The hardest part of the job, by Keith Gosse

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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.

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Recent comments

  • Steven Der-Garabedian
    August 29, 2013 - 09:08

    Very well put Keith. I understand that some people don't want to see pictures of scenes because it reminds them of their own bad experiences. However, working as a photojournalist it is our job and not our favourite part of the job to cover any event where there is death or serious injury. My favourite subject to shoot is sports however I have to shoot all news and not just sports. I have a boss and readers to satisfy. A lot of times we are the first on the scene. I still remember my first death scene. It haunted me for days as well Keith. It's funny to read all the negative comments to your article because these are usually the people who rubber neck at accident scenes. They will look at the pictures when there is a warning about graphic detail. I'm not sure what they do for a living but I'm sure there are negative issues to their job as well. We don't make the news we report it because people want to know.

  • Dave
    August 26, 2013 - 13:18

    The more tragic the story the better it sells. Tragedy=money. No sympathy from me here. Get a real job insstead of helping the media dance on graves for adverising dollars.

  • Emilee
    August 26, 2013 - 11:01

    As someone who has had experienced the death of a loved one as result of a tragic vehicle collision I find it hard to see photos of similar tragic events. Personally its not something I need to see, its something that makes me sick to my stomach as I know and understand how those family members feel, will feel to see photos of the scene. It is however part of the news of our province and as uncomfortable as it makes me it still must be reported. I comment Keith, Joe and Rhonda as I know that you take the job seriously and sadly you take it home with you. For every photo posted with a news story their are no doubt countless more that can not be printed, and while they may be deleted or pushed aside in a folder on a server that no one ever looks at, those images are with the photographer forever.

  • Vern Faulkner
    August 08, 2013 - 20:15

    As the editor of a community newspaper, and the former managing editor of a daily, I understand this blog all too well. It needed to be written.

  • hockeyfan
    July 29, 2013 - 10:08

    People get offended by pictures and stories of tragic events. Fact is, it's news. Like the photographer that wrote this article said, taking pictures of the event is not something he enjoys doing but it's his job.

  • Gerry
    July 26, 2013 - 22:24

    Thank you for a well written and informative article. There is always a balance to be struck between reporting news information (either through text, photography or video) and "crossing the line" into generating news. The fact that "The story... quickly became one of the most viewed stories on our website." simply demonstrates (to me) that the public did indeed want to be informed about the event. These photographers are doing a job that I, as a member of the general public, ask for and support by buying their papers (or watching their TV shows). This public service must be provided by an independent self supporting organization otherwise we would only get the information that makes it through the filters of a government or clerical Censor. They do "help people" by making sure that we get reliable news, especially when that news is uncomfortable, unwelcome and even unpalatable.

  • Jon
    July 26, 2013 - 19:49

    "It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

  • Biff
    July 26, 2013 - 16:29

    Soooooo we are suddenly supposed to sympathize? You said it yourself: "The story... quickly became one of the most viewed stories on our website." Proving that you and your company only care about site hits and ad revenue. Nice try, bud. Try helping people instead of shoving a camera in their faces for a buck.

  • Kim
    July 25, 2013 - 14:27

    I'm very happy to see that this article has been written. Many people are quick to assume just as the author has written that they take some sort of pleasure in taking the photos when in fact they are simply doing their job - just as any of us do on any given day.