When Paul Church told his family about this interview, one of his sons asked, “Why do they want to talk to you?”
Well, son, your dad has been a photographer for The Courier-Tribune for 18 years, nearly half his life. He’s been seen around town more than most people, yet many don’t really know much about him. So here’s a chance for him to peel back his layer of anonymity just a little bit, expense a little advice for those who want it, a few photography tips for others. And as your father is wont to do, he even gets a chance to wax a little poetic.
You may not appreciate all of that right now, but you will one day.
First, though, HUB readers get their chance.
ASHEBORO HUB: Are you from here?
PAUL CHURCH: Randolph County, yes. I’ve lived most of my life in Randleman. I was born in Greensboro, but my dad, I don’t think he much liked the tax rate in Guilford County. He thought Randolph County looked good and moved down there even before I was in school. I’ve got two younger sisters and I think my youngest sister had just been born. I tell people I’m a proud Randlemanian and people from Randleman kind of nod their head like, yeah, that’s about right.
I’ve been here other than two short work stints. I did live in Laurinburg for six months and Hickory for 6 months, but I was trying to get back both times. Hickory wasn’t too bad, and if the job at the Courier hadn’t opened, I guess I might still be there. This past June was 18 years at the Courier. Can you believe that?
HUB: Tell me about growing up in Randolph County.
CHURCH: It was great. We lived out in an old farmhouse with an old barn. I guess it was like the good ol’ days. When the weather was nice, you was out playing. When it wasn’t, you bundled up and went out playing anyway. I guess I had a pretty boring childhood, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Photography for me was not an interest as a young person. I really thought I wanted to be a comic book artist. I love to draw. I could draw fair enough, but I was not that good. But, as time went by, I developed a love for sports, although anybody that meets me, I do tell them I’m still not sure what sport my physique fits. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m looking. I love baseball. Because I did love sports, we used to go watch what was then the Greensboro Hornets.
We practically lived there. We loved that, and I wanted to get pictures of my favorite players. So my dad probably went to the pawn shop and got what looked like a big lens on a camera. We were sitting up in the stands and the people still looked like ants in the picture, but I thought I was doing something. In high school, I actually did help out on the yearbook staff.
I’ll give out a shout out to my high school. I was in Randleman and was in Randleman Middle, but before I got into high school, my parents moved me and my sisters to Level Cross Christian. If you wanted to play sports there, if you were a warm body, you’re playing. So my athletic career got extended. I didn’t like soccer, but I played basketball. I was never good, but I got better. I developed a love for sports, and I played around with a camera some, but I didn’t think of that as a possibility for a career. I just remember being in high school and thinking, when I get out of here, I’m just going to get a job and work for 50 years and that’s that. I’ll be done. I didn’t care what it was, I just thought I didn’t want to go back to school. It’s not the best mindset.
I got out of high school and my dad, being the wise man that he is, he helped get me a job with some carpenters and I did that for two weeks. It was work in High Point. The furniture market was still pretty big, and they were constantly renovating showrooms. So they’d make one and say, “OK, boys, as soon as the market is over, you can tear it down.” I was on the destruction crew basically. That’s all I did. If you wanted to drop kick a wall down, they didn’t care, just as long as you tore it down. I didn’t like that, did it for two weeks, and told my daddy I think I’m going to go back to school. I did love sports, and I was never going to make a dime playing a sport, I thought, well, is somebody really going to pay me to go to a ballgame? That’s a job? And newspapers, you’re going to shoot lots and lots of stuff. So that for me helped encourage the direction I needed to go.
Speaking to the community college system, I didn’t know how good RCC was. I probably heard something about the photography department. But it really is bang for the buck the best there is, hands down. They compete with any 4-year school but they give you what you need in two years time and you hit the ground running.
I do remember, when I was in my second year, Jerry Wolford did come down and he spoke to us. He’d been in business for awhile and we all knew who he was. He made this statement: You have better odds of becoming a professional athlete than you do of becoming a professional photographer. And I don’t know if my eyes got big when he said that, and not because I thought, hey, cool … no, I was like that’s not good. I thought I was making a better choice. That was kind of scary to me.
