal to the masses and please everyone and at the same time, they’re not doing their job. Publishers need to hike up their pants and grow a backbone. A journalist’s job shouldn’t be to appeal to people by providing readers what they want.

    Those 50-60 year-olds (no offense intended on this generalization) who are completely out of touch with technology and the internet need to step aside and let a generation who grew up on computers take charge online.

    • A friend of Matt's

      @J,

      Did you ever wonder how old Matt is? Close to the same age you say are completely our of touch with technology.

      I am 55 and I embraced the net in 1993 and shot my first digital job in 2000. How old is the new editor of Washingtonian magazine? He is 28. A dead tree product.

      How old is the editor of Vanity Fair or Vogue or Geographic? You are dreaming if you think it has anything to do with age. If you think age is what is holding you back then you need to seriously look internally at your own preconceived notions about success and motivation.

      Thinking that 50-60 year old people need to get out of the way and let a generation who grew up on computers take charge. Hey numnuts, how old do you think Steve Jobs is? Or Larry Ellison of Oracle? In their fifties.

      I know Matt. He is a very fine photographer. He knows his stuff and how to make the most of a personal project and story. He also knows how to protect his work.

      I would say most fifty year to sixty year old people that I know are completely in touch with the net and digital. they use it daily for publishing, updating, recording, setting up projects, collaborating and gee, maybe even take a picture or two.

      I don’t know who you J, but I think you may need to grow up a bit. Even if you claim that no offense was intended. A little passive-aggressive to me.

      • @A friend of Matt’s,

        I just wrote a huge piece and now it’s not posting. UGH!

        Anyways, I’ve pretty much written to the point of apathy so I don’t have much to say other than it was never about older people, and I shouldn’t have used the generalization because it is easily (and was) pulled out of context.

        I owe where I am and what I’ve learned from older people, younger people, and their experiences and knowledge and we are all in debt to those who came before us and worked for excellence. We repay that through passion and working hard. I didn’t say all old people need to step aside and should have communicated my thoughts more clearly.

        It’s frustrating to hit roadblocks set up by someone who is in charge of leading the way online, but can barely check their email.

        Three reasons why it stinks posting online:
        1. Intonation and intent don’t always come across well in text.
        2. Things are easily pulled out of context when it’s not a constant dialogue.
        3. There’s always someone that will call you numnuts, then tell you to grow up.

        This was never a bash of Matt’s work or the work that’s on this blog. It’s all been very inspirational! Sorry to use this area for comments pertaining to Matt’s work as a forum to something else.

        Anyways, you pulled the age thing it out of context.

  20. It seems you have to be a TED prize winner to get your stuff published in any way …

    What a GREAT ‘overcome’ story !
    – Thanks to Matt for capturing it – pretty well done !!!
    – Thank to Rob for pointing to it !
    – Last, but not least, (not to forget) MANY THANKS for sportsshooters.com for publishing it !

    Although it’s a bit weird that a story like this is featured on a site like sportsshooters.com :-)

    Where are all those blogs carrying the big social badget in the sidebar ???
    Are they afraid of fucking Google will cut the adsense feed (and fear the loss of $8,25 monthly ‘income’) if the robot thinks the pics are not ‘nice’ enough for their advertisers ?

    @Matt,
    have you tried Boston Globe’s picture of the day ?

    Or, even better, drop a quick note to PDN’s Daryl Lang. He’s a great guy and I guess chances are good for a PDN pic(s) of the day feature.

    Or ask David Alan Harvey for an essay feature on his burn magazine website ….

    Etc, etc … there are some others as well worth a try …

    Who does need newspaper and mags (anymore) to get stories told ? …

    Hey Mr. Tambourine Man … the ‘TIMES’ they are a-changin’ :-)

    Maybe Rob could/should add another (great) list … of sites/blogs where stories like above have a chance to get a (initial) feature ???

    Cheers,
    Reini

  21. to J:

    Just fyi, the characterization that I “didn’t want to waste time lining up an assignment” is a bit off in the first place. I never actually said that. What I did not want to waste time about was getting down to Richmond and shooting Lindsay, as she was just getting her prosthetics and the documentation needed to start there.

    After a couple of visits, it was clear there was a compelling story and it was pitched to one of the nation’s largest papers. That paper, which later bailed out, was initially very excited. It was only when that paper’s publisher learned about the content did things start to unravel.

    I’d also take a little bit of exception, respectfully, to your assertion that the 50 and 60-year-olds that don’t know how to Twitter and such need to step aside and let a generation that grew up on computers take charge. Though I don’t fall into that category (I’m 46 and am pretty tech savvy), the problem is that the old guard knows a lot about, among many other things, story telling, and that is getting woefully lost in the rush to Tweet meaningless tidbits. There’s no reason why the old guard and young guns can’t learn from each other’s strengths.

    Best,

    Matt

  22. Jptully@gmail.com

    Matt,

    I agree and I think I let a little personal frustration from events in my life affect what I wrote.

    My question wasn’t targeted at you and your story, rather, at a vast group of people who approach newspaper assignments thinking, “I’ll shoot what the paper wants and then shoot stuff for me.” I think it’s that mentality which is harmful to the future of visual journalism.

    As for the comment about the older people needing to step aside, you make a great point and I shouldn’t be thinking so black and white. However, I think it should be a dialogue and a give-and-take approach, rather than an approach dictated by seniority…which I feel like I’m experiencing now and again.

    So, I apologize for my naivety. It’s just getting more and more frustrating dealing with daily gimmicks that seem to be originating with the people in charge and not being able to do anything about it.

  23. Matt Mendelsohn is one of the nicest guys I ever worked for (when he was the Photo Editor at USA Weekend) and seeing this story goes to show that he is also a truly wonderful human being. Bravo, Matt!

    BT

  24. Gary Haigh

    Really nice post Rob. What a remarkable young woman who gathers around her some wonderful people. Matt’s photography has a real kindness about it, a gentleness almost.

    Sure puts my little difficulties into perspective.

    Thank you Rob,

    Gary Haigh

    OZ

  25. Matt,

    It took some time to get to but I finally read the entire article you posted. It’s a very moving story. I find it more inspiring than depressing. Life isn’t fair and everything you know can change in an instant.