An alternate title for this post might be, “What I Don’t Do Best.”
For my entire career, I have had the privilege to work a job that I love. I am a news photographer. I get to attend and photograph events that shape the lives in my community, from lazy July 4 parades in one-street towns to college football national championships; from high school graduations to swaths of tornado damage; from kids playing in the park on beautiful days to my least favorite thing to photograph: human suffering.
I thought about this today as I drove away from a devastating house fire in the small community of Pickett, Oklahoma. I could see a dense plume of grey smoke hanging in the morning sky as I approached, listening to firefighters on the scanner saying the house was “fully involved.” The brick home was completely engulfed when I arrived, and just as I did, so did the owner of the property. She ran up to the burning remains of her home and was immediately restrained by firefighters. She kept screaming, “It’s my house!” Finally she fainted, and was carried to an ambulance, where she apparently regained consciousness and continued screaming.
I could not make myself photograph her. I know a lot of news photographers would, and those images might then win awards for them. But throughout my career, I have always been reluctant to intrude on violent, intimate, terrible moments like that. In the past when I have, I always did it from a distance, with a long lens, trying to hide behind obstacles and remaining quiet. In the moment, it is very obvious that no matter how prestigious the accolades might be for such a photograph, it is a violation of a private, horrible event for someone.
As the years have passed and I have become a welcome member of this community, winning awards has become less important to me than telling stories in a compassionate way.