Most of the greatest photographs in history have come when the photographer goes beyond what the average person will to get the image. The idea of photography is to tell a story with one split second in a way that allows the viewer to almost experience the situation or subject. With those in mind it makes one think about the lengths that human curiosity and daring will take photographers in their never-ending quest to document the world and to tell the stories that only images can.
We see the images that come back from the war front and try to imagine what these soldiers are going through, but the photographer who shoots those images is in the same situation, with bullets flying but they’re only armed with their camera and nerve. One of the greatest war photographers of all time (arguably THE greatest) is James Nachtwey. He is renowned for his ability to capture the essence of whatever situation he is in. His hauntingly arresting photographs of war and human misery is a testament to his ability to engage his subjects and put himself in the middle of the action. We see the photos but we never usually see what the photographer behind the lens goes through to get it, but this photograph gives a glimpse of what they do to get their image:
Could you continue to do your job as a man with an AK-47 turns in your direction?? I’ve done some things to get images but I’m not even sure I would be able to keep my composure enough in a situation like that.
My own story, while not quite as dangerous, is pretty interesting and goes along to help illustrate this same topic. On July 18, 2007 I was in New York City to shoot an event uptown around 70th Street. When I got out of the subway I saw a lot of people standing around being blocked from getting onto downtown trains and I figured something was up, but I was on my way to a shoot so I couldn’t really investigate. Almost as soon as I got to the event I got a phone call from my editor telling me that something was going on in midtown and that I should get down there as soon as possible. So I jumped in a cab and told him to head downtown towards Grand Central. I got out my NYPD Press Badge and set up my cameras so I would be ready to go. My heart started pounding as I saw the giant plume of smoke rising above the building downtown as we started going down there. My editor texted me on the way saying that she was told it was possibly a building collapse (it was right as it was happening so no one really knew what was going on). The cab driver turned around to me and said, “We’re not going to be able to go right down there because something is happening” so I told him that that was exactly what I was going to. He gave me a very confused look and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the ride.
We got about 20 blocks away and the traffic stalled and we couldn’t get any closer. I paid the man and got out and began running towards the rising plume of smoke. As I was making my way down there were crowds of people making their way away from the scene covered in dirt. I was trying to catch bits of their conversations on the phone to get an idea of what I was heading into. I got about 4 blocks away and the police had the road blocked. I showed them my badge (which normally allows me to cross police lines) but the officer said “Sorry, no one, not even press, are allowed past this point. It’s a safety cordon.” Now I wasn’t about to give up yet so I started walking down a side street and put my step ladder (which I had for my original shoot) behind some construction equipment and kept walking. I soon saw an alley leading closer to the scene with no police in it. I started walking confidently down and when a security guard started to hesitantly walk towards me I flashed my badge and kept walking and he stopped trying to stop me.
So now I was on a walkway above the area where the emergency crews were but the police stopped me again. So I started to look for a way to get down and saw an attendant standing outside a parking garage. I asked him if he knew how I could get down there and he offered his stairway. So I went down their back stairway and was inside of Grand Central Terminal (which was closed off at this point by the police and National Guard). I looked across the concourse and saw flashing lights through a bunch of glass doors and knew that was where I wanted to go. I started making my way there but saw a bunch of National Guardsmen standing with their M-16s in front of the doors stopping people from going through. I figured they had only been told to stop people getting in but not the part about stopping the press so I walked up to them and said I was with the press and was allowed to go through, so he let me go.
So the second I walked through the doors I realized I really probably wasn’t supposed to be allowed in there. There were firefighters putting on their gear and police everywhere. I was a block away from where I could see the emergency personnel doing their thing. I was there with two other photographers (one from the AP and another I had not seen before) who had managed to make their way through as well. So the three of us started to make our way down the block taking turns getting closer to see when we’d be asked to leave. So we make our way down to the corner and see shattered glass windows, and by this point the brown liquid stuff was falling down on us. When we got to the corner and looked down the street it was maybe 75 feet away and did not look like it was under control. So I was shooting this whole time when a FDNY Officer walks up and says “I don’t know how you got in here but you shouldn’t be here. You’re already probably EXPLETIVEing yourself up. We don’t know what’s coming out of that thing.” So I then walk away, circle around a police car and come back and start shooting again. A second officer walks up and asks me to leave so I do the same thing and keep shooting and finally the second guy comes back up and says “Come on guy, I already asked you to leave.” So this time I did since I was getting calls from my editor asking for the photos. So I get out of the cordoned area and sit down on the sidewalk outside of a closed Starbucks using their WiFi to send the photos to my editor, getting calls telling me that when I get home to take off my clothes and throw them out since there might be asbestos in the stuff that was raining down on me, and noticing that everyone else in the area was wearing facemasks. Here are some of the photos I took:
When I was doing it all I could think about was getting the images which is what I imagine goes through the head of all photographers in situations that seem crazy to most people. But I guess that’s what makes us Photographers …