I have a job that many people envy. Photo enthusiasts often gush about the fancy cameras I'm shooting with, or how great it must be to make pictures for a living. They lament about not being able to attend a sporting event for work or how they spend their paid hours under fluorescent lights, staring at a desktop picture of Maui as they daydream of fresh air.
Even my painfully slow days of endless feature hunting are put into a brighter perspective when I stop to photograph somebody who asks, "So your job is to drive around and look for photos?"
"Sometimes," I reply, explaining that it can be pretty dull and that it's not quite as fun as it sounds when you're expected to come back with some decent photos.
But I can tell they don't listen to the last part.
Never mind that I'm at an entry-level position in an industry that can be generously described as sinking. Pay cuts and layoffs have been looming since I started just over a year ago, and people don't realize that we also are tasked with photographing such gems as press conferences and road construction.
All in all, it's a pretty sweet gig, though, and every once in a while, I do stop and think, "I get paid for this?"
But sometimes, it's just a job.
In early March, we ran a story about the proposed $990 million reduction in health care spending (Laura Kate Zaichkin, "Future of care stays up in the air for Tri-Cities," Tri-City Herald, March 8, 2009). We focused on Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco for the photos because of its program in partnership with La Clinica that sponsors low-income Tri-Citians for the state’s Basic Health Plan. The proposed cuts would affect their ability to help those in need.
As with any corporate entity, I had to be escorted by a public relations representative while in the hospital. I said I was hoping to get photos of a patient consulting his or her doctor, but that I didn't want anything set up. She conferred with hospital staff and they got permission and all the proper paperwork signed.
Somehow, despite my request for a real situation, they arranged for a doctor to come in and pretend to examine a patient who had already been examined:
He kept asking me what he should do, and even though I kept telling him that I didn't want him to do anything special for me, he'd respond with something like, "Oh, this will look good. I'll use my stethoscope." My pleas for ethical visual reporting were falling on deaf ears.
I thanked the good doctor for his time and felt bad about inadvertently subjecting the poor kid to an extra round of prodding — even more so because I was sticking around after the doctor left.
He was clearly in pain:
And his siblings were enjoying the attention a bit too much:
"You must hate me right now, huh?" I asked him, eliciting a weak smile. "Don't worry, I'll be done soon."
It wasn't long until a nurse had to come in and fix his IV. So I grabbed this shot and got out of their way:
The nurse wasn't happy about being in the photo, but I wasn't going to prolong this photo shoot to wait for another real moment. I thanked the family for letting me photograph and cracked a self-deprecating joke for the kid before wishing him a speedy recovery.
I couldn't help but feel a little scummy when I left the hospital — not because I thought I had behaved unprofessionally, but because I felt the situation had been unfair to the kid. I wasn't there when the hospital got permission, so I don't know what officials said. I don't know how clear the situation was to him. I don't know why the family agreed to be photographed. I just know that it simultaneously made my job easier and harder.
It was easier because they had found me a patient very quickly, but harder because it left me uneasy.
This may seem incongruous with my usual photo goals and arguments. I had, after all, asked specifically for a patient to photograph. And true, emotion makes for stronger photographs, but this kid wasn't specifically required to tell the story and I felt bad for possibly exacerbating what was already a pretty crappy day for the 6-year-old.
It's one thing to build trust with a subject for a bigger story about whatever medical drama is unfolding in his or her life, and another to show up out of nowhere to snap some pictures so a story about the state's budget for health care can have some accompanying art.
In the end, I doubt I did any lasting harm to the boy, and while the situation never felt that right to me, it didn't feel wrong enough to back off. True, I could have taken the easier route and exclusively photographed the hospital staff, but I get the best shot I can in any given situation because that's my job.
We all have to do things we don't like for work, and this job is no different. Doing things right doesn't always leave you feeling as such, but I believe this empathetic quality is necessary to do this kind of work ethically. Maybe it's because I'm soft or just new at this, but the day that a situation like this doesn't concern me at all is the day at which I've done this job for too long.