The first picture I ever shot was a Polaroid of my left foot, I was eight. My parents bought it for me for something like five bucks, the camera not my foot. The film was closer to ten bucks for ten pictures. So I had to learn early on how to conserve and find the shots I wanted to see again.
Seeing the shot a split second before it’s there, hearing the sound of the shutter and visualizing the tiny mechanics of the gears and springs and levers that went into making it work, it’s when everything makes sense. It’s the one moment that no matter what else happens in the world- there’s a lasting stillness.
Flapping the Polaroid’s film around like a geisha girl’s fan was the best three and a half minutes of my life as a kid. Everyone a birthday present for a little boy. The thought process that went into every picture, the setup, the concentration, I took it all serious then. Hours spent doing what my parents called entertaining myself just to develop a fluid concept for multiple pictures. And in that click, and that three minutes before you find out if it’s worth it, I’m the best damned photographer the paper has on staff, and I’m eight- an eight year old Jimmy Olsen.
I got pretty good pretty fast and took over for Dad when it came time for family photos and special occasions.
Some things just click with certain people. I was never an athlete and school was brutal for me. But when I picked up a camera it was an escape to another place. Like I was alone in a theater watching a show no one else could ever see. After awhile I wanted them to see it too, the way I was. A shot that’s an extension of yourself helps to put everything into context, people, places, things and you. And you get to watch it all, shielded behind the half inch square glass viewfinder.
Sometimes in this world you just need a second to analyze everything around you. Reflect on the emotions that moment in time has given you. It’s impossible to take everything thing in all at once, you only have twenty-two senses. To take it in and regroup or appreciate or investigate is only something you can get from a click, a snap, now days a beep.
I happened to be involved in a twenty something car pile-up one ice covered road night ago. Instinctively I knew it would be sometime before any help would be there. The moment was raw and the canvas was blank. I grabbed my camera and went out in search for the One.
The carnage was epic. A semi had lost control and rolled onto it’s side dumping the contents from it’s white taker, coating the asphalt like cereal with white frozen milk. Broken bits of reflectors lay in splinters scattered like airplane wreckage over four football field lengths. Guard rails now mangled steel art sculptures. Fiberglass bumpers hung half off scraping the road below. Wheels broken off or turned in on themselves. All separate metaphors for something going on in someone else’s life.
The moans directed me where to go and the camera led the way. Capturing the loving smile and hands embraced of life long partnership coming to an end together. The old couple covered in blood as the windshield sparkled with cobwebs in the nights flashing lights. A doll laying almost dressed just off the shoulder in the grass, feet in the air. My own leg, that same left one I first shot when I was eight, blood soaking the pant material so much that it dripped down covering most of my shoe, so I shot it again at twenty-eight.
I could hear a man screaming for help. I got him into frame, him waving frantically on the side of his over turned minivan. I scanned left and right and saw two men sprinting. I started to run too, but my leg, that same damned left leg that I first shot when I was eight years old and now was covered in blood, my own blood, that same leg told me that I wouldn’t run anymore. And by now the two men are there anyway and they’re jumping onto the van where the guy was but since has disappeared back into where I’m assuming is the inside of the minivan. And I’m almost there, shooting frame after frame as I leave a small drip trail in my shoe prints in the slush. I’m there enough to hear a woman screaming in pain. Not the normal I just got a booboo and stubbed my toe kind of pain, but a real glutoreal wail.
I see smoke coming from the van that I hadn’t seen before. I hear one of the men shouting for someone to give him a hand. They’re pulling her out of the van. She’s pregnant. Now I know the wails mean she’s in labor.
The close up shows blood on her neck, coming down from her head matted in her blonde hair. I can hear more people running up, and more people shouting. By the time I get around the van they have her on the ground, the frantically waving man now by her side gripping her hand.
“What the hell are you doing?” a guy says to me.
Like I’m supposed to be any help in a situation like this. What do I know about car wrecks and pregnant woman and giving birth? I’ve only been involved with that once, and I’m grateful infants can’t remember.
I throw out my standard response, “I’m a reporter, just documenting.”
The frantic waving man who was now the kneeling beside the woman holding her hand man, looks up at me. He doesn’t give a shit about me at all, which is the way it is supposed to be. People forget to prioritize what’s important, I’m guilty. But not this guy, this guy knows what’s important, and it’s not me.
The two heroes, now onlookers, waiting to be called heroes again look on with guarded anticipation. They glance at me with every shutter click, waiting for me to take their pictures. The baseball caps and flannel winter jackets, a snow flake caught mid-descent, a red blinking light reflecting in its crystals.
There’s another shout and we all look up from the bleeding pregnant lady on the ground who’s wailing to see the semi has caught fire and the driver is having one hell of a time trying to climb out of the top. The two heroes hero at it again and as if on queue sprint away with imagined capes blowing in the wind. My leg buckles and I fall into the perfect angle for the shot.
The distant yells from the distant place where the two heroes went off to be heroes brought my lens up in time to see over the shoulder of the wailing, bleeding, pushing pregnant woman, three men with their arms interlocked like drunk buddies running away from the now fully burning semi. Another push, a new head, the explosion, men flying forward in the air, click.
A sigh, a laugh, a cry. A little girl who would be named Miracle. A Pulitzer snapped at just the right exact moment. The last grunt, the explosion in the background, little feet dangle beside a cord as the three men by the semi are blown through the air. The cover of Time. Shot from my belly in a slush pile by the back tire of an over turned minivan.
You would think with something like that on a resume I would be set, that cash would just be rolling in. But that’s not how it works. I have a lot of friends who have to supplement their income by taking steady paycheck jobs on the side. Forensic photography, portrait photography, IDs at the DMV, whatever. We all do something. The picture of the guy with puss oozing from the open boil that used to be a butt cheek, rash covered babies, the impaled eye socket with a screwdriver, they pay my bills too. A day in the normal life.