Warning: This post contains graphic photos and descriptions of a serious injury.
As a wedding photographer, there are so many different parts of the day we temporarily pause in being a photographer and magically transform into a seamstress, a planner, a mediator, a therapist and any number of other jobs. We are the only vendor outside of videographers who are with our clients all day.
It’s one of the parts of my career that I love — no wedding day is ever the same and I get “re-charged” from the people families I meet. Because of this, I’ve always (in the past) considered myself more then a “photographer,” but rather someone who’s there to help in any way I can (while still doing my jobs) should the need arise.
In April of 2014, I was shooting one of our first weddings of the year. It was at a beautiful venue, with great vendors and the day was going well. We didn’t have a wedding planner present but as the ceremony and reception were in the same location, things were running relatively smoothly.
By the end of the night, every one had really enjoyed the evening and the DJ started the process of getting everyone outside for a sparkler exit. As there was no planner, a venue staff member was holding a handful of sparklers and handing them out to guests.
Trying to be helpful and speed up the process, I grabbed a handful of sparklers from the venue person and handed them out to people who didn’t have one while I was “forming the lines” for my clients to walk through.
As I was in the process of making sure the lines were far enough apart and handing out the random sparkler, the bride and groom appeared in the doorway ready to walk and sparklers were starting to be lit.
I don’t have any memory of what happened next.
I was told two different things and, honestly, I don’t know which one is true – either way, someone else lit the bunch of sparklers in my hand, or I did. Regardless, the end result was the same…
The first thing I remember was a very bright, hot flash on my face that was immediately followed by a searing and overwhelming pain in my hand. By the time I realized what was happening (the sparklers exploded), I tried throwing them to the ground, but that was easier said then done — they just kind of dropped. They had burned all the way thru my hand and were completely out by the time they hit the ground.
At this point I was in a state of confusion and severe pain when someone (maybe several people — it’s all a little foggy) started pulling at my hand and yelling at me to show them. I don’t remember what I said, but I yanked my hand away and motioned for the couple to come out as I walked to the back of the two lines I had setup.
As the couple walked out I moved into a good spot for a photo. I waited for a good moment and as I went to push the shutter, s**t! My index finger wouldn’t bend.
It was the weirdest sensation I have ever felt. My skin felt extremely tough but flexible, like a car tire. I started to panic for a second then I realized I had 3 other fingers I could try! Salvation! I moved to my middle finger but it was worse than my index finger, it wouldn’t move at all. Ring finger? Nope.
I only had my pinky left, but it saved the day! It had managed to escape the damage done to my hand and fingers so I blasted about 30 frames as fast as I could.
I couldn’t concentrate on anything else besides keeping the couple somewhat centered in the frame and in focus. So I shot and shot without thinking about anything like flash recharge time, different compositions, etc.
If you look at the photos, you’ll see these sparklers are burning with blue/purple color, putting off a ton of smoke, and resemble a blowtorch. They’re not the pretty yellow sparklers you see with “wedding sparklers”. The couple had told me they bought “blue” sparklers, but these resembled “4th of July” sparklers which burn in a completely different fashion.
Once the couple had gotten into the car, I couldn’t take it anymore (I missed the car shot) and ran to the closest bathroom I could find to put cold water on my hand. The lighting was not that great (or perhaps my vision was as screwy) but I could see that my hand and fingers was charred black.
The skin was very, very thick and the water beaded off of it in a peculiar way. I wrapped it up in a paper towel, put some ice on it then went to get my business partner Jenn and tell her what happened. (As a side note, Jenn won’t shoot sparkler exits anymore because she lost about 10 inches of hair when a drunk guest touched her braid with a sparkler a few months before this happened to me, so she was upstairs packing up.)
We decided to hit the emergency room close to our office, which was about a 30 minute drive away. We arrived at the hospital and immediately got triaged. She took a look at the damage and told me I had 1st degree burns and I could have a seat and wait to see a doctor. I told her I was in a tremendous amount of pain and she offered me ibuprofen (insert sarcastic comments here).
We waited for about 45 minutes and realized no one had moved from the waiting room and we still had 3 people in front of us. Jenn then talked me into going to another hospital (it was 2am by this time).
