February 21, 2013
I took this photo while shooting a police training exercise, one designed to teach officers how to quickly take out an "active shooter." It was in an old school building and involved a lot of noise and gunfire, with participants shooting each other with small caliber rounds of paint.
In the moments prior to taking the picture above, I was warned not to raise my camera "while the officers were coming into the room," and I didn't... but I was admittedly a bit precipitous and started shooting as soon as they were over the threshold. I didn't plan to, I had intended to just watch this first run through, but my work and training kicked in before I could think.
As you can see from this photo, I almost got myself shot, albeit with paint rather than copper or lead. Even dressed in a bright red safety vest, raising my camera to eye level shouted "aggressor."
No surprise, really: Photography is a naturally aggressive act, like pointing a finger or even a gun.
As a photojournalist I "shoot" pictures. Raising my camera to eye level I take "aim" and gently "squeeze the trigger." My stance is not the same as that used to shoot a gun, but like any gunner I brace myself carefully, creating a steady platform of my body. My lens has a "barrel" which I sight through, rather than over, and I control my breathing and shoot on the exhale. When I get excited I fire a lot of frames in short, high-speed bursts.
When I first started training as a news photographer, I was amazed at how hard it could be to start shooting a news event, one with no opportunity for introduction or forewarning. I thought at first it was just my natural shyness, but soon realized that I had no real trouble approaching strangers, or even photographing them after explaining my purpose.
The trouble came when I had to photograph at a crime scene, fire or accident, when I had to "take aim" at people I didn't know and who had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it.
Yet once I've started, even in an uncomfortable news event, people typically recognize my purpose and accept it fairly quickly.
Eventually I figured it out, and although I'm still not very aggressive at heart, I have an overwhelming desire to tell the story in photographs and have learned to force myself to take the aggressive stance and "start shooting" regardless. I've been yelled at, even threatened, but it's gotten easier over the years.
Although I'm not a very aggressive person, I have used my camera as a weapon and it's very effective. Years ago I pulled into a parking lot and an old pickup slammed to a stop beside me. A young, wild-eyed man started yelling at me through his open window. My taillights were out and he almost hit me! He was in an extravagant rage, and when he jumped out of his car and headed for me, my natural response was to grab my camera from the seat beside me and take his picture. When I raised the camera he stopped, wide-eyed and startled. One click and he was in full retreat, jumped back in his truck and left without another word. Funny thing was, my camera didn't even have a lens mounted.
That said, when you shove your camera in the face of a bunch of armed gunman in the middle of a firefight, you run a pretty good risk of getting shot even if the only thing flying about the room is paint. I'm grateful that the officers involved in the training didn't take me out, and I'm a little surprised they refrained from shooting... I didn't, even though I knew what was coming. But they had no idea I was there.
It would have been the first time I'd been shot, and that's one "first" I hope never to experience.
NOTE: The rest of the pictures I took, some can be seen below, were photographed with the camera resting on the floor or on my knee, triggered with one hand while sitting really, really still, avoiding eye contact and trying to look very, very unaggressive ... downright loving, in fact.