Questions and Answers with BBC Photographer Peter Murtagh
Peter Murtagh, a photographer for the BBC, recently answered some questions.
Q: So, you work for the White House?
A: Okay, so I have my own business it’s a television production business most of my work I work with BBC and basically I do news stories and news documents and they ask me to go anywhere and everywhere whatever news events are happening I’m usually at them and they do lead me to the White House quite often.
Q: How did you get the job?
A: Started at Frederick Cablevision doing Fredrick Keys games 20 years ago filming Keys games, working camera; that was just a part time job while I was in school and that lead to a full time job. That’s where I started, I have worked as a producer, director, camera man, editor, graphics design, I’ve done basically every job you can think of in television
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: Montgomery College, a little bit of Maryland but I never finished and I just kind of kept on going. I actually majored in computer science and didn’t find much energy in that direction. The TV thing just kinda grabbed hold of me and I’ve stuck with it ever since.
Q: What is your favorite place that you’ve visited because of your job?
A: Wow that’s hard to say. I mean, South America is pretty amazing, Peru, Japan was pretty sweet, Iraq was wild, not enjoyable but different, Yemen I was just in Yemen this past summer which is a very strange land but interesting; the problem is I go to so many places its hard to think of just one.
Q: What’s your least favorite place?
A: What I do is hard news so they’ll send me somewhere like I was in Haiti a day after the earthquake happened. It was really amazing to be there and do that story and see it, but it was pretty tragic and pretty awful; a lot of destruction and death just tough to really see the other side of humanity
Q: So you’ve probably seen a lot of crazy things; have you ever had to take any controversial photos where you’ve felt uncomfortable?
A: It’s awful the way people are being treated, or the conditions people are forced to live in. Yeah there’s different stories; I was in Katrina in New Orleans and the interesting thing with that story was that I could go in and out of the city but the people were stuck there they thought they were trapped and stuck in the deep water surrounding them and the government and the police wouldn’t let them out. And the towns surrounding the city had armed gangs that prevented the citizens from leaving. Just guys in pick up trucks driving around shooting at people and they were basically trying to contain them.
You want to stand up and say something but as a journalist you don’t want to be part of the story you want to report it and sometimes it’s a struggle. And other times when you’re filming people in tragic situations you cant stop and help them, it’s a weird disconnect that you have to maintain. When you’re filming a political event and someone has really extreme views you want to step in and say “what about this or what about that” but you can’t weigh in. You have to remember your place as a journalist.
Q: Have you ever visited a place where you’ve felt unsafe?
A: Definitely! Several times. I’ve covered the Russian invasion of Georgia, the country of Georgia. 6 or 7 years ago the Russians invaded it after the Georgian government provoked the Russians, and they thought the U.S. government would help them and it didn’t happen and the Russians just destroyed whole towns and killed a bunch of people. I was there when that happened. As a journalist you think “oh yeah it’s great, I want to go film this and see these things” but then you have a moment when you’re there and you ask yourself “Why did I say yes to this!?” And the same is true when I visited Iraq just these past two summers ago, and in Yemen this past August. In Yemen drones were dropping bombs on civilians. Another story was about African migrants traveling through Yemen to Saudi Arabia to find work and they were being captured tortured and held for ransom. They would either be killed or maimed and they never made it to Saudi Arabia. Witnessing it actually happening is really surreal.
Q: Do you have a specific experience from this job that you’ll remember for the rest of your life?
A: I’ll have to think about that. A lot of different stories leave a mark. They give you things you cherish and help you realize not a lot of people can experience this. Most of them are good and interesting. Mandela just passed away and I remember covering him when he was visiting Bill Clinton at the White House. Seeing who these people actually are in person is really memorable.
Q: Have you met Obama?
A: Yeah several times. I’ve actually won some awards for the White House. The White House news photographer association and part of that is you get invited to the oval office for a handshake and a photo with the man, which is pretty awesome. Every year I win a few. And I go to the White House to cover events. So we were on the road following him when he travels as well.
Q: What would the hardest part of your job be?
A: Traveling, trying to get places fast. Trying to cram things in a bunch of boxes, check em’ in and not pay a million dollars. They fly me and put me up in a hotel… or sometimes there’s not a hotel. You work all day and then maybe at night you get out for a decent meal. The funniest thing is everyone goes, “Oh you travel all these great places you’ve been to this city and that place seen that” but you really don’t get to see it that much cause you’re focusing on your job. Actually seeing a place for its landmarks is rare. I’ve been to about every state in the union and about every city. I’ve driven down the streets of St. Louis but I haven’t seen the arc (he laughs).
Q: Do you have any tips for people who want to go into journalism or photography?
A: Make friends with anyone in the business and make contacts with anyone you can. A lot of TV and journalism is knowing people in the business. It’s a fun job, instead of reading the news it’s writing the news. It’s your interpretation people are taking for fact. You’re recording history.
Peter went on to tell me that he’s very fortunate for his job, and I was fortunate enough to get the chance to sit and down and talk with him. I learned about a lot of different things within those couple minutes of interviewing, and he’s definitely inspired me to pursue journalism further and see more of the world.