I interned at the Herald-Sun in Durham. And talk about a bad picture of how things have changed, I bet they had 7-8 photographers there when I interned, it might have been 9. I could ask a stupid question and if one didn’t want to mess with me I could go to the next one, the next one, the next one. Or even ask all of them the same question and it was all good information. It was so wonderful because you could bounce ideas off people and it was such a creative place. They have 2 photographers now and one of those I think they’re cheating calling a photographer. And they’re in the heart of ACC country. But spending time there, I figured out I might be able to do this. A guy there, Mark Dolejs, he was really great and encouraging me and sometimes being hard on me but not so hard he destroyed me. He helped me understand this is what you need to be aiming for, this is what makes a good photo. Still to this day, I don’t always get it, but I’m aiming for it. That’s my objective. I don’t want to embarrass myself with a photo that’s going to wind up on the front page. I have before, but it was not for lack of trying.
HUB: The industry today seems to be devaluing photography. It seems like they all read Spider-Man and now they’re looking for their own Peter Parker: Pay you by the photo instead of pay you a salary, benefits. It’s a negative for photographers, obviously, but the other side of that, for the industry and photography in general, the technology is such that everybody can grab a camera and be a photographer. What are your thoughts on all of that?
CHURCH: I think I’m a young dinosaur. I think I came in on the tail end of the golden age of newspaper photography. Interning at the Herald-Sun, just a great staff, great photographers, old, young, that’s how it should be. Got this bustling staff and they fight with each other and they push each other and they make the photography better. Well, break up all these staffs and you don’t have that camaraderie and that team effort going.
That is one of the things that does bother me. I think a lot of newspapers are not as concerned about the quality. If we keep doing that, that’s a slippery slope. Where does that stop? It’s kind of depressing as a photographer.
HUB: How would you separate who’s a professional photographer from an amateur?
CHURCH: I remember one of my former instructors, good ol’ Bob Heist, said a picture and a photograph are two different things. A picture, you can stick that up on your refrigerator. A photograph, maybe that’s in a museum, maybe that’s something that 70 years from now we’re still looking at and going, “That moves me.” I like reading about World War II stuff and recently I’ve been reading some stuff about Iwo Jima and the famous flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. That image still resonates. When you see it, if you have any heartbeat at all, you feel something. Even closer, and we can both speak to this, when 9-11 came around, I remember when I saw that photo of the firemen raising the flag, as soon as I saw that, it gave me that same “your hair on your neck stands up.”
What is the difference? I think there’s a great thought process that goes behind, and before you ever push, the button. There’s things you’re thinking about as soon as you roll up to a scene. Where is the best place, the best light. If it ain’t here and you’re making a portrait of somebody, where are you taking them? Do you help that light? Do you cut that light? There’s all these things going on that I don’t even think about that I’m thinking, but it’s happening.
I consider myself a fan of digital now. I did not think I would be. When I was in school, we were still shooting film but they were telling us digital is coming. I remember thinking — and I can laugh about this now, for sure — I’m not going to mess with that digital stuff. I might touch a digital camera when I’m on the way out the door to retirement. But when it came on the scene, it was like a tsunami, just hard and fast. And I bet the first camera we probably got at the paper, I’d have to go back and look, but we probably spent $15,000, an absurd amount. Now it’s a piece of junk; you wouldn’t even want to use it for a paperweight. But it did what it was intended to do, it got images right now, you’re looking at images fast.
The quality has got to the point now I don’t really mind it. It’s a good thing if people are taking pictures. You’re capturing memories and getting pictures of you and the kids. But the digital end of it, if something weird happens and all of these files just disappear, and we’re scratching our head and going, whoops. Then what? They can go put their hand on that negative of those fellas on Mount Suribachi raising that flag.
If you saw a professional photographer shoot an event and you had a non-professional shoot the same event, if you saw the images, you would know. Regular, run of the mill, everyday folks, if you just put the pictures out, they would gravitate toward the professional ones. They may not know why, they may not understand what the difference is, but they know this is a different caliber.
People ask me about weddings. I encourage them to skimp on the flowers, get about half as many, spread them out more and spend money on that photographer. When you’re 80 years old and you’re half blind, the only thing you’re going to be able to look at is the great photos that you got … or not. I’ve heard plenty of stories about Uncle Joe’s got this great camera — he spent $10,000 on this camera, it’s got to be good. Well, not really. It wasn’t the camera’s fault; it’s the brain behind the camera. Not knocking Uncle Joe or whoever, there is something to it. That’s what you’re paying for.
