On a photojournalist's duty to clearly, accurately and respectfully report tragedy
As photojournalists, we live the good life, getting the rare chance to make pictures for a living. While that is all fine and good, being a human first is always most important. There is no exception — especially in the case of spot news.
When a square mile of earth swept west into Oso, Washington, leaving 36 (and rising) dead, media from local and national outlets hastily mobilized to the rural area to cover one of Washington’s most catastrophic natural disasters. In times of great sadness, tragedy and personal loss to others, a journalist’s job is to clearly, accurately and respectfully report the story to an audience, keeping dignity at the forefront. While “clearly” and “accurately” smack of journalism school requirements, “respectfully” is often passed over.
You’ve heard this all before. “With great power comes great responsibility,” said Voltaire. When applied to the careers of mediafolk, no quote rings more true. The life of a journalist brings out the ultimate in highs and lows; something to be investigated, analyzed and spread. The public may never understand what journalists go through to do their job.
Things to know for certain: while covering disaster, you will get tired, emotional, burned out. Getting lost in the story is an easy trap to fall into. Strive to do the best job you can, but know there is nothing wrong with putting cameras down, catching your breath and expressing sadness. We are all human.
The photographs I made while covering the Oso tragedy are not for me. They weren’t made for my portfolio, to win awards or to sensationalize. Those first two days, I made pictures with an effort to humanize the victims of the tragedy — not to belabor the damage or to scoop other news outlets.
For green photojournalists, the “opportunity” of a disaster like the mudslide may appear exciting, posing as a chance to make that iconic picture we all strive for. While the visuals may be awe-inspiring, a place like the Oso debris field is far from a journalistic proving ground. Citizens of the community will go on living, long after the news trucks and cameras have left the scene. They will live in the shadow of your coverage.
My SeattlePI.com coworker and staff photographer, Josh Trujillo, continued to provide coverage after I left the scene following day two. He went on to make his way into the debris field and later embedded in the Darrington community, east of the landslide. His pictures, both haunting and storytelling, illustrated some of the other facets of the complex event.
Yet still, nearly three weeks after the disaster, coverage is showing no signs of stopping. As repercussions from an event of this magnitude continue long into the future, journalists should (and will) report with the utmost respect — as this story is not for them.
Click here to see SeattlePI.com coverage of the Oso mudslide.
About the author: Jordan Stead is a staff photographer for SeattlePI.com, regional chair with the National Press Photographers Association and 2011 graduate from Western Washington University, currently residing in Seattle, WA. Stead is a previous attendee of both the 25th Eddie Adams Workshop and the 65th Missouri Photo Workshop. He returns to WWU and other schools around the Pacific Northwest region to speak on the merits of life that photojournalism can provide.
Aside from organizing the world into one rectangle at a time, Stead enjoys cold showers, hot vacations and temperate attitudes. You can find more of his work on his website, Twitter or Instagram. This article was originally published by The Photo Brigade.