A lot of life in one day

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This wasn’t the strangest day I’ve ever had in 20 years of working as a newspaper photographer. But it was a roller coaster.

It had the unexpected, the navigation of poorly planned, a change in direction and a couple hundred miles of driving. On my way into work today, I had three assignments on the schedule. The first was a controlled burn of a blighted property at 9 a.m. in Oil City. I knew I wasn’t able to stay the entire time but hoped to get a decent shot to show the important civic work the fire department does, safely taking down a hazardous structure.

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While at the scene, my colleague Saxon Daugherty learned the fire department was getting a slightly later start because they assisted in an early morning fire in Franklin. The initial report indicated it was an arson/suicide. Saxon, being the smart young reporter that he is, knew he needed to get on that story and told me he was going to head back to the office to begin investigating.

Smart!

The story we were on is important, but fire with a death of any kind is news we need to report on and report on accurately. Saxon was right to leave and begin tracking down these details.

Now, as a guy who has been doing this for a long time now, when I see a young reporter take initiative like this and have sound journalism instincts, I become almost like a proud parent. That fire was earlier and already put out, so I stayed in order to get a better visual of this controlled burn, knowing I would end up over at the scene of the Franklin fire a little later.

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I had a 10:30 a.m. assignment to photograph a veteran delivering a book and a check to Cranberry Elementary School. A nice story about the local VFW post giving something to the school to help educate the young people about veterans and to help their parent organization. It’s really a nice thing when community helps its own.

I arrived at the school expecting an assembly of some kind for this presentation, but that’s not what I found.

Now, let me explain this a little before I go on. The phrase “fake news” has become a very popular dig against media that people don’t like. One of the reasons it has come about recently is because of the manufacturing of information and, in some cases, misinformation on purpose. In our business, this a huge ethical problem and it’s something we fight against and work toward eliminating.

It is an uphill battle.

So, today, I showed up and these really wonderful people with really wonderful intentions devised a plan to pull two children out of class to represent Cranberry Elementary School and accept this gift from the post commander. The principal and the vice-principal were there as well. All very innocent and with nothing but the best interests of everyone involved at heart.

But a fake or staged scene is for one purpose and one purpose only – to have a photograph taken.

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As a photojournalist, I do not stage anything other than the occasional portrait and our paper does not make it a habit to do the “grip and grin” photos (though we accept them as submissions and put them in the paper). The grip and grin is something that is easily submitted now and we try to find engaging ways of telling stories visually that draw the reader in – feeling the emotion of an action and not just be told this person did this thing and these people were also there.

So, I was taken aback by showing up to an assignment of something we don’t do and hoped somewhere in the mix to find a photograph that engages our readers and then try to tell the story in the caption. I’m not sure I found it.

I also had the next assignment weighing heavily on my mind.

(Also, the gentleman in the picture above is laughing because he admitted that the girl on the left was his granddaughter and that’s how this “photo-op” came about. He also told me that an assignment I had planned for Tuesday was now going on as we were at the school and I needed to get there as well today.)

So, then I went to find the house that was supposedly set on fire and the scene of a suicide. This is not how I want any day to proceed – ever!

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When I arrived, I noticed the Franklin Fire Department and state police fire marshal were on scene, along with a handful of people. They looked lost, concerned and upset.

I had to make pictures of the scene and try to find the story-telling elements. There was some confusion on what I heard and what I saw, so I tried to sort it out … Texts back to the office and just trying to be as unobtrusive as I could while being obtrusive in these poor folks lives.

I felt bad being there, so I went up and introduced myself and apologize for my presence. This I do out of respect, but also know they don’t need to be interrupted in their grieving by me. I apologized and then backed off again.

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Now, we hadn’t had it confirmed that it was arson, but we knew there was a suicide. We knew who it was and where it happened. I concentrated on the police car across the street thinking that visually says investigation. I also saw investigators moving around inside the structure and tried to make a picture, but never got a good, clear view.

I kept watching the people, who I assumed were family. No one yelled at me or told me I shouldn’t be there.

Then, I made a picture of two people comforting one another.

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At this point, I knew there was a human toll beyond the “headline” and beyond the “report.” I needed to know who this person was, I could assume, but we cannot do that and I could just wait and get the information hopefully from a firefighter or police officer later, if they would give me that info. Or, I could show respect and again approach, apologize again and simply begin speaking to the people, giving them dignity.

This is what I did, I was scared to do it and I was feeling horrible that I felt I had to. What if I make their day even worse by insensitivity?

What I got surprised me. I was thanked for approaching and was told others just stopped and took pictures and left. Voyeurs, I guess. I then had a long conversation and learned many things that helped give context to this horrible tragedy and day in the life of these poor people.

I actually wanted to ask this woman if I could give her a hug. I sorta wish I had now.

She was very gracious, as was her 13 year old who she is hugging in the photo above, to me and to getting the story right by being open and talking to me at the scene and to Saxon over the phone.

I still cannot process all that we talked about, but I’ll likely never forget this part of this day.

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From this tragic scene, I moved on to find veterans marking veterans’ graves in preparation for this weekend’s Memorial Day observances. Here, I met more wonderful people who dedicate their time to never forgetting what they and their brothers and sisters endured for this country. I met a couple vets who were part of many putting out 1,100 flags in the Franklin Cemetery. These two old soldiers I met posted a flag and took a couple seconds to stand straight and salute. I thought to myself, I bet they did that 100 or 200 times today each! That alone boggled my mind. They didn’t forget to salute once.

Amazing.

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I admit again, my mind was distracted with the story I just came from. I felt I wasn’t making important enough pictures for the importance of what these veterans are doing because my head was stuck on the last assignment.

I thought about some of my colleagues at bigger papers who might have one assignment a day. They work just as hard as I do, if not harder, but they can focus on their story and not be distracted. Not sure which is better – especially if the assignment is grueling either physically or emotionally.

All of this happened before 1 p.m. and I knew I had only 2 hours to file my pictures and write captions before I had to get back on the road to Erie for another important moment in people’s lives, high school playoff baseball. I’m not being coy here. This is an important part of life. It may not seem like it in comparison to the loss of life, but life isn’t measured that way. Life is a fabric of woven moments from different directions and every fiber is important to the overall fabric of being.

As a photographer who just had a day, it was a bit surreal for sure. But, there I was, trying to find in an action shot a story to tell. I love my job, even when I don’t so much.

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Congrats, Rocky Grove, on a solid win at Ainsworth Field in Erie.

About the Author

Richard Sayer
Staff photographer at the Derrick and News-Herarld newspapers in North Western Pennsylvania.