Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pete on the Street

Pete O'NealThere comes a time in every news shooter's life when they begin to question their cynicism. For me, it was the birth of my children. For Pete O'Neal, it was the murder of his mother. Before then, WMAR's longtime overnight photographer cruised the mean streets of his native Baltimore looking for victims of crime to put on the air. He found them - covering an estimated 18 hundred homicides in that troubled city. Along the way he gained a reputation as a gifted first responder, winning multiple local Emmy's for his nocturnal work. Often he'd arrive before the police did, shoulder his rig and wade into the madness of fresh tragedy.

Such is the life of an overnight photog. But when his own 74 year old mother was found bludgeoned to death in her home, Pete O'Neal felt more than a loving son's heartbreak. He felt the accumulated pain of all those thousands who'd passed through his lens over the years. Losing his mom didn't change how Pete made a living, but it did alter the way he looked at victims. No more grief stricken faces at point blank range; O'Neal now keeps a respectable distance between himself and the inconsolable.

This epiphany is just one of the reasons I admire O'Neal - a shooter I would have never even heard of had it not been for the excellent work of the Baltimore Sun. Matt Simon's article - along with a dashboard confessional video - does more to illuminate the motives of a veteran photog than most of the drivel I post here. Aside from the tragedy of losing his mother, Pete tells how he came to be interested in cameras in the first place - an anecdote that closely mirrors my own. It's enough to make any shooter question why they do this silly job, and reconsider how they 'll do it in the future. Go read the whole thing, watch the video and think of Pete O'Neal the next time you watch midnight crime footage from the inner city. I will.


A compelling addendum at, courtesy of Alex Lucas...
If you really haven't worked at nights for over a year, it's hard to explain how truly insane it is. You just know somebody's going to die that night, and you have to see grieving people. I thought I had a real good grip on what life was about until I did it for some time. Overnights are like a funhouse mirror set to reality after you really get to know it, it's very warping. All that time, all those murders, and I still can't explain what causes murder. No clue why a person kills. None. And it never stops. Never. There's a couple of days, and then it catches right back up to where it was in a night. And I work in Nashville. Little Nashville.

1 comment:

Pete "The Guru" O'Neal said...

I am Pete O'Neal Jr. I'm just now finding this article. The man mentioned is my dad. I remember comming home from school one day, and my mom telling me my Grandmother had died. I couldn't even comprehend at the time that someone had done this to her.

At 26 years old now, I have my own place and responsibilities. I see my dad go out and shoot the news. He gets mentioned on television all the time. I'm extremely proud of him. No one could ever begin to imagine all the tragedy he sees on a nightly basis. I'm proud of him. I shoot on a Canon XL1s, and have a Canon EOS for stills. He taught me a great skill, and I'm glad I've got his name.

-Pete O'Neal, Jr.