Monday, January 11, 2010

news clips: death goes click

Viewed on the scale of a map, or from a great altitude, roads and highways often appear almost as straights lines, linking them ever so neatly between given way points, but that is hardly ever actually the case.

Except for the unusually featureless expanses of a desert or flat grid of Midwestern farmland, they each will invariably possess any number of unique curves, swoops and corners, and that applies to almost every road leading to anywhere.

Our very own lives suffer this same illusion, and particularly so when observed by strangers.

As horrible as it sounds now (which it does, and should) I once spent sunny weekends stalking motor vehicle accidents, the kind of which some newspaper photographers seem to specialize in, and along a certain road. I would agree that aspects of a pursuit such as this are, by its very nature, somewhat despicable, and in writing this I will mention that I neither seek forgiveness or expect it, except to say it was not done out of blood lust. It was all about pursuing the meager local offerings of journalism's sacred Three Ds: Death, Destruction and Drama. Such as they were.

Chuckanut Drive, a Washington byway often cited as one of America's most beloved and scenic drives on the Pacific Coast, was a such a place for me, and specifically for the above stated purpose. I do not pretend that I did it solely because "it's my job" (or was at that time), or that it was the most distateful aspect of my then profession (it wasn't). This is not to say I am a completely heartless bastard, only that where there are accidents there is drama, and where there is drama there is always the opportunity for a dramatic - perhaps stunning - news photograph to be made. Heartless bastards not withstanding.

And there were plenty. Of both.

A biker who cut the one last swooping corner into the oncoming lane - into the grill work of a 3/4 ton van filled with vacationers. Another who took his girlfriend out for a fast ride but lost control in the gravel of a sharp curve, then slid into a guardrail, rocketing them both down the cliff (he lived, she did not). A young woman who left a late-night party too late and was found the next day, 100 feet below, twisted into in a pile of dead leaves. They are not photographs of events that were ever published, except in a place I would choose to forget them, but won't.

Now, it must be pointed out that motor vehicle accidents, and especially fatalities, share a certain morbid irony. The more terrifically horrible they are, the greater - and lesser - chances are they will rate a photograph in the local rag. It's a tricky business for newsrooms, because while technically being real news ("spot news", to photogs) they will generally stand a slim chance of ever seeing ink, at least in the photographic rough. Editors avoid them like dog shit (not an undo comparison, in some cases), mommies don't like them, and a whole lot of other people don't either (not to mention the grief-stricken friends or relatives of the injured or deceased). Wise photographers learn to shoot around the ugliness, thus sparing their editors the dilemma of deciding whether or not to publish, and their readers the unvarnished reality as it honestly appears, year after year, tragedy after tragedy.

But again, death or heinous injury still holds the eager promise of high drama, and that is the magnetic force that attracts news photographers like flies, myself included. In this instance it meant cruising a lovely but occasionally perilous 10-mile strip of two lane blacktop winding north along the coastline cliffs into Bellingham.

There's one more thing I should mention about Chuckanut Drive - it was where I witnessed my first fatality, so in this sense we shared a sort of personal history, albeit a regretful one. That same accident (a motorcyclist hit broadside when a sedan ran a stop sign doing 40 mph) was also my first glimpse of a dead human being, or very soon-to-be. So I was a sort of a double-virgin at the scene, all eyes and with very little to say.

Such events stamp deep impressions in one's mind, if not their souls, and that's no matter their professional intentions. As paramedics and police went quietly about their grim business, so did I. Even when there is no decently publishable photo to be made (and with such happenings, more often than not, that is the case), there is still always a story, though it may not always make ink, for one reason or another.

This time is was about 16-year old girl who took a chance at a familiar intersection and lost badly, though not as badly as the teenager whose life she had just ended. By the time I arrived the motorcyclist was already dead - or very soon would be - sprawled across the road a few feet from the twisted hulk of his motorbike. There was very little blood (as was not unusual, I would learn). He wore no helmet, this fact explained as a horrible fluke by his parents when they were briefly interviewed in following days edition. He was simply unlucky, and only for a split-second.

The girl, the motorist, had already assumed a stunned pose of shrunken grief, and was kneeling, entirely alone, beneath a large fir tree not far from the intersection.

In terms of imagery, it was a scene neither fantastic nor even remarkable, except for its obvious tragedy. Looking back now, with the memory of having photographed literally dozens of accidents, fires, rescues, drownings, shootings and what-have-you, on the whole I'd say it was just about average, as fatalities go. Quiet, cold, sad.

For the most part, the others present were all professionals, or seasoned volunteers, who went about their work in a well-trained fashion. Their apparent lack of surprise or shock spoke to a presumption that there was probably little here that each had not witnessed too many times previously, and likely far worse. They undertook their role with the same steady cadence and precision as might a highway work crew, each man or woman silently at their own specialized task, secure in their own mind as to where their job fit into the team effort. The same could not be said for myself.

State patrolmen coolly measured and mapped the distances of tire marks and positions of the wrecks themselves, estimating speeds and angles of impact. As paramedics and fire personnel attended the motorcyclist as best they could, others set to sweeping up or gathering the assorted pieces of catastrophe - a shattered headlight, an empty shoe, a brown leather wallet, this in addition to a scattered bag of groceries that the motorcyclist has carried on his last, short errand from a local roadside market. Three hours later you'd have driven past and never guessed what had happened, if it occurred to you that anything had happened there at all.

In every sense, it was long ways off from the way you tend to picture such things in your head when you read about them, and definitely a far cry from the sirens, screams and body fluid-drenched dioramas that you see depicted on TV and in the movies.

If you had been there earlier, in the minutes soon after, I would guess that only three individuals might have stood out from the rest, if only subtly.

One was alone in the middle of the intersection, covered with a yellow cotton blanket, and one other was sinking slowly under the first waves of everlasting regret, alone, under a tree.

I had not captured a "moment". At the same time I received some friendly advice from an inner demon I thought of as being strangely benevolent, under the circumstances. The message was as clear as if it had been whispered into my ear:

Watch, carefully. Do not feel.

It was a good tip, and intended to help keep me alive.

On the inside.

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