You’re paying for experience. You’re paying for knowledge. When do you shoot, when do you not shoot, where do you stand. You can’t get that overnight. And a vision? I don’t want to quite call photography art, although I think there is some photography that is definitely art, because I don’t really consider myself an artist, but there is an artistic flair that is there. I don’t know if you can teach that. I just want people to understand that there is a difference.
Some things are worth paying more for. I think photography is very important because for a lot of us, when you do get older and look back, that’s all you’re going to have. For me, if I’ve been to an event, or we’re going on vacation or whatever, if I’m not taking pictures, I don’t feel like I’m engaged. I want to take pictures when we’re walking around up the mountains. I’m sure my kids get bored sometimes with me, walking around a rock for 30 minutes, taking pictures of it. I think maybe people don’t realize how important photography can be until it becomes obvious.
When people are no longer with you or years from now you go back and look at this stuff, you’re there. It puts you there. It’s a time machine. How can that not be important? You’re capturing a piece of somebody’s life that is never coming back. You’re telling me you’re going to skimp on that?
Some newspapers are saying hey give us your pictures, we’ll run them. That sounds good, but can you vet them? There’s a little thing called Photoshop and some people are pretty good with it; they’re better with Photoshop than they are with a camera. I’m not saying that’s what people want to do, but do you want to trust that? I don’t think that’s wise.
HUB: So what would be your tips to help an amateur photographer?
CHURCH: I do have like two tips, and I’m not being funny when I say this: Get high and get low. It’s the most simple thing. Whatever you’re shooting, find a high vantage point. Grab a ladder, hold your camera up over your head. Or, lay on your belly and photograph it. Odds are, there aren’t too many people who are going to be seeing it from the ant viewpoint or the higher up. So you instantly make your pictures look different because nobody else has seen that. If you’re standing there with your camera on your eye and you’re just looking like everybody else is, you’re going to see what everybody else is seeing. So that’s the main thing. And then there’s no reason not to shoot tons of pictures now. Hey, they’re digital, if they’re no good, just throw them away. Just shoot lots and lots and lots of pictures.
That used to be one of the things that did separate the professionals from the amateurs. Back in the day, when we shot film, the amateurs would not spend that much money. A couple of rolls of film, I’m done, it’s getting expensive. The pros, hey, whatever you got to do. Now, if you still say we’ve got one roll of film for each of you, the pro stuff is still going to look better than the amateur’s, but, the blind squirrel, the blind pig, whatever that blind animal is that finds the acorn — if you shoot enough, you’re going to increase your odds.
And, just try to do something different, weird. Whatever you’re comfortable shooting, all right, do it in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable, as far as angle or whatever. Don’t always do what you’ve always done because you’ll always get what you’ve always had.
I didn’t think I would be a fan of the iPhone photography. A lot of people are doing that. I have an iPhone. I don’t even use it as a phone; it’s not even turned on. But for video and photos? It’s pretty doggone good, for what it does. You’re not going to shoot the baseball game. Sports, it’s really out the window. But for little things … and you’ve always got it with you. The old saying: The best camera is the one you’ve got on you. If you don’t have a camera, it doesn’t matter what you saw or how good that scene was. So just the fact that everybody’s got a camera, I don’t think that’s a bad thing because stuff will be captured in some way, shape or form. That’s what I try to tell a lot of young people is shoot, shoot, shoot. You will get better, just like anything else.
HUB: So what would you do if you weren’t a photographer?
CHURCH: I don’t know. I just love picking up a camera. It’s not work to me. I work hard at it. I will put out some sweat. But just to be able to feel like you’re creating something, it’s exciting to me. And really, Randolph County is a great county. The people here, they’re interesting. It’s a big county. There’s lots of area to cover and we don’t have enough bodies really to get all the great stories that are out there. I mean, how many stories have you got since you’ve been here and I look at that and I’m like, how did he find that?
I hope, if it comes time for me to do something else, if I can enjoy it at least half as much as what I’m doing now, I’ll be all right. This time of year, a day like today, low 70s, gets cool at night, Friday night football. That is NOT work. I mean, it is, but it’s not. The whole community’s there. That’s Randolph County. That’s America. You’re there and people get to know you. You almost feel like family. And you are, I guess.
I kind of have the hope that maybe these young people, they’re going to hit a wall somewhere and go, you know what. I’m sick of this digital stuff. I want something different. I want to get my fingers dirty. I want to touch a newspaper. I want to smell it. I want to immerse myself in something that’s totally different than a glowing screen that is becoming mind-numbing. They’re great, I use them and they’re helpful. But sometimes you need to slow down a little bit and do something different. Hey, if records can come back …
HUB: I’m going to go off topic a minute with something silly. Do you find it hard to Google yourself?
