Bob Pearson calls it the human connection. Whether he’s shooting wildlife recovery efforts from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, space shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral or NBA basketball games in San Antonio, Pearson is always on the lookout for those recognizable moments of humanity that will make his photographs memorable.
“Wherever you are, you’re looking for eye contact, emotion, something people can relate to,” says Pearson, a veteran news and sports photographer whose pictures have been reproduced in newspapers and magazines around the world. “There are always these little moments of real human reaction, and that’s what you strive for in a news photograph, I think.
“You might be photographing a guy standing on a podium, and most of it is staged. But if a reporter asks a question that surprises him or makes him angry, those are the moments when you can see that he’s human.”
These days Pearson works as a freelancer from his Texas home, but for more than 20 years he was a staff photographer for the Agence France-Presse wire service, or AFP. Eventually he became the service’s chief photographer for North and South America and then director of photography for North America.
It might be easier to talk about what Pearson hasn’t covered than what he has. “I covered the presidential elections in Brazil. I’ve gone out with troops in Central America on training practices and covered a lot of their activities. That was fun. You’re seeing new countryside but you’re not in high-risk situations.”
Other assignments were riskier. “I was one of the first photographers in Kuwait City when it was liberated. I spent untold months and weeks in Haiti from 1985 to 1994, covering that story. I was there in 1994 from two days after the end of the World Cup [in the United States] around July 7, until the invasion. I stayed there a long time after the U.S. invaded Haiti.
“But I had a lot of fun covering sports, too, both the Winter and Summer Olympics. I did the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, Italy in 1990 and the U.S. [in 1994]; I met a lot of great people on those trips.”
Nowadays Pearson covers news and sports from hurricanes to the San Antonio Spurs. A lot of his work comes from the European Pressphoto Agency, known as EPA.
In June 2010 he spent a week covering the Gulf of Mexico oil spill for EPA. “We covered the human aspect of the story, the effects on the local population. We would do an occasional flyover, update some pictures, keep up with the news as it was happening. The whole idea with the wire service is to cover as many angles as you can.”
News is just one part of Pearson’s career these days, though. He and his wife, also an experienced editorial and commercial photographer, operate a wedding photography business together. Pearson also leads photography workshops, including Nikon School sessions around the country. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “One of the things I really like is the amount of energy in the room. The people in the audience are truly interested in photography. You have a lot of people who come up and just love to talk about photography. The questions never seem to end.”
Whether he’s shooting in the Gulf of Mexico or in a chapel, Pearson relies on a few pieces of equipment again and again, including a D3S, a D700 and a D300S. His main camera is the D3S. “It’s the camera I’m comfortable having in my hands. I don’t have to think about where the controls are.”
For vacations or personal photos, “the D300S is what I might turn to first because of the crop factor,” he says. “We have turkeys that go through our property. We have a herd of deer that’s sort of a resident herd, and foxes. There’s a lot of nature here.”
He relies on a variety of lenses as well. “I use certain lenses for certain subjects. In sports generally you’re kept back from subjects, particularly in football or soccer, so I might use a 300mm f/2.8, or a 200-400mm zoom."
Good equipment just makes his job easier. “I’m always looking for wonderful lighting and exposure, but the technical stuff should always be there,” he says. “As a news photographer you shouldn’t have to worry about that. You should just be aware of it.”
That way, he can focus on what he really needs to make a great picture. Such as, oh, the human connection.