Standing on the Frontlines of History with Photojournalist Tim Chapman

Photo: Hotel mutiny jumpers, 1980.

Standing on the front lines of history is a spectacular thing. For photojournalists, the proof is in the pudding. They must maintain the presence of mind to follow the story to its bitter end. The news is not pretty; it never is. The harsh reality of life keeps the media in business, for it must be said: there is always a tragedy to be told, a horror story to unfold, a disaster of epic proportions that capture the attention of the nation and hold it spellbound. The media loves a good narrative, the world obliges.

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Photojournalist Tim Chapman worked for the Miami Herald for 40 years, resigning in 2012 when the paper began to transition to an online platform. He donated his archive to HistoryMiami Museum in 2013, about 750,000 images in total. Just imagine some of the things Chapman witnessed standing on the front lines: the Jonestown Massacre, the Mariel Boatlift, Hurricane Andrew, and the Cocaine Cowboys. To say it was a helluva ride would be an understatement—but Chapman was prepared.

Tim Chapman with double camera set-up in his army jeep, circa 1970s.

Tim Chapman with double camera set-up in his army jeep, circa 1970s.

He first began taking photographs at the age of 7, using a Kodak box camera his father had carried while serving under Gen. George Patton during World War II. When his brother-in-law, a chopper pilot, was killed in Vietnam in 1967, Chapman dedicated himself to photojournalism, using his talents to report on political matters. He began at the Miami Herald in 1972. For the next four decades, he dedicated himself to covering hard news, including wars, riots, refugee movements, and hurricanes that changed the face of Miami at the turn of the millennium.

HistoryMiami, together with photographer Al Diaz, has curated a selection of the work from the archive for Newsman: The Photojournalism of Tim Chapman, on view now through August 14, 2016. The exhibition includes prints along with his personal effects including cameras, notebooks, press passes, and other artifacts from a life as a newspaperman.

Battle of Masaya, Nicaragua, 1979.

Battle of Masaya, Nicaragua, 1979.

Chapman’s photographs bring us back to an earlier world, not that long ago but very far away. Working at a time before digital, Chapman’s photographs have the raw grittiness that only happens on film, providing another layer of feeling in the aesthetic realm. With a sensitivity to storytelling and an ability to see the moment as it is, Chapman lets the photographs do the talking. But as with any archive, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Taken as a whole, Newsman reveals how Miami is the springboard into Latin American affairs as the nexus for the United States, Caribbean, South and Central Americas and the political battles waged across the western hemisphere. From Colombia to Haiti, Nicaragua to Cuba, Guyana to El Salvador, Chapman covered the waterfront from many a port in the throws of a terrible storm. It is a tribute to his wherewithal that he got out of the game when he did. The Internet killed newspapers, just like video killed the rock star.

Battle of Masaya, Nicaragua, 1979.

Battle of Masaya, Nicaragua, 1979.

All photos: © Tim Chapman, photographer. Tim Chapman Collection, .HistoryMiami Museum.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.