As I was walking to the parking lot, I went into full fledged shock. My speech was slurred, I had trouble walking and I was shivering uncontrollably. When we arrived at the second hospital, Jenn told them what happened and they immediately brought me back into the triage area. The resident physician came in, asked what happened, took one look at my hand then promptly disappeared.
Within 3 minutes the resident reappeared with the attending physician who looked at my hand and gave me news that I was certainly not expecting. They were going to send me via ambulance to the UNC burn center. My hand had suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns and the thickening of my skin along with tendon damage was the reason I couldn’t bend my fingers. They weren’t able to treat burns this serious.
We arrived at the burn center at 4am and we got into a room just as the attending physician was doing rounds with his students. He examined my hand for a minute, talked with his students and gave me the best news possible: that he didn’t want to get me into surgery because I was a photographer and he felt the burns weren’t bad enough to put me through that.
So he elected to let me heal then debride (i.e. removing dead skin) me later. Treating my injury required quite a complicated litany of bandages, creams and wrapping that took about 20 minutes each day and evening.
After 2 weeks of this routine, I had a follow up appointment at the burn center. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is when they were going to “debride” me. I cannot describe the feeling of dread I got when a very pleasant man used a pair of very pointy scissors to cut open the wounds and expose the tissue underneath.
He cut through the dead skin (which wasn’t painful at all) to expose the beginning of what would eventually become new skin.
What I didn’t expect is how sensitive this “beginners skin” was. Even the slightest breeze was PAINFUL and even when it was bandaged, the pressure from trying to pick something up was excruciating. I was taking Oxycontin to manage the pain but it wouldn’t eliminate it, it just helped to manage it.
After about 5 weeks from the date of the accident I could start to actually use my hand for typing, eating or writing. One of the most important things I had to do during this process was occupational therapy. This was a series or stretches and movements with my hand and fingers designed to build strength and recover motion in my hand.
I ended up losing about 20 pounds (that I totally needed to lose) during the process of healing — it takes your body a lot of energy to regrow skin.
After about 6 weeks, I could hold a camera for about 2 hours in a day before my hand was too weak. I could lift things and grip things, but trying to lift and grip at the same time was difficult (you know, like lifting a camera and lens).
Throughout all of this, there’s the small matter of actually trying to work. This happened in April, the start of our busy season and here I was to barely able to hold a camera. With 65 weddings on the books, and numerous commercial shoots, my business was in a very delicate position. We had a break for two weeks which was helpful but Jenn really stepped up to the plate and took the primary photographer role for quite a while.
I made it to each event but I just didn’t have the stamina to work the whole thing. Without her, my business would of likely closed or been in serious trouble. My clients were so understanding and they all supported us, which was absolutely incredible.
So a year later I am still here, the business is running smoothly and we’ve come out much smarter, more efficient then ever and most of the effects have disappeared. I still have to stretch my hand every few days, and the scar tissue is minimal.
I cannot tell you how lucky I am to not have permanent damage from this accident. The doctors told me they see this type of injury from sparklers all the time and I am one of the lucky few that didn’t suffer permanent damage. Between having a burn center so close, having a good genetic makeup which allowed me to heal so quickly and a supportive business partner and wife, we were able to handle everything that was thrown at us and continued our business.
After all of this happened I decided to research sparklers and their chemical makeup. Honestly, I was shocked with what I found… magnesium can burn at temperatures of 5000 degrees fahrenheit or more (although the sparklers we had are said to burn around 2000f) and sparklers comprise the largest segment of fireworks-related accidents in the US.
So, moving forward from this ordeal, we learned quite a few things. We coined a phrase (actually Jenn did): “Not my job”. We always want to help our clients make their day go smoothly but we also have to consider our own safety before everything else.
We still do as much as we can for our clients but, you guessed it, I don’t do sparklers anymore.
About the author: Brian Mullins, an award-winning Raleigh Wedding Photographer has been shooting weddings & commercial photography professionally since 2005. In addition to his photography work, he has a full compliment of photography classes at his studio just outside Raleigh, NC. After his accident, Mullins changed the entire way his business is run. He will be speaking about it during a “Outsourcing is not a four letter word” class at the PPNC convention in August.