Friday, September 25, 2009
Some assignments I know will end badly even before I take a single picture. Driving to a canal on the southwest edge of town I knew I would find tragedy and controversy. A body was found floating in the Delta Mendota Canal and crews were preparing to recover the body.
You learn right away if you are cut out for this profession. There are things few people ever see and most who do see them wish they hadn’t. While most people are content to live their lives in an idyllic bliss where nothing bad ever happens while dreams of sports parks and aquatic centers dance through their heads there are those of us who know there is a tragic side to life. We get to see it up close and personal.
I’ve been to a drowning before, I knew what to expect. Pulling up to the canal off Hansen Road I could see the row of fire and sheriff vehicles lining the canal bank. The body had floated to the surface at a gate spanning the canal. In the middle of the gate a small object bobbed about in the water. The body had come to rest face down in an almost seated position. All that was visible above water was a section of torso.
Crews were working to devise a plan to safely recover the body from the canal, A rope, poles would be used to guide the body to a stokes basket to lift the body from the water. I shot from a discrete distance with a telephoto lens to stay out of the recovery crew’s way.
At a scene like this you know the body will be visible in the picture. There just aren’t too many ways to photograph a body recovery without showing the body. I knew there would be a point where the pictures would become too graphic for publication. That point would come when the body left the water. I hoped for a yellow tarp to cover the body but the position of the body made it dangerous to put a tarp on until it was on the canal bank. Once the crews got started the recovery took about 20 minutes as they pulled it along the gate. I stopped shooting as soon as the body was brought to the top of the canal bank. There was nothing more there and I headed back to the office.
If I make this sound cold, impersonal or callous that’s just the way it is. It is an assignment; I cannot let emotions get in the way. You take an event such as a drowning with extra precautions. You keep aware of your surrounding for safety, you do not interfere or get in the way of the crews and you show an amount of respect and decorum. But it is a news scene. This is not someone who died in the their bed at home, it is a drowning in a canal outside of town and we are doing a story on it.
The general rules of news photography at a scene such a drowning or fatality is you shoot everything and decide later what to use. It is not a good idea to try and edit in the field, decide what can or cannot be published. That decision is better made back at the office with a discussion among a group of editors. Two editors looked at the photos and a decision was made on which photo to use of the body being lifted from the water. A group made the choice, one that we felt told the story and was the least offensive.
Even before the pictures went on the website I knew we get complaints. There are those people who find any view of death offensive. Maybe I have become to use to such scenes of tragedy. I have lost count of the number of fatal accidents, drowning and random views of grief I have seen and photographed. While most people are shocked and outraged by the pictures I am surprised. These images are mild, an antiseptic view of a horrible scene. I choose photos that didn’t show the face, the arms or the feet. We picked an image that is about as innocuous as you can get in a drowning. No grieving relatives, no bloated hands or feet. And still the complaints come in.
I sort of knew this was going to happen but I hoped people would have more common sense. The comments are pretty much what I expected, railing against us for showing a section of the body. Asking us if we feel no shame or sympathy for the family and demanding a written apology. Do we not have any sympathy for the family? Do we have no shame for showing such an atrocious photo?
My response is simple. I do have sympathy for the family. It is a terrible thing to lose a family member in such a way and I can’t imagine what they are going through. That being said it is a news event and as such the newspaper has a duty to report the news. The canals are a dangerous place and such a drowning is reminder to all of the dangers they present. If the family feels horrified by the picture that was not our intent and we acted as professionals and did our best.
Will I apologize for the photo? Absolutely not. As I said this is about as inoffensive picture as I could produce from the scene. If John Q citizen in Tracy is offended by the pictures during his web surfing, tough. Point your web browser to sponge Bob Square Pants site or some other page where you don’t have to see the tragedies of life.
Feel lucky you were spared the sites I saw along the canal banks. We all have our crosses to bear and mine is a good memory. I get to add this scene to the collection of nightmare scenes I can’t ever forget. Think that photo was bad? You didn’t see the arms dangling out of the stokes basket as they pulled the body up the bank. The gray color of the skin from days under the water. And the thing I can’t shake from my mind right now was the water dripping from his shoes as he was pulled from the water. Those are the images that are too graphic for publication. If I had wanted to shock people or just push a sensational photo down someone’s throat I would have chosen one of those images. But that would have been wrong. That would have crossed the line.
To those commenters with their fake screen names and righteous indignation, grow up. If that is the worst thing you ever see in your life say a quick prayer and tell the Lord thank you for giving you such a sheltered life. Remember as you beat your chest and protest my existence you weren’t there, you didn’t see what I saw. Your calls for written apologies seem more theatrical then actual care. If this photo makes one person just a little bit more careful around the water then one good thing came from today.