Living to Tell the Story: More Safety Advice for Photojournalists


A round of ammunition goes where it’s sent. It may drop some. It may blow slightly left or right, but it won’t stop until it hits something. If we outthink the person who sends the round, we might live to tell the story.

Previously, we have discussed the importance of living to tell the story. This involves calculating risk. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, because a dead photojournalist doesn’t make deadline.

We’ve also learned the difference between cover and concealment, and when to use each one. We’ve learned about the weapons we might encounter as we cover breaking news.

Now that we know what we may be facing, let’s discuss how to apply this knowledge in volatile situations.

Be Mentally Prepared

Whether you’re in a combat zone — or a city hall meeting that suddenly becomes one — you need to know how to stay safe. The number of journalists killed in conflicts increases each year. While we were once considered neutral in combat, we’re now considered easy targets. And unstable people with weapons often view journalists as part of their problem.

Photojournalists don’t need to travel overseas to be in danger; people are killed every day in the United States as well. When you cover potentially volatile situations, you must know how to react before you arrive at the scene — as well as when the scene around you erupts into violence.

Practice Makes Instinct

The following suggestions should be implemented in the first few seconds. The key is to make it instinctual. To accomplish this, you should practice the process a few times with your gear to make it as efficient as possible.

When a shot is heard, you should hit the ground, find cover, identify the threat, assess the situation, plan an evacuation route and help others. Well-trained pros plan many of these steps before a shot is fired, as a routine part of assignments. As we look for clean backgrounds for our images, we semi-consciously note items of use for cover and/or concealment.

At the park, a hedge might make good concealment. However, a cement picnic bench makes great cover and concealment. We’re protected on three sides, have room for rounds to escape and the shadow of the table will mask our presence on a sunny day. If it has a tablecloth, we’re golden.

Get Small

Smaller targets are more difficult to locate and shoot. A seven-foot-tall
basketball player is only one foot high when he lies on his belly. This
isn’t good during a hoops tournament, but it’s exactly what should happen if
someone tries to unload a clip of rounds in him.

If a scene erupts around you, hit the ground. Even if you’re
standing on a golf fairway, you need to immediately become the smallest
possible target.

Take Cover

Before anything else, photojournalists must protect themselves to be able to
work. This means you must work from the safest place you can, while still being able to
photograph the action.

When arriving at a known volatile scene — often heard on police scanners as
“shots fired” — photojournalists need to keep low and quickly find the best
cover available. Hopefully, the cover also provides concealment, so you can keep
working with minimal risk.

If the situation changes, seek better cover or evacuate entirely. James
Nachtwey has images of the interior of the World Trade Center after the
attack because he got out alive.

Take cover. Get the shots. Then, move to better cover.

Use Concealment

Cover is almost always better than concealment. However, when a crisis
develops next to you, concealment is a good starting point. If you already
have some hiding locations selected, you’ll know where to move first.

Remember, it’s difficult for bad guys to kill what they can’t see.

Identify the Threat

After you’ve made yourself a small target and found cover, you must identify the threat. If it’s one
person with a pistol, the threat continues. If everyone is watching a mother
scream at her 10-year-old son, it was probably a firecracker.

I’ll be honest. It’ll be embarrassing if you’re the only one lying on the
floor during a school board meeting after some kid lights a firecracker.
However, as I keep repeating, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Few will
notice anyway; they’re all staring at the boy.

I covered part of the aftermath of the Wedgwood Baptist Church massacre in
Fort Worth, Texas. The death toll was so high because the teens thought the gunman,
Larry Gene Ashbrook, was performing a skit to test their faith. He wasn’t.

Ashbrook detonated a pipe bomb, fired at least 45 rounds, killed seven and
injured others. Police found another 100 rounds in his pocket after he killed
himself.

This took place at a church youth assembly. All photojournalists have
covered similar events. There simply is no way to know when chaos will
explode around you.

If the threat is coordinated and organized, you’re in a lot of trouble. The
best idea is to escape and document once safe. Otherwise, it’s highly likely
you’ll be injured, killed or taken hostage. All are bad options.

If a photojournalist is immediately identified and guns-in-face surrounded,
there’s no option other than surrender. You can try to escape later, but you
must understand the freedom clock starts ticking the second you’re captured.
Each second you’re detained makes it less likely you’ll see freedom again.

If captured, you must be vigilant to find
an adequate moment to attempt an escape. There will never be
an unguarded, open door.

Assess the Situation

At this point, photojournalists under threat should have some form or cover
or concealment. They should know what the threat is.

Next, you must assess the situation. Can you stop it? If not, can
you document the scene from your location? Are you injured? If so, how badly? Is there anything
nearby to help protect yourself? And what are you willing to do to protect yourself?

The last question stresses the importance of photojournalists knowing what
they’re willing — and unwilling — to do in extreme circumstances. Some
people would rather die than injure another person. Others are willing to
wound or kill in self-defense. These decisions must be made before the moment occurs, so you can act without hesitation.

Plan to Evacuate

Photojournalists aren’t cops or soldiers. We’re visual reporters.

Our job is to tell the stories we see. If our assessment of the situation
determines we should split and tell the story from a safer distance, that’s what we should do.

While this may sound like the easy part, it’s probably the most dangerous –
because bad guys might not want us to leave.

As with everything else, it’s best to select an escape route before it’s
needed. Lacking this plan, you’ll need to find a series of short, safe
movements to move away from potential harm.

The goal is to minimize exposure to the known threats (you don’t know if
doorways are wired with explosives yet) while moving steadily towards a
safer place or exit. You’ll want to move low and rapidly across exposed areas
while moving lower and slower across safe areas with cover.

You don’t want to run in a predictable direction. No run should last more
than three seconds before hitting the ground, rolling and/or finding cover. This process is exhausting. Each second of stress consumes energy reserves. So get out quickly and safely — with enough energy left to tell the
story once you’re safe.

Help Others

I always tell photojournalists they must help other people. Of course, a dead
photojournalist is no help to anyone. So, save yourself — then help
others.

Some ways to help include:

  • Pull bystanders to the ground during incoming fire.
  • Call bystanders to overhead cover during indirect fire.
  • Take others with you during escapes.
  • If you know field first aid procedures, use them.
  • Create distractions to allow others to escape.

In the U.S., have 911 on speed dial. Dial as soon as possible and leave an
open line (don’t talk unless you’re in a very safe place). Leave the
phone behind or slide it away to create a distraction and make an escape
while police triangulate the phone’s location.

Think It Through

Throughout this series, I’ve stressed the importance of knowing what to do
and how to do it before the time is at hand. This process should
become as automatic as f-stops or flash angles.

When we enter an area, we should pay attention to alternate exit routes. While we
look for clean backgrounds, we should also identify places to seek cover.
While we identify and greet people we know (work the room), we also create
goodwill with potential film couriers, should we need one.

Some habits must become scripted and understood at the office before we ever
step foot outside. We must coordinate where our film/disks will be
hidden during an emergency. We preset speed dials on our cell phones. We
stay physically capable to handle what life throws at us.

Photojournalists must deliver publishable images by deadline. If we think
everything through before a dangerous situation erupts, we’ll be able to tell the story to our
readers — and the story of the process to our friends.

[tags]photojournalism, photographer safety, photography advice[/tags]


2 Responses to “Living to Tell the Story: More Safety Advice for Photojournalists”

  1. The Committee To Protect Journalists is a organization dedicated to helping people who travel the world. Here is a link http://www.cpj.org/ From their website: "The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization founded in 1981. We promote press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal."

  2. They also have a safety guide online http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2003/safety/journo_safe_guide.pdf

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