There’s something about tragedy that brings communities out and usually together. We want to know what happened and know that whatever it is, it could happen to us just as easily as the people next door. I had no idea who my neighbors in Midtown Atlanta were until a house burned down around the corner. It was an odd mix of curiosity, block-party carnivalness, and sorrow at someone else's loss. The rubber-neckers on the highway will never stop, because we are curious and want to know what and how. That curiosity is ugly, but it can lead to better ways of doing things, and safer conditions for whatever walk of life is concerned.
I have resigned myself to the fact that while I do not like to be at these incidents, it is part of my job. Years ago one of the reasons I started to use to justify my presence and my documentation was to help the victims’ next door neighbors or the people sitting in the next pew at church. They want to know what happened, but do not want to ask. Reporters can let them know so they don’t have to intrude on the family to ask. The media can let them know accurately, so they can help as they see fit, and not be misinformed by incorrect rumors.
The other evening the police scanner squawked to life with a report of a car accident with children both ejected and trapped. I grabbed a long lens on the way out the door, figuring there would be a cop pushing me back. There was. As soon as I got there they made the reporter leave the scene since I was carrying cameras. Was it because there were children involved or the dead adults that caused them to tense up. A child was wheeled to an ambulance with a group of officers blocking my view. He appeared bloody and I lowered my camera when it seemed silly to try to shoot around them. For what?
But, right behind them another EMT, Alachua County Fire and Rescue's Grant Bosier, carried a baby, in socks, and momentarily placid, strapped to a child’s backboard that was much too large. I made a few frames as he carried the child and got in the same ambulance. That was moving, and the EMT was moved. That is life, death, tragedy and compassion all in a few moments.
Eight-month-old Caleb Mabry lost his parents, James Harold Mabrey and Mary Katherine Martin, when their car slid off the rain-slick road and into a tree. Nobody in the car was wearing a seatbelt, neither parents, nor their four children. The crash hurled Caleb and his eight year-old brother 100 feet from the car.
There was no way to get to a clear view of the car, but did it matter? This was the image that summed up the story. I went back to the office and editors swirled around the monitor determining if the shot could be and should be used on the front page of the newspaper. It was moving, yes. But was it offensive, gory, overdone? No, they said. It is just moving.
The only complaints the next day were from the newsroom to the Sherriffs office over access issues, and the sheriffs office to the newsroom over another photographers’ actions. And one complaint I had never heard before. Circulation was upset that the designer had not told them a good ‘story’ was running the next day. Newspaper racks were sold out.
People wanted know what happened.