Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Perils of E.N.G.

Earlier this year, two television news photographers died in the line of duty. At the time I attempted an on-line eulogy of sorts, but came away with a plea to my brothers and sisters behind the lens.
Setting up a live shot in haste, darting across traffic for another tape - we’ve probably all done it more than we care to admit. But this week those thoughtless actions took two colleagues from us, one an eager rookie, the other a trusted veteran. I knew neither, but after hearing of their tragic plights, I’ve come to think of them as fallen comrades.

Maybe that’s because they were brothers-in-arms, the kind of guys I might strike up a conversation with by the roped-off crime scene. We behind the TV news lens are a loose-knit lot, as a breed we are not ‘joiners’ but individualists who enjoy being insiders and embrace our unique perspectives . But pluck two shooters from either coast and they’ll quickly find something to talk about. Despite whatever size market or region we practice our peculiar craft in, we share a common language built around our most uncommon points of view.

Which is why it’s so easy to identify with the latest two victims of the news-gathering war, for they are versions of every one of us. I look at Matt Moore’s picture online , and remember the unbridled enthusiasm of my own early days behind the lens. I read about the award-winning work and winning nature of Jeff Frolio, and I think about the kind of photog I want to grow into. That neither of these two men will get to complete their own journey fills me with regret and trepidation; for succumbing to their same fate is all too easy to imagine.

Some cynics have cited Jeff and Matt’s apparent lack of judgment - an easy thing to do from the safety of a cushy cubicle. They’re free to say what they will, even when it goes so far to insult the freshly dead. But until all those critics have walked a mile in a photog‘s shoes, their blustery words mean damn little. Ironically, the most savage attacks have come from those too used to getting their news handed to them on a silver platter. It’s different when you’re in the field. I’m not defending the disastrous actions of young Mr. Moore and not so young Mr. Frolio, but I can certainly understand what led them to the brink.

Too often we photogs adapt a soldier’s mentality, hunkering down under the weight of our gear and slogging through day after day of battle. Unseen generals page us hourly, issuing forth battle plans at a feverish pitch. Strategies vary, but all involve using every bit of our blood and sweat and sometimes even our tears. But we barely break stride, for the grueling pace and the outrageous demands are all a part of the conflict at hand. It should surprise no one that occasionally we foot-soldiers end up jumping on a few grenades. After all, life on the front-lines comes with a few scars.

But unlike real soldiers, those of us who peer through viewfinders for a living often suffer delusions of immortality. Perhaps it’s because we see the best and worst of mankind in tiny black and white. So accustomed to perching on the edge of tragedy, we squint through our eyepiece and compartmentalize our feelings, instead focusing on our own special blend of guerilla storytelling. Fancying ourselves as post-modern action figures, we wrench the most from our various gadgets in a daily footrace to pull off the improbable, to make slot at any cost.

This week, however, the price was the very lives of two beloved photojournalists, a terrible fine that no manager, station or network truly wishes to pay. Everyone involved in the dissemination of information will agree - there is no story, no intrigue, no drama of the day is worth the life of it’s messenger. For those in the newsroom, it’s little more than benign policy - for those of us in the field, it should be a daily mantra.

Simply put, Matt Moore and Jeff Frolio didn’t have to die. But they got caught up in the thrill of the hunt and before they knew it, they went from predator to prey. It would be criminal for those of us still in the pack not to learn something from their fatal mistakes. Remember their names and why you know them. Let their deaths be a grim reminder that the Job has inherent perils, and twenty years under your belt doesn’t make you immune to its many risks. It’s an unavoidable truth we all need to think about the next time we hurl ourselves into the void. Jeff and Matt didn’t plan to end their lives that day, and we should all learn from the awful finality of their momentary missteps. To do anything less is to dishonor their memory.

Look Up, Slow Down, and Go Home at the end of the day. Your loved ones deserve it, and so do you.