When the word “journalist,” is included in your job title your work schedule is a fluid thing. My work week normally begins whenever my first assignment is on Tuesday or whenever I feel like coming in, whichever comes first. It is decidedly not a 9 to 5 gig which has its good and bad points. You are on call 24/7 which I think is the way most of us want it. I don’t think anyone likes having their time off get interrupted but, speaking for myself, I’d hate missing a story even more.
When you’re a photojournalist anytime your phone starts ringing in the wee hours, you know its not good news. This time I answered learn that a tornado had struck a small town in Southeast Missouri Monday night damaging several homes and killing three men. Twenty minutes later, after a rushed and abbreviated morning routine, I was on the road heading south, coordinating with the reporter who was herself headed to the scene.
Half an hour later I was pulling into Diehlstadt, Missouri, population 163, surveying the damage and looking for an out of the way place to park. I already knew the kind of photos I was looking for, I’d been thinking about it the entire drive down. I was looking for images of grief, pain and loss; preferably framed by the physical damage that created the emotional damage. I HATE shooting these, I mean who wouldn’t. That said these are the kind of assignments where a photojournalist earns his or her pay. More importantly these are the kind of assignments where we can do the most good, make the most difference.
I quickly located the area where the three fatalities occurred, not a difficult feat in a town of less than 200. I was walking up to the scene when two carloads of friends and family arrived. I kept my distance, trying to unnoticed if possible, unobtrusive at the most. I went through the usual mental checklist of light, background, composition, camera settings etc., while trying to get a read on the mood of the scene as I shot.
The reason I was trying to gauge the mood is because I was working to understand the best way to appropriately cover the situation. I know it may surprise some folks out there but just because I wear press credentials and carry a camera doesn’t mean I shove it in every grieving person’s face while asking them “How do you feel?” Sure there are those that do that and I certainly don’t shy away from taking photos of people who don’t want to be photographed depending on the situation. I just don’t see any reason to ADD to someones pain if I don’t have to, so I worked from the periphery of the scene gauging how close I could get. The wails of grief and the occasional dirty look told me what I needed to know: stay back. Robert Capa famously said, “if your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not getting close enough.” My pictures really weren’t good enough, they weren’t what I was looking to get but I was not going to get closer.
The reporter arrived on scene shortly after the family and we briefly conferred several times about the situation and what each of us was doing and thinking. Talking with the owner of a bar next door and a deputy sheriff gained a better view and some more understanding. The family had not reacted well when approached by a TV crew. We both discussed it and both agreed that approaching the family was not a good idea.
This meant that I did not get the names of the people in my photos, breaking one of the cardinal rules of photojournalism. To make matters worse AP was wanting photos from the scene as well so my failure was going to get a world wide audience.
I’ve thought a lot about this since it happened and I can’t think of anything that I’d do different. All of my instincts were telling me that approaching closer, either to shoot or ask questions, would be a bad idea and I believe in following my instincts.
Is it possible that I let my empathy and compassion influence that decision? Sure.
Did they? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the only way to be sure that it was the right thing to do would have been to go over. My instincts told me that doing so would exasperate an already tense and emotional situation, cause additional pain to grieving family members and not get me the information I wanted anyway. Maybe I was just chickening out and rationalizing my actions but I don’t think so. There really isn’t any way to know.
I went back that afternoon and spoke to a neighbor and a family member, neither of whom I shot that morning, and both declined to be identified or to comment on the record, so I don’t think that I was going to get any info no matter what I did. I’m still fairly green when it comes to this sort of stuff. Five years from now I might look back and wish I’d have acted differently but right now I feel that I got what was right for me to get.