Monday, April 26, 2010

The tougher side of photojournalism

It was a very tragic weekend across Minnesota for traffic fatalities.

Chasing sirens has always been a part of a photojournalist's work day. Word of a possible 10-54 (a fatal car crash) crackling over the scanner will send us rushing out the door. It's never pleasant duty and has grown less so as I have grown older.

Nevertheless, those tragedies are grist for the news of the day so we dutifully head out to the scene to record the roadway mayhem, like it or not.

In such instances, as in so many news events, I try to be the fly on the wall when photographing them. I don't want to interfere at all with the rescue people whose duties are of far more importance than mine. And I'd just as soon not be noticed.

We depend on the cooperation of the law enforcement officials on the scene to gain access and frankly, sometime it is just a lot easier to deny access to everyone, media included, in the confusion and activity around a crash or other spot news event like a fire. If I'm working unnoticed, I'm less likely to be asked to move along.

Believe it or not, there was a time long ago when law enforcement actually would call a reporter or photographer, even late at night or on a weekend, to tip us off about a new event. In my hometown of Worthington, Minn., the reporter or photographer on weekend duty would leave his number with the dispatcher in the event something happened.

And Bill Altnow, who was a longtime photographer for the Free Press from the late 1950s through the early 1990s would make a habit in the early days of his career of riding with local police or the sheriff's department on evening and weekend patrols. (And by the way, Bill still resides in North Mankato.) It is a different time now.

After having worked in the area for 35 years, many law enforcement personnel recognize me when I show up at a crash scene. Most of them have come to know that I will respect the boundaries of sensitivity and professionalism and they allow me to do my job without interference.

Probably the biggest hassles have come from the part-timers _ volunteer firefighters in particular _ who believe they are the arbiters of good taste and what is news. The best complement ever paid to me was a time at a fatal crash on Highway 14 several years ago when a part-time fire fighter was yelling for me to clear the scene. A trooper took a break from his investigation to tell the fellow to let me do my job. "He's a professional and he knows what he is doing," he told the firefighter.

The big challenge now is getting to know all the new, younger faces on the forces and earning their trust as the old line of officers have retired in recent years.


Anonymous said...

You might enjoy the book "Strange Days, Dangerous Nights" from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. I remember paging through it when it came out a number of years ago--certainly a different era.

John Cross said...

I've seen the book and it's very interesting. I am amazed at the crime scene access granted to newspaper photographers in those day. Not a bit of yellow police ribbon to be seen!