A world of images

July 11, 2013 •

Greg Bull 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, who graduated from CU-Boulder in 1991 with a degree in journalism and mass communication, 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 midair as she leaped powerfully above 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.

On competition day in London, 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 above 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. During the break when Douglas and the other athletes switched to different routines, he took the disc from his camera. The photo was edited, captioned 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 the London Olympics highlight the importance of immediate story and photo turnarounds in today's journalism.

The London assignment was just the latest in a series of high-profile shoots for Bull.

At 12:46 a.m. on March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake that generated a tsunami. Bull left for Japan five hours later on the last plane available before flights were canceled because of the quake.

When he arrived at the earthquake site, the scene was pure chaos. Bull and a team of other AP journalists set out for the damaged nuclear plant, but all roads were closed. They wended their way through the mountains and all the way around the island, but when they got to within 12 miles of the plant, a terrified police officer ordered 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 victims' bodies. As the officers lifted a 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. 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 his assignment in Japan, Bull returned back to the U.S. Security officers at Los Angeles International Airport stopped him after detecting radiation on his jacket and bags. The levels were so high that airport officials forced him to throw them away. 

Bull grew up in California. When it came time to pick a university, he decided he wanted different scenery and moved to Colorado, where 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 to visual storytelling.

Maloney "had such a passion for the people that he covered and the places that he went," Bull said. "It drove it home for me that this is what I wanted to do."

Looking back on everything he has seen in the past few years, including his coverage of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and life on the U.S.-Mexican border, Bull said removing himself from human tragedies is difficult but also added a new perspective on life.

"Seeing earthquakes gives you a small sample of how much devastation there is in the world," Bull said. But even in the midst of horrifying tragedy "you nearly always see incredible human effort, strength and dignity both during and after the events. That resiliency is an inspiring thing to witness."

This story, by JMC master's student Natalie Boyd, originally appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of Bylines magazine.