Saturday, December 29, 2012

Miami Herald Photojournalist Tim Chapman Retires

Illustration by Marco Ruiz     

By Al Diaz

Smack in the middle of Miami’s Cocaine Cowboys and their illegal drug trade I decided to buy a police scanner. Within hours, the purchase propelled me into harms way, launched my career and allowed me to meet photojournalist Tim Chapman.

The year 1979, a lone Miami Police officer staking out a Little Havana home calls for back up when the suspects inside decide to flee with their illicit drugs. Not far to drive from my childhood home, I arrive hearing sirens blaring, tires screeching and see guns everywhere.

Miami Police check Tim Chapman's credentials in 1979.
In the middle of all this madness I see a photographer in the middle of the street standing face-to-face arguing with a cop. I shoot a picture. The officers supervisor approached the rookie cop and said to leave Chapman alone, he’s seen more action than you have.

The next day Chapman’s photos are spread across the front page of The Miami Herald and mine on the AP wires.

After 40 years on the job, Tim Chapman is retiring from The Miami Herald on December 31. He’s covered wars, hurricanes, riots, earthquakes, mass exoduses from Cuba, kidnappings, plane crashes, death and mayhem including Guyana’s Jonestown massacre in 1978.

He’s been on vacation this week, Chapman’s last day on the job actually working? December 21, just in case the Mayan Prophecy of an apocalypse were to come true and it needed to be covered.

Photo By Bill Cooke    
By Carl Hiaasen
Miami Herald Columnist
Friend and Accomplice
There’s not enough space on this page for every Tim Chapman story, but most are true. He’s been a legend in this business for decades. With retirement he ascends to mythic.

Yes, he once drove cross-state in a Herald van with a loaded gun, a bloody knife and a severed alligator tail. Yes, he once used the lens of a company Nikon to batter some macho fool who’d tried to push him off of public property. (Tim then straddled the poor twit and snapped off 36 frames.)

Yes, he once tested an electric dog collar on himself before fitting it on his Labrador. (The sight of Tim flopping on the kitchen floor was all that the dog needed to see; from then on, the animal came running whenever Tim called).

And, yes, he once paid a voodoo priestess in Haiti to put a curse on an unpopular photo editor back in Miami -- and, yes, it worked.

The line between fearless and crazy is hazy, and sometimes we weren’t sure if Tim had crossed over. It wasn’t because of a death wish that I always asked to ride with him; I just knew that he always went where the big news was. Always.

One afternoon, during one of Miami’s bloody episodes of civil unrest, Barry Bearak and I rode into the riot zone with Tim, who wore a flak jacket and told us to stay low in our seats because of the sniper fire. Whenever he’d jump out to shoot pictures, we’d dart around interviewing bystanders.

After about an hour Tim decided he was in the mood for (I swear to God) watermelon. So he screeched to a halt beside a fruit stand on one of those smoldering streets, and there he purchased two freakishly large melons.

As he walked back toward the car – and he took his sweet time – Barry and I were debating which of us was going to drive after Tim got shot.

He didn’t even get grazed, of course, because he always knew how long to stay, and when to run. Once we were in a Nassau crack house talking to (who else?) crackheads, when Tim turned to me and quietly said, “It’s time to go.”

Our interview subjects had been speculating as to the potential resale value of Tim’s camera gear and, unknown to me, two of them had gone to a bedroom to get guns. Tim and I took off, only to find that our driver had already fled the neighborhood. 

Most important: The photos that Tim took inside that house, way before crack cocaine ever reached America, were phenomenal.

Wise photo editors let Tim do what he did best, which was cover the news. The one radio dispatch guaranteed to pitch him into a seething rage: “Hey, Tim, we need some feature art.”

You did not send Chapman to take pictures at Art Basel. You did not send him to shoot a Dolphins game. You did not send him to the freaking Silver Knights.

You sent him to fires and wars and plane crashes and mass suicides in Guyana. You sent him to crawl the jungles of Nicaragua with armed rebels. You sent him to shoot the guarded island mansion of a crooked prime minister (where he rented a plane and flew in low “with the sun at our backs”).

You sent him to a triple-homicide in Medley (or was it a quadruple?), where he bustled around as cheerily as Martha Stewart in an herb garden. I remember because I was there.

Nobody who ever set foot in the Herald newsroom loved hard news more than Tim Chapman, or fought harder to get it into the paper. The business has changed, but Tim never did, never would.

And those of us who got to ride with him in those kick-ass days cherish every harrowing memory.

Tim Chapman's send off party at The Miami Herald                                      Photos By Al Diaz
Rick Hirsch with a Miami Herald spoof page for Tim Chapman 

Jordan Levin with Tim Chapman

David Landsberg, President and Publisher with Chapman

Photo Editor David Walters hands Chapman a cigar lighter.
The boss, Roman Lyskowski hands Chapman a copy of  The Exile Experience
on the Cuban Exodus.
Chapman plunges a cigar in his going away cake and mocks lighting it up.

1 comment:

  1. I know Tim long time ago, when there were a freighter ship that collided on a Key West area, he called us to take him in a single engine Cessna 182 in a low flight level pass to take photos of it. Them we became good friend, in 1987 we went to an Fishing and Exploring Adventure to the Venezuela Jungle and Margarita Island when we was stunned with the Virgin Jungle landscape as well the Paradise Island life, he took over 3,000 photos and then later he did a write-up in the Miami Herald Sport Section. I'm so proud to know Tim and I wish the best for his new "retired" life on the Keys.
    Gus Conde