How not to photograph a severed head

planecrash2webSometime in the early 1990s, I believe, I was sent to the area of Frazier Park, California, to cover a reported small plane crash in the mountains between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Small planes that crash in the mountains present quite a challenge to news photographers, as they are often difficult to find, and if access is cut off by authorities, there’s not much we can do about it because they are covered under federal law, not California law. The state provisions that give news media access to accidents and disasters, regardless of whether law enforcement wants us there, do not apply under federal jurisdiction.

The reporter (I don’t remember who it was) and I found the location where emergency vehicles – fire trucks, an ambulance and some sheriff’s cars – had parked. The fact that they were parked was an immediate clue that wherever the plane had crashed, it was inaccessible by vehicle and the rescuers had to walk to the site. We, of course, had no idea where that was. It could be a couple of hundred yards into the mountains, or it could be several miles. We were going to start walking in, hoping the familiar red ribbons rescuers tie to trees to guide others to the location would lead us to it, when a van pulled up. It was the Kern County Coroner. “Oh, shit,” I thought, “This I don’t need.”

The relationship between The Bakersfield Californian’s photographers and the Kern County Coroner in the 1980s and early 1990s was beyond toxic. It was contentious, volatile and confrontational. The tone was set by then- coroner Helen Frankel, who believed that the news media had no business observing and recording the field work of her investigators. This isn’t a conclusion I’ve drawn based on my experiences, though it easily could be. Frankel said it outright, during a debate at Cal State Bakersfield with Californian Executive Editor Bob Bentley on media ethics and the coverage of death. She flat out said it should be illegal for news photographers to photograph the removal of bodies at crime and accident scenes. Nice of an elected official to make up her own laws, huh? Frankel’s attitude was embraced with a flourish by her investigators, especially Susan Loperena and Tony Ferguson. These two investigators openly sought confrontation with photographers at scenes. On two occasions – one on the Kern River and one at a homicide in Bakersfield – Loperena attempted to have deputies remove me from scenes. At the river, she ordered that I just not leave the scene, but that I leave the 16-mile canyon where a search for drowning victims was underway. At the homicide scene, she would not begin her work until I was removed from the scene, where I was positioned outside the barrier tape. And in the irony of ironies, on both occasions, the sheriff’s sergeants at the scenes sided with me, informing Loperena that I had a right to be there. That’s pretty interesting, given the sheriff’s office and I were not exactly on a friendly basis. At a terrible scene in Wasco one morning, where a child died in an apartment fire, Ferguson sought me out, walked up to me and sneered “Are you having fun?” and walked away. No sense sugar coating it here. They did not like me, and I did not like them.

So when that coroner’s van pulled up, I just knew that Loperena or Ferguson was going to step out and the unpleasantries were about to immediately commence. But it wasn’t either of them. It was some new guy, someone I had never seen before. He walked up to us and introduced himself. His name was Jim Malouf, he was a new coroner’s investigator. He then started to walk toward where the crash site apparently was, turned around and said to us, “Well, are you coming? It’s not too far.” Holy fuck! Holy, holy fuck! Was this really happening? This had to be some kind of a twisted dream. We chatted as we walked in – it was about a half mile, if I recall – and this Malouf seemed like a pretty good guy. I guess I’d find out for sure once we got to the plane and saw the scene.

We got to the there, and Malouf, the reporter and I walked right up to the plane, right to the deputies and others who had assembled. Normally, when news media approaches a plane crash scene, even small plane crashes, all hell breaks loose. (See my post “Attacked by a sheriff’s sergeant, 1990” for an example of that.) We are almost always ordered away and have to find a vantage point where we can shoot and they can’t see us or have to wait for an official escort to the scene, which can take hours or even days. Perhaps they thought we were with the coroner since we walked in, or perhaps Malouf had given an OK, I don’t know, but I was free to shoot with remarkable, unrestricted access.

