Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I was talking to students today at Millennium High School’s journalism class about my adventures behind the camera. I showed the students some photos I have taken this year so far and the conversation was good until I came to this photo.

This was the scene late one January night as I stood on the side of a Tracy street photographing grief. Earlier that day a young girl died in a house fire sparked by lights on a dry Christmas tree. Fire crews could not reach the girl as she slept and she was killed in the fire that engulfed her home. That night family and friends gathered next to the charred remains of their house to remember their loss and grieve. Unfortunately I was there.

As the photo splashed across the wall at Millennium High I found it hard to speak about the photo. Almost six months since I photographed the family weeping as they sat in the cold that night I found it difficult to even look at the image.

There are many photos that have troubled me as I photographed them. A relative weeping at the scene of a fatal accident on country highway, a mother grieving the loss of her son in the Iraq war the images are compelling but they can take a toll. I remember standing next to a television camera crewman as we waited on the sidewalk amid the sounds of tears. Neither one of us wanted to point our cameras at the family as they cried across the street from us. We waited in the cold for some sign that it was ok to photograph the scene. I don’t know if I ever got it but eventually I walked away from the crowd and as discretely as I could and photographed the family as they mourned.

The photo is a powerful image in my opinion. It tells a story of loss and sadness. I told the class today it was a hard photograph to take, a hard photograph to look at and one I do not like to talk about. I also told them that the photo never appeared in our paper. Editors deemed the photo too obtrusive to their grieving. It was on our website for a short period of time before it was removed. I did not agree with the choice against running the picture but sometimes photographers equate effort in creation with quality of the photo. The harder it was to take a picture the better it has to be. It’s just not true. Does the photo tell a story; is it too invasive to their grief? I am sure the answer is yes to the first but I have my doubts on the second.

I sometimes wonder if I were in the same position again would I take the photo weighing the needs of newsgathering against the compassion for the family. It is a hard call to make now but odds are if I find myself in behind the viewfinder with a similar situation I will take the picture and weigh the needs of publication back at the office.

Then students didn’t seem to find the image offensive the instructor though the picture should have run in the paper. It is a fine line we walk on assignment balancing news and compassion in our storytelling. I don’t know if I made the right decision but I know I tried my best.

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