CHURCH: I have told people this. I’m invisible on the Internet. Because if you look for Paul Church, you will find 10 million Catholic churches. Saint Paul’s Church, you won’t find me. I’m cool with that. I like anonymity. If I go to an event and people didn’t even know I was there and then they see it in the paper — and hopefully it was a good photo that they see — I’m cool with that. I think that’s neat. I don’t know that I like the idea of fame, even though I think most photojourn guys are probably ego maniacs a little bit. You’re putting yourself out there in front of everybody sorta kinda. You’re not exactly wanting to, you’re hiding behind a camera, but yet, your name’s going under every picture.
I don’t want to be rich and famous. Just give me rich.
HUB: With photography, it’s almost like everything is a paradox. You’ve got to stay out of the scene, but sometimes you’ve got to intrude into it. You’ve got to try to catch people in their natural poses and activities, then you’ve got to ask them their names. So you’re both part of the scenery and then you’re in their face.
CHURCH: Which is a difference that you can relate between that amateur and that professional. You’ve got to be a people person for sure, but then you’ve got to know when to insert yourself into the scene. How long do you stay back? How much do you get involved? That is a hard thing. Sometimes it’s a tightrope. When you insert yourself into that, it does have an affect. Photojournalists like to believe that “I didn’t do anything to manipulate that scene; I shot what I saw.” But if you show up with a camera, you’ve already sort of, kind of manipulated the scene.
Maybe paradox is the right word. I’ve never really thought of it like that. You just show up. Every scene and every situation’s different. You’ve just got to play it by ear, see how it’s going, and then how much can you push or not push. What lens you choose. Get a zoom lens and back up and you don’t have to be in someone’s face. I don’t want to be paparazzi. That is the dark side. We kind of joke about that. Photojournalists call them the dark side because they’re actually making a lot more money than we are. We claim we have ideals so we don’t make any money.
HUB: I know you’re a likable guy. You’ve got lots of stories and theories, advice even. What are some of the main things you talk to people about? We talked about, if you’re a teenager, don’t be impatient about finding a girlfriend. There will be some buds who will bloom later in life.
CHURCH: And what’s happening now is not what’s going to be forever. … I don’t want to be someone who just beats you over the head with advice because if you don’t want to hear it, it’s not going to matter what I’ve got to say.
I ain’t getting on politics, but just to look at the political system, sometimes I think we’re so far apart, I think regular, everyday, just ordinary people, you get the furthest left-leaning Democrat and the furthest right-leaning Republican and just put them together at a table — regular folks, not politicians — I think they could find a way to meet and agree and work something out. They might not give up their core beliefs, but they could find something to move the football. I think that’s possible. But that’s not how it works.
I’ve told my kids half-jokingly, you’ll never be president. I’m not going to tell them that. You know, “in America, you, too, can be the president.” No, you can’t. It’s like NASCAR. The gold old days. Richard Petty. He went out back in his barn and fixed up a car and he probably drove it to the store Friday night, Saturday did what he had to do and Sunday, he’s racing it. You can’t do that anymore, You’ve got to be a millionaire, and they’re grooming these kids. That to me is what’s disappointing. A lot of the stuff has got to the point where, even though we can be involved in the process, we can vote, it’s almost like the politicians on both sides don’t really know what real people are like or what they’re thinking or I don’t even know if they care anymore. That’s not advice for young people, is it?
If you can find something that you enjoy doing, I wish I had come up with that saying, “If you find something that you live to do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” There’s a whole lot of truth in that. You’re going to have to work, anyway. Find something that you think you can enjoy.
A genius piece of advice? There was another one of those wonderful quotes, talking about do what you can where you are with what you’ve got. I’ve totally messed that up, but OK, maybe you won’t be the president. Maybe you can’t save these refugees that are trying to get into Europe. OK, is there somebody in Randolph County that needs a helping hand right now? Is there a little old lady who broke her hip and guess what, she’s probably going to be in a wheelchair now. Go build her a ramp. Maybe you don’t have the money to build her a ramp. Then go to Lowe’s and see if they’ll give you some wood or find somebody who’ll donate some. Get creative. I think if people would stop focusing so much on themselves and what their problems are — and I’m not belittling that people have problems, because everybody does — if you start looking around, you’ll find out there are some people in really bad shape, much worse than you are and they’re probably not complaining as much. You start being all introspective and it’s looking bad in my world and everything’s terrible. Well, it may not be what you want it to be, but I’m pretty sure it may not be as bad as you think it is. And when you start helping other people, funny thing is, you forget kind of what your issues were. You get distracted a little bit, and that’s a good distraction.
