I was on an assignment last Saturday night in Flintstone, Georgia photographing a wedding that was taking place on a farm. The story was a Times Free Press lifestyle feature about the growing popularity of rustic weddings, and as I was waiting for the bride to exit the farmhouse where she had been preparing I talked with the owner of the farm about her business. The conversation ultimately led to her asking about what I do for a living, and she took me by surprise with a very simple question with a not-so-simple answer.
“What is the best and worst of what you do?”
I had never really thought about it before. Every day of work at the paper is a little different than the last, and I certainly get to do some exciting things as a photojournalist. I love what I do, and I know why I love it. Despite all of that, I had never taken the time to think about what the “best” and “worst” parts of my job are.
The answer came more easily than I expected.
“The best and the worst parts of my job are the same thing. Sharing moments in people’s lives, and showing those moments to the rest of the world.”
I’m not sure I would have given that answer a month ago, but an assignment last week cemented it. I was sent with our videographer Patrick Smith to cover the funeral of Cleveland, Tennessee Police Officer Justin Maples. Late Sunday night, Officer Maples struck a telephone pole in his patrol car while responding to a stolen vehicle call. As an officer who died in the line of duty, he was given a full policeman’s funeral, and the family wanted lots of media coverage to honor Officer Maples’s memory.
This wasn’t the first funeral I’ve covered, and I’m sure it won’t be my last, but the circumstances of the service meant that it was unusually emotional. As journalists, it is our job to impartially and respectfully cover events like this while remaining as emotionally separated as a human being can. Generally, the media stay back, give the family a generous amount of space, and photograph from 30 or more feet away with long lenses. Thanks in large part to a number of local Cleveland photographers with 18-55mm lenses and the press of the tremendous crowd who had come to say farewell to Officer Maples, we weren’t able to do that this time.
Emotionally distancing yourself from your subjects becomes difficult when they are saying goodbye to a loved one only eight feet away from your camera. When his wife laid her head against his coffin as she quietly sobbed his name, or when his mother collapsed into her friend’s arms screaming “I want him back! Bring him back!” I was brought brutally into the shared experience of their grief. I was a part of one of the worst days of their life. No amount of journalistic separation was going to keep me from empathizing with them. Yet it was still my duty to capture these moments, so I channeled my feelings into my photographs in order to inform others, and (hopefully) to move them as well.
Funerals, car wrecks, and fires are only a few of the most emotional events a photojournalist can (and will, eventually) cover. Reporting on the unpleasant realities of life is one of our duties, but it is never easy to photograph misery or pain without feeling anything. It doesn’t get easier the more you do it, either. It takes an emotional toll. Photojournalist Kevin Carter, who famously photographed a vulture standing behind a starving child in Africa, ultimately committed suicide, writing “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”
These sorts of shared experiences are the worst part of being a photojournalist. Yet the worst is, strangely, also the best. The wedding I covered that night showed me this as much as anything. Only two days after I photographed the grief of a family saying goodbye to a loved one, I photographed the joy of two families joining together. Again, I shared an experience with my subjects. This time, it was one of the best days of their lives, and not only was I a part of it but I got to show it to the rest of the world.
I can only hope that I will photograph many more moments of joy than moments of sadness in my career.