Photographing tragedy

No one finds it easy to deal with a tragedy. Not even a journalist.

A recent comment on the Kirkwood shooting photos asked “Had you covered other vigils or memorial services before? Do you ever encounter problems with people not wanting you to be there, since it can be such a personal and emotional experience?”

I have  photographed two vigils now. The first being one in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. My university held a small memorial service in an auditorium. There were few people but many tears. You could feel the emotion in the room.

Education professor Ted Green attended the Vigil for the Virginia Tech students and faculty April 20 in the Winifred Moore Auditorium.     Maxwell S. Gersh | www.gershphoto.com

Maxwell S. Gersh | www.gershphoto.com

The second was the candlelight vigil held for the Kirkwood shootings.

A day after a Kirkwood resident gunned down five city officials, more than 1,000 people gathered Friday for a candlelight vigil and prayer service. The hour-long service was held across the street from Kirkwood City Hall, where Charles

Maxwell S. Gersh | www.gershphoto.com

Maxwell S. Gersh | www.gershphoto.com

I never have encountered problems with people not wanting me there. I think it is because they know we are emotionally shredded as well. As journalists, we hear, see and report on things we don’t want to. I think the public sometimes knows that.

For instance, when the shootings in Kirkwood occurred, the staff of The Journal, Webster University’s student newspaper, was working around the clock for a week to prepare a newspaper.  We were at every press conference, vigil, memorial service, funeral, etc. Not to mention the fact that our long time university president all of the sudden quit and our school had just established a fantastic link with China. ALL IN THE SAME WEEK! It was physically draining. By the time we got home, we were wiped of all energy. We still couldn’t sleep.

I wasn’t able to sleep for a good two weeks. I was forcing myself to build a callous to the situation. I am willing to bet that it is the same for some of my colleagues.

Journalists have to have that super tough skin. It is our job to show the world what is happening. All too often it is ugly.

Citizens are aware that we are crying inside.

At a vigil, no matter how many lights and cameras are around, people aren’t paying attention to the press. Their focus is devoutly elsewhere.

I am attaching a copy of our newspaper from that week. The staff I worked with was (and still is) incredible. Take some time to read the articles and look at the pictures

The Journal – February 14-20, 2008

Too see more photos related to the Kirkwood shooting, go to my website in the photo essay section. There is a link to “Kirkwood 2008.”

I hope my explanation makes sense. It is hard to understand a journalist’s sense of tragedy without experiencing it. But it is real. There is even an organization deal with it called the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.

Our studies teach us what to do. Real events build character. I would like to think I am a better journalist because of this.

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3 Responses

  1. Yes, being tough skinned is key for us media people. You, especially, as a journalist, since you deal so much with John-Q in touchy situations.

  2. BTW, I don’t know how you want me to comment on your journalism photos. I can look at it like a cinematographer: I like that top picture’s compositiona and depth of field, but that bright orange shirt is extremely distracting from the focus and the mood of the picture. But of course, I know that as an objective cameraman you have little control over the canvas itself. So I will probably not comment too much on photos in that way. I will comment on the emotional impact of what you have captured. But just let me know what kind of feedback you want.

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