Today I passed up potentially prize-winning photos. I was in position and ready to pull the trigger. As I watched one dramatic moment after another unfolded, I could not bring my camera up to my eye.
Am I going soft? Not doing my job? Should I be reprimanded?
I am sure there will be arguments on both sides. But my conscience will be clear when I go to bed tonight and I will only hope that everything will work out.
Wednesday afternoon I was at my desk processing photos from previous assignments when my antenna went up as a call come over the scanner. Signal 1000 on Beech Street. (Signal 1000 tells police on duty who are not on this particular call to not use the radio as a priority situation is unfolding). Lewiston or Auburn I wondered since all calls from Lewiston, Auburn and other municipalities’ police and fire communication all come through one speaker mounted in the photo department. I quickly deciphered it as a possible suicide attempt on the foot trestle between Simard Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston and Bonney Park in Auburn.
It is a sad fact, but we hear this more often than you think. We generally won’t publish a photo in the newspaper from a suicide attempt unless it is something that causes a major public scene and creates serious disruption or public spectacle. At some point it is deemed “newsworthy.” It is one of dozens of judgement calls we make individually and often collectively every day when it comes to what we choose to cover.
I have been on dozens of these calls over the years and we have varied on how we handle them. Often we publish a brief to let readers know what is going on, and if there is a generic photo of all the emergency crews blocking the area, we might run that as well. But most of the time we just don’t go.
When I heard the fire dispatcher call for the rescue boat and cutting equipment, that tipped the scales on the response threshold. When I got to the area there were dozens of police, fire, rescue and ambulance on both sides of the river. The young man was near the middle, on the outside of the bridge standing on a big pipe with a rope around his neck. When a woman came running from the parking lot crying and screaming, the drama intensified. The responders holding her back, dropping to her knees and crying, lights, cops…..the bridge looming in the background. You could not have scripted it much better to get a genuinely dramatic moment. If I worked myself around, I might have been able to line it all up and get the guy in the background with her in the foreground. Sure prize winner. I could have argued back at the newspaper that it was a public spectacle and we owe it to the public to show what was going on. I am pretty sure I could have “sold it.” Others might have argued against, but I do carry some weight……hey, no fat jokes please.
How many photojournalists would have “shot everything and let the editors decide.” Use the excuse that it’s their job to be there and capture what is going on. I made a conscious choice to not do my job and show a little compassion. I tried to be discrete and did shoot some photos in case the worst happened, but for the most part, I put the camera on my hip so neither the woman or the despondent man would have the added stress of knowing they will be splashed all over the news. What if he noticed me and that was the final straw that caused him to jump. Another opportunity for prize-winning photos. There are some things that trump my journalistic responsibilities and this was one of those scenario’s. It was my decision. When I was young and green I probably would have pushed the situation. Being a father with many more life experiences has changed my perspective on many things.
I am glad I work for a newspaper that shares my compassion and won’t question the judgment call I made today.
Having said all that, my portfolio contains dozens of photos of people who are in compromising situations. Accidents, fires, disputes and other situations where I have made the choice to pull the trigger and record the moment. Am I hypocritical? Perhaps. Cynical. Certainly. Do I pick and choose which situations I shoot and when to stand down. Yep. Do I always make the proper decision. Nope. Every situation is different. Some decisions are harder than others. Sometimes we make the wrong decision to publish or not publish something. We often get criticized and praised for our reporting. The left calls us right, the right calls us left. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t most of the time. It’s part of the reason I love what I do. Interesting, intriguing, exciting and the ability to impact people’s lives. Every day is different and every day we start with a clean slate. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.