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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The Hart Park drowning photo

hart parkThe afternoon of July 28, 1985 would change my career. I was 27. I have told the story about this photo so many times, in interviews, at conferences, at gatherings with friends and colleagues and at dozens of high school and college journalism programs, that I really don’t think I need to rehash it here. Rather, I’d like to share with you a story about one of the great honors I would receive and how the voice I was given in my profession has helped me make sense of this terrible tragedy in which the Romero family lost a son and brother. I never should have become the story, but that’s unfortunately what happened. First, however, I should clear up the misconceptions that have accompanied this photo for the past 29 years. One is that Edward Romero drowned in the Kern River. Not true. Edward drowned in Hart Park Lake. The river runs through the park, but this happened in the lake. Next is that the woman is Edward’s mother. She is his aunt. The story that I was ordered by the officer in charge, then Lt. Carl Sparks (he’s on the left of the photo), not to take the photo and that I ignored him is true. The final one is that the family was upset about the photo being published. Eloy Romero, the boy’s father, told The Californian that he had seen the photo, but was so grief stricken by the death of his son he couldn’t care about a picture. Now, my story:

In 2008, I received what I consider the greatest honor of my career. No, it wasn’t an award. I’m not big on awards, though I gladly accepted them if they came my way. It was an invitation to speak at a conference on media ethics at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. I was invited by renowned ethicists Deni Elliott, who holds the Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida, and Paul Martin Lester, professor of journalism at Cal State Fullerton and the author of numerous books on photojournalism and photojournalism ethics. In 1985, I shot a picture at the scene of a drowning in Hart Park in Bakersfield. The picture became one of the most controversial of the decade, and at age 27 and just four years into my career, I was thrust into the national media spotlight. Somehow, some way, the picture and the fallout resulted in the media industry turning me into an authority on media ethics. Of course, I wasn’t, I was a newspaper staff photographer wearing a Bruce Springsteen “Born in the USA Tour” t-shirt and a Los Angeles Raiders cap working a Sunday afternoon who took a picture, just like thousands of others would have. But the calls and invitations and interview requests kept on coming, still do. For two weeks, I came to work and did media interviews and pretty much nothing else. So I took my new role seriously. When I wonder what good could come from such a tragic image, the answer is that it gave me a voice in a profession I care deeply about. And the thing that scares me and troubles me the most about that profession is the ease with which some will sacrifice the ethics we old timers still hold dearly. If I have a voice, and people are interested in what I have to say, I’m going to use it and be pretty damn serious about it, too. Talking to journalism students is my truest joy, whether it’s in my own classes at Bakersfield College or at universities and conferences.
What made this one different was that it was the University of South Florida. The home of media ethics studies, closely aligned with the prestigious Poynter Institute, also in St. Petersburg. I was one of three photographers invited to speak at the conference. The others were the legendary Jay Maisel, considered in some photo circles as the greatest color photographer in the world; and John Filo, who in my opinion, shot the greatest news photo ever taken on American soil, the tragic Kent State massacre photo. My brain still is not able to grasp how I got invited to speak with those two guys. What the hell was I doing there? I don’t know, but damn, was I thrilled. So thrilled and excited, if fact, that I took my mom to Florida with me. I wanted her to be part of this. I did, however, get a lecture from her about using profanity in my talk. I’m not the type of guy who uses profanity, especially around students, and asked mom what I said. Apparently I said “shit” and “damn” at least one time. I explained to mom that those really aren’t curse words anymore, but mom’s old school, and a curse word is a curse word. The Californian thought the invitation was pretty cool, too, especially my executive editor Mike Jenner, and they even paid my salary so I did not have to use vacation days!
When I was a journalism student at Cal State Northridge, I remembered the excitement of having professional journalists come to talk to us. I remember hanging on their every word, taking in every story, every experience. As these students spoke to me, took my picture, interviewed me for their projects and student newspaper, I wondered, “Do they have any idea how excited I am right now?” I was trying to come across as the cool and polished professional, the guy who’d been doing this for 27 years, but inside I was that Cal State Northridge kid, more excited, I think, than they were.
John and I presented separately, talking about our picture, how it changed us, how it impacted our careers. I think the treat for the students and conference attendees was they got to see our outtakes, the entire shoots, not just the picture the world would see. I know I was fascinated by John’s Kent State take. Dr. Lester, the Cal State Fullerton professor, was struck by the similarities of how John and I approached and shot our assignments. We were two photographers who didn’t know the other, who shot our pictures 14 years apart, yet our takes were strikingly similar. Lester asked John and I to author a study for his Visual Communication Quarterly, a publication that studies and explores these things. While John and I are credited as the authors, Paul is the one who put it together. This is the piece, and as it shows, it is eerie in how our pictures and our approach were so similar. Here is the project:quarterly_1 Quarterly_2 Quarterly_3 Quarterly_4 Quarterly_5 Quarterly_6Here is the original Associated Press photo transmission – long discolored and faded – of the Hart Park drowning photo. This is what came out of a machine and landed on the desk of every newspaper in the United States and the world that subscribed to the AP. The back story is I had a long argument with an assistant managing editor over moving this photo. He did not want it moved. He eventually gave up, threw up his hands and said (I swear), “Go ahead and move it (to the Associated Press), but I’m telling you, nobody is going to be interested in this photo.” drowntransmissionThe aftermath of the picture’s publication would also contribute mightily to my career-long disdain of newspaper publishers and executives, thanks to what happened the following spring at the California-Nevada Associated Press News Executives annual convention in Orange County, California. I was invited to speak at the conference, and the picture was a nominee for best news photo and the Associated Press Mark Twain Award for photo of the year. The talk did not go well. The controversy over the photo’s publication clearly split opinion in the industry, with most editors siding with my editor, Bob Bentley, that it was a mistake to have run the photo, and most photographers believing the photo should have been published. The debate reached a fever pitch months earlier when Bob Greene, a Chicago Tribune  columnist, called the photo “pornography” and made some comment like “it would be too much to ask a photographer to think.” (Slight paraphrase, or maybe an exact quote, I don’t remember, I’m not going to waste time looking up his drivel.) That column lit up the photojournalism industry. During my talk, the editors pressed me to admit that it was wrong to publish the photo. I refused, and it got contentious to say the least. That night, the photo would win the best news photo award. The awards were a big deal. Big enough that the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court was the guest speaker. Then it happened. It won the Mark Twain Award for Associated Press Photo of the Year. And as I walked up to receive it, the audience of editors and publishers booed. And booed loudly. Right to my face and right in front of the chief justice. The award also included a prize of $1,000. As I walked back to my table, one of the executives shouted “give the money back!” I’ll admit it shook me up. I was young and really hoped that someday I might move on and work for one of these people. That changed everything. I had been taught in j-school to respect publishers and editors. My vision of these folks was Lou Grant, Charley Hume and Mrs. Pinchon. Katherine Graham, Otis Chandler and Ben Bradlee. I was beginning to realize that they were the exceptions, that a whole hell of a lot of people guiding this business were losers. And my attitude toward them changed. From now on, as far as I was concerned, they did not get my automatic respect. They had to earn it, not vice versa. Interestingly, my editor Bob Bentley, was very upset with his colleagues at the conference and let me know he did not appreciate what happened. As for me, my career would progress just fine, but oh, baby, what I would give to face off with that room full of assholes today!