AP’s Greg Bull (’91): a world of images
Greg Bull (’91) is used to a fast pace – the 1 a.m. telephone call and the quick trip to the airport, the photo snapped and transmitted so quickly he doesn’t even get to look at it, the mad scramble to the next, much different, assignment.
Bull, 44, is an award-winning Associated Press photojournalist currently based in San Diego. Much of his work is at major sporting events – such as the 2012 Olympics, but he travels internationally to cover all sorts of stories.
“I love being able to go and be an observer in the events around the world. And these things are amazing to witness firsthand,” said Bull.
Some of Bull’s most memorable international events are the London Olympics and the earthquake in Japan that caused mass destruction and a nuclear crisis.
Bull’s name popped up everywhere in the photojournalist world during the London gymnastics competition, when he captured a now-famous image of U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas suspended in mid-air as she leaped powerfully over the balance beam. In the press of deadline, Bull sent the photo to his editor before he even looked at it, but he had prepared for the moment for months.
Excited by the photo prospects that gymnasts’ high-intensity movements could create, Bull had asked his editor if he could attend the Olympic trials to study the sport and to take practice shots. After attending the trials and shooting the routines repeatedly, Bull was comfortable with the sport and knew the athletes’ routines well.
When he got to London, he witnessed and embraced the exciting atmosphere of the arena, and watched the athletes’ different personalities in front of him. He loved the drama that unfolded, and watching the best competitors in the world perform.
On competition day, Bull took a mental step back from the awe-inspiring moment of being at the Olympics and anchored himself to complete the job. Because he had studied the performances, he knew that Douglas would execute her soaring leap over the beam during the women’s individual all-around competition. When she was next up in the event, he focused high above the beam and waited patiently for Douglas to jump.
“Literally as fast as I could, I shot,” he said. In the break when Douglas and the other athletes switched to different routines, he took the disc from his camera “put it in the folder on the computer and uploaded it to (my) editor.” The photo progressed to color fixes and a caption and “was up on the wire five minutes after I uploaded it. It was up (on the website) eight to nine minutes after I took the photo.”
The photo grabbed national and international attention. It earned Bull first prize in the 2012 Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar and the AP Beat of the Week Prize in August 2012 and the photo made numerous “best of the year” lists.
Bull said experiences such as covering the London Olympics and the earthquake in Japan highlight the need for immediate turn-around in journalism.
On Mar. 11, 2011 at 12:46 a.m. EST, Japan was hit by a nine magnitude earthquake that generated a tsunami. Bull received the call about the earthquake from his editor 14 minutes later. He left for Japan five hours later on the last plane available before flights were cancelled due to the quake.
Once he arrived at the earthquake site, Bull and a crew tried to get to a damaged nuclear plant. It was pure chaos. All the roads were closed. The team had to go a back way, all the way around the island and through mountains, to get to the plant. They had no idea what to expect. When they got within two miles of the plant, a terrified police officer who was blocking the road told them to turn around. The level of radiation was too high to go farther.
But Bull and his crew had to get photos. They traveled to the local fishing villages. On one beach, police officers were struggling to pick up the dead bodies. As they lifted one corpse, shouts rose from the top of the hill behind them. The officers dropped the body and ran up the hill. Bull was still snapping photos. One officer yelled at him to leave. Bull didn’t understand Japanese, but the officer’s frantic arm motions alerted him that something was wrong. Unbeknownst to Bull at the time, another tsunami warning was in effect. Panic took over. Bull and other journalists ran up the hill to escape the impending danger. The tsunami warning was a false alarm. But it was a scary moment for Bull and others on the beach.
After completing the earthquake and tsunami assignment, Bull returned back to the states. At LAX, he was stopped by security. Security picked up radiation on his jacket and bags. Bull told them that he was a photojournalist and had just returned from Japan. The level of radiation was so high on his jacket and bags that airport officials forced him to throw them away.
In Bull’s career, immediacy has always been a vital aspect of the job. But, with the progress of technology, editors place an even greater emphasis on submitting a piece seconds after the image is captured. “There is always a deadline around the world. AP is really conscious of that.”
Bull grew up in California. When it came time to pick a university, he decided he wanted different scenery and moved to Colorado. At CU, he was exposed to photojournalism for the first time.
Paul Moloney, a professor at CU-Boulder from 1987 to 1996, taught Bull the basics of photography and quickly became his mentor. Bull initially set out to be a writer, but Moloney’s class inspired him to switch over to the visual storytelling side.
“He had such a passion for the people that he covered, the places that he covered and the time that he covered. It drove it home for me that this is what I wanted to do,” Bull said.
Bull reflects on everything he has seen in the past few years, not only on the London Olympics and Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, but also his coverage on Haiti’s earthquake and the U.S.-Mexican border. Removing himself from human tragedies is difficult, but it adds a new perspective on life.
“Seeing earthquakes gives you a small sample how much devastation there is in the world. It can leave you with a positive feeling knowing your life could be worse,” Bull said while remembering the ravaged areas of Haiti and Japan.
His love of photojournalism, he said, stems from the intimacy an image can provoke. In just the seconds that it takes to shoot a picture and publish it, the photo can tell a story better than any words.