By the Way

When people die, I take photos I don’t want to take

Rescue personnel carry an injured passenger from a charter bus that was hit by a CSX train at the Main Street crossing in Biloxi on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.
Rescue personnel carry an injured passenger from a charter bus that was hit by a CSX train at the Main Street crossing in Biloxi on Tuesday, March 7, 2017. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

It’s a blues and country music cliche, the lonesome sound of the train whistle.

Now it is a part of my psyche.

After covering Tuesday’s train-bus wreck, that sound will forever remind me of March 7, 2017.

It’s the same with helicopters and Katrina. After that hurricane, there were helicopters ferrying people and supplies up and down the Coast for weeks. The sound was almost constant, and now, whenever I hear rotors in the distance, it brings back memories of that time.

On Wednesday morning, as I loaded my gear into my car, I heard a train horn blowing its approach to a nearby crossing.

I got goosebumps.

For two hours the day before, I had photographed the scene of the horrific accident. I did my job and I went home, actually less shaken than when I left the scene of the Mardi Gras parade in Biloxi the week before where a man had been impaled on a piece of rebar.

It’s part of my job to document tragedy. I put up my shield, I take photographs and notes, I shoot video and get stuff online as quickly as I can. Then, some time later, I allow myself to react.

I have shed a few tears as the scene, but as a rule, I’ve got my shield up. It’s the only way I can do my job.

Biloxi Mayor Andrew 'FoFo' Gilich and his wife Sarena, on the emotional impact of the fatal accident in their city on Tuesday. Four people on a casino tour bus died after the bus was struck by a CSX train at the Main Street crossing.

Fatal car crashes are the worst.

My father died in a car crash when I was a teenager.

They always bring me back.

As I’ve gotten older, and perhaps a little wiser, I wonder about the value of covering some of these things. Not at the scale of the train-bus wreck, but some of these other spot news events, as we call them, that seem more personal. It’s none of my business.

But it is what the reader wants. For years, readership surveys said they didn’t like bad news, but the internet numbers don’t lie. Judging by the number of phone cameras in use by the crowd on Tuesday, the demand for images of death and destruction is not waning.

Chris Todd, long-time Clarion-Ledger photojournalist, once told me about people harassing him for taking photos at the scene of an accident. His reply to the crowd of gawkers was “I’m getting paid to be here, what’s your excuse?”

That may seem a little flip, but it’s true.

People may see us as unfeeling vultures, but we feel the pain, we understand.

We hope that maybe when someone sees a photograph of senseless destruction wrought at 60 miles per hour, they will drive a little more carefully. It is also an opportunity to show moments of people helping each other, whether they be civilians or first responders. These are intense moments of human interaction that are worth capturing and sharing.

I don’t want to be there, but it’s my job.

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