KCCI photojournalist was a ground-breaker

Donna Smith was among some of the first women TV news photographers in the country when she began her 38-year career at KCCI in Des Moines. She says her colleagues at KCCI respected her, but outside of the station people often implied that she was “a woman doing a man’s job.”

Donna Smith

Smith began her full-time work in 1983 at KCCI after working part-time at WOI while majoring in journalism at Iowa State University. She was promoted to chief photographer in 1997 and retired at the end of 2021. 

Here are excerpts of an interview Paul Yeager of Iowa PBS, and Cliff Brockman, a retired journalism professor, conducted with Smith for the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting.

(You can watch the full interview here.)

How did you get interested in photography? When I was in grade school, I had a great uncle who was like my grandfather, who gave me his old camera, his old DSLR when he got a new one. And from then on, I knew that’s what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a still photographer. I consider myself very lucky that I’ve known since grade school what I wanted to do as a profession. But when I went to Iowa State and majored in photojournalism, I had friends who worked at WOI, and shot video, and then I fell in love with video and changed from newspapers to TV.

What was the equipment like when you started? We all wore those big power belts, battery belts around our waist. So much of the equipment at that time was geared towards men, because there were significantly fewer women doing the job. So a lot of things I had to adjust for my smaller frame. One of them was the battery belts, I would have to poke extra holes, pull it as tight as I could around the waist and make extra holes. And I remember once running across the street trying to shoot a bad accident. As I ran, the belt just kept slipping down until it got to the point where I just stopped in the middle of the road to pick it up. Obviously, that’s changed over time. But I never felt like anyone at Channel 8 ever indicated that I couldn’t do the job. In fact, the chief photographer when I started at Channel 8 was a woman and the chief photographer before her was a woman. So there was always the representation I could see myself because I saw other women doing it.

In September of ‘83, how many women were shooting video? Not a whole lot. And a lot of women didn’t stay. I’m one of the very few who have stayed for that long. It’s not a glamorous job. At Channel 8, I was loved and respected and honored. But outside of Channel 8, I often had my share of comments and looks in ways that people would let me know that they thought I was a woman doing a man’s job. So it was out there. But my philosophy was always you just show them they’re wrong. But it also meant that you put a lot of pressure on yourself.

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What were some of the more memorable historic events then that you covered that stick out? Definitely the floods of ‘93 That one I remember very clearly because we were exhausted at the end of that first week. We were on for days and days, you know, continually. You would start one place and cover that, and then went to somebody else’s live shot and you break down and go to something else, and that just went on and on.

I went to Sydney, Australia in 2000 for the Olympics. Hearst, who owns the station and 20 some TV stations across the country, decided they wanted to send a team to cover the Olympics. And I was chosen, I’m not sure why, as the head technical person, and so I went with six or seven people. And we stayed at the Olympic Village for the media. Compared to the pandemic that was easy because it only lasted a month.

And was the pandemic kind of the end for your TV career? I probably would have stayed a couple more years if it had not been for the pandemic. That was truly the hardest thing I’d ever done professionally. On March 17th, of 2020 the governor closed things down. And so as a manager, I was helping plan what we were going to do. The bulk of photographers took their car and gear home and edited someplace and never came back into the station so that we could keep the station as clean and antiseptic, so to speak, as possible. And then the stress of people being gone. People (other employees) had COVID and so I worked every schedule. I decided in spring 2021 that I’m done. It’s time for somebody else to do it. I’m tired and somebody needs to have more energy because I felt like I’m not doing anybody a service.

Is there anything else, are you done working? I am working part time as a lab courier for Unity Point. I go to hospitals and doctors’ offices and pick up tissue samples and blood and urine and I bring it back to the lab in Ankeny where they test it. And I love it. I didn’t want to go from 100 miles an hour to zero. So I felt like I needed to do something. I still feel like I’m using all those skills that I honed over 38 years into a very different way. And I think that’s good for the brain.

During Smith’s time as chief of the KCCI photography staff, the station won eight National Press Photographers (NPPA) Small Market Station of the Year awards, and was runner up multiple times, including 2021.