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Because Dead Photojournalists Don’t Make Deadline: Tips on Cover and Concealment

Posted By Mark M. Hancock On May 1, 2008 @ 9:00 pm In Photojournalism | No Comments

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I’ve covered both hostage standoffs and warrant roundups with other shooters (mostly TV). I’ve also been consistently shocked by how little they knew about staying alive.

Recently, I covered a county-wide warrant roundup. We didn’t know what any of the offenders had done. Considering how heavily armed the deputies were, I guessed it wasn’t helping little old ladies jaywalk across the street.

When we arrived at the first location, the deputies surrounded a house. I settled down with a telephoto lens behind a large steel air conditioner within sight of the house and made myself as small as possible.

Meanwhile, one of the TV folks stood in the middle of the street with his feet planted and a camera on his shoulder. Luckily, nobody was home, or there could’ve been blood and camera parts scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Most working photojournalists aren’t in combat zones, but a hostage standoff or warrant roundup can turn ugly fast. At least once each year, I’ve needed to know how to avoid bullets. I hope I never have to use this knowledge — but it’s too late to figure out what to do once the bullets start flying.

Don’t Go Out in Someone Else’s Blaze of Glory

The speed of sound is 1130 feet per second (fps). A 9mm pistol round moves at 1175 fps. Military-grade 7.62mm and 5.56mm rifle rounds travel at about 2850 fps. In other words, nobody is going to hear the first shot before they’re hit.

If perps who are surrounded don’t want to go to jail, they may decide to go out in a “blaze of glory.” If the perps are well trained and armed, they’re going to take out the easiest targets first — namely the TV shooter standing in the middle of the street without body armor.

While this may make our front page more interesting, I’d rather get photos of a docile arrest or maybe a tackle and arrest. Everyone lives through the event, and everyone ends up where they belong.

What’s Concealment?

Concealment is the ability to disappear from the view of others. Most people can’t kill what they can’t see with a direct-fire weapon. In practical terms, it means the bad guys won’t put a bullet through our lens.

To me, anyone firing live rounds at unarmed photojournalists is a bad guy.

Practical concealment is like a game of hide-and-seek. Photojournalists find a bush or some other object to mask our presence. This makes it easier for us to work without notice and, sometimes, without a trip to the hospital.

Often, police try to clear an area for “safety reasons.” Many of my colleagues have images of governmental authorities doing some not-so-safe things to people when they think they’re out of the spotlight. Consequently, it’s important to quickly find concealment not only from the subject, but also from authorities.

A thick bush is the fastest and easiest form of concealment. Shadows on sunny days can work if there are no other options. A combination of the two is always good. The point is to avoid being seen. This lets us stay in the area where breaking news is happening and live to tell the story.

What’s Cover?

While concealment reduces the risk for photojournalists, cover ensures reasonable safety. Cover is an area of protection. Cover may also conceal a photojournalist, but it’s primarily a place to avoid fire.

There are different levels of cover, but there’s also a tradeoff with the ability to work. We need to find something thick enough to absorb or redirect rounds or shrapnel while allowing us to make images.

A tree with a thick trunk is cover. A brick wall is cover. A concrete or steel post is cover. An armored car or personnel carrier is cover. All of these items will absorb or redirect potentially harmful projectiles. Each also creates challenges for photojournalists trying to do their jobs.

All a photojournalist really needs is a hole in a cement wall large enough for a lens. Unfortunately, this is all someone with a rifle needs as well. Still, the less exposed we are to fire, the less damage we’re likely to receive.

Types of Fire

We must choose cover based on the firepower we’re facing. If we encounter a single gunman in a one-story house, a low brick wall could be enough cover.

If we’re facing an incoming army with artillery and tanks, we’ll need more fortification and overhead cover.

The key is to understand the weapons we face. There are two basic kinds of fire. These are direct and indirect.

Direct fire

Direct fire involves a line-of-sight weapon. Pistols, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) are the most common direct fire weapons. A projectile is aimed and fired at a target.

Basically, if a photojournalist can focus on a person with one of these weapons, that person could do the same with a direct-fire weapon. Aren’t we glad we understand concealment now?

Indirect fire

Indirect fire involves using an arc to place a solid, fragmentary or combustible projectile in a location where direct fire isn’t possible or feasible. Molotov cocktails, rockets, artillery, mortars and launched grenades are the most common.

These weapons give little or no warning before they explode beside someone in a seemingly “safe” environment. Indirect fire weapons are the most difficult to protect against and require solid overhead cover.

Types of Projectiles

While we now understand we can face direct or indirect weapons when we get called away from the annual kindergarten parent’s day, we also need to understand how particular weapons work for more unstable assignments.

Solid rounds

Most common weapons fire solid rounds. From slingshots to rifles, a solid object is hurled down range toward a target. The purpose of the weapon is to place a single round in a single target.

As stated, these are the most common weapons photojournalists will face. As long as we keep our eye on the weapon, and have adequate cover, we should live to tell the story.

While solid round weapons may appear easiest to avoid, it’s important to understand the round can ricochet or create a fragmentation of other objects it hits. Consequently, it’s best to find forward cover, but leave plenty of room behind yourself to let the round continue traveling. It sounds logical to hunker down between two walls until a round starts bouncing back and forth overhead.

Fragmentary

Fragmentary weapons break apart and send shrapnel in every direction. Common fragmentary weapons include grenades and almost all indirect weapons. The goal of the weapon is to inflict damage in every direction around the point of explosion.

Almost every terrorist device is fragmentary. The entire point of the weapon is to maximize damage. If photojournalists cover a known fragmentary attack, it’s important to understand that a delayed, secondary attack is very likely. It’s important to stay low and move from cover to cover. Drop to the ground if there is a flash of light.

Combustible

Combustible weapons are similar to fragmentary weapons, but create additional problems after deployment. Common combustible weapons are Molotov cocktails as well as many military-grade bombs.

Photojournalists are most likely to face Molotov cocktails during riots and other domestic disturbances. The best defense is to make images from the sidelines as a crowd faces authorities or another crowd.

As soon as a these devices are spotted, stay away from walls or other solid structures. The bottle can be broken against a building or tree and rain liquid fire and glass shards onto photojournalists.

Calculate the Risks

In my last post [2], we discussed the importance of living to tell the story. This involves taking calculated risks. When in doubt, err on the side of caution — because a dead photojournalist doesn’t make deadline.

This post explains the potential weapons we can face as we cover breaking news. While most tense situations allow a few minutes of mental preparation while we’re en route, others can erupt without warning during a city hall meeting.

Most conflicts we cover end in an arrest or suicide. However, good photojournalists react quickly to breaking news and often arrive before S.W.A.T. teams. We better know what we’re facing and how to deal with it.

Next time, we’ll discuss how to apply this knowledge to survive and tell the story.

[tags]photojournalism, photographer safety[/tags]

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