For those of you who know me even a little, you know I hate to be late. I literally can’t stand it. I will go way out of my way and even arrive half an hour or more early rather than being even one minute late. In part this behavior is based on the fact that I think being late is rude. Another part of it is that while the subjects of my photos can keep me waiting indefinitely sometimes, I must not be late because once the moment has passed there is no calling it back. Staged photos are not only abhorrent they are an absolute ethical no-no. And part of it is that being early gives me the opportunity to calm down. To settle into my environment. To look around. Take deep breaths. And start thinking like a photographer. I like having time in advance of an assignment to really get my mind into gear.
Or all of those could be excuses and I am simply OCD when it comes to clocks.
Either way, this being early habit of mine has served me well over the years. I like to sneak in. Find my spot. And the quietly watch before I break out the camera and start making my presence known. One such day, when I was again obsessively early, was last year at the Veterans Day Ceremony in Whitefish. The event was held inside the school gym and I arrived, made my way into the bleachers and sat to watch and wait.
Soon enough the crowd filled in around me and I was joined by a woman who I later learned was named Leslie. She sat right beside me and was telling her neighbor about a project she was helping a friend with. Her friend, Joan, the widow of a man named Alf Binnie, was preparing to send Alf’s guitar to the War Museum in Ottawa. It was impossible for me not to hear this story. As I said they were right beside me. And of course, I am a journalist. And to my ears this sounded like a cool story.
So, I gathered up my courage (it ways takes a bit of courage to make oneself look like a complete idiot) and introduced myself. Here I am. Photographer from the Daily Inter Lake. So sorry to rudely eavesdrop on your story, but really, I couldn’t help myself. Anyway… Would you mind telling me that again and possibly let me do a story on this for the newspaper?
I really love and hate this part of being a journalist. Usually when I do something like this it works wonderfully. People say yes. They would love to have their story told. The are delighted to help me with whatever I need for the photos. And sometimes people even are grateful that someone thinks what they are doing is worth that kind of attention. Some people take my interest as a compliment. But not everybody feels that way. Some people can be quite mean. That doesn’t happen often. I smile a lot and most people are kind, but I never really know what I am going to get when I strike up these conversations. And when they don’t want to tell me their story, or when they are mean, that’s when I really feel like an idiot.
But Leslie was delighted.
Leslie wanted the story told and was happy to help me make that happen.
So, Leslie is helping Joan. They are boxing up papers and bits of historical whatnot to send north. You see, Joan’s late husband, Alf, was a World War II veteran. A man who had been shot down. Survived. And then survived more than four years as a prisoner of war. This story could have easily died with him, but he left behind a tangible piece of his story. A piece that he carried with him from camp to camp all through the war. A guitar. That is what they were sending to Ottawa. Alf Binnie’s guitar. Of course, by this time I am completely hooked on the story and I asked if I could come and take pictures as they pull all this stuff together. And they said yes.
The photos came out really quite well. Considering that Alf couldn’t be part of it, there were plenty of items to document. He didn’t smoke so he saved up his cigarets and traded them with a guard for a guitar. He still had the original receipt. There is a photo of Alf and some of the other prisoners who formed a band and did concerts for their fellow captives. The guards even let them print flyers, and Alf had saved one of those. He still had his log book with the penciled-in entry: March 12, 1941 — Shot down over Holland.
And of course there was the guitar itself. A beautiful old thing made even more precious because of how far it had come. As a prisoner Alf was forced to moved to various prisons through the years. Long marches. Horrific conditions. And still he held onto that guitar.
I didn’t want to write this story, just photograph it. So I spoke to Lynette, one of the editors I work with. Lynette wrote the story. I did the photos. And we published it in our Montana Life section. That could have been the end of this story but I uploaded the photos to the AP many months later I was contacted by a writer doing a piece for Premier Guitar who wanted to use my photos to go with his story.
Today I got to see what they did with my photos. I requested a few copies of the magazine for myself and for Leslie and Joan. They arrived just this morning. There is only one thing I am disappointed in. The story reads: “The story of Binnie’s POW guitar came to light earlier this year in the tiny Daily Inter Lake newspaper in Kalispell, Montana. An editor there became aware of…” It should say, a photographer, not an editor. This was my story. But such is life.
This is the first time I have had my photos have appeared in a magazine like this. And the magazine used a lot more of the stills I did of the guitar than we were able to use in the Inter Lake. This story came to mean quite a lot to me as I did the photos. Partly because I really enjoyed meeting Leslie and Joan. Partly because I am the daughter of a veteran and love doing stories about the people who serve. And partly because I found this story. I claim it as mine, even though I didn’t write it, and it grew far beyond my “tiny” newspaper. In the end it comes back to listening, to eavesdropping and paying attention to what is going on around me. I always keep a special place in my heart for stories like this one. The stories I find, the stories I tell, they become part of my story. And as it turns out, sometimes, eavesdropping has some wonderful consequences.
To find the hard copy of the story check out the August edition of Premier Guitar. The story is titled: Inseparable and was written by Craig Havighurst and is on page 135. The story is also online at: