One assignment that fits neatly into that category is the copy photo. It involves going to the home of someone who has recently died, usually under questionable circumstances, to get a copy of the recently deceased. It involves poring over family albums with the bereaved within hours of the family member's death.
The resulting photo invariably runs without the usual itsy bitsy photo credit screaming YOUR NAME (and well it shouldn't---you didn't take it, and it's out of focus anyway.) But, if we're paying attention, we may come away with a piece of information that can be more important in the scheme of things, than a copy photo with no 5 pt. photo credit. We might actually make a major contribution to the story. Either way, we're not going to be famous.
Five and a half year old Ahsianea Carzan, who had cerebral palsy, was found dead in her apartment with roach bites all over her 17 pound body. A preliminary report by the Medical Examiner's office showed signs of malnutrition and Ebony Carzan, her mother was held in police custody for questioning. Around 4 pm I was asked to relieve another photographer who had been staking out the mother's apartment all day long, to get a photo of Ms. Carzan returning to her home, after being released from police custody.
As it became clear that she was not going to come near her apartment only to be confronted with a swarming media presence, the photo desk called to reassign me to the Harlem apartment of the child's paternal grandmother where the estranged father Caseim Brown, had promised to let us copy a photo of the mother and child. When I arrived at the apartment in a torrential downpour, the likes of which I've rarely seen, tenants were screaming and there was chaos in the lobby of the building. The elevators weren't working...and he lived on the 10th floor!
After huffing and puffing up the steamy stairs to his apartment, I encountered a note on his door that read: "UNLESS YOU HAVE $100, NO PICTURES, NO STORY, NO INTERVIEW!" Apparently the father had had a change of heart. Fifteen minutes of knocking, pleading and exchanging cell phone calls (thank goodness for cell phones!) with him and with the metro desk finally resulted in the father answering the door. But he was less than accommodating, disappearing for 10-15 minutes at a time, saying he had pictures "back there..." gesturing to some netherworld in the apartment. Meanwhile, it was almost 8 pm and I was nearing my deadline, and a point of no return on my patience.
Alberta Hanley, the child's paternal grandmother, started telling me how the "abuse by the mother" had been documented. At first I was disinclined to pay much attention because I knew that reporters had been following developments and speaking to family members all day long. She went on to say that she had documentation to prove that the New York City Administration for Children's Services had been informed of the abuse. She handed me a detailed email letter, addressed to Nicholas Scoppetta, the agency's commissioner in which she accused the mother of abuse and neglect. The email had been printed out with the time and date and URL of the New York City Department for Children's Services website on 2/22/99.
I asked if she had shown any reporter the letter and she said she had not. I called the writer back at the metro desk who was only moments away from her own deadline. She was interested in the email and had me read it to her over the phone. The grandmother made me a copy of the letter and I carried it and a copy photo of the child with me back to the office. It was almost 9 pm when I got to the paper. The photo desk told me they had gotten photos from other sources and would probably go with those.
New York Times Metro reporter Nina Bernstein, meanwhile, was in the midst of verifying the information I had given her and incorporating it into her final edit for the late City edition. She had me do some research on the internet about the NYC/ACS website dealing with child abuse. In spite of Ms. Hanley's allegations of child abuse, recorded on the website on February 22, 1999, I discovered that New York City requires child abuse to be reported over the phone. In other words, you can report just about everything else, including hot water complaints, and building violations, but not child abuse. Still, the information seemed crucial to a story which secondarily dealt with how a system handles reports of potential child abuse, and who knew what and when, and how it might have been prevented.
The following day, the Metro B1 story contained all the details which had been provided by the grandmother's email, and the story has continued to develop as police try to determine whether to bring criminal charges against Ms. Carzan. The email from the grandmother was an important piece of information in a story which has taken several twists and turns, bringing into question the effectiveness of the child welfare system. I did not get a byline, but I was pleased that my doggedness had at least contributed to the story...because the photo desk had indeed used other photos.
The day after the first story ran, the metro photo editor called me and said that there was an email that I ought to see. The writer had sent to all metro editors acknowledging my help in researching the story.
Needless to say, it made my day. The next time someone says: "Oh you're just the photographer," I will not silently implode; nor will I launch into the defensive: "No, I'm NOT just the photographer, I'm..." Instead, I will patiently listen for that piece of information crucial to the story, to reveal itself, that they just haven't given up yet.
Susan B. Markisz
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