Wading Through Grief

August 5, 2010 

Of all the things I've covered in my time here, two drownings have been the worst. There's something so draining about a drowning scene, seeing distraught loved ones helplessly waiting and probably clinging to hope that the victim will be one of the lucky few who survive prolonged submersion.

Last week, reporter Pratik Joshi and I responded to a call for dive rescue at Wade Park in Pasco. We got there as Columbia Basin Dive Rescue was suiting up and I tried my best to quickly figure out what had happened.

There were some people actively searching

as other emergency workers watched from shore with somebody who appeared to be a distraught mother.

I saw some people by two docked boats and headed over to see if anybody knew what had happened and to get a better angle on what was going on. The kids told me they had just come back from boating on the river and their parents were helping to find the boy. Another couple docked let me step onto their boat, which gave me a couple extra degrees of angle to help juxtapose the waiting family with the rescue effort:

And when diver Francis Buck signaled that he had found the boy, a man and teen frantically worked to try and pull him in faster:

It came down to one of these two for publication consideration because of the frantic tension they convey. An emotional moment near the ambulance was another option:

but it doesn't have the same intensity that the other shots have. There's more emotion in this shot after the ambulance left:

but it doesn't have the context of location or water like the rope pulling photos.

Which one to choose? As I discussed the decision with Executive Editor Ken Robertson, I leaned heavily toward the first in the series. He was concerned about the messy layers on the right edge of the frame being distracting, while I was concerned that the second frame made the teen look too comical in his fall. After looking through the photos again and getting feedback from others, however, I think the second one is stronger.

It's still unclear how 11-year-old Cameron Hartwell ended up in the water. The family who aided the search told me they had overheard the two younger boys asking each other where Cameron was and that there weren't any adults around at that time. That, coupled with the fact Cameron was fully clothed and wearing boots when they found him, makes me think the teen was in charge as they were playing near the water. Seeing his frenzied actions on the shore and how he seemed to be internally beating himself up:

made me scared of making him look goofy in the photo. What's interesting is that he doesn't appear silly as I look at the photo now, and the memory of looking at the shot so soon after making it is a lot different.

While covering the incident didn't bring me to tears, that doesn't mean it didn't affect or stick with me. Immediately after this, I had another assignment and while chatting with somebody he asked if I liked my job. I told him I do, that I get to photograph a wide variety of things — though it's not always fun. He said every job was like that, and I blurted out that I had just finished covering a drowning.

Instantly, I regretted saying that and probably sounded like I was trying to win a pissing contest of whose job has the worst moments. Even I'm not narcissistic enough to think I have it the worst. In fact, I probably had it easiest in this situation compared to the emergency workers, volunteers, onlookers, and, obviously, the family.

From the moment I grab my gear from the car, I've switched into a work mode that puts me in an odd state that blends empathy with aloofness that helps insulate me from the tragedy. I start by noting the angle of light and taking inventory of who is on the scene. Quick scans around for uniforms and emotional people clue me in on the important players and places I can go to stay out of the way. If it's not a particularly hectic scene, I'm very careful to avoid police who look bored because, in my experience that's the second easiest way to get relegated to the dunce's corner. Then I look for people who might know what's going on and try to take the temperature of the place. If it looks like there might be a way to try and talk to those directly involved without causing a new scene, I will. That was definitely impossible at Wade Park.

While shooting, I'm hunting for storytelling emotion or trying to layer different pieces of information while keeping track of all the technical issues. Yes, even with digital cameras, you still have to be mindful of your settings, so that when stuff happens you're not getting caught up in the moment and over or underexposing everything.

In this case, the light was inappropriately beautiful, with soft, warm light bathing the horrible drama unfolding about a hundred feet away from me. Shooting from the boat, I had few options in adjusting my composition and just kept an eye on the scene, waiting.

It's strange to be concerned about comparatively trivial things like that, but it's that concern that buffers me, ever so slightly, from the tragedy. Even photographing rescue workers pulling the boy’s limp body from the water isn't really upsetting until I'm done snapping and what I've seen starts to sink in.

Stranger still is that running the photo would be far more upsetting to readers who weren't there than for me to make the photo, which shows a lifeless Cameron being lifted out of the water onto a backboard.

Though I knew we would never run the photo as I made it, knowing that I had to press the shutter was just as certain. No, it's not a macabre fascination that compels me, it's an odd combination of documentary duty and trying to keep that thin buffer up as much as possible. The photo, in this case, confirmed the fact that Cameron was fully clothed and wearing boots, and even if it wasn't against our practice to run photos of dead people (or, as in this case, people who were likely to die really soon), I still think the frantic shore photo does a better job of telling the story. It communicates the emotional toll instead of being bluntly shocking and ideally keeps the dialogue on the topic of water safety instead of sparking an argument about how scummy the media has become.

That is, after all, the point of covering stories like these. We alert readers to dangerous areas or remind them of just how quickly a refreshing dip can turn into a nightmare, hoping that future tragedies can be prevented. Does it work? It’s hard to say whether less prominent coverage would result in more drownings, and true to all tragedies since before the Greek started making them up, this one will undoubtedly repeat itself.

It's hard not to feel like what I do is futile sometimes, especially when photo vets like Neil Burgess are pronouncing photojournalism dead, but just like the documentary photographers who keep showing us the horrors of war, poverty and corruption worldwide, omitting these local tragedies is not an option.


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