Difficult portraits allow all to share story

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 29, 1999

When I pulled this week’s issue of Newsweek out of my mailbox, I was not at all surprised to find myself staring at the grief-stricken faces of the Kennedy family.

Thursday, July 29, 1999

When I pulled this week’s issue of Newsweek out of my mailbox, I was not at all surprised to find myself staring at the grief-stricken faces of the Kennedy family. Still, I was slightly disturbed by it – to glimpse such intimate moments of sorrow. I know I would have hated to be the photographer asked to cover a funeral.

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I think also of the those who photographed the traumatic school shootings at Columbine.

Often I am troubled by the rather voyeuristic nature of my job.

But these are the pictures that people want to see. These are the pictures people remember.

The soldier mourning his fallen comrade who was caught in friendly fire during Desert Storm. The fire man carrying the lifeless body of a soot-covered little girl from the federal building in Oklahoma City. These are images that one can never forget.

And who will forget the images of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, wearing the same grief her mother did decades ago?

Although these are images that will never leave our minds and will always remind us of our history, I do not envy those photographers at all.

Their work surely earned them the utmost respect from their peers – something everyone strives for in their career field – their work surely earned them some scorn as well.

It’s the double-standard that photojournalists must face. And since part of my duties include taking pictures, I have had to confront it on occasion.

Every time a voice crackles from the scanner, instructing law enforcement and rescue workers to report to an accident or fire, my stomach suddenly knots.

While taking pictures of a fire, accident or other tragedies, I join numerous other passers-by. Cars slow down to catch a peek of the drama. Those on foot stand at a safe distance, craning their necks and standing on tip-toes for a better view. And while I am certainly not the only on-looker, I alone with my trusty Nikon get the looks of disgust and disapproval, sometimes even lectures about human decency (which, apparently, some residents think I lack as I photograph other people’s tragedy.)

I don’t blame those people one bit. I myself am sometimes appalled by my boldness. Simultaneously, I pray for the safety of all those in harm’s way while I pray I’ll get a decent shot.

The whole point of capturing those images is to tell a story, a powerful story. And the whole point of a story is to tell people what they want to hear, or in this case, see.

I have to take the pictures because not everybody was lucky enough to be driving by in their cars, slowing down or stopping all together to get a glimpse of the action, to see the story.

While I realize these dramatic images serve a purpose and are a necessary part of my job as a journalist, it still has the potential to make me physically ill.

I certainly don’t want people to think of me as one of those media weasels, chasing ambulances and fire trucks. I hope to be remembered in the community and throughout my whole career as a journalist who tries to tell meaningful stories that help others.

And aside from well-coiffed and tastefully groomed remains of loved ones laid carefully in satin trimmed caskets, I have never come face to face with death. It’s very likely I will pass out if I ever see gratuitous amounts of blood and carnage. Several of my colleagues have shared stories of covering particularly gruesome accidents, and just the stories give me chills.

The point is, it’s not easy to photograph stories whose main players do not want the personal nature of the moment on the front page of the local newspaper, or even the cover of a national magazine.

But the readers, they want to see the stories. To share the moment with the main players. To remember stories of their own.

The conflict between the two sides, and sometimes overwhelming tragedy makes a photojournalist’s job particularly difficult.

I suppose someday I could become callous to all of this. Maybe one day I can drive out to the scene of a horrible accident, and shoot the pictures without a single nervous leap of my stomach – just take the pictures and head back to the office. Perhaps I’ll be able to go out and concentrate only on getting the most dramatic picture, the most appealing composition. And my work will get my undivided attention without a single thought or brief prayer for those involved.

While such an attitude could help to create a powerful portfolio, I think it would be fair, at that point, to be labeled a media weasel. When that day comes, and I hope it never does, I will deserve those dirty looks and righteous lectures. Until then, keep in mind I’m just doing my job. It isn’t easy, but I’m doing it for the readers who want to know the story.