Tim Chapman searches for crabs from a 1981 Boston Whaler he docks outside the home he built himself on Big Torch Key, where he's been living since he retired from the Miami Herald in 2012. But during a 40-year career as a photojournalist, he pursued stories: The Jonestown massacre, Cocaine Cowboys, and Hurricane Andrew are just slices of what Chapman captured for the public to see.
One day in 1972, he was on his way back from the Everglades in his Jeep when he heard sirens and followed them.
"The first dead body I shot was someone in Hialeah," says Chapman, whose dark curly hair has turned a bit gray, but the manic energy is intact. "A guy robbed a market, and the shop owner pulled out a gun and shot him. The robber ran outside and, about 300 feet down the road, dropped dead in a mud puddle. Each person has a story."
He used his Nikon to capture the corpse. The next day, his photo appeared on the front of the Herald's local section. Chapman was 22 years old.
This Friday, HistoryMiami opens "Newsman: The Photojournalism of Tim Chapman." Curated by another longtime Herald photographer, Al Diaz, the exhibit honors the lensman's storied career and commitment to documenting South Florida history. The exhibit features Chapman's life's work, which he donated to the museum in 2013, as well as cameras, press passes, notebooks, and other artifacts.
Chapman moved to Hialeah with his family in 1957, when he was 7. That year, he began taking photos. He used a little Kodak box camera passed down from his dad, who had carried it in his duffel bag while serving in the military under Gen. George Patton during World War II. Chapman's first photo depicted a great white heron in the Everglades, the place that would become his home and escape from Miami's tumult.
In 1967, Vietnam was raging. He saw photos of the carnage in Life magazine and realized the social power of photography. When his brother-in-law, chopper pilot Timothy Artman, was shot down, it came as a jolt.
"When my brother-in-law was killed, I said, 'You know what? I don't think I can change the war, but I can show people what's going on, and they can make educated decisions about whether they want their government to be involved in any war,' " he says. "I got into it to change the world."
He began writing the column "Conservation and Outdoors" for the Hialeah High Record. After he graduated and enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College, his dad drove him to a Hialeah newspaper publisher and said, "If you're going to do this, start making money."
"The editor at the time offered me $1.60 an hour or a byline. I said, 'When do you give the checks out?' "
Later, another newspaper wrote him two bad checks.
"I got pissed off and took the air conditioning in the office and sold it," Chapman recalls. "It wasn't the same as I was owed, so I went into the office, and I said, 'Look, I took your fucking air conditioning. I sold it'... I said. 'You have a choice, I'm gonna take it out of your ass right now, or I'm gonna take these products.' So I took a lantern and a Coleman sleeping bag. I had that sleeping bag for 40 years. And that was my pay." He was 19 years old.
In July 1972, soon after graduating from the University of Miami, he began working in a Herald photo lab. One day, he looked out his window at the lab and saw black ink spilling from a drain. He called Miami pollution control and reported that the Herald was dumping ink.
"I went into [editor] Larry Jinks' office and said, 'I'm Tim Chapman. I work part-time in the lab, and I just reported the Herald for polluting. He looked at me and said, 'Well, good.' "
Chapman, it seems, is afraid of nothing. Two days later, the Herald was fined $600 and sealed the drain. "I thought, You know what? If they don't fire me, it'll be a good place to work."
After that, Chapman captured some of the Herald's most gripping images. In September 1978, he traveled to Cuba to visit his wife's relatives in Havana. He visited them, drove to the mountains, and met guajiros and campesinos.
"I felt Cuba," he says. "On my first trip, I looked up from smoking an HP cigar and saw a man looking at me. He saw I had a box of Chiclets, and I gave him one, and he said, '¿Tienes otro?' And I said, 'No, this is my last one.' So he took it out of his mouth, put it back in the wrapper, and said, 'Por mi niño."
Two months later, a wire arrived in the Herald office. Four hundred people had been killed in Guyana. At the time, Chapman kept $2,000 cash in his locker. He grabbed it and jumped on the first flight to Jonestown.
"Parents had murdered their own children. It was a nihilistic event with total disregard for human life. I realized at the time that my camera had to show the world," he says. "After that, nothing ever shocked me again."
He was one of four reporters to cover the massacre firsthand. His images ran on the front page of the Herald the next day.
In 1980, there was a movement to make English the primary language in Miami-Dade. A TV anchor at Channel 23 approached Chapman about how to present the story. Chapman said, "Let's go to the Miccosukee reservation, and here's our shot: a native mother with an infant child in a native outfit, and she's singing a lullaby in the Miccosukee language."
During the next two decades, he continued to witness Miami's prejudice and xenophobia, especially when it came to Haiti. He spent three months in that country in 1994 depicting the U.S. intervention that removed a military regime.
"Over the years, I saw the same thing in Haiti — brutality, corruption, and the poor," he says. "And the Haitians had a double-whammy. There is so much corruption against the gentle, wonderful people from Haiti."
After three months on the island, he decided he would never return to that country. "My photography didn't make a difference there. I had to make an emotional decision — I couldn't do it anymore," he says. "I loved Haiti, and I couldn't stand to see it happen."
Later that year, he finished building his home on Big Torch Key, the oasis where he now lives. "It's a conch house," he says.
At the end of the 20th Century, Chapman forced the Herald to tell the truth. A young editor didn't want to publish pictures of bodies. Chapman grabbed a copy of an old issue of the Herald with a graphic photo he had taken. "I said, 'You are not the Herald. I'm the Miami Herald.' he says. "They like yes men, but they want the product of the lions."
He spent the final five years of his career running around with a police scanner and dictating stories to an editor whom he'd call on the phone. "It's like they used to do in 1938, real newsman journalism," he says. "I spent my last five years kicking ass."
In 2010, he headed to South Miami, where a mechanic had been crushed by a car. The man's family, standing outside the repair shop, looked distraught, but Chapman walked over anyway.
"A lot of people are afraid to approach families, and I think it's a disservice not to try to talk to them," he says. "The story ran as 'Beloved Neighborhood Car Repairman Crushed While Working on Neighbor's Car.' "
When newspapers began transitioning to online platforms, Chapman decided it was his time to go. "The business started to be run by a bunch of fucking 12-year-olds. I really believe it," he says. "I believe the people in charge of corporations are irresponsible and have no sense of responsibility to the traditional, incredibly important watchdogs of the government. You look at the internet today and see that half of them don't even know how to make a call to see if it's a real source. That's the danger."
Chapman's career with the Herald ended where it had begun: the Everglades.
"I would go to the Everglades to regenerate — it didn't make sense to see so many people killing themselves, seeing people shoot each other," he says. "Rules of the jungle haven't changed in the street; that's the same thing. Once you realize that we are not separate, that's the truth."
These days, Chapman still checks the police blotter and tips off editors to stories. But he no longer takes photos professionally. "The best photos are taken in your mind," he says. "If you see a photo, you feel it first. This morning I watched the sunrise, and I said, 'Wow, that's beautiful. Click."
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His iPhone has 2,000 photos, mostly of his granddaughter and nature. "It's all about the environment," he says. "I've been to the dark side of the moon."
He thinks he scares people and wonders why his employers never fired him. But then he remembers. "They're afraid of me. Good."
"Newsman: The Photojournalism of Tim Chapman"
Friday, April 15, through Sunday, August 14, at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-1492; historymiami.org. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission costs $10.