At Virginia Tech
I hesitated before leaving for Blacksburg on Monday; I hesitated on covering this story. I can openly admit that I'm not the biggest fan of media coverage during such tragic events. That's not to say I haven't done it; I have. It's part of my job, our job, as photojournalists. But, I honestly had some trouble convincing myself to get on the road. I'm not a spot-news junkie although I enjoy the challenge presented by covering most news events. I have to cover things in Washington, D.C., with 10+ photographers and work to "beat" them with a creative image. The challenge drives us all but I hesitated in going to Virginia Tech.
It was 8 p.m. by the time I left, more than eight hours after first hearing of a "Kent State-like" shooting massacre. It was hard deciding to go. I talked it over with my wife Nancy Pastor, also a photographer, and finally convinced myself that this story was too big
I contemplated bringing my 4x5 field camera and attempting large-format portraits and details around campus but I knew the time restraints of magazine deadlines would be too tight. Instead, I chose to leave a tilt-shift lens on one camera body and let that be my creative outlet and make images with a "surreal" look shot at the same time as my "normal" images. The shootings were such a shock to the reality of this peaceful town and campus I thought it important to make images that were different, not just a straightforward document of a news event.
Tuesday morning, about 24 hours after the first shootings dozens of photographers, both still and video, were swarming the campus. Every student or young person in a Virginia Tech sweatshirt, hat or colors was honed in on and the sound of shutters filled the air. It was the scene I expected and I really hated being part of it but unfortunately, this was part of the story. Us. The media. All of us photographed the couple sitting on a bench with Norris Hall (location of 30 killings and suicide of the shooter) in the background. Most of us photographed the photographers photographing the couple sitting on the bench. This scene would be repeated throughout the day and the coming days as members of the media seemed to outnumber the "mourners" they were there to photograph.
Can so many photojournalists turn off the humanity inside? A young girl is crying and they zero in sometimes, as I witnessed many times in Blacksburg, with a super-wide angle lens within two feet of this stranger. One thing was obvious--some subjects did not want to be photographed in that manner. What can photographers be thinking when they decide to do that when a subject's body language, or direct look, clearly tells them to give them space. I couldn't do it. I--among several other photographers--stood back. We worked to make pictures of people that seemed to understand why we were there and either by eye contact or body language, let us know it was okay. When someone said "no," or turned away, we stopped.
By Tuesday night, not even 24 hours after arriving, I knew I would leave Wednesday morning. The candlelight vigil held on the drill field at the center of campus was a media frenzy. Ironically, we were hoping to make unique images capturing the emotion of the event and yet not seem like the few who embarrass our profession by invading personal space. The situation was difficult. I wanted to leave but knew these images would be a compelling part of this story. I made an overall image and when the ceremony was over moved into the crowd. I worked at Virginia Tech that night to make pictures that would capture the emotion without taking advantage of the monumental grief. I'm still not sure it was possible, let alone, accomplished.
© Jay L. Clendenin
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