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Photoblog: Covering a fire

We asked two Post photographers about the emotions and technical issues involved with covering a fire like the one at the Carriage Hill Apartments last Sunday, which caused a total of $2.2 million in damages and cost families their homes and possessions.

Is covering a fire an emotional experience?

Patrick: Fires in Athens are few and far between. Firetrucks are a common sight and sound, though they seem to usually be responding to automatic alarms caused by burnt popcorn or something. I figured by the time I got to the fire on Sunday, it’d be about out. I was very wrong.

When such a news situation strikes, it’s hard to balance the adrenaline rush of running toward danger — knowing that it will probably result in good pictures — but also knowing that it’s a very real situation that affects real people. So while I felt good about what I was shooting, I can never fully separate personal emotions from the situation at hand, nor would it be appropriate to. The camera can be like a shield, but one must be in tune with the feelings of people in that situation.

War photographer James Nachtwey once said: “The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The stakes are simply too high for me to believe otherwise.”

He also said: “I don’t think tragic situations are necessarily devoid of beauty.” I agree with both of those statements.

Kevin: It definitely was. Some people lost everything that day. You look at them in distress and instinctively want to help them but nothing really comes to mind. What do you say to help someone who lost everything in the last hour feel better? Sunday was definitely an emotional experience, but in the end, it’s nothing compared to what the residents of that apartment went through.

Is it hard to gather information from subjects when they’re in distress?

Patrick: I would periodically talk to bystanders and usually start with, “Was one of your places impacted by the fire?” Typically, the answer was something like, “No, I live over there across from the building,” or something like that. It wasn’t always very clear, but I could see some people that were more shaken up and did talk to a few witnessing their apartments burn down. I would almost always start a conversation before photographing in attempt to avoid exploiting people's struggles. That’s always a consideration in this kind of situation. I began to talk to one family with the hope that I could take their picture when another photographer from a different publication approached and began taking photos almost immediately, which I consider wrong. That gets into an ethical gray area. Before picking up the camera, I am always concerned about people’s emotions and dignity.

Kevin: I was mostly shooting photos of the building and getting clips for Twitter and our Snapchat so I didn’t really get a chance to talk to that many people. It was also my first time covering something traumatic like this so I wasn’t sure how to approach them. I did talk to a few other bystanders just to get some background info on when it started.

Do you have to deal with soot on your lens, or other technical issues related to shooting near a fire?

Patrick: I did get some foam or water droplets on my lenses from time to time. I would have to wipe them periodically if I began to see droplets show up in my images. The smoke would often get blown toward us as well and result in some debris, but police progressively roped off more and more area near the fire. I also had somewhat of a cough and walking through smoke did not help it. And my hoodie still smells like smoke.

Kevin: I didn’t really experience any technical problems with my camera. The only problem I really faced was that this was the first time there was a lot of footage to record for our Snapchat account. I was at 2 percent battery by the time I left.

Anything else to add?

Patrick: As I mentioned, I always struggle to be sensitive to people’s struggles in situation like the one on Sunday and also get good photos. I want emotional photos to show the atmosphere and feelings, to convey the toll the fire took, emotionally and physically. It’s easy enough to shoot photos of firefighters. They’re doing their job and don’t care about the presence of cameras behind the police tape. People impacted are facing one of their worst days and I am constantly trying to put myself in that situation to avoid overstepping my boundaries. I need to be an ethical and considerate photographer always and before anything else. My portfolio doesn’t mean anything if I’ve exploited and stepped on other people to get there.

Kevin: This is the kind of event you hope never happens. As grateful as I an for the opportunity to cover it, I still hope something like it doesn’t happen again in the future. To answer all the questions above in one statement, yes it was emotional, yes it was difficult, yes there were problems. But the bottom line is, compared to what others went through that day, my problems mean nothing. Having two percent battery left on your phone isn’t that big of a problem to someone who lost everything. Covering events like this really helps put your life into perspective and let you realize how grateful you should be for all that you have, because someone out there has a lot less.

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