Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Year in Review: The best photo of the year

Looking back over the year one photo stands out in my mind what photojournalism is.  It wasn't a photo from a fire with flames leaping toward the camera.  Nor was it a crime scene with a shell casing laden roadway marked off in crime scene tape.  It was a very quiet photo that I took by accident on a quiet Monday morning.

Walking back to my car after covering a Memorial Day ceremony I took this photo of Charlie Norton giving a kiss goodbye the grave of his wife Betty Jean who is buried in the Little Arlington section of the Tracy Public Cemetery.  I don't think this photo ran, the editors were a little leery about the emotions in the photo but I think it says so much I can't help but like it.

Yes I felt bad about taking it, one of  the many photos I've taken that have given me pause to think about the effect it may have on the subject and others.  It is a hard thing to have to juggle emotions, news value and my own sense of a moral compass on assignment then make the decision in just a second.  I chose to take the picture and even though I have had some twinges of second guessing my decision I think the photo speaks volumes.

I look at this photo and when I see the never ending love of a man for his wife.  I see the dedication of my dad carrying for my mom in her illness.  I see the memory we keep alive to those who have passed and I see a spirit that can't be shattered by loss no matter the distance.

I talked to Mr. Norton after I took the photo and he told me a story about "Fiddler's Green" a place where soldiers and those who have died can rest in peace among green hills and music as they never tire from their dancing.  I wrote about our conversation here.

It has been a hard year for many of us.  We lost community leaders including Tom Hawkins and Pinkie Phillips and I try to remember the last time I took their photos and what I said to them.  I always wonder did I say the right thing, was I kind enough did I leave them better than when I found them.  Personally it has been a hard time losing my uncle just days before Christmas this year and dealing with a family crisis for most of the year.

Everyone always says it is better if people die if they were suffering, I guess it is true, I would't want anyone to be in pain or to suffer.  After my conversation with Mr. Norton I came to hope there really is a place like Fiddler's Green where weary souls or those in pain can find comfort in the music of another life.  I think about that a lot in times like this.

It may not be the most exciting image but the message and story of this photo tis the world to me.  In my photo files I named this photo Fiddler's Green and when I'm feeling down about things or thinking that road ahead is too hard and filled with pain I think about the story of Fiddler's Green and things just don't seem as bad.  One moment in time, one image, one story and so much to tell.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Year in Review: Wounds

One assignment this year stood out as the saddest moment of the year to cover behind the camera.  Under a cloudy November sky the name of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David P. Senft was unveiled on the Tracy War Memorial marking the latest casualty from Tracy to die in the war against terrorism.  Senft, a gunner onboard a Black Hawk helicopter shot himself at the Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan during his fourth tour of duty.  He was only 27-years-old.
We will never know the depths of pain and anguish that Staff Sgt. Senft was going through, nor do I wish to add to the pain and sorrow his family feels at his loss.  It is tragic that a young man in service to his country could be so wounded physically or mentally and then neglected by the Army to the point that he took his own life. 
Much has been said and debated about the decision to add the staff sergeant’s name to the Tracy War Memorial which honors those killed in the line of duty to their country.  Most of those who voiced their opposition to adding his name did so cruelly and anonymously from behind their computers on the web comment section.  Some showed their ignorance and contempt with obscene gestures.  Who are they to judge Staff Sgt. Senft?  They will never know the wounds he carried with him, visible or not.  They will never know the pain and suffering he felt to the point where he took his own life.  Most of us will never know the turmoil and terror of war and the effect that it can have on those who fight.  Soldiers suffer and sacrifice so we can live our everyday lives and sometimes they don’t have anything left for themselves.
On Veterans Day the name of Staff Sgt. David P. Senft was placed on the black marble wall of the Tracy War Memorial.  Members of the Patriot Guard Riders escorted the family to the memorial and in a very dignified ceremony the Senft’s name was unveiled.  I have been to several of these ceremonies but the saddest moment of this day to me was when the flag covering the staff sergeant’s name was given to his 5-year-old son Landon.
Whenever I look at the photo I always wonder if Landon knows what happened to his father.  I see him look at the letters of his fathers name on the flag and I hope he grows to understand one day that his father would have wanted to stay with him if he could have.  The wounds ran too deep, the pain too much and a tragic ending to a short life.
I think the War Memorial Association made the right choice adding his name to the wall and applaud their decision in the face of the criticism.  It was a sad day and one I don’t hope to repeat soon.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Year in Review: The same old scene

Some things never seem to change on assignment.  For me it is life behind the crime scene tape.  Six days after photographing a man who shot himself in a public suicide outside a rural fire station I stood on a side walk behind more crime scene tape photographing the investigation of a drive by shooting on Thanksgiving night.  It always the same old scene-crime scene tape and evidence markers.

