During a photojournalism class at the University of Oregon, professor Julianne Newton gave us all assignments to cover all the general categories of photography. When our spot news assignment came up, I signed up for a couple ride-alongs with Eugene police figuring that was my best shot at catching something unplanned.
During these job shadows, both officers warned me about a curse of the ride-along — saying that nothing exciting ever seemed to happen whenever somebody rode shotgun with them. Sure enough, one such excursion nearly lulled me to sleep before a briefly exciting high-speed rush to a potential crime scene got my blood pumping. When we arrived, though, the officer I joined was one of the cars in charge of the wide perimeter as they searched for the suspect. I got to play with the spotlight for about an hour before they called off the search and my glimpse into police work ended.
In my three years here, I've had a few job shadows, and while my infinite wisdom, lightning wit and pleasant company have made them all wildly enjoyable for my temporary wards, the curse mostly held true. While boring workaday assignments and prolonged feature hunts are much more indicative of an average day, my shadows and I are both pulling for something spicy to happen.
So when I found out I'd have a budding journalist tagging along last Thursday, I braced for boredom and brushed up on my small-talk skills, reading the latest Seventeen and YM for some age-appropriate talking points to fall back on. My day oddly began with a ride-along of my own as I joined Washington State Trooper James Zane on an emphasis patrol to go with a story about increased penalties for violating the "move over" law after the new year.
I wasn't sure exactly where we were going or what he was going to be doing and often people have a very different idea of what kinds of photos we're looking for. Sometimes subjects want to stage a situation for you or excessively restrict your access in the name of safety. So when he pulled over the first driver for not switching lanes, I was pleasantly surprised for a number of reasons.
First, he was OK with me walking up ahead on the shoulder to shoot from the angle I wanted. Second, we were still fairly close to the driver who was originally pulled over for not having a front license plate, so I could use the flashing lights in the background as an informative compositional element. Third, we were still on the highway, so there were plenty of cars going by to include for the same reason. Finally, the scene was lit in a way that let me keep the driver semi-anonymous (a plus whenever it's just a random person who didn't get in trouble anyway), and there was a clean spot to stick the trooper's trademark hat silhouette against:
It's not great, but better than I had expected — especially on the first stop. The next couple stops were in less ideal places. One was too far from the original traffic stop that the driver didn't move away from and the other was off the highway. We wrapped up the ride-along in record time. With how smoothly my day had started, I was nervous about my shadow's chances at seeing an interesting day.
No sooner had the high school age shadow shown up when a residential fire came blaring over the emergency scanner. Before she even had a full tour of the office, we were on our way toward the column of smoke in Pasco. I explained my approach in these situations and told her to stay close to me as we neared the quickly dissipating smoke. I took the dwindling nature of the emergency as a plus, hoping the lessened danger would get me good access, but we were all kept at a gloriously blocked vantage point. Here are the best shots I could get
before moving down the next row of mobile homes to find a workable angle:
Before we even wrapped up at that scene, however, my boss called about a shooting in Kennewick he wanted me to help cover, so after getting the basic information about the blaze, we scooted out to a scene where Kennewick detectives were looking for evidence. I made a few frames
and ended up running this one as a secondary photo with the story.
It's a pretty boring photo, really (perhaps the most oft-written phrase in my blogs), but it serves its purpose, and it's not like evidence gathering is the most exciting endeavor — especially when it's away from the scene of the crime. The stuff they found was possibly dumped by the alleged shooter and they found the gun about an hour later. We didn't stick around for that because I had a basketball game about an hour later at 4 p.m. The funny thing was that the game had been moved up without our sports staff's knowledge and the match was over by the time we got there.
Cliché though it may be, I don't hope for bad things to happen, I just want to be there when they do. Tagging along or having somebody follow you has a way of slightly warping that perspective, however, because you don't want to disappoint. And while I won't go as far as to say she was lucky a mobile home burned and a guy got shot, without those newsworthy events, all she would have seen was a news meeting. Her enthusiasm was refreshing while covering relatively mundane breaking news. I'm not trivializing burned property or a gut-shot wound because they're far from mundane for those involved, but this job has a way of jading you. Car wrecks that cause people to crane their necks and utter "oh my God" often only elicit a shrug and a smug "I've seen much worse" from me.
It was interesting to see how excited she was, however, and like the conversation we had in which I explained how dial-up internet worked in the days of 14.4k modems when I was her age, seeing that excitement triggered some self-reflection. Only, instead of making me feel old and soon-to-be-outdated, it reminded me of a time when the curse of the ride-along hung over my head as I searched for the shiny luster of spot news.