Photojournalists usually have a favorite part of the job. Some love shooting sports. Others enjoy shooting concerts and similar lifestyle events. For me, it’s the thrill of chasing spot news.
Spot news differs from regular “news” photos in the fact that it isn’t planned or scheduled. It is a spontaneous event, be it a fire, shooting, car accident or the like.
Many elements come into play when making a spot news photo. I think it is safe to say in most instances, you won’t make the photo if you’re not listening to a scanner. Constant monitoring of police, fire and EMS radio traffic helps alert you to breaking situations.
On top of hearing the dispatch for a particular incident, you begin to hear stress levels in dispatchers voices. You know some fire chiefs will call for mutual aid when it is not really needed. When others call for it, you better get your butt there now. With practice, you begin to know what is worth responding to and what isn’t.
It really helps to know the roads in your town or at least to have a GPS ready. I use my phone’s built in GPS running Google Maps so I can look at routes on the fly as well as see relatively accurate traffic conditions. Roads will frequently be blocked and traffic will be diverted in emergency situations. Finding a quick route around these can be instrumental in making images.
For newspaper workers, good communication is crucial. Sometimes an editor in the office may be hearing different information than you are in the car. I can’t count how many times my editor heard the call for an incedent while my scanner was picking up a different channel. Eventually I heard the radio chatter about the incident but seconds can matter when chasing spot news.
Recently, I was called into action hours before my shift because I was closest to the scene. I was asleep in bed when a home exploded a few miles away.
In this situation, it may not have been an immediate concern to get there as fast as I could. The house wasn’t going anywhere. But at the time, we didn’t know if anyone was living in the home or if further damage was going to occur. I try to treat every breaking news assignment with the utmost urgency.
Often times, getting a spot news photo involves quite a bit of luck. Things can happen so fast that being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference. For example, I was in my car and in route to an assignment when there was a call for an armed bank robbery very close to where I was. I got there so quick, there was a call on the scanner telling a deputy to get me out of an unsecured area. My boss was able to warn me that I was about to be moved before the deputy came over and talked to me.
I was there when they shouted that they found him two blocks away. I took off on foot with all of my gear and got photos of the officers loading the suspect into a squad car. They then brought him back over to the bank so he could be identified by employees of the bank.
Being properly equipped for the job can be the difference in making a photo or not. A few weeks ago, I was called out to a river rescue. At the time, we didn’t know exactly what was happening other than rescue workers from three counties were searching the river for something. It was later revealed that it was a 20-year-old that was pushed off a boat during an altercation and drowned.
It was already getting long in the day by the time I was called out. On top of that, the police roped off the area far back from the river. Luckily, I had an image stabilized 300mm f/2.8 lens with me. This picture was taken shortly after I arrived on scene. For the photographically inclined out there, this was shot at 1/640 sec at f/2.8 and 1600 ISO.
As the search continued, a lady let me on her property and into her backyard. I was able to get a much better view of the rescuers in the water but it was incredibly dark. For this shot, I had the lens balanced on a trash can, the image stabilized engaged and it was shot at 1/20 sec at f/2.8 and 3200 ISO.
It’s not perfect but it was the best I could do in the circumstances and it told the story.
Spot news can sometimes be emotionally tolling. With deaths, there are usually emotional friends and family around. It is hard to hold my camera up at what could be the saddest moment in their life. However, it is my job as a journalist to shoot through the difficult moments.
Shortly after this drowning, there was a call for one in the lake at a local state park. I arrived shortly after rescuers pulled the boy’s body from the water. But on the scanner, I heard the dispatcher say the mother was on her way in a particular car. I saw that car pull up and just started firing.
After looking at the photo and recognizing the badge on her arm, we were able to determine she was a 911 dispatcher for the county. In an interview, she said that she never imagined that the drowning call was her own son.
Sometimes, no matter your effort to get to a scene on time, you just can’t. Just after getting in my car after an assignment, a call came out for a car accident with injuries. The dispatcher went on to say that there was a vehicle on fire and extrication may be needed. Shortly after that, a rescue helicopter was dispatched to the scene. For me, the only problem was that it was in another county.
I hustled over there but was stopped about half a mile away from the scene. I had heard rumors that it was probably a fatal accident (later confirmed). I took out a 300mm f/4 lens and a 1.4x teleconverter to achieve a 420mm f/5.6 lens. I took a few photos of the scene but decided the best shot I could get from that distance was as the helicopter was taking off.
Right around that time, another vehicle pulled up behind me. Keep in mind that I am in the middle of a farm area and the only other person near me is a sheriff’s deputy directing traffic. As it turns out, the person that pulled up suspected that one of the involved cars was his family member. Judging by emotions after talking with the deputy, his suspicion was correct. The man went hysterical and got out of his car and was crying and rolling on the ground.
The photographer in me wanted that image. I had to think to myself at what cost was I willing to make that image. It is one thing to take images like that unnoticed. If I am unseen, then I am not seeming to be invasive and antagonizing to a person who is suffering. If I snap away from a few feet away while we are two of the only people in the area, that is a different case. Lastly, I didn’t think the image would be necessary to tell the story. I decided to not raise my camera.
As I’ve said before, journalists are also human. We may hide our emotions while working to help maintain objectivity. But at the end of the day, seeing tragedy is never easy. I hope it never becomes easy.