It's not that we had a particularly violent year, we really didn't.  No murders that I can remember just lots of random crimes.  An armed robbery at a Kragens store with a street blocked off, a SWAT callout for a parolee barricaded in his home, a drive by shooting that covers nearly 4 blocks- the violence just seemed to keep coming.  We had people shot, robberies, home invasions-that seems to be the price for living in a town nearing the 90,000 population mark.

Throw in the occasional bank robbery, a grenade call or two and it was a year of chasing scanner calls.  Sometimes the photos were fairly intense-a SWAT officer carrying a child from a house, guns drawn during a search for a suspect- but more often than not my photo was just a strip of yellow tape at night.  I'm getting pretty good at capturing that.

Do I feel safe in Tracy?  Sure, I guess so.  One of my first assignments at the paper 14 years or so ago was covering a murder of a gas station clerk who shot in killed during a robbery.  I have lost count of the number of crimes scenes I have covered since then.   Contrary to what the web comments section would have you believe there has always been crime in this town, it is not a plague of shootings or a murder spree run rampant in town just recently.  If you don't want to feel safe walking down the street or sitting in your house or if you want to know what it feels like to live in a real honest to god shooting gallery then move to Stockton.  That cesspool stands at 58 homicides for the year with a few more days left for them to reach 60.

What bothers me about the crimes I have covered in Tracy is the level of violence in some of the crime scenes I have covered.  It is not one bullet fired into a house but 14 rounds.  It's not one shooting on Thanksgiving but three.  I don't think it is a fault of the police not doing their job, they can't be everywhere nor would I want to live in a police state of someone on every corner watching my every move.  It is a sign of the times.  It's always easier to take what you want than earn it, to strike out when angry then build friendships and understanding.
What does the next year hold for my crime scene photography?  I don't know.  A change in the police force leadership could bring about some renewed crime deterrence.   I'll wait and see what my life behind the line has in store for me in the coming year, and hopefully it will be nothing at all.

The Year in Review: The best scream of the year

Most wrestling shots are collection of arms and legs flailing about with a head in an odd angle so I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to capture this photo of West High’s Matt Mahe celebrating his win by pin in a 215 pound match.  You either want to capture peak action or the best emotion from a sporting match so this photo fit the bill quite nicely.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The year in review: The hottest assignment of the year

Turning east onto 6th Street I could see the line of flames and heavy black smoke pouring from a fence and house fire off Falcon Court.  I was still block away but I knew this wasn't going to end well.

Kids plying with matches led to the biggest fire I covered during the year.  Getting on scene through the thick smoke I could see the flames licking across the front of the house.  I found a good shooting vantage point in the empty field next door and watched as flames devoured the roof.

A fire crew went up the roof to ventilate the attic spaces and as I watched them work on the right side of the roof the left side began to collapse.  Flames were billowing up through the gaps as the roof began to buckle.  The crews cut their holes and left the roof and minutes later the right side where they had been standing caved in.

It has been some time since I saw a fire burn so fiercely in a home.  I talked to the crews that were ventilating the roof and they described it as one of the hottest fires they had fought.  Cutting the ventilation hole released a blowtorch of flames towards them.  The chainsaw they were using kept shutting off-the engine starved of oxygen in the the thick smoke from the fire.

Thankfully no was injured in the blaze. It is tragic that the family lost their home in a criminal act but possessions can be replaced, a life cannot.  It was one of the more spectacular fires I have covered and probably the top spot news event of the year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Year in Review: The strangest photo of the year

Oh this photo wasn't from an assignment, but heading back home from a hike at the Marin Headlands we spotted this odd sight in a bay in Sausalito.

It turns out that this is a 14-foot long fiberglass sculpture by artist David Hardy who was known for creating various sculptures of babies heads he would often leave around San Francisco.  So the story goes he made this giant baby, left it with a friend then one day it is floating in a harbor next to a restaurant.  Go figure, but it did make for a strange sight and I managed to grab a few quick frames from the raod as we headed home.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Year in Review: Outtakes

When life gives you lemons on assignment you don't make lemonade, you keep the pictures and remember how however bad your day is going, it was worse a couple of days ago.  So looking back here are some gems that never made the paper but really tell how my year went.  From crazed cats to broken cameras it was quite the year.