After moving through the scene for a few minutes, Malouf came up to me, and pointing to an area in the wreckage said, “There’s a severed head outside the plane. Just thought you should know that.” But it was what he didn’t say that was remarkable. He didn’t say, “There’s a severed head outside the plane, don’t take any pictures of it.” He didn’t say, “You can’t take any more pictures, you have to leave the scene now.” He didn’t say, “There’s a severed head outside the plane, I better not see that picture in the newspaper.” He just pointed it out and went about doing his work.

A severed head in real life doesn’t look like a severed head in the movies. In the movies, severed heads are perfectly positioned, beautifully lit, sheer terror frozen on the face. It’s all designed to get an audience reaction. In real life, a severed head can be a mottled mess of hair and blood. It’s not perfectly positioned, it lands where it lands. In this case, it was well camouflaged in the still-smoking rubble of the plane, turned away so that what I saw was mostly hair. I probably never would have noticed it if Malouf hadn’t pointed it out. But once he did, it was pretty glaring and hard to mistake for anything else. And you can rest assured, even in a wide shot of the entire scene, readers would have spotted it. We had about 85,000 subscribers at the time, and there were more than a few, well known to us, who literally went over every inch of the newspaper with a magnifying glass. Had it gotten published, it would have been missed by most, but spotted by some, and the newspaper would have had quite a controversy on its hands.

So now, I had a dilemma. The location of the severed head in the middle of the wreckage made it difficult to shoot an overview of the scene, which I felt was the picture I needed. I tried kneeling down to see if I could hide it behind something, but it didn’t work. I knew what angle I wanted, but that severed head was right in the middle of it. Right about now, you’re probably asking, can’t you just remove the severed head from the picture after you shoot it? The answer is no. A resounding no. Any action that changes the reality of a photo is strictly prohibited by photojournalism ethics. Does it happen? Sadly, yes. But not at most papers. Never with our staff. It’s a fireable offense, and a few photographers and editors have rightly lost their jobs for doing so. I had to find a way to photograph the scene and not show the severed head. I waited. And waited. And waited as Malouf sifted through the scene. Then it happened. He moved to a position and stopped for a few seconds, shovel in his hands, his right thigh perfectly blocking the severed head. That was all I needed. I got the shot and the picture you see is the one that ran in the next day’s paper, with no mention of the severed head. (For the record, asking Malouf to block the severed head was also not permitted by photojournalism ethics, and a similar action not involving a body, but the positioning of a fire fighter to make a dramatic photo, once got a Los Angeles Times photographer fired.)

Malouf and I went on to have a great working relationship. He did his job and left me to do mine. He was extremely media friendly, despite the somber nature of his work, and I’m not aware of any confrontations after he joined the office. I have no idea what became of Loperena and Ferguson, I don’t know if they were gone when Malouf joined the coroner’s office, or stayed on and I just never encountered them again. That was fine by me. Sometime later, I think in the 1990s and after Frankel’s tenure, Kern County voters changed the structure of the coroner’s office, eliminating the position of coroner and making the sheriff both sheriff and coroner. Malouf became chief coroner’s investigator, which in the new structure, effectively meant he ran the coroner’s division. He held the position until 2006 and retired when sheriff Mack Wimbish placed a sworn sheriff’s officer in charge of the division.

Jim Malouf was everything a public official who deals with the media on a regular basis should be. He was professional. He was friendly. He did his job and didn’t tell the media how to do theirs. He took an awful, conflict-ridden relationship between The Bakersfield Californian photographers, and presumably the television news photographers, and turned it into one of professionalism and respect, even when dealing with sensitive and emotional situations. That’s all we ever wanted.

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4 thoughts on “How not to photograph a severed head

  1. Great story. Unfortunately as a photojournalist in Fresno this sort of “let’s get pictures of the dead body” stereotype still exists. However I will say it seems to be getting better with some agencies.

  2. Great story makes me want Malouf to move from the picture just to know if the severed head is there ugh…but I really don’t want to see it! I think it’s one of the hardest part of being a photojournalist aside from dealing with the coroners or other officials…good to know that someone like Marlof exist for you to be able to do your job without a glitch. 🙂

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