Hurricane Rita was still blowing when I left the office. The streets were flooded. Those streets were located somewhere under the piles of trees, downed power lines, broken glass, misplaced roofs and twisted steel objects. I had recently returned from covering Hurricane Katrina, so I was trained and mentally prepared for what I might find. I had a first aid kit, food, water, gas, spare tires, an inflatable raft, emergency illuminators and a truck full of other possible needs.
I wasn’t speeding, but I probably broke every other motor vehicle law in the department of public safety handbook. In one hour, I had driven the wrong way on freeways, driven in reverse up exit ramps, and stopped on overpasses to make photos.
I was the only person on Interstate 10 for probably 100 miles in either direction. I knew the police and fire department weren’t cleared to leave “safe” locations yet. I also knew I was on my own if something bad happened. There was no way to communicate, no tow trucks and no emergency workers. I needed to stay alive if I wanted to tell this story.
Dying Is Easy
Many people think photojournalists have a “death wish.” The opposite is actually true. We have a “life wish.” If anything, we’re trying to cheat death as frequently as we can. We feel most alive after we’ve survived a harrowing experience.
Dying is easy. Living is the hard part.
Telling the story is our goal, but the process itself is the drug making us go into forest fires, ride out hurricanes and wade through gators and toxic sludge. We tell the story to our readers and the story of the process to our friends.
We’re addicted to the speed of difficult situations. We think it’s cool to see at f/22 and in slow motion when the adrenaline pumps. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do this work.
However, we must live to tell the story. A dead photojournalist has failed.
Avoid Bad Decisions
Over the years, I’ve seen photojournalists make bad decisions. Some bad decisions cost people their lives. Most didn’t. We can learn from both types.
A bad decision can lead to serious injury or death. A bad decision means a photojournalist isn’t going to make deadline. They’ll either be in jail, the hospital or the morgue. None of these options are good.
It takes training to avoid bad decisions. We must consider the options and choose the right one in advance. When the time comes, we’ll only have one choice to consider: the good option.
We should know exactly what to do, and how to do it, for any danger we’re about to face. We must also decide what we’re willing to do — and unwilling to do — to ensure we deliver the story. This often means erring on the side of caution rather than recklessness.
At other times, it means we might need to take an undesired action to ensure our own survival. The situation dictates this to us. We must have already considered our options before this moment to avoid a bad decision.
Think It Through
The key to surviving daring assignments is to consider as many dangers as possible before we’re placed in those situations. If time allows, research everything there is to know about these dangers and ways to avoid being injured or killed.
If a photojournalist is covering a story about a particular kind of animal, for example, we need to know a lot. We need to know the animal’s habits (particularly regarding food and reproduction). We need to know when and where they can be found. We also need to know how they attack, when they attack and how to avoid these attacks.
Furthermore, we might need to know how to survive in extreme cold or heat and how to keep our equipment functioning in these temperatures. We need to research heat stroke, frostbite, hypothermia, snow blindness and possibly simple things such as how to keep water from freezing or how to find water in a desert.
Once we know this information, we can tell stories without putting ourselves, or our subjects, in serious danger.
Train for the Event
Next, we should train for our assignments. If we’re unsure about mountain climbing, scuba diving, surviving in a combat zone or other dangerous environments, we need to train before we go.
Not all assignments require training or allow training time. It’s best to be in relatively good shape to handle most assignments without major fitness hurdles. Martial arts provide good fitness training with more practical benefits than spin aerobics. However, some assignments require additional work to ensure survival and image delivery.
Efficient photojournalists can make stories while they train. Most communities have clubs for everything from rock climbing to diving to paintball. The photojournalist can acquire needed skills while creating a publishable story about the club.
If anticipating a trip to a combat zone, it’s better to have a few paintball bruises and a bruised ego, than a bullet lodged in a kidney.