Local Journalist Heroes: Mike and Brandi Simons
This Q&A is part of Local Heroes: Journalists Covering COVID-19, PEN America’s series spotlighting local journalists across the country in celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2020, elevating the importance of a free, vibrant, and inclusive press.
Name: Mike and Brandi Simons
Outlet: The Tulsa World; freelance
City: Owasso, OK
What do you want your readers to know about what goes into the coverage they’re relying on?
MIKE: I have been following the CDC guidelines as they have been released. Unfortunately, it seems that they expand all the time, and you worry, “If I am supposed to be wearing a mask now, should I have been all along?” I try to maintain social distance between me and all my subjects, which is difficult for me because my default is to shoot with a wide-angle lens and work close. I have always felt that when someone sticks out their hand, as a photographer, you shake it—if they are a CEO or a person experiencing homelessness, you always shake it. It has been an adjustment; I’ve tried saluting, peace signs, and bows, but I haven’t found my thing yet.
BRANDI: On March 17, I decided to document our days of staying home while we practiced social distancing. Taking pictures, as usual, gave me purpose. I was home with our two teenage daughters, 17-year-old Sonnie and 14-year-old Sarah, when I felt like I wanted to document our days at home in quarantine together. It felt big to me early on, and I knew that the big part of our little story was that life as the girls knew it was canceled. I was also thinking of my students because I tell them often that a camera gives you purpose; it gives us meaning.
“If a community doesn’t support the newspaper, then you start seeing furloughs and staff cuts. It goes without saying that less staff covers less news. And we are covering news that people desperately need now.”
What do you consider to be the biggest threats to a free and vibrant press in the midst of this crisis?
The biggest has to be apathy. If a community doesn’t support the newspaper, then you start seeing furloughs and staff cuts. It goes without saying that less staff covers less news. And we are covering news that people desperately need now.
What personal risks have you or your colleagues faced while covering COVID-19?
MIKE: Photojournalism is always a little risky—whether you’re covering a construction assignment and standing a little higher and closer to the edge than you feel comfortable with, or a tornado, a house fire, or a police standoff. There are always risks, and you make choices as you work. The crazy thing about this is it doesn’t feel particularly risky—you just never know where the virus is, or who could give it to you. It’s hard to know when you are taking a risk.
Are there any stories or communities that you feel are underreported in regards to the COVID-19 crisis? Similarly, what non COVID-19 stories have you seen shelved or ignored because of the hyper-focus on the current crisis?
We just don’t have access to some communities anymore. Nursing homes and retirement centers are off limits. Locally, officials have been searching for mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and were set to start digging in an area of interest on April 1. That has been postponed.
“I have always felt that when someone sticks out their hand, as a photographer, you shake it—if they are a CEO or a person experiencing homelessness, you always shake it. It has been an adjustment; I’ve tried saluting, peace signs, and bows, but I haven’t found my thing yet.”
What books, poems, podcasts, or other creative media have you been turning to for comfort or inspiration?
We’ve been listening to a meditative story podcast.
What can your readers do to support their local journalists, besides subscribing?
Sharing stories on social media and defending the media when they are attacked via social media.
About Mike and Brandi Simons
Brandi Simons is a freelance photographer and photography instructor. Brandi has been photographing daily news, sports, and portrait assignments since 1993. She worked as a photojournalist at the Tulsa World from 1993 to 2000 and the Cincinnati Enquirer from 2000 to 2005. Since 2018, Brandi has been teaching photography full-time to high school students at Tulsa Tech and is very proud of the work her students are doing.
Mike Simons is a staff photographer at the Tulsa World, where he has worked for almost 20 years. Mike moved to Tulsa when he was 15 and graduated from Union High School. He worked on the school newspaper and yearbook, and that’s where he discovered news photography. He graduated from UCO with a degree in journalism/photographic arts.
Mike and Brandi met while they were both staff photographers at the Tulsa World, and they have two daughters, Sonnie and Sarah. Oklahoma has always been “home” to Mike and Brandi, and they feel very lucky to be raising their two daughters in Oklahoma.
Examples of Coverage
- Sonnie & Sarah: The social distancing life for two teenage sisters, by Brandi Simons
- How coronavirus has affected life around Tulsa, by Mike Simons