Here's my answer. My best day at work--or rather, one of the best--found me very young, and took me completely out of my wheelhouse.
We were deep into the 2000 presidential election. The Supreme Court was already deliberating on whether Gore or Bush would take the White House despite the popular vote results. I was in my first full-time job, right out of college, privileged to be working at NPR, mostly on music and digital projects.
But because of the election we'd all been asked to help out the news department. I'd studied politics but usually stuck to culture. I'd taken a few videos of artists performing at NPR, but I was no photojournalist.
So when a producer who looked like a weathered war correspondent wanted someone to go to the Supreme Court on the day that our new president would be chosen, I didn't think he'd look to me. But, knowing only the basics about me from a mutual colleague, he did.
My charge was to take NPR's newest digital SLR camera, a huge professional Canon, and head down to the protest scene outside the court. He wanted photos of "everything." I probably looked terrified. It'll be totally safe, he said. I nodded and thanked him, ran out of there, gripping the camera like it was a part of me.
Outside the court was a spectacle. I'd never had my journalistic hands dirtied outside a concert hall, cafe, or recording studio. But after a rushed walk, there I was, right outside 1 First St NE, Washington, DC 20543. The collective anger was palpable. People screeched, pumped signs in the air, slapped hands. I shot like crazy, spinning, pushing. I moved through crowds, noticing a new, better sense of proprioception.
I'd learned from NPR about ambient audio--getting the sound of a scene--but here, I was getting images of one. My skillset didn't exactly include expertise in camera-work or mob psychology, but it dawned on me. If I didn't get every shot I could find here, NPR's website wouldn't have original photography of one of the most important political events in recent history: Bush v. Gore.
So I dove in, got dirty. Other people's limbs tangled up with mine. I almost tripped more than a few times, saving myself like an awkward dancer. I captured an older man crying through a sea of screaming mouths. I framed people my age, miserable that their first presidential vote might not count. I grabbed a feeling inside me: that I was much more a part of NPR and my nation than I had previously realized.
At the end of the day, at HQ, I handed off the camera, memory card nearly full, to another producer I'd never met. Had she come down from All things Considered? Did she work on financial news?
It didn't matter: we were all in this. It was our job to band together and document a historic event, and more important, to inform our audience what had actually happened in Washington. How it had happened. What it felt like to be there. And yes, what it looked like, especially when the decision came down.
Later that night, I saw my first published photo--it was on the front page of NPR.org. I was alone in my apartment, and I wasn't particularly proud of the image. It looked fine. But the entire site: the audio, reports, infographics. I was happy--giddy, really--to have contributed to this large-scale media presentation. To the larger organization that was not just National Public Radio but "NPR."
I'd soon return to my regular work--interviewing musicians, writing and editing, creating and coding digital cultural presentations. But I'd never forget that day, when the needs of the larger organization came before the needs of my everyday team, and certainly before mine. Besides, now I'd worked as a photographer, a newsperson. Like a member of a great orchestra, I was outside myself, excited for the next beat.--Adam Baer