The ugly truth is better than blindness
This past summer I took a fairly graphic series of photos of a car accident that occurred in our local area. It was production day, and we didn't have all the information on the accident by publication time, but the editor and I had sorted through the photos I had taken and decided which portrayed the incident the best. It was an ugly scene, one which eventually caused the death of a person involved.
For the next week I saw that issue of the paper with the devastating photo peeking out of it laying on coffee tables in homes I went to, on counters in stores, on the seats of people's cars and sitting on tables in restaurants around town. That was despite the fact that it was a Tuesday issue which is usually quickly replaced in those places by the Thursday edition of our paper. It seemed to hit home with people about the fragility of life, just like many photos I and others have taken of accidents and tragedies in the past.
For the next couple of weeks the paper were also roundly criticized for publishing that photo. But that's nothing new; it often happens when we put in photos of things that negatively affect lives. Some of the criticism was civilized, some absurd, some downright vicious. Some came to me in person as I stood in the grocery store line, some came over the telephone, both from those who gave their name and those who didn't. In most cases those who told me who they were were much more to the point and less hostile than those that decided to stay anonymous.
And of course, in the tradition of today's technology, many of the criticisms came from e-mails I received. It is interesting how much more rancor can be put into an email which is a faceless, and unresponding way to attack someones actions.
Personally, I wish the world were a joyous place where everything that happened pleased everyone and all I had to do was take photos of smiling faces and put them on the front page of the newspaper. In fact, if you look through our paper, there are a lot of smiling faces, sometimes even in blaring color on the first page of our publication.
When I go out to to take photos I often know the kind of shots I will get. For contests or some award it is usually a line of people grinning at the camera. For kids events I can always find the cute little face (or faces) that fit the occassion just right. For official meetings I usually get either someone who is passionately explaining their point of view or a number of stoic figures seated around a table listening to that passion being expressed. At sporting events I often get the joyousness of victory or the humiliation of defeat. But there are certain events at which I have no idea what I will get. Car accidents and fires fit into that category. It is my job to take photos of everything, regardless of the circumstances or the ugliness of it. The photo that the public actually sees on a page of our newspaper is backed up by 20, 50 or 100 shots we didn't publish. Some of those shots have wrong angles, some are obscured by other things, some are blurry, some have bad light, some just don't show anything important at all. A few are gruesome beyond what we feel should be published. The decision to publish or not to publish is not made at the accident scene, but in the stark light of the newsroom with a number of us viewing the images and trying to decide what will be in good taste, yet will still report the news event in a truthful and powerful manner.
As I review the photos of tragedy I have taken and have been published over the years I have often ask some hard questions. Should it have been used? At what point should I have stopped taking photos or where should I have drawn the line on what I submitted for publication? What is decent and what is not?
No one is exempt from tragedy. In 1980 just before Thanksgiving, I lost a woman I cared about very much in a an accident when her small car was run over by a oil tanker as she slid across an icy intersection near the Salt Lake International Airport after picking up a friend for a holiday celebration. I didn't know until the next morning when she didn't come to work and my supervisor sat me down and told me about it. As I walked around numb from the receiving the news there on a table in the staff room lay the latest copy of the Salt Lake Tribune and on the bottom of the front page was depicted her smashed old car with oil and who knows what else running all over the road.
It's interesting how we all react to such things. I held onto that article for weeks, reading it over and over and staring at that photo. In some way it eventually brought closure to the situation, although I hate that word, because tragedy is never closed for those left behind. However, I personally was thankful the reporter who wrote that story and that photographer whose was there to record it. Because of their efforts it wasn't just a nameless and faceless accident reported on page five of the local section where few would see it.
Americans have become increasingly more squearnish about the reality of the world, as it is and as it always has been. Our ancestors who came here had to face hard realities much more than we do. Newspapers at the time had many fewer cameras or none at all, so images couldn't be reported. But instead of that they were much closer to the death. When an accident happened family members dug the grave themselves and sometimes even had to prepare the body for burial. Childbirth took place right in the home, and children often witnessed their mother die along with a baby sibling that didn't make it.
It's interesting how so many are curious about seeing the aftermath of a plane crash or a horrendous fire, but when the truth is shown in the medium of a photo that can be held and looked at closely and over again, they get upset.
The work a photo journalist does affects people in different ways. The photo on the paper remains the same, it changes little from copy to copy, but the person looking at that photo does change. Each one has a different perspective and a diverse set of values that causes them to evaluate the image in a different way. What they bring to the table is what they feel.
People in the news business have a job to do that brings with it lots of joy and often great pain as well. It's our job to report what happens, to be as factual as possible and to also show people the ugly as well as the wonderful side of life. The truth, in all it's raw and powerful light, is a much better alternative than trying to pretend what happened wasn't ugly.