Drop (almost) everything

January 18, 2013 

Perhaps the most intriguing part of my job to other people is the drop-everything-because-the-shiz-has-hit-the-fan kind of assignment. Thankfully, I'm not expected to be on-call 24 hours a day and sometimes you don't have the option to drop quite everything.

As I parked at Kiona-Benton High School in Benton City last Tuesday for a double-header of basketball, I caught the crackly tail end of something serious on our emergency band scanner. Executive Editor Laurie Williams called just as I was muttering, "What the f...?"

We talked about what we each had heard, with Laurie filling me in on the parts I missed and I confirming what I thought I had heard.

Car in a tree.

Not sure where.

Somewhere near Prosser?

One likely dead.

Two helicopters on the way.

But I hadn't shot anything yet and was supposed to have photos from both the girls and boys games. Laurie said she'd listen for more details while I ran in to get some shots of the girls game.

Unfortunately it was half time, so I spent a few antsy minutes awaiting the action. I knew if this was a serious wreck, I probably wouldn't make it back in time for the boys game, in which case I'd need two shots from the girls. I snapped some OK action shots in case of a Ki-Be win,

a Connell win,

and a decent tie-ball shot that would be fine either way:

A noisy call to Laurie later and I was heading toward Grandview after spending about 10 minutes at the game.

Spot news is always difficult to cover. You usually head to a scene with very sketchy details and being able to get storytelling photos and accurate information depend on a lot of variables that are totally out of your control.

How hectic is the situation? Is there a safe way to see what's going on? How far back is the road closed? Are the victims' loved ones there? Are there other witnesses?

It goes on and on, but one of the most important questions is usually answered as soon as you arrive.

Are the responding agencies ones you have good relationships with?

I've literally had a police officer turn around to see what I was trying to photograph and move himself to thoroughly block me from shooting a car they had stopped after a high-speed pursuit. Still others will refuse to even confirm the most basic of information and will corral you at terrible vantage point. Thankfully, the firefighters and sheriff's deputies I encountered didn't try to keep me in the dark.

The unlit country road did that just fine by itself.

Paramedics were rushing a victim to the helicopter when I arrived, which I was able to kind of photograph at ISO 3200 and 1/12 sec. at f/2.8 with my 70-200:

I couldn't even see the car in the tree at first and shot at the same slow shutter speed after a firefighter pointed it out, working my motor drive while spraying and praying for a reasonably sharp frame. As the emergency crews cleared and I waited for a Benton County sheriff's lieutenant who was supposed to be on the way, I looked through my take to find the basketball and wreck photos I wanted to transmit.

I went with this frame while sending my photos from the car:

before Lt. Chuck Jones provided early details, which helped me produce this video:

It wasn't until I was back in the office and editing the video that I found this sharper still of the same scene above,

which I would have transmitted, obnoxious lens flare notwithstanding.

Now some of you may be wondering why I didn't just pop some flash to avoid the super slow shutter speed I was working at. I did give it a whirl after the scene calmed down,

but aside from not liking how stark and flat the direct flash looks from that distance, I mostly didn't want to call extra attention to myself when I first arrived.

If this sounds like a sterile, heartless analysis of a tragedy in which two teenagers died, it is. In a small way, the technical difficulties helped insulate me from how horrible the whole thing was until the long, quiet drive back to the office. The way that car appeared to have been tossed into the tree meant an eventual triple fatality was a very real possibility and I spent the hour reflecting on the reckless driving of my teenage years. I was thankful to have made it through all those stupid decisions back when I was invincible and even more thankful that these sorts of assignments aren't as common as people think.

For a look at how photojournalists deal with endless tragedy...

The Atlantic has a very in-depth piece looking at how PTSD affects conflict photojournalists, focusing on the experiences of Ashley Gilbertson, who spent years documenting war and is now working on documenting the bedrooms of fallen soldiers. It's a long read, especially on a computer, but brings up some interesting points I hadn't considered, like how a struggling industry is closing foreign bureaus and relying on more stringers who don't have the medical coverage to help them cope with what they've seen.

Some good news for photographers, as a judge ruled that news agencies can't rip off photos posted on Twitter.

A strange article earlier this week about how Manti Te'o's father was blacklisting the Honolulu Star-Advertiser from being a source for them in future because of what he felt was an unflattering photo of his son in the BCS National Championship game was completely overshadowed by what may end up being the strangest story of the year.

Greg Heisler gives a fascinating look at how he photographed Michael Phelps for a 2004 Time Magazine cover, masterfully handling the light to simulate a pool setting they did not have access to.

And one lucky photographer got a "but-wait-there's-more!" bonus to the vintage camera he bought when he found eight photographs more than 100 years old inside.


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