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Making Friends

A photojournalist's actions sometimes seem to conflict with reason. When there's a big fire, we run toward it.

The most extreme of our breed head into battle shooting photos instead of guns.

At the other end of the spectrum, when it's snowy and slick, and people are crashing their cars all over town, we go drive around for a few hours to look for photos.

When winter arrived in storm form before the official date in December, I set out in one car while photo editor Bob Brawdy and reporter Paula Horton ventured out in another. The intention was that they would focus on the crashes while I looked for feature photos, but as plans in this business go sometimes, our roles reversed when a call came over the scanner for a truck in the ditch a couple miles from where I had been cruising.

When I arrived, I introduced myself to a woman who responded by telling me we had already met before.

"Where?" I asked, somewhat confrontationally — a bad habit of mine when I don't recognize somebody. I know I'm terrible with names, but I like to think that I'm good with faces despite the higher-than-average number of people I meet.

Turns out, it was Jenny Rieke, a local artist who I had photographed for the cover of our defunct Downtown Kennewick insert. I approached the driver, who was still in the truck, and introduced myself to let him know I was going to be taking some pictures.

"Not with my permission," he said.

"Well, we're on public prop..." I started before he knowingly nodded and said, "I know, but you don't have my consent."

I kept my distance as I made my photos, not sure exactly how mad he was about my presence. There are certain photos that I'm willing to risk bodily harm and subject aggravation for, but this was not one of those situations. It was one minor wreck out of many that day and nobody was hurt, but we did need art to go with our weather story and roadside wrecks were definitely a part of that.

It just happened to be the first I made it to that day.

When I saw a wheelchair come out of the back, however, I knew this was a unique situation — a feeling that was confirmed when Washington State Patrol Sgt. Zach Elmore knelt down by the passenger door to offer a piggyback ride (pun unavoidable) to Pete Rieke.

A small part of me was hesitant because I knew he would likely be embarrassed by the photo, but never did I feel exploitative about documenting that situation. To me, it's more about Sgt. Elmore and the rest of the troopers and officers on duty that day helping people out.

I left that scene to proceed with my feature hunt, but another call came in about a State Patrol cruiser that had been hit — cementing my role reversal for the day.

I make it a point to ask people their names directly when possible even if I know I can just go to the police on scene. I don't know if it makes the other person feel any better, but removes any weasel from my gut.

The driver who clipped the side view off the cruiser was sitting in her truck, staring straight ahead when I walked up to the passenger side and knocked on the window.

Based on the glare she shot at me, her "no" wasn’t necessary.

When I returned to the office, I looked up Rieke in our archives. Unlike the Herald vets who saw my photo, I hadn't recognized his face or name, or known about his past achievements as one of the developers of the snow pod, which has allowed him and other paraplegics to climb mountains. Rieke ascended Mount Hood in 1998, Mount Rainier in 2000 and Mount Shasta in 2002.

As if the situation needed more coincidences, Rieke wrote an op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Tri-City Forum about his recent trip to the front page, the same week I planned on publishing this column. In it, he wrote "It’s one thing to gain notoriety for your accomplishments, another to be caught on film being fallible," a statement that summarizes the then-intangible urge I had to call him while I was sitting at my desk, working up the photo.

I didn't call because I felt bad for getting the shot, but because I felt bad for his impending embarrassment. Of the situations where I am denied access, this is one that makes perfect sense to me. It’s bad enough to have the rubberneckers driving by after a wreck without having a photo of the incident printed 40,000 times the next day.

I also wanted to make sure he understood my position. Breaking my protocol of asking directly for names, I had gone through his wife Jenny on-scene because he had already said he didn't want his picture taken and I saw no need to further aggravate him.

He was very understanding on the phone, asking only one thing of me that I could not promise:

"Just keep it off the front page."

Like that's something a peon such as myself even has control over.

It's not my job to make friends on assignment, but I do try to at least perform my duties pissing off as few as possible.

Sometimes it's unavoidable, though, and being in the right place at the wrong time can net me a good photo, if not goodwill from the subject.


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