By Susan B. Markisz
It’s been bloody cold in New York City. Peter Oskarsson,
a native Icelander working in New York, was quoted in a January
26, 2004 New York Times story on the arctic temperatures, saying: “I’ve
never in my life been as cold as I have been in New York.” Though
I’ve never been to Iceland, I’ve had to cover a number
of outdoor assignments in New York City, and I have to concur
with Oskarsson. Sadly, the frigid temperatures have contributed
to several deaths throughout the metropolitan area, all of which
One can only imagine what it must be like to have your heat turned
off by Con Edison because – perhaps you’ve been laid
off – and you can’t pay your heating bill, as the
temperature plummets to the single digits, and stays there for
4 solid weeks. Or the landlord doesn’t provide enough heat
to keep your kids warm and toasty so you rely instead on – unbeknownst
to you - a faulty heater, which emits a tasteless, odorless gas
and silently kills all members of your family. In one of the
houses where carbon monoxide poisoning was responsible for two
recent deaths, the meter brought in by the fire department registered
500 parts per million; even 30 parts per million over a prolonged
period of time can be dangerous. One can only imagine.
Covering cold weather tragedies presents special physical challenges
in trying to keep warm and the extremities from becoming numb.
But even more challenging are the obstacles we sometimes encounter
at crime scenes. In New York at least, photographers have been
on the defensive since September 11 and are often at the mercy
of the authorities at the scene to get access. In this space,
I won’t delve into all of the First Amendment and civil
liberties issues, which have surfaced in recent years for photographers
trying to get access; that’s a story – a long one
- for another day.
On a much more fundamental level, however, is the fact that photographers’ relationships
with the police department and other authorities whose discretion
we must rely on to cover breaking news, suffer from a PR image
between the NYPD and the newsroom has escalated since the terrorist
attacks with the apparent perception that we are akin to news “paparazzi.”
think we’re a pretty well intentioned group, with
the objective to be able to convey a sense of what happened,
or the effects of a tragedy on its victims and survivors.
Perhaps the photograph we take might motivate people to
heed warnings about, say, the dangers of carbon monoxide
poisoning, or whatever it is that has brought us to this
location in the first place.
Connolly reacts to the news that two of her neighbors,
a father and daughter died of carbon
monoxide poisoning in the Woodlawn section of the
Bronx on January 13, 2004.
Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.
Chief Dennis Munnelly spoke to the press after 6
victims were taken to area hospitals from a
private home at 4279 Oneida Avenue in the Woodlawn
section of the Bronx. Shortly after 7:30 pm, two of
the victims were reported to have died and 2 others
remained in critical condition. Chief Munnelly advised
neighbors to purchase carbon monoxide detectors.
Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.
I arrived on a scene in November where a family of three
had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, most of the EMS
vehicles had already gone away empty, leaving only a few
police officers guarding the street, a couple
bystanders, and Con-Ed workers and FDNY inspectors going in
and out of the house - windows wide open - waiting for the
coroner to appear.
newscasters were set up with their satellite trucks down
the block waiting to do their 11 PM live shot. After shooting
from my limited perspective, I asked a plainclothes
detective to allow me to cross the street, which was cordoned
by yellow tape. He shouted “No,” and when I added
a second plaintive “Please,” he shouted “NO” even
louder the second time. When I asked why, he turned his
back to me and wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence.
A walk around the block to get to the other side of the scene
have taken at least 10 minutes, because of the bizarre
pattern and the manner in which the police had cordoned
off the scene. If I had been a resident on the street where
occurred, I would have been allowed to cross the approximately
30 feet to the other side. As a press photographer I was
a uniformed officer, having witnessed his superior’s
response, came over and told me he would escort me
across the street in
a few minutes, and he did so when the detective walked
The other side of the street didn’t provide much more of
a picture. There were no victims’ families on the scene
and the coroner’s van had not yet arrived; the Metro deadline
was quickly approaching and I had little to show for my efforts.
I knew that the picture didn’t have to shout “dead.” Still,
I didn’t have much and it was 11pm.
noticed that a man on the second floor of an apartment
house adjacent to the house where the victims had died,
peered out the window periodically at the going’s
on in the street.
Except for the well-lit porch of the house where investigators were searching
for evidence, it was eerily quiet, and pretty dark outside.
York City Fire Department Investigators survey the
scene at a private home at 1708 Popham Avenue & 176th
Street in the Bronx where three people succumbed to
carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator which malfunctioned.
There was no heat in the house.
© 2003 Susan B.
I began shooting the silhouetted guy in the window. A good
friend and fellow photographer
standing next to me, realizing my flash wasn’t going off,
looked at me astonished and asked: “You mean you’re
shooting available light???” I said, “Yep, 1600,
tungsten white balance. Take a look at that guy in the window.
not a very literal picture, but unless something dramatic
happens in the next 10 minutes, that’s my shot.”
To my surprise, he started shooting without his flash, and
then after a few frames, turned his flash back on, laughed
and said: “Fugheddaboudit...my
paper will never go for this.”
I was risking my deadline by staying any longer, and I started
to leave when suddenly, the man I had been photographing,
reappeared at the window, this time with an infant in
his arms. I shot 2
or 3 frames and left. As soon as the editor saw the first
picture I transmitted, he called to tell me that was
the picture. In
a case where, tragically, an infant had died in the house,
he said, it made the photograph with the guy with the
his arms silhouetted in the window of the building next
door, a quiet and moving shot.
oxygen mask left in front of 4279 Oneida Avenue in
the Woodlawn section of the Bronx by EMS workers
on January 13, 2004 when members of a family were overcome
by carbon monoxide poisoning, claiming the lives of
two victims, left an eerie reminder of the dangers
of carbon monoxide poisoning. January 14, 2004.
Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.
a carbon monoxide poisoning 2 weeks ago that left a father
and daughter dead, and the mother and son in critical condition,
the only way to convey the sense of tragedy was to photograph
the neighbors’ reactions and the oxygen masks that
EMS workers had left lying on the street and shrubbery
around the house.
January 13, 2004, carbon monoxide poisoning claimed
the lives of a father and daughter on Oneida Avenue
in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, leaving the mother
and son in critical condition. A neighbor, Walter Sammon,
who lives across the street from the Duffy family,
went out and purchased a Carbon Monoxide/Smoke Detector
this morning from Sears for about $50. January 14,
© 2004 Susan B. Markisz for The New York
next day, although this picture was not used in the follow-up
story, we encountered a neighbor on the street who had
gone out to purchase a carbon monoxide detector for his
who believe they have a right to prevent these stories from
being told because either they feel it’s
their duty to protect the public from the media, for
their own personal
reasons, should know that besides the fact that it
is not their job, in this case, at least one person was
motivated to go out
and buy a carbon monoxide detector the following day.
In all likelihood, neighbors in the immediate vicinity
would have learned
soon enough about the tragedy. But without media coverage,
it would have been just another neighborhood tragedy,
to a few neighbors and passers-by. Without the media,
there would have been no microphone or reporters to record
the fire chief’s
appeal to the public to purchase carbon monoxide detectors
for their homes. Without the media, it would have been
quiet night in the neighborhood. Deadly quiet.
© 2004 Susan B. Markisz
January 31, 2004