When three members of the Canadian Coast Guard drowned in Middle Cove as they tried to recover the body of another drowning victim in 1989, the news was carried across the country. This clipping is from the Sudbury Star.
I want to make something very clear here at the start. As a news photographer, I do not enjoy going to accidents or tragedies of any kind. And, like anyone, I am affected by what I see.
At many accident scenes, however, I’ve heard all kinds of comments directed at me:
“So, you having fun taking pictures of the injured?”
“Get a real job you (expletive) scumbag!”
“Put the camera away before I put it away for you!”
“You enjoying yourself you piece of shit?”
I don’t know why people assume that I enjoy taking pictures at accident scenes. I guess the misconception comes from the fact that when most people take pictures, it’s because they enjoy what they are photographing and they assume the same about me at accidents.
But I can assure you no one in his or her right mind would be having fun photographing tragedies. It’s a part of my job that I don’t like. However, make no mistake about it, it is part of my job and, like every other aspect of my job, I try to do it to the best of my ability.
I work in the news business and our newspaper is in the business of providing news to our readers. When bad news happens I, or our other two photographers, are usually the first people on the scene. While some may not like my presence, I have a job to do just like everyone else that responds to these tragedies. The firefighters, paramedics and police understand this (mostly) and let us do what we do as long as we don’t endanger them or ourselves, or get in the way. On rare occasions, I’ve arrived first and I have assisted the injured or tried to help out until the emergency personnel got there.
I’ve been in a serious car accident myself and I know first-hand what it feels like to be injured and helpless as you wait for help. I try to be as compassionate as possible to the victims and stay out of the way of the emergency personnel, all the while trying to get the best image possible that can relay to our readers what happened at the scene.
Last month, I had to go to a fatal car accident on the Manuels Access Road in Conception Bay South. A driver had lost control of a car, and it crossed the median, ejecting a passenger who died instantly on the scene. Many of the comments on our website about the photos I sent in from the scene were quite vitriolic and abusive, and I personally was taken to task about providing those pictures. I do understand that some people do not want to see the photos from these scenes, but most people who read our paper or visit our website want as much information as we can provide about these incidents. The story about the accident quickly became one of the most viewed stories on our website.
The decision to publish these pictures is not taken lightly and when some pictures are near that grey, questionable area of whether to publish or not to publish, we usually will err on the side of caution. Have we pushed the limit occasionally? Yes, we have. Was it done blindly and without discussion? No, it wasn’t.
Three years ago photographer Joe Gibbons went to a fire in Shea Heights and took a photo of a fireman entering a house fire with the deceased victim lying in the doorway. It took a serious discussion involving many people, including myself, Joe, managing editor Kerry Hann, several other staff and managers from the newsroom, and probably the publisher, to come to a decision on whether to publish the picture. And even then, it was cropped so that only the victim’s feet could barely be seen. We took a lot of criticism, but the photo was gripping enough to show what first responders face when they arrive at a scene, and we went with it.
Just eight months ago, I had to go to an industrial accident at the new Fortis building under construction downtown. A worker died after falling from the sixth floor at the site. I arrived just as the emergency personnel did and it was quickly evident there was nothing they could do for the victim. I had to take pictures of the scene and relay information back to our newsroom about what was happening. While I had pictures of the firefighters examining the victim (I thought he might still be alive) and then covering him with a tarp, we didn’t use any of the photos in which the victim’s body could be seen because it would have served no purpose and be gratuitously offensive.
And this most recent accident on the Manuels Access Road was one of the worst I have ever seen. I saw things that day that I do not want to ever see again, but suffice it to say that those details and photos were not used or published because we exercised our judgement. Unfortunately, I’ve since heard that some people driving past in their cars saw fit to Tweet and email photos of the accident scene before the victim could be covered up. That is the downside of social media.
Twenty-five years ago I watched helplessly with rescue workers as three Canadian Coast Guard personnel drowned in heavy seas in Middle Cove as they tried to recover the body of a man who had also drowned there while body surfing. I barely slept for days afterwards, and when I did I had nightmares about the event. This doesn’t even come close to what their families went through, of course, but don’t for a second think that I enjoyed being there and photographing the scene.
I’ve been exposed to more death, injury and tragedy than most people — except for first responders — and I have tried to deal with it to the best of my ability. It certainly is not a fun part of the job.