I don’t even like the term “social media.” There’s a great need for it, it can work, Facebook can help you find that guy in California you went to school with, OK, that’s fine. But generally, I think that’s the most anti-social thing there is. You’re sitting there staring at your phone, looking down, not looking around, not looking up, not talking to anybody, you’re texting the guy that’s just over here across from you. Look him in the face! Poke him in the shoulder! People don’t even know how to look and talk to one another. I’m not ragging just young people. It’s the middle age and even old folks anymore.
They’re just all consumed with these digital things. Go outside and take a walk. Breathe some air. Get a little bit of a tan — not too much, but a little bit. There’s a world out here. We want to get on the Internet and see the world. Well, see your world. What can you do in your world?
That is most of America’s problem, is that we’re focusing on “me.” Maybe that’s the American way. I love America. I do. I’m a very patriotic guy. But I tell you, I’m reading these World War II books. These groups of guys that would come together. When they would get in battle, they were so wanting to take care of each other that they would do things they never thought they could do because they’re looking out for everybody else. They weren’t thinking about themselves. It wasn’t that they were out there being patriotic and waving the flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner. Yeah, they were fighting for our country, but it was about looking out for each other. We are just so consumed with self. You will develop all kinds of problems and issues and isms and whatever. They’ll find whatever issue you’ve got and give you a drug for it if you focus on yourself long enough. I’m not saying ignore genuine medical problems, but you will be amazed how much better you feel when you start looking around at other people and just seeing how you can help them.
HUB: So what would you want people to know about Paul Church. If anything.
CHURCH: I’m a pretty bland guy, really. I’m always amazed we go talk to these folks and we interview them and this little old man, he’ll be 90 years old and he’ll say, “I don’t really have much of a story, I don’t know why you’re talking to me,” and then he’ll proceed to tell you this prodigious tale and you’re like, holy cow, I’ve never lived. I’ve had a — oh, boy, I’m sounding like Jimmy Stewart — I’ve had a wonderful life. I haven’t had any problem. My parents are still living, my wife’s parents are still living. Both of us grew up in good homes. Growing up as a kid that’s all you know. You assume everybody’s like that — everybody has two parents, your parents actually like each other, wow, imagine that.
What do I want people to know about me? I guess first, I’m a Christian. I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m an old photographer. Really, instead of saying what do you want to know about me, people just need to find me. If they see me out and about and see me doing my job, come up to me and we’ll just jaw for awhile. That’s what I do love about this job. It forces me to get to talk to people. And sometimes it dose hinder my work, but most of the time I have found that it helps because when you talk to people, you discover things, which leads to something else and something else and something else. And you know very well that’s how you get story ideas. That’s one thing I’ve enjoyed, too. You go to lots of different events and you bump into people and you run into conversations that’s just all over the map. And I think it’s really exciting to jump into a conversation that I don’t really know what’s going on or what we’re talking about and still be able to hold my own. It’s kind of fun sometimes.
Talk about advice to young people: Bluff your way. I’m kind of joking and kind of not. If you feel uncomfortable in a situation and you act like you don’t belong, people are going to recognize you are uncomfortable, maybe you don’t belong. But if you act like you belong, then people will make the assumption that you probably do. Or they’re just scared enough not to call you on it because they don’t want to be wrong and they might be. If you’re good at bluffing, you can get through a whole lot of stuff in life. I’m not talking about criminal stuff, but that’s a whole lot of it.
People are not comfortable enough in their own skin. I’m old enough now that I’m always going to feel better than I look at this point. You know what, that’s all right. Great day, I found a woman that was willing to marry me, and my wife is just the best wife in the world. I have no idea why she married me. And I have four kids. How wonderful is that? There was a time in my life I never thought I would get married, said I wouldn’t, didn’t even think I wanted to. But you know, I do, I have a wonderful life. There is nothing I could have done to deserve anything I’ve got, but it blows me away that I can go to work every day, like what I do and like pretty much everybody I’m working with.Share this: