Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press

March 01, 2012

The paper of record for towns along the White River, The Herald has for over a century strived to provide its readers with balanced reporting on the town governments and general news of many communities. To cover a region stretching from Pittsfield to Vershire, and Brookfield to Sharon, we rely on minutes from many towns, and diligent reporting from correspondents in hollows and hills as diverse as Broad Brook and Braintree, Bethel Lympus and Granville. 

Each year, on the first Tuesday of March, this paper’s enthusiasm for fair and balanced coverage of so many readership areas is tested by a number of simultaneous town and school district meetings. Getting accurate reporting and voting results from so many towns into print barely 18 hours following the closing of polls is a monumental task. 

For more than two decades, we’ve taken pride in obtaining not only words but images from as many of our 16 towns as possible. This task has been helped somewhat by the advent of digital technologies. Gone are the times when, returning to the office at 8 p.m. Tuesday, I would begin developing 20 or more rolls of film! 

Nevertheless, each town requires a visit with a lens if we are going to publish an image. For a few years we’ve received some photographs electronically, but there are still massive numbers of miles between those picture-taking opportunities. 

Back in 1993, when this image was published on The Herald’s front page, I photographed proceedings in eight towns: Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Barnard, Royalton, Tunbridge, Chelsea, Brookfield, and Randolph, in that order. Conspicuously absent is my own town of Braintree! Such is the fate of many press folk on Town Meeting day. 

Visiting eight towns in a single day doesn’t allow much time for conversation. As most of the action takes place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., I allowed myself only 45 minutes for travel and picture taking in each town. Of course, there are also precious minutes spent with pie and coffee! 

The trick is to have a sense of what you’re after even before arriving at the meeting. One year I focused upon the “mechanics” of governance: shots of the gavel, the ballot box, checklists, voting booths, town reports being perused. Another time I was particularly looking to capture the full age spectrum of those in attendance, from newborns cradled in mothers’ arms, to wizened old townsfolk, their faces a vivid accounting of life lived hard and well. 

I am constantly struck by how willing our citizenry is to be photographed and interviewed. Yes, my presence there with a press camera is a constitutionally protected right, but I sense that those being photographed know these images play an important role in keeping our meetings open and vital. 

This Photograph 

In 1993, I was interested in finding ‘the face’ of Town Meeting. To this end I entered the Royalton meeting shortly following lunch to find citizens testifying on a proposed ordinance banning nude dancing in the village. As the issue was placed on the Australian ballot in an advisory capacity only, discussion was permitted, and discussion aplenty there was! 

I placed myself low on the floor of the old gym and took a few images looking up and into the faces of a few who came forward to speak. Some faces were twisted with pained expression, others with anger over having to even discuss such an issue. Then, Jim Proctor, pastor of the Royalton United Church Federated, stepped up to the microphone. Rev. Proctor’s whole demeanor was the embodiment of reasoned, thoughtful and compelling free speech. I was immediately reminded of Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting for “Freedom of Speech” as part of his “Four Freedoms” series in 1943 war torn America. 

I regard this photograph as a complete image. Everywhere the eye looks there is something that adds to the whole. 

Rev. Proctor’s face, open, calm and lifted up, is bathed in light from the few windows high on the gymnasium’s upper wall; he is dressed simply and neatly, there is no puffery here; in his right hand he holds evidence of preparation before speaking; his left hand, in his pocket, shows that he is at ease in stating his views; a voting card in his shirt pocket is a visual reminder that each person in a democracy has the right and responsibility of informed voting. 

Out of focus, but very much a part of the image, are attentive townsfolk and an American flag crowning the whole proceeding. 

Gazing upon this photograph nearly two decades later, I’m decidedly proud to be an American living in Vermont. I am humbled, too, entrusted with the responsibility of accurately reporting with my cameras on the people and events of our region. 

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