Posts Tagged death
After the basic facts are covered the interpretation must happen – the hunt for images that not only say, ‘Fidel was here,’ but those that convey why, and what this moment means.
“When Fidel dies I am dropping everything and getting on the next flight to Havana,” my friend and photojournalism colleague Phillippe Diederich proclaimed over several beers sometime around the turn of the millennium.
“¡Yo también, compay!” I slurred, punctuated with a fist pound on the bar table.
At least that’s how I remember beer- or rum-soaked conversations that repeated themselves several times over the next 5 years. We were steeped in Cuba then. The “Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union put much attention on what would happen in Havana and the hemisphere after El Comandante en Jefe Máximo expired. Phillippe was on and off the island, producing photo essays on its Harley riders, covering first papal visits for the New York Times and starting a novel which is set then and there.
I went four times over the next three years, the first to photograph Fidel’s speech on the 40th anniversary of his revolution. It was an incredible assignment to document a man who, with his band of barbudos, wedged a small island nation between two superpowers and had refused to leave, give up or die for decades. Fidel had been an unpredictable-turned-obdurate symbol of the Cold War.
Everything about that first trip was nostalgic for classic (or mythic) photojournalism. I was pulled aside in Cuban customs and interrogated for what seemed like an eternity about a small gift-wrapped package in my bag. “It’s a birthday gift for a colleague,” I explained. “You can open it if you like.”
“No no no. We won’t do that. So why are you here again?”
“I am here to photograph the anniversary speech in Santiago, for the New York Times.”
“Oh! The New York Times! So what’s in this box again? Who is your colleague again? Can we call her?”
“Yes. A gift. Feel free to open if it you like. It’s for the Tribune Company correspondent. Yes, you may call her. Would you like her number?”
This cycle repeated five or six times until they let me through, not accepting my offer to open the gift for them, and not calling my dear friend who was stationed in Havana. No money changed hands either. My oldest friend had come along, too, for sport and curiosity. He waited for me, puzzled, outside of customs.
On New Year’s Day, 1999, we climbed aboard a decaying Tupolev Tu-154 passenger jet flown by Cubana de Aviación. The creaking air conditioning steamed, the seat-back locks were broken in the reclined position. The toilets were locked shut, bleeding fecal aroma into the cabin. The hand-me-down Soviet plane was almost as old as Fidel’s revolution.
That night I stood among the crowd gathered in the central plaza below the same balcony where Fidel had greeted the masses 40 years earlier. El Jefe walked out fashionably late, waved, fist pounded and pontificated for several hours about el período especial and the imperialistas on the base across the bay.
I photographed for the first 30 minutes before I had to leave to develop color film in the hotel bathroom, scan and tone color images on a grayscale laptop and upload them at only 2400 bits per second over ancient Cuban phone lines to New York. Each image took almost a half hour to transfer, and I got two images through before the late edition deadline. I was beat in all the earlier editions by wire photographers using gigantic new digital cameras that cost as much as my whole bag of Leicas.
Standing in front of the world stage has always attracted young photojournalists. The importance or attention surrounding an event like this adds weight to every decision and frame you make. I photographed in inverted-pyramid style, making nut-graph images of Fidel waving and speaking from the podium, the rapt crowd and the excitement of the event. But that can take mere moments at a scripted event where little is likely to change. After the basic facts are covered the interpretation must happen – the hunt for images that not only say, ‘Fidel was here,’ but those that convey why, and what this moment means.
That’s when I saw his shadow. By 1999 the septuagenarian insurgent was a frail old man. He was gaunt and no longer intimidating. A strong gust of wind could have accomplished what the CIA had attempted for the entire 1960s. But his shadow, stretched a bit by the angle of light, was the Fidel of the Sierra Maestra, the man who had scolded the UN and kept American influence out for decades. That was the picture. A shadow of the Cold War.
For the next week my two best friends and I wandered Havana, soaking in its cigars, rum, anachronisms and relishing in the rusty, smoke-belching ghosts of American influence. The only contemporary sign of my country was the in the ‘gringo green’ bills that changed hands on an officially blessed special-period black market.
Once, Phillippe and I waxed fantastic about what it would have been like to bushwhack our way into the Sierra Maestra in 1958, find the revolutionaries and photograph their march onto the world stage. Fidel died yesterday, just as I and colleagues Chip Litherland and Rob Mattson — my former students — and Ross Taylor traded stories of our trips to Cuba. Today is the day that I swore I would be on the next plane to Havana. But I am not, and neither is Phillippe.
Since those effusive conversations years ago, Fidel has passed power to his brother who already has plans in place for his own retirement. The Obama administration pried open a diplomatic door that has a rusted lock. Cuba is now just a curiosity. What Phillippe and I imagined would be a historic change event will come and go in a set of lead-story obituaries and a little bit of news analysis. Tomorrow the media’s eye will be back to a power transition that’s more timely and arguably less predictable than Fidel’s. The obdurate symbol has left the balcony.
