Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Of Floaters and Feelings

A fellow photog talks of trauma and television, bringing to mind MY very first time...

I remember a boating accident from 1990. I'd been in news only a few weeks; the veteran of a half dozen press conferences, three meetings and little more. But suddenly I found myself at river's edge, sandwiched between two tripod veterans as would-be rescuers dragged the depths of the mighty Tar for a missing fisherman.

As I brought the small dinghy into focus, I pressed the 'RECORD' button and grew entranced. The man in the boat was down on his knees, pulling aboard a metal chain hand over hand. When it kept coming up empty, he'd motion the boat pilot to rev the motor and move a few more feet downstream.

This went on for quite some time and I stayed glued to the viewfinder, rolling tape and grinding my teeth. On either side of me, the other TV news photogs rolled their eyes at the new guy. I barely noticed them, as all my attention was drawn to tiny black and white screen at the end of the eyepiece. As heart beat increased with every pull of the dead man's chain, my two more experienced colleagues talked shop, traded police scanner frequencies and cracked on each other's Mom.

Not me. I followed the boat in my viewfinder as it moved slowly down it's invisible string. It was almost halfway to the nearest bend when family members started to arrive. At first there were only, but before long five large farm women paced up and down the dock beside us, wrininging their hands and muttering prayers. My two future buddies quieted down a bit, but still exchanged bored glances.

Feeling newly uneasy myself I leaned into the camera and zoomed all the way in. Backlit now by the setting sun, the silhouette of the men leaning low out of the boat was dowright iconic. I didn't know what that word meant back then, but I did realize I was documenting things I had never seen with the naked eye.

Panning slowly to keep up with the boat, I almost missed it, but out of the lower edge of the screen, the slumped head and shoulders of a very large man bobbed to the surface. The men onboard almost went into the drink as they pulled the body toward the boat. My eye buried to the eyepiece, I heard two cohorts lunging for their own lens.

That's when the screaming started.

Three or four voices. of varying pitch but related timber, howling ill-formed syllables of unmistakable pain. Forgetting my shot, I jerked my neck to the left and saw them. As if recieving electrical shock, the women convulsed and dances on the small pier, in much the same way you might if you saw you loved one at the end of a hook.

The next sounds, heavy metal clicks in close succesion, woke me from my stupor. My two competitors tore their cameras from their tripod heads and quickly shouldered them. As they began to advance on the wailing women with their looming lenses, I found myself torn between duty and decency.

I did NOT want to point my camera at those poor women, but I immediately understood I had to. As a small part of me wretched in disgust. I unlocked my tripod head and picked up the camera, realizing this was just the kind of drama I'd been seeking. Who knew it would feel so lousy?

Fourteen years later, I still attend the occasional drowning, and I've put more sad people on television than I care to count. It's my job. But I've never forgotten that day,when I had to get my hands dirty in the name of news. These days I employ more distance and tact in the pursuit of truth - knowing you can document the truth without getting in the way.

Most of the time.


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