By Dick Kraus
Newsday Staff Photographer (retired)

Life is fraught with peril. Surveys have been taken to determine how dangerous various trades and professions are. Within the media, the pressroom has proven to be the most dangerous craft of all in the newspaper business. Pressmen are always getting caught in the spinning machinery with resulting loss of life or limb. It comes with the territory. Statistics say that it is much more dangerous than say, working as a photojournalist. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but you rarely hear of a news photographer getting his/her finger caught in his/her focal plane shutter. I’m sure that such a thing has happened. It happened to me once, when I was blowing dust off of the LCD on my digital Nikon and my finger slipped from the shutter release that was set on “Bulb.” The shutter closed around my other fingers, startling me but causing me no injury. Things like that never get into the statistical record books.

And yet, I just heard that another journalist was killed in Iraq bringing the total in that war to more than were killed in the combined conflicts in Southeast Asia. Most of that number were photographers.

The Digital Journalist has paid tribute to many of our brethren who lost their lives bringing dramatic proof of the horror of war into the homes of our readers. The numbers continue to mount as wars continue to be waged around the world. This too, comes with the territory
The brave and dedicated men and women who risk their lives and well-being every moment that they are in a war zone are well aware of the phrase “watch your ass.” They wear helmets and body armor and are always looking over their shoulders.

However, the number of news photographers who cover “bang, bang,” as it is known in the trade, are a small minority among the photographers in the business. This is obviously why pressmen still hold the edge when it comes to dangerous professions.

For the rest of us, who never went out looking for “bang, bang,” there were times when “bang, bang” came looking for us. The world around us can be, and often is, a violent place. We news photographers sometimes find ourselves in peril without a clue that the potential is there. The day can start out as another ho hum, boring day with ho hum, boring assignments. And suddenly, there we could be, staring death in the eye.

Such was the case with two of my friends and associates when the helicopters from which they were photographing ordinary, peaceful assignments, lost power and fell from the sky. Both of them ended up with lasting disabilities.

Flying always holds the possibility for disaster. It was bad enough when we flew in planes; with wings. Wings are good. Birds have them and they work very well for them. Now we use helicopters. Helicopters have no parallel in nature. They have no wings and when the helicopter loses power, gravity takes over in a very dramatic fashion.

In my long career as a news photographer, I was asked to fly many aerial assignments. In the beginning, I was young, adventurous and indestructible. I jumped at each opportunity. I started out in planes; Piper Cubs and Tri-Pacers, and later on, helicopters. Helicopters were amazing (except for the no wings thing.) I could ask the pilot to “back up a little.” You can’t do that in a Piper Cub.

Now, sitting in the comfort and security of my home in my retirement years, I look back and think of the risks that I took during my working years. As long as I’m on the subject, I can think of some hairy experiences in the air. I won’t bore you with a lot of details since I’ve already published journals describing many of my adventures. I will just give you thumbnail descriptions in order to make my point about “watching your ass.”

It was one of those ordinary days that didn’t exhibit anything that might kill me. I called the desk when I completed my assignment and was directed to get to the airport where the pilot and plane that we used for our aerial photographs was based. We were to get some aerial photos of a large brush fire that was blazing away in the Central Islip area. We spent most of our air time on the up-wind side of the fire so that I could photograph the flames and the towering column of smoke that obliterated everything on the downwind side. When I felt that I had enough of that I asked our pilot to fly to the other side of the smoke so I could take a look-see in case there was a worthwhile shot over there. Bob nodded his assent and we headed through the dense smoke. I was looking down from my side of the plane, for an opening in the smoke, while Bob was looking out his side. Suddenly my stomach was in my throat as our small plane dropped like a stone. I looked up in a panic, thinking that we had been caught in a great downdraft caused by the fire below. Instead, my eyes beheld a huge gray shape speeding past, just above and in front of our nose. It was a large commercial jet liner on final approach to nearby Long Island MacArthur Airport. Our tiny plane was buffeted by the big jet’s slip stream until Bob could regain control and get us away from the turbulence.

Bob was always the model of a safety conscious pilot. He never took risks and I never had a moment’s concern for my life when I flew with him. He had notified Air Traffic Control at the airport that we would be working in the area and they should have warned us that an incoming flight was in our vicinity. But, we never were made aware until we were almost splattered across the landscape below.

