Tragedy and the Role of Professional Photojournalists

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by Alex Garcia of Chicago Tribune

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Newspaper pages from around the world speak to the international interest in the Boston Marathon tragedy. A collection of front pages can be viewed at the Newseum website

It’s hard to write about any other photojournalism topic given what happened in Boston yesterday. Awful. The announcement of the photojournalism Pulitzers, dominated by the immense tragedy of the Syrian conflict, had the majesty of a clip contest.

Like many, I’ve prayed and been mindful of those in Boston and their families.  I hope the images created by colleagues in Boston serve them and our nation, as we recover from the carnage.

I don’t know John Tlumacki personally, or any of the other photographers who covered yesterday’s horror at the Boston Marathon. Their images were shocking, conveying the horror, confusion, and fear of the moment.

When spectators with cameras were fleeing, they headed towards the madness of the explosion. Tlumacki took his iconic picture just 15 seconds after the first explosion.

Think about this for a moment. At the finish line, there must have been hundreds of cameras. You would think everyone was taking pictures and recording videos. Twitter as a publishing platform is primed and ready for stills and video. It’s a world where everyone has a camera. But I saw very few images from the general public.

Why is that?  As you look through the photo galleries and videos, you can reach your own conclusions. But as I watched the behavior of photojournalists, it confirmed for me the need for professionals in this age of de-professionalization of the news industry.

Everywhere within the videos and images, there were insights into why the role of professionals is distinct and crucial.

• Mission

News photographers push for access because their unique mission is to share and bear witness for thousands or millions of people. With that, there’s a sense of ownership over events, more than you would get as a casual observer with a camera. That ownership often comes with the risk of personal safety and interpersonal conflict. In an interview, Tlumacki spoke of this need to record events while considering the instruction of a police officer who asked him not to “exploit” the moment.

• Conviction

Without conviction of purpose, a police officer’s comment or a multitude of feelings such as fear, revulsion or horror could keep someone from lifting their camera to take a picture. “Oh, I shouldn’t photograph. Shame on me.” But with deep journalistic conviction comes professional detachment. With detachment comes the phrase, “Get over it.” To withhold taking pictures outright, for personal reasons, would be a total disservice to the public. Just like a first responder, a professional news photographer has to toggle between one’s feelings and obligations to serve appropriately. In a Time Light Box interview, freelance photographer Bill Hoenk describes it this way,  “I was horrified by what I was seeing, but there was some sort of instinct that said, don’t worry about that, just keep shooting, because you’re the only person with a camera around that I could see and it needs to be done. So I kept shooting.”

• Professionalism

When looking at the videos from the event, I didn’t see photojournalists elbowing medical personnel and other first responders out of their way to stick their cameras in the faces of victims. In fact, you can see them approach with hesitation, step aside and even help move the barricade. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously. There’s always the “Worst Example of Humanity” walking around with a camera.  But photojournalists understand the need to get out of the way while doing their job. You could see that.

• Position

It serves no purpose to have a witness pointing a video camera at the sky or from all the way down the street, leaving viewers with a vague sense of the human toll. But there is understandable hesitation to approach the gruesome scene as well.  Nonetheless, professionals with their sense of mission and conviction got closer to make pictures. When several stayed in the street, others were on the sidewalk. To distill down the horror and enormity of such a scene into rectangular frames takes positioning and careful framing.  It’s an unenviable situation with a lot of sensibilities at stake and second-guessing afterward.  But where one positions oneself with a camera makes all the difference in communicating the tragic reality to a watching world.

• Preparation

None of the above even happens without preparation. Mishaps caused by batteries, cards, focus, exposure, shutter speed all can take place. They happen less so with the benefit of daily professional experience. Which is why it is better to have more professionals at a news scene than less. More eyes raise the odds of seeing something that changes our understanding of a scene. Given the need to do more with less, I would not be surprised if some news photographers left before the fourth hour of the marathon. The winners had crossed and the expected news of the day had already occurred.

Most photojournalists haven’t photographed the horror of the type we saw in Boston. But when faced with a shocking reality, I would think that our professional instincts, training and mission would take over, as they did for our colleagues in Boston.

Their tragic images, the pictures that serve as reminders of an awful tragedy that we must fight harder to prevent, showed the urgent need and relevance of professionals now, more than ever.

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