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As an American studies major, Mary Schwalm '99 got so interested in the role of captions in documentary photography that she turned that topic into a senior research project. Studying the text that accompanied Farm Security Administration photos from the Depression, she wrote a paper for Professor Margaret McFadden's American studies seminar. "The general gist of it was the captions lie and photos should stand on their own," Schwalm said. "It [the FSA copy] was propaganda."
Fast forward to 2001 and find Schwalm in a fourth-floor office at Rockefeller Center in New York-writing photo captions for a living. Not just any captions-the ones that go out on the national sports wire from the Associated Press.
Schwalm is one of four sports photo editors for the national AP wire. She helps plan photo coverage of major events, chooses which images get picked up from affiliates for international distribution and writes the captions to go out with the photos.
"The irony of it is that now I'm doing exactly what I criticized Roy Stryker for doing," she said, recalling the research paper. But she acknowledges the way in which her academic consideration of the problem informs her decisions as a documentarian of American sports and culture, and she does her best to let the photos speak for themselves. "I am careful to ensure that no emotion is added in the caption," she said. She can't assume that a retiring ballplayer with his knuckle to the corner of his eye is wiping a tear, and she scrupulously avoids temptations to sentimentalize such situations.
While Schwalm is particular about what she won't do, she's acutely aware of what she can bring to the decision-making process-interests in women's sports and gender equity, for example. She will call local affiliates to make sure photographers submit images of professional women's soccer or basketball games for consideration. The photo of Point Given bucking its warm-up jockey that ran in papers around the country after the Kentucky Derby went out on the wire in part thanks to her enterprise and extra effort.
Since photographers now download images directly from ballparks or transmit them over cellular-phone connections from anywhere, photos arrive on Schwalm's screen within 10 minutes. She makes decisions, checks information and puts images on the AP server in as little as a minute, and clients have access moments later. The process is not without stress. "You want to get the photos out as soon as possible, but you want the information to be accurate," she said.
"There's some diversity at the [photo] desk, and thank goodness for that," she said. "I happen to like women's sports but I don't know much about auto racing." The mix of interests among photo editors and a system of balances ensures broad coverage, she said.
Schwalm had a deep interest in photography before she arrived at Colby from Arizona. She honed her skills in Jan Plan classes and internships, as an Echo photographer and shooting events for College publications, including Colby magazine. A year after graduation she wangled a job as a "runner" for the AP at the Summer Olympics in Australia. Subsequently she got an assistant's job in New York and was quickly bumped up to sports photo editor, in part because of her broad-based liberal arts credentials.
Despite some initial apprehension about living in the city, Schwalm is thriving and maintains a New York pace. After a morning at the U.S. Open tennis tournament she had a few minutes for a phone interview at work. She excused herself for the fourth interruption in a matter of minutes with "Can you hold on? That's The New York Times calling."
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