Another time, I was flying with an amateur pilot and his girlfriend who were part of a parade of antique aircraft that were accompanying a replica of Charles Lindburgh’s historic Spirit of St. Louis. It was making a fly-over Roosevelt Field where the original plane had taken off for the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic by a single engine plane. There were about 30 old planes lined up behind the replica and we all were warned to stay in line according to the number issued to us by the organizers of the show. It was obvious that the plane that I was in was too far back to get any useful photos of the Spirit of St. Louis. I said as much to my pilot who told me not to worry. When we got close to the “fly-over” spot, he would move us up so I could get pictures. At the appropriate time, we moved forward. I had my camera up to my eye and was waiting for just the right moment to begin shooting. Suddenly another antique plane popped up between me and my target. I looked up and saw that every one of the 30 planes had broken formation in order to get a good look at the Spirit. And, none of the pilots were watching where they were going. They were too busy ogling the replica. That included the dolt who was piloting the plane I was in. Another plane popped up right in front of us and it seemed that our prop was about to chew the other’s tail assembly off. I gasped and hit the shoulder of our pilot who looked up and promptly put our plane into a steep dive which almost caused us to smash into yet another plane that was flying right below us. For the next few minutes, we corkscrewed through the air, trying to avoid crashing into the motley collection of aircraft that filled the sky. When we finally landed, I jumped out of the plane as soon as we rolled to a stop. I dropped to my knees and kissed the tarmac.

“ Oh, come on,” our pilot said. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“ Yes it was,” I said.

The 60’s and 70’s were volatile times. With the Vietnam War raging in Southeast Asia, there were demonstrations on the home front pitting doves against hawks; those who wanted the US to get out of Vietnam and those who wanted to nuke the enemy. It was also a time of racial strife with ghettos in major cities across the country in flames. In both cases, the media was looked upon with distrust by hawks and doves as well as by blacks and whites. There were times when news people were pelted with bricks thrown from rooftops and backed up against the wall and threatened by one side or another. We couldn’t try to get help from the cops. They didn’t want us on the scene; making pictures of them clobbering some demonstrator over the head with a billy club or dragging some of them, kicking and screaming to a police van in handcuffs.

This was really a time to “watch your ass.” It certainly wasn’t “bang, bang” in its truest sense. But, there were time when shots would ring out and we would throw ourselves under the nearest car until it was safe to come out.

Just covering an ordinary news event had its pitfalls. Senator Robert Kennedy, the brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, was dropping in at Brentwood High School, one morning. He was coming from New York City by helicopter to greet the students. I stood out on the athletic field with the entire student body, waiting for the chopper to land so I could get the Senator and the students interacting. I managed to get through the crowd and was standing by the helicopter as Kennedy emerged and the crowd of students surged toward him. I became separated from him by a group of enthusiastic students and in order to make shots of him shaking hands, I had to revert to an old news photographer’s trick of raising the camera over my head with both hands and shooting blind as I aimed my lens in the general direction while pressing the motor drive button. It’s known in the trade as shooting a “Hail Mary” referring to a prayer we would mutter under our breath as a plea for divine intervention that we were aiming our lenses accurately.

Before my arms raised the camera to its full height, my camera was struck a violent blow from behind. It flew from my grasp and landed at my feet. Dumbstruck, I whirled to see who had the audacity to prevent me from making my shot. I was face to face with a large, beefy Suffolk County cop. Before I could express my outrage, he shook his head twice and pointed upwards. Just above me, the huge blades of the helicopter were winding down, but still spinning with enough force to have lopped my arms off at the wrists. I was so intent on getting a shot that I hadn’t been watching my ass. Fortunately, the cop had been or I would be been typing out this journal on my computer with a pencil in my teeth.

In 1987 I spent the entire summer covering the odyssey of “The Islip Garbage Barge.” Due to the environmental impact of our method of burying our garbage in the ground and polluting our drinking water, the EPA had ordered Long Island landfills to be closed. That meant transporting our refuse to other locations. Someone came up with a scheme to make money out of that and filled a barge with a load of commercial waste (mostly paper from businesses) that he would then sell to farmers in the south to be buried as compost. This enterprise backfired when local governments refused to allow a barge loaded with New York garbage to defile their pristine communities. The barge became a pariah as it was chased away from every port it encountered. A reporter and I managed to get aboard the tug that was towing the barge and we became friends with the captain and crew. This led to our being invited to stay aboard the tug any time we so wished. The tug and barge wound up back in NY and I would spend days with them as politicians and environmentalists battled back and forth over the disposition of the cargo. People would ask me how I could stand to spend so much time around such a load of garbage. The truth was that since it was mostly paper, it didn’t stink. It had the faint musty odor of newspapers that were stored in a damp basement.

It was a really great assignment, being out on the water during those warm summer months. Certainly not any cause to suspect impending danger. But, it was there, waiting in the wings.

In the course of getting out to the barge at various locations, I would charter boats to get us from a pier to wherever the tug and barge were anchored. When it was back in NY waiting for the pols and the tree huggers to iron out the details, the tug and barge were anchored in Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn. I had contracted with a boat owned by a dentist who leased his 35 foot sport fisherman to anyone who had the money. The boat was fast, modern and comfortable and was crewed by a young hired captain and mate. Whenever I needed to get out to the barge, I would phone the captain and by the time I drove to the dock where the boat was kept, the crew had everything ready for us to cast off. I would transfer to the tug and if I only needed to be there for a few hours, the boat would anchor nearby until I was ready to leave. If I needed to stay on the tug for several days, the boat would leave until I would call again.

