Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Media's Hunger

It's behind a wall, of course, but in yesterday's Globe & Mail Christie Blatchford has a column about Jane Creba and about the apparently strange decision of her parents to grieve in private. Titled "How we mourn," Blatch's column talks a bit about the fairly recent tradition of public mourning, and about how the Crebas have avoided that intense and disturbing glare.

As I read her column, one sentence jumped out at me early on: "...where were the parents, holding up pictures of their dead daughter?" Reading this sent a shock of sick recognition through my body, a shock that was greatly amplified when, further on, I read, "So unusual is this - shocking really, as though the parents didn't know the rules - that a day or so after Ms. Creba's death, the public-relations department at the police force was actually approached by a representative from a local TV station and asked if the force could arrange for the parents to be made available to the press, preferably with a picture of Ms. Creba to pose with and, presumably, to weep over." [Emphasis mine]

I don't know when this ghoulish behaviour first took place, but I believe I was actually present for its early days, at least as far as it went in Edmonton. In the late 1980s I was a freelance photographer for the Edmonton Sun, baby sister of the Toronto Sun, both of them strident, noisy, right-wing-and-proud-of-it tabloids filled with pictures of SunShine Girls (less naughty than some of the tabloid girls you see in British rags), brash headlines, and greatly simplified writing (and here I'll note that not much has changed, although most articles seem to be grade 6 or 7 level now, rather than grade 9. On the plus side, fewer reporters can be found drunk lying in the parking lot at the end of the day). When I first started out, if someone died and the paper wanted to run a picture of the victim (when the vic was alive, as opposed to a body covered by a tarp), it was either supplied by the family to the police, who distributed it to the press, or else a junior reporter would make a cold call and deal with the family's rep, then drive down and get the picture. If the victim was a young adult, this was almost always a graduation photo.

And then, one day, a young 18-year-old man (and I feel a small amount of shame that I have forgotten his name, even though it has been almost two decades) died in a skiing accident. Lost his balance on the mountain and hit a tree head-first. I was in the lab at the time, processing that Dark Ages material we once called film, when the photo editor called me out and told me they had a job for me. It had been arranged, he said, and I was to go to the family's house and collect a picture of this young man for publication in the paper. I cringed a bit at the thought, but nodded. And then he said that I was also to take a photo of the grieving mother holding the picture of her son.

I protested. This sounded to me like a gross violation of the poor mother's privacy, an offensive attempt to sensationalize a tragic death that was, to be frank, only of interest to a second-tier newspaper in a big city that still often acted like it was a small city. (Not that I actually stated my case that way, you understand.)

Do the picture, I was told. If you don't, there are plenty of other shooters who want this job.

I did the picture. The mother, to her everlasting credit, was patient, understanding, even sympathetic to my plight. I apologized left right and sideways, and she was a perfect subject. Her family and friends, though, could have been the death of me and my children and grandchildren (all, of course, unborn) if only looks could kill. And so I did the shoot as quickly as possible, collected the photo of her son (which the paper never used, since it wasn't salacious) and, with a promise to quickly get it back to her, got out of there.

This was, needless to say, photojournalism as I had never imagined it. Not long after this I parted ways with the paper, for a variety of reasons, happy to have the weight removed from my shoulders. There are amazing shooters out there, photojournalists who do wonderful work that actually means something, but I'm afraid that the vast majority of them are exactly like I was, hoping beyond hope that one day they'll be in just the right spot to snap just the right shot, always looking over the horizon beyond the grip 'n' grins and boring head shots and same old sports pix, continuing to believe that one day they'll rise above the rest. Perhaps not a Nachtwey, but at least a Simon.

It won't happen, though. Most will continue to watch their souls dry up, staking out murder sites and shooting pictures of blood at car accident sites, and taking pictures of grieving parents holding photos of their dead children. And the sadder thing is, this is what most of us expect.

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