I first published this post on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings. It’s been rolling around among the knots in my stomach today, after a yet more devastating and senseless shooting in metro Denver. I am rerunning these events in my head once again.
April 20, 2009
Here is a professional truth:
We carry every story, good and bad, with us. It’s the result of the empathy we need to do our journalism job fully. All the good journalists I know feel their stories to the bone despite professional detachment and analytical scrutiny.
Today is the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the story that has followed me most intensely for a decade. I write this exactly ten years after Eric and Dylan went bowling.
My career has been filled with wonderful stories. I have been overwhelmed by fascination and joy, happiness and friendship. My life has been changed for the better by most of my subjects. The good has outnumbered the bad by tenfold.
I have also seen horrors beyond Columbine. I’ve tiptoed around the bodies left by drug gangs and corrupt cops in Rio, looked into the eyes of sudden widow in India, and faced the grief of the family members of the Oklahoma City bombing. I’ve listened quietly to people tell me of personal losses and fears, and I have seen the aftermath of scores of fatal crashes and deadly fires.
That’s the job.
And though we feel all these things, you would have to add up the background pain of a hundred journalists to equal that of any of the victims of an act as senseless and violent as Columbine.
Not long after the event my colleagues at the university wisely took the opportunity to discuss stress and trauma issues among journalists. It’s a valuable discussion. But at the time it smacked of too much self pity to me. By comparison to our subjects, I felt, our pain was trivial. But trivial as it may be, I now look back on how that story changed me. I have yet more empathy for the victims in any story.
For them multiply what I experience by 100.
I felt the first blow of the story days after photographing the tortured faces of terrified parents and shell-shocked students. On my way out of a big public memorial service the weekend after the shooting I came across the first paramedic team on the scene. The small group stood under an umbrella at the back of the huge crowd — not in a place of honor as I would have hoped. There gazing blankly at the space above the stage were the men and women who held the dead, dying and injured.
I snapped two poorly composed frames, crumpled to my knees and sobbed for five minutes. I gathered my wits and went off to develop film and send my images to New York.
I am sure that catharsis helped me get through the next months of covering the story again and again, listening to the harrowing details from survivors and steeling myself to the growing hostility from the larger community.
That hostility is another difference from all the other stories I’ve covered. Our heavy presence, rush to deadlines and competitive streaks left a foul taste in the mouths of anyone who watched it happen. Within days the surrounding community, which had no connection to the story beyond proximity, let its discomfort with our process be known.
In a few cases we deserved it. Our behavior was terrible in spots, and all it takes is one nasty action to create a rumor, a stereotype, an expectation. But all the good and sensitive journalistic behavior I saw was trumped by the bad.
Not only was this story tough in subject matter, but we had a very tense relationship with the subjects.
All these emotions well up in me at every subsequent Columbine stop — the funerals, the shot-up school tours, the exhibition of the weapons, the ticking anniversaries. It caught me this year as I heard the father of victim Rachel Scott speak about his daughter.
The reactions vary, from a jaw clenched to soreness, to sleepless nights like last night. But my expectations of subjects have also changed.
In August 2007 I was in Price, Utah, to cover the ongoing tragedy of the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine. My jaw clenches now whenever I imagine covering a community struck by tragedy. I wrongly anticipate excessive resistance if not outright hostility.
I walked out of my motel room on the first morning I was on the story to find a new tire flat. I looked around it and found no nails, no holes. Rather than my assumption being that a seal or a valve had broken, I instantly jumped to the completely irrational conclusion that someone in town had taken it upon themselves to go empty a few tires in the lot of one of the journalist motels.
I was, of course, wrong. And, despite losing nine local miners and rescue workers, the community was no more difficult to interact with than any other.
Over all the other tragedies I’ve seen, perhaps it is because Columbine was so senseless and unexpected that it has stayed with me. Drug wars in Rio and untimely death in India can unfortunately be expected. Crashes and fires happen every day. In 1999 a school shooting in an affluent suburb with such a toll of dead and injured was not expected. Unfortunately now stories like that are just another part of the tragedy landscape.
Again, all of this reaction is trivial by comparison to the victims, or to those who have seen mountains of tragedy.
To see and hear the tales of journalists really haunted by what they have covered, watch in “Dying to Tell the Story” Don McCullin’s thousand-yard stare as he describes his war-dead subjects climbing out of his film filing cabinets at night and walking the halls of his English country home.
And listen to Paul Watson in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross describe his inner conversations with Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, the dead man he photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
My point is not to show obsession with my reactions to one story. It is to make clear that no matter what stories we cover, we carry them with us forever after.