It was a perfect arrangement until one windy weekend. Gravesend Bay was a bit choppy when we headed out. But, the 35 foot sports fisherman cut through it nicely and the large ocean going tug sat as still as a rock as I stepped from one boat to the other. When I was ready to leave, later that afternoon, I radioed the captain of the chartered boat to pick me up. Conditions had worsened as the day progressed. Not so much from the wind as from the lumpy water conditions caused by the increasing small boat traffic on that summer Sunday. The barge had been the subject of many news stories and joked about on the late night Johnny Carson show. It had become a popular tourist attraction as it sat in the shallow waters off of Brooklyn. The tour boats around Manhattan now made side excursions to show people the latest NY attraction. And everyone who took the family boat out for a Sunday spin would cruise past for a close look. All of the wakes from all of those boats kicked up some very lumpy water in our vicinity.

My charter captain edged his pristine white yacht close to the salt begrimed tug with old auto tires festooned around her hull to act as bumpers. I stood out on one of those tires, ready to step across when the gap closed. The charter captain was leery about bringing his boss’s lovely white hull against the black rubber tires which would surely leave a black smudge. He gingerly brought his boat closer but avoided contact as both boats were now rising and falling in the lumpy waters. Strapped around my neck I had two Nikons with heavy auto-focus lenses attached. As I stood on the tire bumper, I held onto a railing on the tug with one hand and with the other outstretched arm, I was able to pass my heavy camera bag across the gap to the mate on the charter boat. Now it was just a matter of stepping across the narrow gap between the two boats and releasing my grip on the tug’s railing.

I had to time my transfer because as one boat was rising on a wave, the other would be descending. Just as the two boats became level with one another, I let go of the tug, and lunged across, grabbing a rail that ran across the fly bridge of the sports fisherman. Unfortunately, at that very moment, the charter captain felt that he was going to brush his boat against those nasty tires on the tug, incurring the wrath of his employer. He shoved the clutches of his twin engines into reverse gear and revved the throttles pulling me off the tug before my feet found any footing on the smaller boat. I hung off the charter boat, hanging on for dear life with one hand. I looked down at the gray water beneath my dangling feet and realized that if I let go, the weight of my Nikons and lenses would take me right to the bottom of the bay. My new found friend, the Captain of the tug, shouted to the crew of the charter boat to grab me before I slipped off. The mate, who had just been standing in the boat’s cockpit watching, finally came out of his stupor and grabbed my feet and placed them on the boat’s deck which allowed me the opportunity to stop flapping in the wind. It wasn’t until I was safely aboard that I realized how close I had come to becoming a statistic for photojournalists in dangerous jobs. And, this had not been a dangerous assignment when the day began. Good grief.

There are times when we go out on the road, vaguely aware of the possible dangers that are out there, waiting for us to get careless. Anytime we venture out on the crowded roads on Long Island, we run the risk of an accident. The Long Island Expressway is a known killer of men. Add a little ice or snow, or even a sudden summer thunderstorm and the odds for trouble increase. Actually, this danger isn't the sole purview of news photographers. Anyone who uses a car for business runs the same risks. Where the paths diverge is in extreme weather; hurricanes, blizzards, etc, when most normal people stay home. Those are the times that we are up to our teeth in danger and really need to watch our asses.

Let me conclude my dissertation with one more personal experience.

A van rolled over on a rain slick curve killing several occupants. They were Haitian immigrants who were being driven to work at a Long Island factory. I covered a few of the funerals and then was sent with a reporter to Haiti to do stories on the impoverished families who subsisted on the checks that they received from their breadwinners in the US.

Haiti has always been a tinderbox for trouble. The poverty on that benighted island is so crushingly bad that its citizens are driven to extreme measures just to exist. And, the government is so corrupt and unscrupulous that there is no hope at all for any sense of normalcy.

The reporter and I had been warned to watch our asses. We had hired a driver/interpreter to assist us. I told him that I wanted to get some photos of the Presidential Palace in the capitol of Port O'Prince. He cautioned me that I would likely be the only white face out on the street and that would draw attention to me. Especially with my cameras hanging over my shoulder. He said that the local constabulary and the military are noted for shooting anyone they deem suspicious, asking questions later. The area surrounding the Palace is a well known shooting gallery. He suggested waiting until the following day. It would be a holiday honoring the country's military and there would be large crowds on hand in front of the Palace to view the parades and hear the President speak. But, he added this cautionary note. He warned me never to allow myself to get caught too far from a side street into which I could duck in the event trouble started. "Don't get caught against any walls or buildings that will prevent your escape. And be especially wary of the police or military closing off both ends of the main thoroughfare, trapping people in the middle. They have been known to rake the street with automatic weapons."

