Walking the Line

May 20, 2010 

As journalists, we have to balance the public’s right to know and reader interest with compassion. Some may scoff at this notion as they envision the nosy, pushy reporter intruding on private lives and grief in order to better her career or earn him a bigger paycheck. There certainly are people who fall into this category, but for the most part, the journalists who work crappy hours for meager wages do so to try and tell stories that matter.

Telling a victim’s story requires walking this fine line, though sometimes the line you cross isn’t one you’d even considered.

After John Burnett first returned home to start recovery from the May 9 stabbing in Benton City that resulted in a collapsed lung and required the removal of his spleen, reporter Paula Horton and I met him at the West Richland home he shares with his wife, Sarah, to hear his side of the story. I had an assignment before, so Paula was done with her interview by the time I arrived and KEPR’s Chelsea Kopta was heading in. This worked out well because I like to hear somebody tell their story before starting a portrait session. Not only does this fill me in on his perspective, but it gives me time to figure out my portrait approach and lets me stash aside a couple of follow up questions to keep them engaged while making photos.

In this case, John looked like he was pretty much confined to his recliner. As Chelsea’s interview went on, he seemed to be fighting more muscle spasms and pain. He made a comment at some point about how we’d have to wrap it up soon, so I knew I had to work quickly. Thankfully, he was facing some nice big windows, so I had his wife Sarah join him by the recliner for some photos. I asked him to lift his arm up behind his head like I had seen him doing earlier to uncover his wounds and he said that was the most comfortable position for him anyway. I got some variations of this shot with his scars and bandages exposed, and this is what ran in the paper:

Fearing the scars might not pass the Cherrios Test, I shot a version with his blanket up, as well:

All in all, the photo session took about two minutes and I felt pretty good about my photos.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out the photo had generated a couple complaints the next day. One emailer thought that seeing John’s armpit was in poor taste, while another caller left a message on Paula’s phone, “You know, the picture is not very good, honestly, and having to see his pit hair and his tattoos and everything else and his bare chest it’s kind of, uh, rude. Anyways, if you guys could please select your photos a little bit better. We didn’t actually need to see the stab wounds. That’s all I’m trying to say. You guys have a >great< weekend.”

Her “great” didn’t seem sincere enough to leave in normal text, but also not sarcastic enough to put in ironic quotes or italics, so I went with symbols that can also be used mathematically:

Sincerity > great < Irony

Judging by the sparse response, I’m guessing most people didn’t have a problem with it. Still, it’s not hard to imagine some others shaking their heads and tut-tuting without being moved to contact us. Despite how strange it is to me that somebody found John’s armpit more upsetting than his huge scar and stab wounds, I’ll be more aware of this imaginary boundary next time. This time around, I was just trying to get my photos quickly to allow him some rest and when he said he was most comfortable in that position, I was fine with him staying like that. Still, I tried to frame my shots in a way that didn’t accentuate his armpit.

As for the caller’s comments, I don’t feel like I have to defend my photo to somebody who thinks seeing some tattoos is “rude,” but I will elaborate a little on why I included everything I did. As I stood there listening to his story, it made me reflect on my personal incidents in bar outings past. There lay a guy that most would describe as “tough,” laboring to breathe and wincing in pain. I have a pretty big mouth sometimes, and it grows exponentially with some liquid courage. If John’s story is true, then I certainly deserved this more than he did on several occasions.

The caller said that we didn’t need to see his stab wounds. Of course we don’t need to, but seeing them is what made me reflect most seriously about how lucky I’ve been. I’ve heard about plenty of violent incidents at bars, read numerous stories similar to this one, but actually seeing the physical and emotion toll was a different experience. I wanted to try and communicate this feeling in my photo. My job is more than just showing what the subject of the story looks like or where an event took place. The most successful photos make the viewer feel something. They’re adjectives and adverbs, not nouns and verbs.

And in that respect, I guess I should be happy somebody took the time to express their opinion — no matter how asinine or prudish. True, revulsion wasn’t exactly the emotion I was aiming for, but the vast majority of the photos we run in the paper generate zero feedback, and it’s nice to be reminded that people do care what we print.


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