Jeez, what a country.

I ventured to the Palace, the next day and was very mindful of his warnings. The plaza in front of the Palace was packed with Haitians. I didn't see any other white faces and I drew more than my fair share of stares as I made some pictures of the Palace and the activity that swirled about.

When I saw convoys of covered troop carrying trucks enter the plaza from either end, I made my way toward the nearest intersecting side street where I paused to see what would happen. Another covered truck pulled to the curb right in front of me. I could see through gaps in the canvas that the benches in the back were filled with what appeared to be a large group of high ranking officers, if all of the gold stars and ribbons on their uniforms were of any significance. They were rip-roaring drunk and were a boisterous bunch as they passed bottles of whiskey back and forth.

At that point, I decided that my presence at the party was no longer required.

Yet, this was not to be the most dangerous part of this assignment.I asked our guide about the possibility of going up into the mountains that ring Port O'Prince and the beautiful harbor that makes it such an important port. I wanted to get a nice overall of the place, possibly for the story that we were doing and also for a possible travel piece that I had in mind. The travel piece never came to fruition when I learned, upon my return to the paper, that no one travels to Haiti anymore. Poverty and rampant lawlessness has all but eliminated the island as a tourist destination

Our guide was hesitant about taking us up the mountain. He told us that the high ground is a haven for bandits who prey upon the unwary and the lush jungle overgrowth is a convenient dumping grounds for the bodies of their victims. I thought that this was a stretch of his over active imagination, thinking that he didn't want to go to the trouble of this side trip. He reluctantly agreed to take us, the next day, with the proviso that we would turn back if it looked too dicey.

The following day found us driving out of the city, towards the mountains that rose up abruptly at the outskirts. We noticed that the further we progressed from the center of the city, the worse the road became. There was no money to repair the crumbling infrastructure and for years the roads in and out of the city had been falling into disrepair. By the time we were a quarter of the way up the mountain, the road had turned into crumbled and rutted asphalt that soon became nothing more than tire tracks in the grass and eventually turned into a goat track. All of the magnificent hardwood trees for which Haiti had been noted had long since been cut down and sold for lumber and for local use as firewood. All that remained were stumps and a lush overgrowth of bramble and vines.

Our driver knew of a clearing near the top that would allow me an unobstructed view of the panorama that I sought. We passed by crude hovels that served as homes for some of the ragged poor who lived in unimaginable poverty and we saw groups of children in tatters or naked, staring at us as we bounced across the rutted track.

Our car lurched to a sudden stop as we rounded a curve. Ahead of us was an old, battered sedan, barring our path. We couldn't go around it because the underbrush on either side of the path was too dense at that point. Our driver had stopped about 200 feet from the car, where three men leaned against the hood.

"Stay here and keep down," our driver hissed. "I'll go see what they want, but under no circumstaces should you get out of the car."

He needn't have worried. We weren't planning to go anywhere. He locked the doors behind him as he exited the car and walked over to the three men and their car. We could see them in conversation for several minutes before he turned and walked quickly back to us.

"We are in much danger," he said. "They say that their car is stalled and they cannot push it off the road to let us pass. They say that if we all join them, we can push their car so that we can proceed. But," he went on, "I saw a pistol in the belt of one of those banditos. If we get out, they will steal everything we carry and then they will kills us and push us off a cliff where no one will ever find our bodies. You lay down in the back seat. I will quickly turn this car around and get out of here before they realize what we are doing."

We did as he asked and he whipped our car around on the narrow track and sped back the way we had come. I didn't hear any gunshots, but who knows? We careened back up that treacherous path until we were well out of sight, and even then we drove faster than was comfortable until we put some distance between us and our would be assassins. We managed to find another goat path that would lead us around the other side of the mountain, away from trouble. We even stopped at a point where I was able to take fifteen seconds to grab the shot that I wanted. And then we returned to the relative security of the city.

At breakfast, the next morning, in the dining room of the dilapidated Holiday Inn where we were staying, I overheard a conversation between a German businessman and another man.

"I was told to hire a local to guard me and the large sum of money I carry to transact this deal, so I did. He stood outside my room all night. But, truthfully, I was more terrified of him and the Uzi he carried than anyone from whom he guarded me. I can't wait to get out of this nightmare country."

I felt the same way. In all of my experiences, I have never felt more in peril than I did during those five days in Haiti.

You never know, in this business, when you will turn a corner on a peaceful street and come face to face with your mortality.

So, for cryin' out loud, watch your ass.

Dick Kraus



Contents Page Editorials The Platypus Links Copyright
Portfolios Camera Corner War Stories  Dirck's Gallery Comments
Issue Archives Columns Forums Mailing List E-mail Us
 This site is sponsored and powered by Hewlett Packard